Op-Ed: Grand Canyon Waters, at the Abyss

Eldorado Springs, Colo. — I RECENTLY reunited with an old friend — not a person, but a place in Arizona, the state where I was born. It is a timeless place of great antiquity, a shrine of the ages that President Theodore Roosevelt said “man can only mar.”

Roosevelt proclaimed the Grand Canyon a national monument in 1908. In so doing, he specifically intended to prevent mining and tourist development from harming one of our nation’s most treasured landscapes. “Keep it for your children, your children’s children and all who come after you,” he said, “as the one great sight which every American should see.”

But mar it we have. An abandoned uranium mine on the canyon’s South Rim has cost taxpayers more than $15 million to remove toxic wastes from the surface. And contaminated water — flowing underground through the mine’s radioactive ore — continues to poison a spring-fed creek deep within the canyon. It is a permanent loss at an unconscionable cost that should never be borne again.

Roosevelt’s proclamation set aside only a fraction of the Grand Canyon as a national monument. His decision rankled mining and tourist businesses in the booming Arizona territory. Local politicians and profiteers fought the postage-stamp-size monument’s further protection as a national park in 1919.

In 1975, Congress nearly doubled the park’s size, declaring that the entire Grand Canyon “including tributary side canyons and surrounding plateaus, is a natural feature of national and international significance.” Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a Republican, introduced the bill. My dad, Congressman Morris Udall, a Democrat from Arizona, helped unite bipartisan support to better protect Arizona’s and America’s most famous natural wonder.

The Grand Canyon Enlargement Act, signed into law by President Gerald Ford four decades ago, returned more than 100,000 acres of federal land to the Havasupai tribe. It also effectively banned the building of two new dams in the canyon’s upper and lower gorge. But it, too, fell short in protecting the Grand Canyon in its entirety.

Today, four uranium mines operate within the watershed that drains directly into Grand Canyon National Park. Arbitrary boundaries and antiquated rules permit these mines to threaten hundreds more life-giving seeps and springs in the desert basins below. Thousands of new mining claims on public lands that surround the canyon were put on hold by a 20-year moratorium imposed in 2012 by Ken Salazar, then the interior secretary. The National Mining Association and the Nuclear Energy Institute are suing in federal court to end the ban.

Achieving this hard-won hiatus on new uranium claims took more than five years and one of the broadest coalitions ever aligned to protect the Grand Canyon. The Havasupai, “people of blue-green water,” whose sole source of drinking water is at risk, led the way. They were joined then by county supervisors, chambers of commerce, ranchers, hunters, bird-watchers, artists, scientists, Arizona’s governor, game and fish commissioners and business owners. All united to stop uranium mining from permanently polluting the Grand Canyon and undermining the region’s tourism-driven economy.

But the 2012 victory to halt new claims was temporary. Our challenge now is to rebuild that coalition and make the ban permanent. There’s no reason to wait. President Obama can protect it now.

Congressman Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, plans to introducethe Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument Act next week. It was written in collaboration with Havasupai, Hualapai and Hopi leaders. The Navajo Nation, which banned all uranium mining on its land in 2005, joined in support along with Zuni, Paiute and Yavapai leaders.

The bill aims to protect 1.7 million acres of historical tribal homeland, including water sources and sacred sites. It would preserve the Grand Canyon’s rich heritage of “biological, cultural, recreational, geological, educational and scientific values.” It would make permanent the 20-year ban on new mining clams but would allow hunting, grazing, recreation and all other uses to continue under existing laws.

Unfortunately, there’s almost no chance that the legislation will gain approval in today’s gridlocked Congress. But the 1906 Antiquities Act gives the president unilateral authority to set aside federal lands as protected national monuments to stop the looting of archaeological sites and for reasons of “historic or scientific interest.”

This past summer, President Obama used this authority to protect over one million acres of federal land in California, Nevada and Texas. Now we must prevail upon the president to permanently protect the Grand Canyon’s sacred waters.

Earlier this year, my wife and I were invited to join native leaders on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. We’ve made many such trips before. But this time, at nearly every spring along the way, we stopped to pray.

All water is sacred to those who have learned to live where it is scarce. We must defend the Grand Canyon’s sacred waters from unconscionable loss.

By:  Senator Mark Udall (D-CO)
Source: The New York Times