The flooding of Supai Village attracted national media attention last week when torrential rains led to the evacuation of approximately 426 people. Many were stunned and followed the story closely. While we, too, were shocked about the news of the flood, we weren't surprised. This has happened before. The village of Supai and Havasu Canyon have been victims of major floods occurring in 1910, 1990, 1993 and 1997, eroding the travertine that gives the water its color and changing landscape. Fortunately, no one has ever suffered serious injury.
The recent flooding occurred when thunderstorms dropped three to six inches of rain in the Supai region Aug. 15-16. Following an additional two inches of rain on Aug. 17, a small, earthen dam was breached, allowing additional water to flow down Cataract Canyon in a westerly direction eventually feeding into Supai Canyon. Flooding in Supai Canyon and the threat of additional flooding necessitated the evacuation of 400-plus campers and full-time residents. Some residents chose not to be evacuated and remained in the canyon.
When the storm subsided, some trails and footbridges were washed out and trees were uprooted. Eyewitnesses have reported that animals and livestock were washed away. The once-aqua blue waters are now brown. Tourism revenues will be lost during the next several weeks.
Eventually the mud will wash away and residents will clean up trash and debris. Tourists will return again. Thus far, no one has been reported missing and officials with the Coconino County Sheriff's Office believe that everyone has been accounted for. The visitors and residents of Supai were fortunate that no one was reported missing or was seriously injured this time around.
Supai's iconic, tranquil, blue waters and unique rock formations attract thousands of visitors each year. On any given day, as many as 500 tourists can be found in Supai. Supai is also home to nearly 500 members of the Havasupai Tribe, and is the only village in the country that still has its mail delivered by mule train. While Supai's beauty is magnificent, it can become deadly instantaneously when rain begins to fall, especially during the monsoon season. We can expect more floods at Supai if something is not done.
According to officials with the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, the real issue is whether or not we're in a period where these floods are occurring more frequently or not. Perhaps global warning can be blamed on flooding at Supai in recent years. However, global warming is not expected to end anytime soon. Something needs to be done now. The small-earthen dam that was breached needs to be replaced with a much larger dam that could slow the flow of floodwaters into Supai Canyon.
It's time for the federal government to take preventative measures, such as constructing a more powerful, secure dam that can effectively control strong water flows. While we understand that the isolation of the canyon makes this a difficult task to accomplish, a new dam is necessary to protect not only the beauty of Supai, but more importantly, the human beings that both visit and reside there.