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.

"What the people, the ranch hands, said was that the water started coming out the base of the dam and cut up," rather than overtopping the dam and eroding downward, Sparks says. The difference could be crucial in a court battle. Howell's current explanation suggests the dam was gradually eroded by an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime flood.

A dam that collapsed on itself, however, could be a sign of improper maintenance.

"There was either a root or some kind of a big plant, or prairie dogs had dug burrows in it," Sparks claims. "And once the water got up to those holes or burrows, the water went down and through there and began collapsing from the bottom up, even though the water was going over the top."

Whatever happened to the dam that winter weekend in 1993 remains to be ferreted out in federal court. And it is unclear how much responsibility Bruce Babbitt might have for the actions of the Cataract Cattle Company; his relatively small ownership stake in that company was sold in August 1993, and he and his staff declined to comment last week for this story.

One thing is certain, though. The State of Arizona failed to inspect Cataract Dam, even though it has been under the state's jurisdiction since 1973, and state law mandates an inspection every five years.

And the state continues to show little interest in determining whether other private dams along Cataract Creek threaten the lives and property of the Havasupai.

State Department of Water Resources employees found an 89-foot-wide breach in Cataract Dam when they arrived on February 25, 1993, for an initial inspection. They also discovered that the dam was clearly large enough to be regulated by the department.

The owners of the dam--the Babbitts, one of the state's most powerful families--should have been required to develop an emergency plan in case of failure. They were not.

"We weren't looking at it at the time of the failure," says Dan Lawrence, the department's chief engineer. "We didn't have it on our list of jurisdictional dams."

The only previous records on Cataract Dam in the water department's files date back to 1930, when James E. Babbitt registered it with the state, as required by a 1929 law. Those records show the dam was 15 feet tall when it was registered with the state engineer in October 1930. Recent measurements of the dam by the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Agency show it to be nearly 20 feet tall.

The extra five feet in height translates into an enormous difference in the amount of water that could be stored behind the dam. According to federal records, the maximum amount of water stored behind a 15-foot dam at the site would have been 400 acre-feet, or 1.3 billion gallons of water. The capacity behind the dam more than doubles with the additional five feet. The tribe believes the additional water behind the dam contributed greatly to the destruction in Supai and the waterfalls downstream from the village by extending the duration of the 1993 flood for days.

It is unclear when the additional five feet were added to the dam's height. The state only kept tabs on the dam for two years; the state legislature, at the request of cattle interests, exempted livestock dams from state regulations in 1931.

The legislature rescinded that special status in 1973, placing any dam holding more than 50 acre-feet of water under state jurisdiction. There are, however, no department records showing that the state ever attempted to contact Babbitt Ranches about the change in regulatory status.

For that matter, the department could not produce records suggesting that any livestock dams in Arizona are being inspected.

Immediately after Cataract Dam broke, the department did conduct a cursory survey of livestock dams in the Cataract Creek drainage area and found 554 cattle ponds. Eight of those ponds were clearly large enough to fall under departmental jurisdiction; another 60 appeared to be "possibly jurisdictional."

Since then, the Havasupai tribe twice has requested that the state conduct a comprehensive survey of the Cataract Creek watershed to determine the safety of the scores of dams located on the creek and its tributaries. Although the watershed obviously includes dams that fall under state regulation--including two in Williams classified as "unsafe, nonemergency condition"--the department has done no additional watershed review.

"The department's budget is limited and we have been unable to physically inspect the dams," Lawrence wrote to Havasupai Tribal Chairman Sinyella.

While the state Department of Water Resources was claiming a lack of funds to inspect dams above Supai, the federal government was eagerly helping the Babbitt Ranches assess damage to Cataract Dam.

That assistance came while Bruce Babbitt was secretary of the Interior. Some of it came while he still held an ownership interest in the Cataract Ranch and, therefore, the dam itself.

Cataract Ranch officials asked the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Agency, a division of the Department of Agriculture, to conduct an analysis of the dam site and assist in the design to repair the collapsed dam. The agency sent a seven-person team to the site on June 15, 1993, for an inspection visit. The team prepared to survey the area, create a contour map and compute capacity data for the reservoir behind the private dam.

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