The Havasupai are attempting to fight back against the operation of a uranium mine that they say could contaminate their sole water source
Ed Tilousi knelt down next to the crystal-clear turquoise creek. The only sounds were the gurgling of the current and the sawing of cicadas in a pecan nut tree as the hot sun made the red rock canyon walls towering above him glow.
Downstream, the creek becomes a 100ft-high waterfall, tumbling into a brilliant blue pool then making more cascades before it empties into the Colorado river running through the Grand Canyon.
The water talks to us, it has a voice you can hear all the time. We drink it, we depend on it. If it gets poisoned we are finished, he said.
Tilousi is vice-chairman of the Havasupai Native Americans, a tiny community and the only one that lives within the depths of the Grand Canyon.
The sole water source in their remote home of Supai Village is the pristine creek. It comes from seeps and springs gravitating out of a vast aquifer, or natural underground reservoir, in the Arizona bedrock on the southern edge of the canyon.
The Havasupai water their beans, corn, melon, peach trees, horses and mules squeezed on to the strip of land they inhabit between the sandstone rock faces.
Tourists from all over the world snap up the limited number of visitor permits made available annually by the Havasupai and hike down a nine-mile trail in order to bathe in the fabled waters.
What they dont realize is that way above, on that plateau of bedrock within the Grand Canyon watershed, sitting on top of the same aquifer, is a uranium mine preparing to go into production.
The mining company plans to drill down 1,475ft to extract high-grade uranium ore, then truck it 250 miles by road to their processing mill in Utah.
The Canadian company, Energy Fuels Inc, pledges to operate safely, but the Havasupai and others say thats impossible to promise, especially as too little is known about subterranean water flow.
They argue that any contamination of the groundwater from the mining operations will end up in Havasu Creek, destroying an ancient way of life if they leave the canyon, sickening them if they stay. Significant pollution would also ruin the integrity of the waterfalls and could ultimately threaten the health of the 40 million people downriver who quench their thirst from the mighty Colorado River.
Tourism makes up 80% of the bare bones economy of Supai Village, Tilousi explained, generating income from the small campground and the basic lodge, cafe, grocery store and post office.
Theres a limited helicopter transportation service in this area, used by locals and less robust hikers, and one or two use an ATV, but little disturbs the rustic atmosphere.
We used to have tourist flight-seeing planes from Las Vegas buzzing overhead, but we got onto the FAA and had that stopped. We sold our casino rights. That kind of commercialization will never happen here, we are the guardians of the Grand Canyon, said Tilousi.
The Havasupai number only around 775 members, one of the smallest tribes in North America.
Tilousi had just returned from a peaceful demonstration near the mine.
Called Canyon Mine, it sits 45 miles east of Supai Village as the crow flies, and six miles south of Grand Canyon national park, on National Forest land.
In 2012 the Obama administration banned new uranium claims around the Grand Canyon watershed for 20 years.
A coalition of local leaders in northern Arizona and southern Utah recently requested the Trump administration lift the ban and expand mining access in the region, to the further horror of the Havasupai. Meanwhile, Canyon Mine can forge ahead because it was already established in the mid-80s, although mothballed before operations truly began, when the uranium market tanked.
The main shaft was drilled last year and the company is getting ready to supply the nuclear weapons and power industries.
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