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The Little Colorado River & Coconino Plateau

September 06, 2016
by John Weisheit


The Little Colorado River is 340 miles long and drains 26,500 square miles; about 10% of the total for the entire Colorado River basin. The headwaters of the Little Colorado River (LCR) begin at the west side of the Continental Divide in northwest New Mexico; the headwaters on the east side of the divide flow into the Rio Grande. The direction of flow for the LCR main stem, in eastern Arizona, is toward the northwest and it joins the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park. This watershed is in the most southern part of a geophysical province known as the Colorado Plateau, which is a bowl-shaped province of uplifted sedimentary rocks, both marine and terrestrial in origin. The Plateau is also ringed with various kinds of igneous features, both extrusive and intrusive.

The Colorado Plateau is divided into six sub-provinces and the LCR flows through three: 1) the Navajo Section; 2) the Grand Canyon Section, and; 3) the Datil Section. The Navajo Section is generally comprised of terrestrial sedimentary rocks.  The Grand Canyon Section is generally comprised of marine sedimentary rocks, and where this Section adjoins the Basin and Range Province to the south, there are igneous features (volcanos and cinder cones). The Datil Section is also adjoined to the Basin and Range Province and includes numerous extrusive igneous features, as well. The largest volcanic feature in the LCR watershed is the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, AZ at 12,600 feet in elevation. In very recent geologic time, a flow of lava flowed into the gorge of the LCR near Leupp, AZ, where the river begins its rapid descent to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. This huge plug of lava forced the river to reroute its course around this natural obstruction, and then the river returns to its original bed by plunging over the canyon rim as a waterfall.

Annual rainfall in the watershed is 10 inches and annual snowmelt is 15 to 20 inches. The LCR is an interrupted river which means some parts flow perennially and some parts flow ephemerally. Large springs, beginning about 13 miles above the mouth of the LCR in the Grand Canyon, provide a perennial supply of water. These springs are sacred to the Hopi and Zuni nations; the springs also provide critical habitat for an endangered fish called the humpback chub. Cloudbursts in the late summer are generally intense and damages from flash flooding are a frequent problem. For example, in September of 1923 a cloudburst, or possibly an atmospheric river, produced a peak flow of 120,000 cfs at the mouth of the LCR.

The natural flow of the LCR is not really known, but records from the lowest-most gage at Cameron, AZ indicate the total to be about 138,000 acre-feet. According to the Annual Operating Plans from the Bureau of Reclamation the total annual contribution to the Colorado River main stem in 2015 was 82,000 acre-feet, but the total in 2014 was only 33,000 acre-feet.

The precipitation that falls on the LCR watershed recharges five different aquifers; adjoining watersheds contribute to the recharging of the deeper aquifers. The five aquifers of the LCR region are named after layers of sedimentary rock and called, from shallow to deep: T- (Toreva), D- (Dakota), N- (Navajo) and C- (Coconino) and R- (Redwall) aquifers.

The T-Aquifer underlies the Hopi Villages and supplies water to numerous artesian springs, which are all in serious decline. The primary recharge areas of the D- and N- aquifers occur along the southern and eastern periphery of the LCR watershed. The D-Aquifer is of poor quality for reasons of dissolved solids.

The N-Aquifer is the drinking water supply for the Hopi and Navajo nations. The declines in the water table for the N-aquifer has ranged from 23 to 72 feet and is associated with the strip mining operations of Peabody Coal Company at Black Mesa. In 2005, groundwater extraction at Black Mesa, to specifically deliver a slurry of crushed coal via pipeline to Laughlin, NV, was terminated when Southern California Edison decommissioned the power plant. The consequence of massive withdrawals from the N-Aquifer have increased the load of arsenic to dangerous levels, according to various reports by the USGS. Other heavy metal contaiminates include uranium.

The University of Arizona reports that, "About three quarters of the population on the Hopi Reservation live in areas, such as the community of Sichomovi, which have water resources with twice the EPA limit for arsenic in drinking water. High cancer rates on the Hopi reservation have been reported and preoccupy the Hopi population. Even though they are aware of the presence of arsenic in their water sources, the struggle to fund projects that would guarantee safe drinking water has prolonged their exposure to this toxic metal. The EPA awarded the tribe about $6 million to drill two deep water wells, however, the tribe requires an extra $18 to $20 million to complete the project"

The C-Aquifer is the largest and more than 1,000 wells in New Mexico and Arizona are tapped into this aquifer of 22,000 square miles, and in 1995 about 140,000 acre-feet were consumed annually. In 2004 the state of Arizona reported that the water table of C-Aquifer has declined 30 feet near Flagstaff and at operational power plants (coal-fired) near St. Johns and Springerville. Research to develop a safe drinking water system for the tribes and from the C-Aquifer near Lueep, AZ has been completed, but the funding to build the infrastructure has not been authorized.

The R-Aquifer feeds the springs of the LCR gorge near its confluence with the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park. These springs are the most sacred of sites for the Hopi and Zuni tribes.

The LCR is a scientific and culturally important watershed. The federal reserve lands  include: 1) Grand Canyon NP; 2) Petrified Forest NP; 3) Sunset Crater NM; 4) Wapiti NM, and; 5) Walnut Canyon NM; Apache-Sitgreaves NF; Coconino NF; Kaibab NF. There are also state reserve lands in the LCR watershed that include recreation areas and wildlife refuges.

There are three indigenous tribes living in the watershed of the Little Colorado RIver: 1) Navajo; 2) Hopi, and; 3) Zuni. It is well-understood that the villages of the Hopi mesas are the oldest communities in North America. European interventions did not occur until 1540 when a Spanish expedition, led by Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, encountered the Zuni Pueblo in present day New Mexico on a tributary of the LCR called the Zuni River. Using military force the expedition occupied the pueblo of Zuni while a scouting party traveled west to investigate and verify the existence of the Hopi pueblos and the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. This scouting party basically followed the natural course of the LCR and temporarily subjugated the Hopi people, which included procuring guides to lead the Spaniards to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The scouting party was led by Garcia Lopez de Cardenas and the anticipated encounter with the flowing Colorado River never happened. Cardenas was eventually convicted of war crimes against the people of the Tewa Pueblos of the Rio Grande River.

In 1680 the pueblo people united and launched a successful revolt against the Spaniards and drove the settlers south to the Mexican mainland. Twelve years later the Spaniards returned with a somewhat kinder form of colonialism, which lasted until 1821 when the subjects of Mexico become an independent nation. After a two-year war that began in 1846, Mexico ceded it's northern frontier to the willful expansionism of the United States of America. The 1848 Treaty of Hidalgo Guadalupe honored the original land grants (properties) authorized by the colonial Spanish government to the residents of what is now called: New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and California; the Spaniards did not have permanent settlements in the states of Utah & Nevada. The prior appropriation system of water rights in the North American west was also an inheritance of colonial Spain. Unfortunately, though the indigenous cultures have the oldest water rights in the Colorado River basin, they have yet to fully secure their rights to a safe supply of drinking water.



Radioactive Waste
The Puerco River is the most northern tributary of the LCR.  In July of 1979 a flash flood breached a dam that impounded uranium ore waste at the Church Rock Uranium Mill in New Mexico; the owner of the mill was United Nuclear Corporation. About 1,100 tons of radionuclides and 93 million gallons of toxic sludge raged downstream into lands of the Navajo Nation. The release of radioactive materials into the environment exceeded the release during the incident at the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, which also occurred in 1979.  The state of New Mexico and the federal government have essentially done nothing for reasons of racism.  To this day, the human and natural harm to the river and the aquifers have not been sufficiently remediated. Thirty million tons of uranium ore has been mined from the Navajo Nation and the reclamation of these mining activities has not been properly funded. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puerco_River

Black Mesa Coal Mining
The rocks of the Cretaceous Period in the Colorado Plateau contain deposits of coal that are largely mined underground in Colorado and Utah, but in Arizona these deposits are stripped from the surface. Each year, at the Kayenta Mine, about 400-acres are stripped and then reclaimed for an annual total of 8 million tons. The development of the Kayenta Mine began in 1962 by Peabody Coal Company (United Kingdom) and the destination of this coal would be two power plants owned by a consortium of partners: 1) Mojave Generating Station (MGS) at Laughlin, Nevada, and operated by Southern California Edison, and; 2)  Navajo Generating Station (NGS) at Page, Arizona, and operated by Salt River Project; power from NGS pumps Colorado River uphill to farming communities and to the metropolises of Phoenix and Tucson. The coal for NGS is delivered by electric train and the coal for MGS was delivered via a pipeline that pumped a slurry of groundwater and crushed coal. The MGS was decommissioned in 2005. A Utah attorney, John S. Boyden, negotiated the lease agreement between the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Hopi Nation and Peabody Coal, which turned out to be an audacious conflict of interest that was not revealed to the public until Charles F. Wilkinson published his book called Fire on the Plateau: Conflict and Endurance in the American Southwest  in 1999. In April of 2016 Peabody Coal Company filed proceedings for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy.

The Arsenic Problem
Depletion of the N-aquifer by Peabody Coal since the 1960s lowered the water table and the consequence was an increase in arsenic at dangerous public health levels.  The Environmental Protection Agency has required that the Hopi Cultural Center provide bottled water to their guests and to develop a filtration system for this tribal business that provides services to  visitors and tourists.  The Keams Canyon service area has high levels of arsenic in their drinking water.  Bottled water was provided to the residents and visitors, but the program was discontinued. (news feature)

Sacred Site Protection

1) Sipapuni  (c/pa/pu/nee):  An artesian spring at the bottom of the Little Colorado River Gorge near the confluence of the Colorado River.  The flow of Sipapuni is diminished because depletions of groundwater exceed the natural rate of recharge.  This mining of groundwater is a most serious threat because Sipapuni is considered as one of the most sacred sites in the world.  Sipapuni  is the point of emergence from the third world to the fourth world and represents the connection of water to the survival of all living things.

2) Grand Canyon Escalade Resort & Tramway - This issue involves a compact agreement between the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation to respect Hopi sacred sites where the Little Colorado River joins the Colorado River.  A development corporation desires to build a resort at the canyon rim and a tramway to the canyon bottom, which is a violation of the compact agreement.  The Navajo Nation is processing this proposal within various political committees and may eventually be rejected.  If not, the Hopi intention is to litigate this matter, which is the ethical thing to do and will have broad-based support throughout the world.

3) San Francisco Peaks - Wastewater from the City of Flagstaff sewage treatment facility is used to make snow for the winter ski resort called the Snow Bowl.  The San Francisco Peaks are sacred to all tribes of the Little Colorado River watershed.  This desecration is unethical and grassroots campaigns to end this practice included advocacy and litigation with all branches of government, which did not prevail.  This disrespectful practice is poor stewardship toward plants, animals, human health and spirituality.

Coal-fired Generating Stations
The LCR watershed has two operations:  Cholla Power Plant and Springerville Generating Station.  Coal is delivered by train from New Mexico and Wyoming.  Poor air quality and mercury affect the health of the people who live in the Little Colorado River basin, and beyond.  Visibility affects numerous Class I PSD areas (Prevention of Significant Deterioration) in the Colorado Plateau.  These power plants exploit surface water and groundwater resources. http://www.onthecolorado.com/articles.cfm?mode=detail&id=1224816661155

In 2011 the price of potash increased due to market manipulation and applications were filed for exploratory drilling into deep deposits of the Permian Holbrook Basin, which is a sedimentary layer of seawater evaporates.  The price of potash plummeted and drilling programs were abandoned.  Potash mining involves tremendous amounts of surface water or groundwater to dissolve the potassium chloride with in the earths crust (solution mining).  Should a processing plant became operational, solution mining would further devastate the poor condition of these depleted aquifers.

Stormwater Capture Impoundments
Impoundments approved by the Army Corp of Engineers near Black Mesa were built to capture storm water from cloudbursts to supply water for suppressing dust produced by strip mining activities. This water depletion also suppresses aquifer recharge and traditional farming practices of the indigenous people.

Little Colorado River Settlement Agreement
Hopis for thousands of years have a covenant with the Great Spirit Masauu to provide stewardship over water and land.  Federal water right negotiators do not respect this covenant with Masauu and this is why the negotiations failed.  Water is sacred to all life and should not be viewed solely as a commodity that is quantified.  In these times of scarcity, the old water rights system will not work in the future and they must adjust to a new system of water distribution that is holistic.  Developing a new water ethic which would include more collaboration with Native American Indian Tribes and to appreciate their water wisdom to share water equilaterally with all living things. 


Suite of news in 2020: The following articles in The Arizona Republic were written by Ian James with photographs by David Wallace and Nick Oza

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