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.

"This will be a time-consuming and difficult survey," Remer J. Dekle, an NRCA conservation engineer, wrote in a July 1, 1993, memo to his superiors.

The Babbitt Ranches also asked the agency to design a dam with storage of less than 50 acre-feet--a dam, in other words, that would not be regulated by the state Department of Water Resources. The federal bureaucracy was happy to comply.

"Our assistance here could be the initial step in further conservation planning and application on the Babbitt Ranches," Al Neu, an NRCA area conservationist, wrote in a memo. The memo was written on November 3, 1993, about ten months after Bruce Babbitt became Interior secretary.

Surveys and mapping done by the federal agency show that the Cataract Dam was far out of compliance with state regulations. For the dam to hold less than 50 acre-feet of water, and therefore be exempt from state regulations, it could be no taller than three feet.

The Cataract Dam that failed was 20 feet tall.
Billy Cordasco, president of Babbitt Ranches, says it is unlikely that the dam will ever be rebuilt.

"It never really was an advantage to us to have that dam there," he says. "The adjacent stock tank can still be refilled from flows coming down Cataract Creek."

"It's kind of funny," Cordasco adds. "What seemed to be a big wreck actually was kind of a blessing for us."

The collapse of the Cataract Dam has been anything and everything but a blessing for the Havasupai. The wreckage from the 1993 flood still plagues the tribe. Obstacles to cleaning up the mess arose almost immediately, and continue today.

Two months passed before the Bureau of Indian Affairs authorized the release of $823,000 for cleanup and repair of the tribe's damaged infrastructure. The money was not cut loose until U.S. Senator John McCain intervened, demanding to know "why the Bureau was not prepared to promptly respond to the tribe."

Five days after McCain made his inquiry, an $823,000 contract was awarded. The tribe hired an outside consulting engineer to oversee the repairs. Scores of tribal members went to work with hand tools rebuilding the underpinnings of the village.

But the federal relief came nowhere near the $2.5 million needed to restore the trail system and other infrastructure in Supai to its preflood condition.

And the money came with strings attached. Repairs could only return the infrastructure to preflood condition rather than upgrading the facilities so they could withstand the next major flood.

The BIA did award $649,000 in the fall of 1993 to reconstruct two washed-out bridges and shore up some damaged trails that were eroding into the creek. An additional $363,000 was delivered through other federal agencies.

Even so, funding has been inadequate to repair flood damage so the Havasupai tribe can take advantage of the coming summer tourist season. Several areas of the trail leading to the waterfalls below the village and to the 300-site campground are continuing to erode.

A safety survey conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service found "the trail has the potential to cause serious injuries to tribal members and tourists."

A 500-foot-long section leading to the first of three falls--Navajo Falls--is particularly treacherous. The tribe has relocated the trail twice, having to move graves on the second occasion. Still, the erosion triggered by the 1993 flood continues to eat away at the side of the hill, steadily pulling the trail down a steep slope.

"The trail is gradually moving into an area that was washed out," Sinyella says.

Perhaps the biggest loss to the tribe, however, is purely aesthetic.
The base of three waterfalls in the canyon--particularly, a series of pools beneath Havasu Falls--attracted visitors from throughout the world. A series of round tubs, lined with blue-green calcium deposits called travertine, graced the perimeter of a deep, crystal-clear lagoon at the base of the magnificent 60-foot falls.

In this oasis, located in a remote offshoot of the Grand Canyon, water flowed from tub to tub, creating a series of miniwaterfalls cascading down the canyon. Every year, thousands of hikers braved summer desert heat to reach the pools.

The 1993 flood broke loose a 15-foot section of the travertine pools, releasing much of the water from the lagoon. The inviting swimming hole and its accompanying series of small pools have been replaced by silt and sand the floodwaters brought down the canyon.

The tribe is attempting to reestablish the travertine pools, but progress is slow. A steel basket containing small boulders has been placed at the area where the travertine pool was washed away. The water in the lagoon is slowly rising, and calcium deposits are beginning to cover the manmade structure.

But it clearly will take years, if not decades, to regain what was lost during three days in February of 1993.

"It doesn't look like the natural beauty we had for years that people came down to swim in and look at," Sinyella says.

Living year-round in a narrow canyon periodically flooded by a creek was never the Havasupai's idea of a rational lifestyle. For 800 years, the tribe stayed in the canyon only during the warm months, when crops could be irrigated from Havasu Creek.

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