The next time you ask for a glass of water at the Bright Angel cafeteria or the dining room of El Tovar at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, stop and think about where that water comes from and the journey it takes to quench your thirst. The answer may surprise you.
A key feature to this puzzle lies deep in the inner recesses of the Grand Canyon. There are only two bridges that provide crossings for hundreds of miles in either direction along the Colorado River corridor—the Black Bridge and the Silver Bridge. The Black Bridge, completed in 1928, is the main route for mule and hiker traffic between the South Kaibab Trail from the South Rim and the North Kaibab Trail from the North Rim.
The second crossing (and now we’re getting closer to our answer) is the Silver Bridge, located a short distance downstream from the Black Bridge. The Silver Bridge was built in the late 1960s connecting the Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch and the North Rim. Only hiker traffic may cross this suspension bridge but that’s not the only thing moving across the canyon here.
The Silver Bridge also provides a support structure for one of the great engineering feats of the Grand Canyon and a vital support for tourism at this popular national park—the transcanyon water pipeline. Through an extensive system of pipelines and pump houses, 500,000 gallons of water a day are piped from Roaring Springs near the North Rim down Bright Angel Canyon through Phantom Ranch, across the Colorado River suspended from Silver Bridge and then pumped up to the South Rim tourist area. This journey down one side of the canyon and up the other provides almost all the water for the South Rim developed areas—where most of the lodging, restaurants, and visitor services are located. Without this pipeline, the Grand Canyon Village could not support the millions of tourists that flock to the South Rim each year.
Early pioneers, settlers, and entrepreneurs at the Grand Canyon struggled to meet growing water demands at the South Rim of the canyon. Water is a vital but limited resource at the Grand Canyon. Located on the Colorado Plateau in the Southwestern United States, the Grand Canyon is situated in an arid region where there are few surface streams and seasonal moisture from rain or snow quickly soaks into the canyon’s porous rock layers. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, canyon tourism relied on water that was carried to the canyon on trucks then stored in large tanks nearby.
As the South Rim’s Grand Canyon Village became the hub of tourist activity at the canyon, the demands of visitors strained the water supply. So park managers turned to Roaring Springs at the head of Bright Angel Canyon near the North Rim to supplement water imported to the Canyon visitor facilities by truck and train. In the early twentieth century, the Union Pacific Railroad had installed an initial water supply for its North Rim tourist facilities that pumped spring water up to the rim from the nearby Roaring Springs. However, flood damages and changes in the Union Pacific’s operations at the canyon led to the National Park Service (NPS) taking over management of the Roaring Springs water supply system in 1965. Starting in 1965, the NPS began the challenging process of building a pipeline from Roaring Springs to the South Rim to alleviate water demands at Grand Canyon Village.
Today, you can see the transcanyon pipeline at several junctures along the Bright Angel Trail if you hike or take a mule ride into the Grand Canyon. You can hear the pumphouses churning away at their chores at Indian Garden and Roaring Springs. Even if you don’t hike or take a mule ride into the canyon, you can reap the benefits of the pipeline every day that you visit the Grand Canyon. In every glass of water you drink, in every turn of the water faucet, the transcanyon pipeline and the sturdy Silver Bridge are assuring you a thirst quenching stay at the Grand Canyon.
Written By Yolonda Youngs
- Anderson, Michael. 2001. Along the rim: A guide to Grand Canyon’s south rim from Hermit’s Rest to Desert View. Grand Canyon: Grand Canyon Association.