Originally published Tuesday, September 25, 2018 at 10:55a.m.

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — When the term deferred maintenance gets tossed out, different images come to mind. Maybe it’s some roads badly in need of repaving, or a few shingles missing from a leaky roof. At Grand Canyon National Park, one of America’s most-visited, it a $329 million proposition.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visited the park Sept. 22 to get an idea of what the park needs to best serve visitors. Zinke is in support of the National Parks Restoration Act, which would designate a special fund within the U.S. Treasury to address maintenance issues at parks nationwide. The fund would receive $7.8 million in 2018 and grow to $9.4 million by 2027. Zinke said most of the revenue is obtained from offshore drilling, but that the department is looking to diversify funding sources.

At the top of Grand Canyon’s list of urgent needs is repair or replacement of the parks aging wastewater system and Transcanyon Water Pipeline, which manages water resources for more than six million visitors annually, as well as a year-round community.

Grand Canyon Superintendent Chris Lehnertz said the park’s current maintenance bill is about $329 million, and based upon her own review of the park’s assets, feels that number is low. Lehnertz said the model used by the National Park Service to calculate maintenance needs doesn’t take into account the park’s many historic buildings, which are operated through partnerships with concessioners.

“When you look in this area, you see some historic buildings by architects like Mary Colter, and those buildings are assets of America as well, but we don’t actually build that into our deferred maintenance model,” Lehnertz said. “We think there could be up to $250 million in additional deferred maintenance, just at our concessions facilities.”

The bulk of the deferred maintenance, however, lies in the park’s outdated water systems, Lehnertz said.

Grand Canyon National Park houses four wastewater treatment plants, similar to that of a small city. One of the facilities on the South Rim is more than 100 years old and was never meant to serve the high volume of visitors that now come through the gates each year. Lehnertz said the plant is in violation of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality’s regulations.

“When you have a waste water system that’s in violation because it’s over a hundred years old, you have the danger of contaminating the water and resources in the park,” she said. “That is a substantial concern.”

Another major area of concern is the Transcanyon Water Pipeline, which was built in the late 1960s and which park officials say has outlived its usable life. The numerous breaks and old materials make the pipeline extremely inefficient, and the terrain in which vulnerable parts of the pipeline are located means it takes considerable effort to repair any leaks or breaks. Lehnertz said when a break occurs, the system must be shut down and drained, with the South Rim relying on stored water during the outage.

While it waits for funding to come in for large projects like the water system, the park is trying to tackle years of deferred maintenance on its own by using a 100 percent model when repairing buildings. According to Lehnertz, that means repairing every issue with a property or resource so that maintenance is completely caught up and there is nothing to be deferred. One such project is restoring the Bright Angel cabins, which will eliminate about $10 million from the park’s deferred maintenance balance. The South Rim Roads Improvement Project was also recently completed, which sliced about $14 million off the park’s backlog.

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Volunteers from Coconino Community College painted a few of the park's historic cabins in celebration of National Public Lands Day Sept. 22. (Loretta Yerian/WGCN)

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke meets with a group of veteran volunteers from the Arizona Conservation Corps during National Public Lands Day Sept. 22. (Erin Ford/WGCN)

Although deferred maintenance is one of Grand Canyon’s greatest challenges in the next few years, Lehnertz and Zinke also discussed how policy changes at the national level affects the park. For instance, the trails crew is operating with about 10 employees for the entire South Rim. Because of NPS policy changes regarding the hiring of seasonal employees, the park can’t hire part-time help outside of certain months, according to Acting Chief of Facilities and Maintenance Donna Richardson. Richardson said during the winter, the park used to hire seasonal employees to help with snow-plowing and trail maintenance, but can no longer do so, increasing the workload on far fewer employees.

Zinke is in support of the National Parks Restoration Act, which would designate a special fund within the U.S. Treasury to address maintenance issues at parks nationwide. The fund would receive $7.8 million in 2018 and grow to $9.4 million by 2027. Zinke said most of the revenue is obtained from offshore drilling, but that the department is looking to diversify funding sources.

Zinke rounded out the visit with a trip to some of the park’s labor cabins, which were constructed in 1930 by the Civilian Conservation Corps to house seasonal laborers. A group of volunteers, including students, faculty and administrators from Coconino Community College, an Arizona Conservation Corps veteran fire crew and the American Conservation Experience teamed up to give the cabins a fresh coat of oil-based paint, which in turn extinguished about $37,000 worth of deferred maintenance.

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