Water gauges to warn Arizona Havasupai of floods

Phoenix, Arizona (AP) 1-09

Two newly installed water gauges near the Grand Canyon hopefully will give the members of the Havasupai Tribe more time to prepare for evacuations in case of a flood.

A team of workers finished installing a pair of flood gauges 20- and 45-miles upstream from the village in the bottom of the canyon during December to provide more accurate information about the volume of water flowing through the 3,000 square-mile watershed.

The data collected will go to the National Weather Service.

In the past, the tribe based decisions on visual cues in the water or waited until the area was inundated, said Michael Johnson, an engineering manager with the state’s Department of Water Resources.

“That’s probably the flood warning the tribe has used for 700 years,” Johnson said. “At that point, you don’t have a lot of time left.”


There wasn’t a lot of lead time this summer when a wall of water roared through the village and campground late in the evening on Aug. 17, forcing the evacuation of more than 250 tourists and Havasupai Tribe members who were airlifted out of the remote area.

No one was seriously injured, though it took authorities two days to track down nearly a dozen campers who weren’t accounted for.

Tribal members, who were anticipating the kind of volume consistent with the summer rains, were caught off guard by the amount of water that rushed through the area. That amount of water hadn’t been seen for at least 15 years.

Experts say the new flood gauges will share that information with forecasters and emergency planners and tourists.

“Historically speaking, this was not that large (a flood), and they got off pretty lucky in the amount of warning time they had,” Johnson said. “If that same storm had been centered more northerly within the watershed, they would have got hit much, much faster.”

State dollars paid for the $60,000 installation and $30,000 annual maintenance fees for the gauges, which came from a collaborative effort with the state Department of Water Resources, Bureau of Indian Affairs and Department of Homeland Security.

State and federal authorities are also exploring ways to improve radio communications between emergency services and the Havasupais, including improving radio-transmitter sites in the area and outfitting the tribe with portable satellite-radio systems.