A proposed bill to make parts of Grand Canyon East rim sacred may head to the Navajo Nation Council this year.
Cameron Chapter residents voted Sunday, nine in favor, none opposed and three abstained, to support placing certain areas of canyons and water ways into sacred sites. They include the “Confluence of the Little Colorado River and the Colorado River, the Little Colorado River Gorge and other related cultural/spiritual sites as sacred sites of the Navajo Nation,” according to the chapter resolution.
The vote is significant because the western Navajo chapter straddles the Little Colorado River on the south side and the Confluence. A developer is seeking federal approval to extract groundwater from the drought-stricken area to generate electricity for urban areas off the reservation.
Cameron Chapter is a neighbor to Bodaway/Gap, a chapter that launched the sacred site bill in 2018, shortly after the Navajo Nation Council rejected the controversial Grand Canyon Escalade project.
Two Navajo Nation chapters that have an interest in the area have spoken, said Marilyn Reed, Cameron Chapter resident. She voted yes to support sacred sites.
“I agree with (the resolution) because, finally we can voice, as a collective community to entities off reservation, ‘hey, hands off!’’’ Reed said. “…We should decide how to use that water. The reason (Colorado River) is sacred is because water sustains us. And, if we want to put a pipe through Little Colorado water, that’s our choice.”
Cameron officials said Friday the official information about the resolution will be available later this month. Chapter officials also cautioned that resolutions passed during the pandemic may face challenges in the future about quorum.
In 2020, the quorum rules lowered between three to 15 people. There is rumbling by local leaders that several resolutions that passed during Pandemic times may face a challenge when the pandemic ends.
If the Navajo Nation Council’ approves the sacred site bill, it may block developers from building on the named sites. It includes the most recent project posed by a Phoenix developer, who wants to dam Big Canyon east of the Little Colorado Gorge, in Bodaway/Gap Chapter.
“We are not in Cameron. I don’t feel Bodaway will have the same opinion,” said Steve Irwin, who owns Pumped Hydro Storage LLC in Phoenix. “Well, until we’re stopped by Bodaway/Gap,” the project continues.
People in Bodaway/Gap told him in jobs were needed two years ago, Irwin said.
When informed that Bodaway/Gap had started the sacred site bill proposal, Irwin said did not know about the details. “We’ll see how this shakes out,” he said.
Irwin plans to drill wells on the floor of Big Canyon for water. He proposes to use groundwater to build the pumped hydro dam.
The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a preliminary number for the Big Canyon project in 2020. Irwin is waiting for FERC to issue a feasibility study of Big Canyon, which could take five years and cost about $5 t0 $8 million, he said.
Irwin said he renewed his interest in Big Canyon dam because of a meeting recently with the Arizona Corporation Commission. He said the utility regulators were more than interested in the canyon, because he told them it’s located near transmission lines that carried power to Phoenix when Navajo Generating Station operated.
Irwin said he told the commission about the enormous amount ground water stored near Big Canyon.
An e-mail was sent to ACC communication department to verify Irwin’s alleged meeting. STC website did not receive a response late Friday.
Irwin said he was inspired by the ACC’s reaction that he will write a letter to FERC in April and inquire about why his request for feasibility study is delayed. He guessed the tribe’s intervention may be blocking the study.
The Navajo Nation intervened in July 2020 objecting to the developer’s efforts to bypass tribal sovereignty and get federal approval for the controversial dam on the Nation. The intervention also prohibited Irwin from visiting the development site because his company allegedly failed to follow tribal rules for development.
The sacred site bill stems from a Bodaway/Gap Chapter resolution passed in February 2018. Save the Confluence families and environmental advocates of the Grand Canyon declared the Grand Canyon Escalade legislation, “a defeated project” shortly after the Navajo Nation Council rejected it in 2017.
Marie Peyketewa, a STC family member, herds a flock of sheep on the northern rim of the Little Colorado River and the Little Colorado River Gorge. She is pleased Cameron Chapter voted to support the bill.
“I think two resolutions make the sacred site bill stronger to the (Navajo Nation) Council,” Peyketewa said. “I think they (Cameron residents) want places to be recognized as sacred sites, too. They have a history of people filming movies (near the canyon) and movie stars jumping into the canyon. I don’t think they appreciate that.”
Peyketewa is referring to 2018, when actor Will Smith bungee-jumped from a helicopter into the Little Colorado River.
Many Navajos take their prayers to the canyon edge because they say the Holy People, such as the wind, the water, the walls of rock and the air dwell there. Tossing a rock into the canyon, for example, could disrupt canyon life and bring harm to them.
Nelda Huskie and her family are stakeholders to the south of Big Canyon. She listened to Sunday’s discussion about sacred sites at Cameron Chapter.
Again, like Reed, she expressed the need to protect sacred places near Big Canyon.
“We are keeping the place sacred from further development or any type of development that will impede the plants, the land users and their way of life, especially where the interest is, not for the people, but for profit,” Huskie said.