Opposition to New Development Aims to Protect Natural Water Supplies
Plans for a major development just south of the Grand Canyon are drawing strong opposition from some of the same people who supported a similar proposal more than 10 years ago, including the canyon-dwelling Havasupai Tribe.
The development by the Navajo Nation and Gruppo Stilo USA includes plans for 3 million square feet of commercial space—with high-end stores, fancy hotels, condos, a concert pavilion, spa, dude ranch and Native American cultural fair—along with hundreds of homes, at a range of price-points, and some of it meant for local workers. All this would be in Tusayan, Arizona, a small city that is the gateway for the Grand Canyon’s south entrance.
Many residents of that small city don’t like this proposed development. There was already an attempt to get a recall election against the Tusayan mayor and a city council member who were accused of improper ties with the Italian company that’s behind it, but petitioners failed to collect enough signatures to put this to a vote. Attorneys for a Tusayan citizens’ group are fighting to keep a referendum on the ballot in May that could reverse the city council zoning approvals that paved the way for the development.
Members of the Havasupai Tribe living in the bottom of the Grand Canyon—and downstream of the proposed development—say they also worry for Grand Canyon National Park, which is part of their aboriginal homeland. But mainly, they’re opposed because of one issue: water. Tribal officials have logged their concerns with the Arizona Corporation Commission, and they say they’re willing to take legal action to stop the pumping of groundwater they fear would dry up their life-sustaining seeps and springs.
“We’re confronting them head-on,” says Matthew Putesoy Sr., the tribal vice chairman. “We don’t want the development. No groundwater pumping.”
The Havasupai water supply comes from the Colorado River, wells sunk into the Redwall-Muav aquifer, and seeps and springs that also emanate from the aquifer. It’s a huge aquifer, which supplies wells in Tusayan and other communities bordering the South Rim, as well as several uranium mines. The Havasupai people already have plenty to worry about when it comes to water, given the threats of contamination from uranium mining near the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. A 2004 U.S. Geological Survey study of seeps and springs emanating from the Redwall-Muav aquifer used chemical composition to try to peer into the timing and pattern of water-flow through the huge aquifer. It didn’t shed much light on how or when groundwater pumping in Tusayan would affect Havasupai seeps and springs. The study reported that spring flows contain a mixture of young and ancient waters, from 50 to about 3,400 years old. And the water flows to the springs from multiple directions, via an assortment of recharge areas.
What does seem clear is that groundwater withdrawals at Tusayan will diminish spring and seep flows at some level—sometime. Havasupai Tribal Chairman Don E. Watahomigie worries that the development will “deplete the springs that wildlife need. It would deplete the water that flows through the village down here.”
Putesoy, the vice chairman, added that water flowing from springs is used ceremoniously for purification during sweat lodges, as well as for irrigation. Eva Kissoon, a tribal council member, points out that water from the Redwall aquifer helps feed the five picturesque waterfalls that are the mainstay of tourism in Havasupai Canyon. “This is the main economic force for our survival down here,” she says. Besides, she adds, tribal elders have long pushed the council to develop the plateau outside the Supai village with schools, homes and medical facilities. With 550 canyon residents and just 104 houses, saying conditions at Supai are crowded is an understatement.
“We need water too,” Kissoon says. “It has a huge cultural significance to us. It’s life. It always has been and always will be.”
Tom De Paolo, director of North American operations for the Stilo Groups, says plans for a project in Tusayan actually began in 1991, with the original concept of Canyon Forest Village. “All through the 1990s, there was an amazingly comprehensive environmental impact statement with the Forest Service, the park, the county and other stakeholders. There were nine environmental groups.”
At the time, the Stilo group had arranged for contracts to withdraw water from the Central Arizona Project—a pipeline that carries Colorado River Water to southern Arizona—and transport it by train from Phoenix to Tusayan. “We spent nine years working with the environmental community, agencies and tribes,” he says. “We had letters of support from 21 chapters on the Navajo Nation. I probably hiked down to Supai 25 times, and we had a letter from them endorsing the project.”
He adds that both Geoff Barnard—the former director of the Grand Canyon Trust (GCT), an environmental group—and Vernon Masayesva—a water activist with the Black Mesa Trust, and a former Hopi tribal chairman—were participating in commercials supporting the development for its environmentally responsible design.
Bill Hedden, Grand Canyon Trust executive director, acknowledges that “GCT was certainly all in support in those days.” Masayesva couldn’t be reached for comment.
Regardless, when a handful of Tusayan residents and business owners rallied to defeat the proposal via a countywide ballot initiative, everything stopped, De Paolo says. Without local approval, approximately $10 million spent on outreach and partnership-building went down the tubes.
The Stilo group has been mum about its water plans on this project. De Paolo says that’s because the company’s very expensive outreach efforts for Canyon Forest Village were wasted when Tusayan voters shot it down. “It’s not like we’re trying to be evasive,” he says. “What we’re doing today is the exact inverse of what took place in the 1990s. We have been working for almost a year on something, and we would love to sit down and open up the kimono and say here’s what we want to do. [But] it would be premature.”
De Paolo did say he and his partners are working on some alternatives “both energy-wise and with water that would not impact the springs at all. I think we will be able to do something that would be pretty amazing for this area. It hurts to read in the paper that we would impact springs when it’s our 100 percent goal not to do that.”
Maureen Oltrogge, spokeswoman for Grand Canyon National Park, is concerned about the sheer size of a development so close to the park. But mostly, she’s disappointed by the lack of communication from Stilo staff members, especially around the time of the rezoning votes in Tusayan. “We had asked that they hold off on the vote until we could meet with them and get a better understanding about what they were talking about and to talk about how that development might impact park resources,” she says. “We were basically ignored, and the vote went ahead.”
De Paolo contends that he offered to meet with Grand Canyon Superintendent David Uberuaga, and was told it wasn’t necessary. Overall, though, he believes the time to rebuild neighborly partnerships will come during the project’s review phase—after the land approvals are secure.
But that policy is doing Stilo no favors with neighbors of the proposed development—least of all the Havasupai people. “I think it’s time that the Stilo group starts giving out information to people asking them where is this water going to come from,” Putesoy says.