Pumped Hydro Storage LLC from Phoenix proposes to locate a pump storage hydropower near Little Colorado named Big Canyon Pumped Storage Project. The proposed project is shown on this map in relation to Navajo East Rim.

Federal officials have given the green light to a developer who wants to build a dam to capture scarce water in drought-like conditions near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers.

The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has granted a permit to developer Steven Irwin. Irwin is business manager for Phoenix-based Pumped Hydro Storage LLC. He says he now will begin exploring how to extract near the Little Colorado River for use in a hydroelectric generation plant.  Irwin says he would pump the water up a cliff onto traditional sheepherding and livestock ranges of Navajos. He then would run it down a cliff near the Confluence to generate electricity.

Parts of the Little Colorado River’s Big Canyon gorge in Western Navajo Nation is shown here, which would be impacted by a developer’s hydroelectric proposal. (Photo by Delores Aguirre)

Shepherds and cattle ranchers have had to endure drought-like conditions for generations in the area just to maintain a traditional Navajo lifestyle. Earthen dams can barely support meager livestock herds. Irwin’s project could further threaten both the eco-system and the traditional lifestyle in the area.

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Irwin said Wednesday a federal permit allows him greater movement on the Navajo Nation in his quest to dam up the Little Colorado River.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave Irwin a permit May 21 to move forward with exploring the proposal. Irwin aspires to construct one of two dams in western Navajo Nation in the chapters of Bodaway/Gap and Cameron.

The next step, Irwin said, is a visit to the Bodaway/Gap Chapter, where he will seek a business lease. If the chapter approves  a lease, then he plans to seek Navajo Nation approval from departments and council delegates in Window Rock.

“If we don’t have an agreement with the landowner, which is the Navajo Nation, there is no point in proceeding,” Irwin said. “Everything pivots on getting an agreement with the tribe.”

Once the council approves the dam, a feasibility study will follow. The study will show whether the dam or reservoir is suitable for the area.

He expects investors will show up once the Nation approves the project. After all, businesses that have tried or already located on the Nation offered him advice, get permission first from the Navajo council before seeking investors.

Irwin, in previous interviews, identified Arizona Public Service, Salt River Project or Navajo Tribal Utility Authority as potential investors. The type of dam he envisions would put out power using turbine and generator to turn energy of falling water into electricity, which can be pumped up a hill and stored for later use.

Gearing up for battle

Don Yellowman, Bodaway/Gap Chapter, said Friday he has not met or heard from Irwin, who visited the chapter in March. Yellowman said leaders from the neighboring chapter Cameron, had urged him to join forces to oppose the project.

The chapter, however, is closed because the Navajo is battling to control the coronavirus. The high number of infections is limiting tribal members from traveling and meeting in large groups.

The chapters are waiting for a plan that addresses safety concerns for its citizens before the public meetings reopen, Yellowman said.

A czar for dams that pepper the Navajo Nation said he reviewed Irwin’s plans. The individual, who asked to remain anonymous, said there are objections brewing because of the amount of drilling on the floor of the canyon and cutting into the sheer walls of Little Colorado River.

Water rarely pools in the nooks and crannies of the Little Colorado River’s Big Canyon in Western Navajo Nation. (Photo by Delores Aguirre)

Such changes to the canyon violate Navajo oral history and ceremonial histories tied to the river and canyon. The tribal official also said the river is on the Nation but the tribe has not settled its water rights to the area, yet.

Navajo President Jonathon Nez could not be reached for a comment about Irwin’s permit from FERC. Nez previously has asked businesses to work with local people and chapters.

Lucille Daniels, a Navajo elder, who lives not too far from Salt Trail, said no one has talked to her about building dams in her backyard. Daniels is skeptical of developers, who come to the chapter and make promises to bring water, electricity, housing and other things to build their dreams.

Daniels, 85, points to the construction of Glen Canyon Dam near Page in the 1950s and 1960s.  The same applies to the defunct Navajo Generating Station, she said.

Though Bodaway/Gap chapter leaders were promised water and electricity as an incentive to approve the right of ways, Daniels said the southern Bodaway community never benefited.

That memory is so strong she opposes any project.

“He’s (Irwin) not going to get it anyway,” said Lucille Daniels. “Whatever he is building, it won’t benefit us. What he wants to do is build the dams, get electricity and sell to people off the reservation.”

Daniels lives in Bodaway. She is a descendant of about five generations of shepherds and continues to care for 150 head of sheep, while her relatives operate a cattle ranch near Pillow Mountain.

When storms hit on the upper Little Colorado River, rainwater sloshes into the slot canyons and forms pools. She herds her flock to the water to quench their thirst.

Daniels also is a member of the area’s Save the Confluence, activists who successfully killed a high-profile, controversial plan called Grand Canyon Escalade.

Irwin’s proposed dams are in the proximity of the Escalade, which the council rejected in October 2017. Phoenix developers had proposed to build a tourist resort, featuring a gondola, above the confluence of the Colorado River and Little Colorado River.

Larry Foster, advisor Save the Confluence families, declared if the group is up for the fight against the dams, “We will be ready for Irwin.”

Foster doubts the Nation’s is willing to grant any studies to Irwin.

After all, Cameron Chapter refused, in a 39 to 0 vote, to invite the developer to present his proposal in November. The Western Navajo Agency District’s Three committee, which advises the Navajo Council’s Resources & Development Committee, also vote to oppose Irwin’s plans in December.

Back to Irwin

In hindsight, Irwin admits he was ignorant of the boundaries of the Cameron and Bodaway/Gap Chapters.

A trail for livestock is visible near Big Canyon. When drought hit Bodaway, local livestock owners herded them into the Little Colorado River for water. (Photo by Delores Aguirre)

“When we looked at Navajo Nation maps, we placed the project by geography not political boundaries,” he said. “We learned 75 percent of the property was in Bodaway and 25 percent in Cameron Chapter.”

Subsequently, Irwin decided to work with one chapter, which is Bodaway/Gap chapter. He also searched for other locations on Little Colorado River and found Big Canyon, about two miles southeast of Salt Canyon trailhead.

Irwin submitted a plan for a permit to FERC in March. (2020)

He proposes to dam up Big Canyon and place three large reservoirs on the rim of the canyon, where Daniel’s family herd sheep and run cattle. He plans to drill wells on the floor of the canyon for water.

If FERC issues a permit for Big Canyon, he will drop plans for Salt Trail and the Little Colorado site near the Colorado River. After all, he believes Big Canyon is ideal because it’s closer to powerlines that are strung east of the canyon from Glen Canyon Dam and Navajo Generating Station, he said.

He called the powerlines “super electronic highway” that might could carry electricity to customers off the Nation, he said.

Pumped Hydro Storage LLC from Phoenix proposes to locate a pump storage hydropower named Proposed Salt Trail Canyon Pumped Storage Project shown in this map in relation to Navajo East Rim.

 About opposition

Irwin, who believes he is doing good, was surprised by the level of opposition against the permit he submitted for Salt Trail and Little Colorado dams.

The reaction is abnormal, he said. He and an engineer are operating out of a Phoenix garage and have never visited the property he plans to dam up.

Irwin said about 24 groups, many environmentalists and the area’s American Indian tribes intervened on his permits. He believes they were unhappy and “wanted us terminated, and that didn’t happen because FERC wanted us to go through the process,” he said.

“There must have been millions of dollars spent on the project (to oppose our permit),” Irwin said. “I said, ‘for that amount of money, why don’t they buy us out?”’

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