VILLAGE OF THE DAMMED
Harvey Howell, a ranch hand for most of his adult life, lives in the middle of the quiet vastness of the Coconino Plateau, a high desert plain stretching north from the railroad town of Williams to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Most of the time, silence rules.
Only an occasional deep crescendo--cattle storming across the wide, shallow basin along a nearby creek--breaks the persistent quiet around his remote ranch house. The white, wood-frame home is located at the end of a 20-mile dirt road, where the flats of Cataract Creek are squeezed into a narrow canyon.
The location is a perfect spot for a dam; in fact, the Cataract Dam was built there 101 years ago.
For 99 ensuing years, the dam--a 300-foot-wide, mostly earthen structure--diverted water into two livestock ponds carved deep into fractured, limestone-laced soil. In a wet year, the dam could back water up four miles.
No one thought much about the dam, though. It was exempted from state regulation in 1931. It was again put under jurisdiction of the state water resources department in 1973, but no one from the state ever bothered to inspect the dam. State bureaucrats didn't even know it existed until a weekend late in February of 1993.
Howell remembers that weekend vividly. After all, that was when the 99-year-old dam near his house gave way in the face of a huge flood. A flood spawned by record rainfall. A 100-year flood.
"There was just too much water everywhere that day," Howell says in a matter-of-fact manner. "It was roaring through there like a river."
The flood came crashing down Cataract Creek and combined with water already backed up behind the dam, as a result of heavy runoff from earlier rains. Eventually, the stored water and the raging creek simply washed away part of the dam, surged down Cataract Canyon and converged with Havasu Creek, 35 miles away from, and about 2,200 feet below, Howell's home.
Cataract and Havasu creeks join just a few miles from Supai, the primary village of the nation's most isolated Indian tribe, the Havasupai.
Warned of impending disaster, hundreds of Havasupai scrambled from their homes in darkness. There was, however, no easy escape from the floodwaters. The closest automobile--the nearest paved road, in fact--was seven miles up a dirt trail winding out of the narrow canyon surrounding Supai. So the Indians huddled in damp cold, on ledges and in caves tucked into the steep red and black canyon walls surrounding their Spartan village, and they waited.
It took eight hours for the first wave of water released by the crumbling Cataract Creek dam to hit the village. At 1:30 a.m. on February 21, 1993, a blast of water destroyed the village's two main foot bridges. An extensive trail system, a 500-year-old irrigation network, 43 acres of farmland, electrical, water and sewer facilities and scores of animals soon washed away. There was at least $2.5 million in damage to tribal infrastructure.
The flood was so powerful that it removed the dead from ancient burial grounds. It was sheer luck that no contemporary Havasupai joined the ancestors that night.
The great flood of 1993 went on for three days. When it was over, the land lay devastated.
So did world-famous Havasu Falls. The beautiful blue-green pools at the base of the 60-foot falls were decimated. With them went the destitute tribe's primary source of outside income--tourism.
Harvey Howell, the ranch hand who saw Cataract Dam collapse, remains convinced that the dam's failure had little to do with the catastrophe that swept through the village of Supai two years ago this week.
"Our dam didn't blow out and create a flood in Supai," he says. "The flood was already coming to them."
The tribe doesn't see things that way.
On the afternoon of February 7, the Havasupai Tribal Council unanimously voted to file a federal lawsuit against the owners of the dam, who also own the 380,000-acre ranch that surrounds it.
It is a bold move for the Havasupai.
The owner of the Cataract Dam is the Cataract Livestock Company. The Cataract Livestock Company is a subsidiary of the Babbitt Ranches.
And when the Cataract Dam collapsed, U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was an owner in the Babbitt Ranches.
The lawsuit, which seeks at least $750,000 in damages, was filed last Friday in U.S. District Court in Phoenix.
The Havasupai Tribal Council doesn't appear to be concerned about suing Babbitt and his family, even though the Interior secretary directs the operations of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency that funds a variety of programs the tribe depends upon for survival.
"We are just utilizing their laws and trying to file our suit, claiming what needs to be claimed," he adds with a smile.
A Havasupai woman parks her white American pickup truck at the tribal parking area on Hualapai Hilltop on a warm morning earlier this month. Nearby, her husband secures provisions to the backs of two pack horses.
Two other horses, with saddles, wait a few yards away, across a dirt parking area. A dark-haired, round-faced infant sits perched in a blue, aluminum-frame backpack carrier, of the type used widely by parents in more urban settings.
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.
"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.
"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.
Flash floods from localized rainstorms would pass through the canyon, but, archaeological records show, the tribe adapted to the natural forces, in part, by building light, timber-and-brush shelters.
In the cold months, when more destructive floods were likely, most of the tribe would hike out of the canyon, spending the winter on the vast Coconino Plateau. There they would hunt elk and deer. The Havasupai's traditional range was vast, spreading from the Colorado River on the north to Bill Williams Mountain to the south, and from the Little Colorado River on the east to the Aubrey Cliffs on the west. The area contained more than two million acres.
The westward push of white settlers reached northwest Arizona in full force by the mid-1860s. Cattle ranchers began fencing off the Havasupai's traditional winter hunting grounds. Conflicts over scattered springs and stock tanks increased. Prospectors began moving into Havasu Canyon in the 1870s. One miner, James Mooney, fell to his death in 1880 at a waterfall, since named Mooney Falls.
Arizona territorial governor John C. Frmont asked President Rutherford Hayes to establish a reservation for the Havasupai in a five-mile-wide, 12-mile-long corridor along Havasu Creek. Hayes created the reservation by executive order on June 8, 1880. Two years later, the tribe's land was further reduced by President Chester Arthur, this time to a mere 518 acres.
In the span of 20 years, the Havasupai lost more than 2.2 million acres of traditional hunting and gathering grounds and were confined to a treacherous, narrow canyon subject to heavy flooding. The loss of its land destroyed the tribe's economy. The once-independent people became a ward of the federal government.
The tribe never recognized the loss of its traditional homelands and continued for decades to seek the return of at least a portion of it.
In 1968, former congressmen John Rhodes and Sam Steiger introduced legislation that would have returned 173,000 acres of Grand Canyon National Park land and Kaibab National Forest land to the Havasupai.
The bill died without a hearing.
The Havasupai pressed on. Within two years, they found themselves in a pitched and bitter battle with the nation's largest and most powerful environmental group, the Sierra Club.
In the early 1970s, the Sierra Club was backing a long-range plan by the Grand Canyon National Park to consolidate holdings around the Grand Canyon under control of the park service. A map showed the elimination of the tiny Havasupai Reservation, located on the western edge of the park.
The Havasupai were outraged; they found powerful Arizona political allies in former representative Morris Udall and former senator Barry Goldwater.
In turn, the Sierra Club mounted a nationwide campaign opposing the return of Grand Canyon South Rim lands to the Havasupai, saying the Indians planned a massive commercial development and were nothing but a front for developers. The club's campaign disgusted Goldwater, and he resigned his Sierra Club membership.
"I don't believe the Sierra Club is actually interested in anything but demonstrating Sierra Club muscle," Goldwater said then.
Steiger again joined the political forces backing the tribe, and the struggle on Capitol Hill dragged on for a year.
Legislation was stalled in the House of Representatives until the fall of 1974, when Rhodes, then House minority leader, pushed the bill to the floor for a vote. The bill lost by voice vote, but Rhodes insisted on a roll call. The bill passed 180-147.
President Gerald Ford signed it on January 3, 1975--returning 185,000 acres of land to the Havasupai.
Although the return of some of the tribe's traditional lands was a great moral victory, the Havasupai have been unable to use the land effectively.
Short of funding, the tribe couldn't develop even one small water well on the plateau.
The Havasupai want, but have been unable, to construct houses on the plateau, away from the constant threat of floods. The homes also would help alleviate a serious housing shortage in Supai, where, often, as many as ten people will share a small house.
Construction of a community on the plateau would enable children to attend local high schools, rather than boarding schools, where the Havasupai now show a 74 percent dropout rate.
The plateau community would make life easier for the tribe's elderly.
Finally, development on the plateau would expand the tribe's tourism industry. The tribe doesn't want to build a massive resort, Tribal Chairman Wayne Sinyella says, just a simple lodge, market and gas station. Right now, the closest gas station is 70 miles away in Peach Springs.
But these goals remain elusive. Until Congress provides funds for the tribe to develop its plateau resources, the Havasupai will remain confined in their beautiful and bucolic, yet isolated and economically depressed, canyon village.
And every few years, a flood will roll through, causing millions of dollars in damage. Only then will a limited amount of money be made available.
Floods are a way of life in Supai. But the February 1993 flood was different from the others that routinely tumble down the canyon narrows, tribal officials say.
The damage to the village and natural resources was caused only partly by natural forces. The bulk of the wreckage, Sinyella says, was caused by the neglect of the tribe's neighbor--the Babbitt Ranches.
"It seems like it was destroyed by manmade structures, not nature," Sinyella says.
While the tribe takes a long-range view of life, and has repeatedly demonstrated patience and persistence while fighting for land over many decades, there is a prevailing sense that what was destroyed two years ago may be lost forever.
As Sinyella says, "We cannot replace or rebuild what was washed out that nature put there for us.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Inmates Accuse Arizona of Experimenting with Lethal-Injection Drugs
- 10 Things Arizonans Hate About Snowbirds
- Scottsdale Couple Are Pioneers in Tiny-Home Movement in Arizona