VILLAGE OF THE DAMMED

WHEN A LEVEE ON BABBITT RANCHES GAVE WAY, THE HAVASUPAI INDIANS WERE LITERALLY PUSHED AGAINST THE WALL. NOW THEY'RE PUSHING BACK.

The father straps the child and carrier in front of a saddle on one of the horses; the mother mounts the saddle. Then the three members of the Havasupai tribe step back into time. The husband, on foot, leads the horses down a steep series of switchbacks in a path that clings to the face of a canyon wall. The path, which has been used for centuries, leads the family to the canyon floor, several thousand feet below. There, the man mounts the horse. The group trots off.

Few words are spoken. The sound of hooves stomping in the loose red soil echoes off the cliffs. The family rides toward home, seven miles down a dirt trail in the village of Supai.

The 450 members of the Havasupai tribe repeat this scene day after day, year after year. The Havsu Baaja, the traditional name for the Havasupai, live in a roadless village where yellow warning signs near the elementary school implore "No Galloping." Satellite television dishes stand next to horses feeding on pellets in grassless yards.

The Havasupai live amid stunning beauty with little money; breathtaking skies arch over ramshackle, wood-frame homes that are too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer.

Long-held traditions are kept alive by only a dwindling number of families. Many youngsters embrace the baggy-shorts style of mall-walking teenagers. Once independent, the Havasupai now are closely tied to the whims of lawmakers thousands of miles away.

Even so, the people here have a serenity about them. They have time to sit and enjoy the natural surroundings before striking off to work. Except for the community tractor and an occasional sightseeing plane high overhead, there is nothing to make the mechanized roar that continuously assaults city dwellers. As evening falls, the only sound ricocheting off the canyon walls is the reckless, abandoned laughing of children.

Many Havsu Baaja leave the canyon for a period of their lives. But nearly all come home.

The rains began on Thursday, February 18, 1993, with more than one-third of an inch falling in the Flagstaff area. This was just the beginning. The next day, 3.93 inches of rain--a record for any day of the year in northern Arizona--fell on top of a rapidly melting snow pack.

The National Weather Service office in Flagstaff issued a flash-flood warning at 4:30 p.m. on February 19. Minutes later, the office received reports of flooding along Cataract Creek north of Williams. By early evening, several dams in Williams were overtopping, and families were being evacuated along the Cataract Creek watershed.

Around sunset, the Havasupai Tribal Police reported that Havasu Creek was rising. Harvey Howell awoke the next morning, February 20, at his ranch house to see water flowing over the Cataract Dam's 110-foot-wide, stone-lined spillway for only the second time since he moved to the ranch more than 12 years earlier. It soon became clear the spillway couldn't handle the massive surge of water coming down the Cataract.

"The creek just kept rising and rising," Howell says.
The water rose more than seven feet above the spillway before beginning to flow over the top of the dam around 2 p.m. Howell says that was when he called the Coconino County Sheriff's Office to report the dam was in danger of collapsing.

"The gal on the phone says, 'Who is in charge of it?'" Howell recalls. "I says, 'The water's in charge of it.'"

Although Howell thought the dam would quickly collapse, the hard-packed clay barrier stood its ground, slowly eroding rather than bursting. At nightfall, the creek was still pouring over the spillway and the top of the dam, Howell says.

By 9 the next morning--February 21--the water had stopped flowing over the spillway, but, Howell says, continued pouring through a steadily widening and deepening breach in the dam. The lake behind the dam would continue draining for two weeks as the breach slowly cut all the way down to the creek bottom, he says.

Howell believes whatever water went over the top of the dam and the spillway would have hit Supai no matter what later happened to the dam. "Until the water is below the spillway, you're not releasing water you're not supposed to release," he says in a cowboy drawl. By Howell's reasoning, because the high-water mark in Supai came eight hours before the water stopped flowing over the Cataract Dam spillway, the brunt of the damage in Supai was caused by nature. The water that later flowed through the breached dam wasn't enough to cause serious damage downstream, Howell says.

"We didn't increase the flood at Supai," he says.

Howell's version of the flood of 1993 does not completely mesh with accounts compiled by Bureau of Indian Affairs officials in Peach Springs and the Havasupai tribe's attorney Joe Sparks.

Howell said he notified the Coconino County Sheriff's Office at 2 p.m. that the dam was overtopping. But BIA records indicate he didn't get through until 5 p.m. And once informed of the problem, the sheriff's department was slow to relay information to BIA officials, so they could alert the Havasupai to evacuate. BIA reports show that Howell informed Bob McNichols, a bureau resource officer, that the upper portion of the dam rapidly gave way around 5 p.m., and that there was a 15-foot-high wall of water heading toward Supai. Howell also told McNichols that several other stock tanks or dams had burst upstream, contributing to the surge of water hitting the dam. A third version of the dam's failure comes from reports prepared by an engineer hired by the Havasupai. Within 24 hours of the dam failure, the tribe sent Joe Ely of Stetson Engineering to survey what was left of Cataract Dam. Ely declined to respond to New Times inquiries, but Sparks has access to the engineer's written report on the dam. What Howell told Ely back in 1993 about the dam's collapse does not square with the ranch hand's current explanation, Sparks says.

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