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.

"They had a responsibility to take care of and maintain that dam," Havasupai Tribal Chairman Wayne Sinyella says.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty