Havasupai Say Development Is Threatening Their Life

Lourdes Medrano

TUCSON (CN) – Uranium mining, development and industry are threatening the water and the very life of the Havasupai people, who have lived in the Grand Canyon since time immemorial, the tribe says in a lawsuit against a dozen well owners and the City of Williams.

Railroads, miners and ranchers began encroaching upon the Havasupai in the 1880s, long before Grand Canyon National Park was established. The federal government reduced their lands to 518 acres in 1882 and creation of the National Park pushed the tribe to the verge of extinction. They are today the only tribe that lives in the Grand Canyon. Decades of legal fights concluded in 1975 with passage of the Grand Canyon National Park Enlargement Act, which restored about 188,000 acres to the tribe.

They are best known today for Havasupai Falls, a spectacular waterfall on their reservation. Tourism has become a major economic support for the tribe of about 750. But development, mining and industry is depleting their water supply — illegally, the tribe says in its Dec. 5 federal lawsuit.

A growing number of groundwater wells illegally pump from the aquifer that is the tribe’s lifeline, the Havasupai say. The defendants use the water for new homes, commercial buildings and uranium mines, the tribe says in the complaint that includes well owners as defendants.

The federally recognized tribe relies heavily on Havasu Creek, a tributary on the south side of the Colorado River, and nearby seeps and springs for its water.

“These waters provide the tribe’s drinking water; they are the source of the tribe’s domestic and municipal water supply; they irrigate the tribe’s fields and provide water for its livestock; and they play a central role in the traditions, religion and culture of the tribe,” the complaint states.

The Havasupai live along the banks of the creek, whose turquoise waters and waterfalls in Havasu Canyon lure throngs of visitors to tribal land throughout the year. The tribe has limited permits to visit the falls to 300 a day, the Arizona Republic reported this year.

The region has seen a boom in development in recent decades, much of it opposed by conservationists who see harm coming to the fragile seeps and springs on Havasupai land and surrounding area.

The tribe is worried too. Although the defendants’ wells are on private property, the Havasupai say the well owners are trespassing on the tribe’s federally reserved water rights.

“The main thing we want to achieve is a declaration that the tribe does have priority rights to the water in the aquifer,” Richard Hughes, lead attorney for the tribe, said in an interview.

Although well drilling has been going on for years, the tribe decided to take legal action because “things are reaching a grave point” as massive developments are contemplated in the region, the attorney said.

Hughes said the tribe has been negotiating agreements with several defendants to try to resolve the water dispute, but he declined to elaborate.

Defendants either did not return calls or were unreachable.

The Havasupai Tribe is one of the smallest in the country with 742 enrolled members. Most live in Supai, the reservation’s sole, remote village that can only be reached by foot, horseback or helicopter. The restored reservation encompasses “virtually all of Havasu Canyon, upstream of the national park boundary and much of the surrounding plateaus,” the tribe says.

The Havasupai once roamed throughout the vast depths of the Grand Canyon and far beyond. In winter, they hunted and gathered wild plants for food in the plateaus and in summer they grew crops near Havasu Creek. The Havasu Springs in Havasu Canyon are the main source of water for the creek and the most “culturally significant” for the tribe, the complaint states.

“Water has always been a part of the identity and culture of the tribe, as is reflected in the tribe’s name: the Havasuw ‘Baaja, which means the People of the Blue Green Waters,” the Havasupai say.

The Redwall-Muav aquifer, also known as R-aquifer, is the primary source of the Havasu Springs, some 3,000 feet below much of the Coconino Plateau’s ground surface, the tribe says. That’s the same aquifer supplying water to the defendants’ wells.

“The defendants’ groundwater withdrawals will reduce the flow of Havasu Springs and the other springs that originate from the R-aquifer, on a gallon-for-gallon basis,” the tribe says. “Nearly the entire outflow of the R-aquifer occurs on the Havasupai Reservation, in Havasu Canyon and in Grand Canyon National Park.”

Groundwater pumping reduces the water level of an aquifer if the aquifer is not restored by rain and other natural processes — a situation that seldom if ever occurs in Arizona. As the water table drops it can, and in Arizona it has, caused subsidence in the land above it.

The tribe seeks declaratory judgment that it “has aboriginal and federally reserved water rights in the full flow of Havasu Creek and the springs, seeps and streams on its reservation and traditional use lands” and that defendants are infringing on those rights.

Here are the defendants: Anasazi Water Company LLC; Cataract Natural Reserve Land LLC; City of Williams: William Collins; William and Lorraine Collins Family Trust; Grand Canyon Equipment Inc.; Energy Fuels Resources (USA) Inc.; EFR Arizona Strip LLC; Halvorson-Seibold Inc.; Hydro-Resources Inc.; Jentri LLC; Lure Maker LLC; Pernell McGuire; McGuire Investments LLC; Alvin J Reed; Christine G. Reed; Squire Motor Inns Inc.; Randy Topel; and Topel Properties LLC.