Hydro-Storage Projects on Indigenous land stir debate

Renewable energy facilities are planned on sacred Navajo and Hopi land adjacent to the Grand Canyon

Confluence of Colorado and Little Colorado rivers - photo is licensed under CC BY 2.0 by Grand Canyon National Park Service

Throughout 2020, Pumped Hydro-Storage LLC has proposed three hydro-storage projects on Navajo Nation land near the Grand Canyon, the Salt Trail, Little Colorado River and Big Canyon. 

None of the three projects have been approved to start construction, but the potential for hydro-storage on Navajo Nation land has started a debate between those who are against the hydro-storage projects for environmental and land preservation reasons, and those who see it as a source of renewable energy and jobs.

All three projects’ preliminary permits were submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) within a span of seven months. The first being for Salt Trail on May 8, 2019. The most recent and favored project, Big Canyon, was submitted on Mar. 12, 2020. The Navajo Nation has filed a motion to intervene on Big Canyon as recently as July 2020. If one of these projects does go through, it does not eliminate the possibility of the others being approved, although it does lessen the chances. 

What is pumped-storage hydropower?

Pumped-storage hydropower (PSH) is a type of hydroelectric energy storage. It is a configuration of two water reservoirs at different elevations that can generate power (discharge) as water moves down through a turbine; this draws power as it pumps water (recharge) to the upper reservoir. PSH capabilities can be characterized as open loop—where there is an ongoing hydrologic connection to a natural body of water—or closed loop, where the reservoirs are not connected to an outside body of water – graphic and text from the US Department of Energy

Steven Irwin, the manager at Pumped Hydro-Storage LLC sees these projects, specifically Big Canyon, as a benefit to all parties involved. He believes that it will provide clean energy production/storage to surrounding states such as California, but also much of the Southwest where he says there is a huge energy supply problem. The massive, coal-fired, 2.25-gigawatt Navajo Generating Station shut down in November of 2019. Irwin believes the hydro-storage project would provide jobs and water availability to the Navajo Nation, whose land it would be built on.

“I’m looking at it as a Navajo Power Plant replacement, both job wise and travel revenue, most of the workers, probably 95 percent would be Navajo, maybe all.”

Pumped Hydro-Storage LLC specializes in building hydro-storage systems that use water as an alternative to batteries for energy storage. Hydro-storage involves storing water in elevated areas, then using gravity to push water down through turbines to produce energy. Irwin says this energy storage method is energy efficient and renewable compared to methods such as batteries that are prone to fires and explosions. 

While Pumped Hydro-storage LLC sees these projects as beneficial, other parties see it as a threat to endangered species and sacred Navajo and Hopi Land. 

At the front of the opposition has been the Center for Biological Diversity, filing motions to intervene in each proposal. Senior public lands campaigner Taylor McKinnon voiced concerns that the company hasn’t considered the impact of reducing water downstream, “the proposals aren’t well thought out, there’s a number of self contradictions. In our view, these were all incomplete proposals.”

Preserving the ecosystem of the Little Colorado River is extremely important, as it is one of the last remaining homes to the endangered humpback chub. The Center for Biological Diversity is concerned that the damming of the Little Colorado could forever change the flow of the river and hasten the chub’s extinction, as well as irreparably harming other endangered species in the area.

Humpback Chub – Illustration by Joe Tomelleri, US National Park Service.

To avoid encroaching on the hunchback chub, Pumped Hydro-Storage LLC proposed the use of a closed cycle system for the Big Canyon project to solve the concerns expressed in the previous Salt Trail and Little Colorado proposals. 

“The intention with this one was to put to rest the aquatic issues we had with the other two,” Steve Irwin said. “Instead of using the river for water sources we are going into a dry canyon and will drill wells and pump water.”

The Big Canyon proposal’s “closed cycle” storage system differs from the Salt Trail and Little Colorado proposals, which were “open cycle” systems. Closed cycle is a term that describes how the water is sourced. 

In the interactive map below, the Big Canyon dams are in yellow, and the Salt Trail and Little Colorado project dams in red. Click on each dam or reservoir for details. Dam locations and reservoir dimensions are approximations.

In the case of the Big Canyon, they would be using a dry canyon, then drilling wells and pumping water into that canyon from underground. Whereas an open cycle uses an already existing body of water, such as a river, to divert water for energy production.

While Pumped Hydro-Storage believes that using Big Canyon instead of the Little Colorado river solves all issues, the Center for Biological Diversity sees the Big Canyon proposal as only delaying the problem, not eliminating it.  

“Instead it threatens the base flow of the river, by pumping groundwater that feeds the river. Instead of directly destroying the river it will potentially dry it up,” McKinnon said.

Another important aspect of this discussion is Native American land preservation. These projects proposed by Pumped Hydro-Storage LLC would be built on land that belongs to the Navajo Nation and is the aboriginal land of the Hopi people. The industrialization of these places threatens some of the oldest inhabited areas of North America. 

The land being discussed belongs to the Navajo Nation, although it is also the aboriginal land of the Hopi people, who also still inhabit this territory. Under the 1934 Compact, the Navajo and Hopi people promised to protect each other’s cultural resources despite land jurisdiction. The hope of the Hopi people is that the Navajo Nation will protect their cultural resources in this situation, because the legal decision to go forward with these projects belongs to the Navajo. 

Part of the Little Colorado River gorge is where the Hopi people believe they emerged into the world and call it “Sipapuni.” Stewart B. Koyiyumptewa of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office says “it’s really a start and end place for Hopi beliefs. Meaning that we were derived there and we end up there after we pass on to the next life. It’s a highly culturally significant area to the Hopi people.”

Koyiyumptewa also expressed concerns regarding water resources, not only for the Hopi and Navajo, but also for the Hualupi people who are west of the project area. “No one can determine how much damage will occur to the springs …We simply think it’s a bad idea. We are currently in a drought situation and our climate is changing.”


Alexandra Love writes about the environment for the Ally. Support her work between now and the end of the year, and NewsMatch will match you one-time or ongoing donation dollar-for-dollar.