FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — When the waterline breaks — as happens almost monthly on the South Rim and canyon floor of Grand Canyon National Park — the canteen at Phantom Ranch and other park restaurants break out disposable plates and plastic utensils instead of dishware requiring water to wash.
There have been more than 85 pipeline ruptures since 2010. Each break requires the entire system to shut down over 3-5 days and frequently costs more than $25,000 to repair. Built in the 1960s, the waterline that consisted of 6-inch and 8-inch diameter aluminum pipes has operated two decades longer than it was designed to last and has been plagued by problems since inception. A 1,000-year flood in 1966 washed out sections of the initial line a year after installation, and the rebuild started in 1967 cost $5 million, according to park records.
But now, the park has plans and funding to correct the problem.
“We’re evaluating proposals” and anticipate awarding a construction contract to replace the 12.5-mile-long transcanyon waterline (TCP) sometime this spring, said Robert Parrish, the national park’s chief of planning, environment and projects.
From his office in Flagstaff, Parrish manages multiple projects, such as short-term improvements to the Phantom Ranch Wastewater Treatment Plant, on the canyon floor to stabilize and increase the reliability of water and wastewater services while the TCP is constructed. Phantom Ranch modifications were nearly complete last month when the Traveler caught up with Parrish.
The TCP replacement project took 13 years to plan and design to meet requirements in federal and state laws, as well as park planning policies. It is expected to cost $112 million, according to annual budget justifications. Congress has already provided $68 million, and an additional $74 million will come from park entrance fees.
The new pipe will carry one million gallons of potable water daily to serve not only the approximately six million annual visitors, including those who stay in the 1,000 lodging rooms and 400 campsites on the South Rim and canyon floor, but also the 2,500 year-round residents who work at facilities or attend the local K-12 school inside the park.
The new line also will increase the amount of water stored in tanks from 13 million to 15 million gallons to fight fires. “We will have multiple weeks security if there is a fire,” Parrish said.
When the 20th century dawned, water was actually hauled by train into Grand Canyon National Park. The Sante Fe Railroad could bring 204,000 gallons into the park with a line of 20 tanker cars. That reliance on the railroad ran from 1901-1932, when a pumping station at Havasupai Gardens pushed water up to the South Rim. But the railroad was summoned to supplement that source in the 1950s when demand outpaced the water from Havasupai Gardens.
The decision to bring water to the South Rim from Roaring Springs 3,000 below the lip of the North Rim, which receives more precipitation than the lower South Rim, launched a massive engineering feat that started in 1965. Specially designed equipment was needed to accomplish the task, which involved crews wielding jackhammers and helicopters lifting equipment into place. The pipeline drops down along the North Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch, then across the Colorado River suspended below the Silver Bridge. Gravity allows the water to flow from Roaring Springs down the canyon, across the river, and up to Havasupai Gardens, where it is then pumped up to storage tanks on the South Rim.
The pipeline actually is listed as a “historic district” because of its connection to the massive Mission 66 building program the Park Service conducted between 1956 and 1966 to upgrade park facilities across the National Park System.
Under the current configuration, the pipeline can send about 1 million gallons of water a day to the South Rim, which uses 300,000 to 850,000 gallons per day, according to the park. While the pipeline takes in about 5 percent of the flow from Roaring Springs, the Park Service proposes to maintain or reduce water usage by utilizing water conservation techniques and technology and by fixing leaks in the system.
As planned, the new water intake for the water delivery system will move from Roaring Springs to Bright Angel Creek near Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor. Moving the intake and a pumping station to the bottom of the Grand Canyon will eliminate the 3-mile portion from Roaring Springs to Phantom Ranch that most frequently ruptures. The pumping station will then transfer water through the waterline from Phantom Ranch to the South Rim.
Made of aluminum, the original pipe is lightweight and was easy to haul into the canyon. But the pipe has not weathered well. Vertical fissures are common, sometimes requiring park staff to rappel or helicopter into the canyon to repair. In all likelihood, the new pipe will be made of flex-steel, a material more durable than aluminum.
Other elements of the TCP project include building a new South Rim water treatment plant with raw water storage tanks and upgrading the water distribution system at Havasupai Garden. Portions of the TCP will be sliplined — the new pipe will be placed inside the old one – and three miles from Phantom Ranch to Havasupai Gardens will be replaced.
Plans also call for repairing Silver Bridge at the bottom of the canyon and improving approximately 3 miles of the electrical supply line from Havasupai Garden to Phantom Ranch.
In addition, water distribution system improvements are scheduled at the Mile-and-a-Half and Three-Mile rest houses on the Bright Angel Trail.
The TCP is not the only project on Parrish’s to-do list.
The park’s helicopter base will be rehabilitated. An auxiliary hangar, landing pad, and contractor support area will be constructed to facilitate the movement of equipment and supplies into the inner canyon.
The current 10 MW substation on the South Rim is about to be relocated away from Village Center where it currently sits to a new utility corridor “tucked away from residential and high visitor use areas,” he said. Expected to cost $16.8 million, the substation project will be funded by entrance fees paid by visitors at the gate. Arizona Public Service, electricity provider to the national park, owns the substation and is responsible for designing and building the new facility and as well as demolishing the old one.
The National Park Service and Federal Highway Administration are to manage the construction of a graded and paved three-quarter-mile long utility corridor providing access to the substation. In addition, two miles of overhead high voltage power lines will be relocated beneath Clinic Road and a few resident roads and trenches by mid-summer.
The new substation’s capacity will be increased to 41 MW to energize a shuttle bus maintenance facility supporting compressed natural gas and up to 40 electric buses. In the short term, only 10 charging stations will be installed to meet current needs but the need to charge electric vehicles is expected to increase in the future. The National Park Service has applied for a Nationally Significant Federal Lands and Tribal Projects grant from the Federal Highway Administration to fund construction of the maintenance facility and the purchase of 10 buses. A decision on the grant proposal is anticipated later this year.
No long-term traffic detours are expected during construction. Any traffic detours would likely be situational, short term, and near the work sites away from the park’s south entrance.
In the near term, Parrish and his team are busy evaluating proposals from the multiple entities bidding on the TCP project. Parrish would not say how many — that’s confidential information.
“We are taking our time, not dragging our feet but doing our due diligence,” evaluating both the price and technical details of the proposals and weighing risks and tradeoffs, he said. “We want the new one to last more than 50 years.”
Once the park awards the contract, construction is expected to take from 30-48 months. During this time Phantom Ranch, run by concessionaire Xanterra Travel Connection, will likely close while the pipes under the popular Bright Angel Trail are replaced and the water supply is cut off.
This may make it even more difficult to reserve a stay at Phantom Ranch in the immediate future. Parrish recommends visitors check websites for the park and Xanterra for updates.
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