Chapter #381: The Four Corners Region - Part 3 - August 3, 2021

In August 2015, The Wahweap Marina in Lake Powell was riding high in its bay - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)

Saving The Colorado River - Are We Doing Too Little, Too Late?

On Monday, May 24, 2021, I departed Monument Valley for Kanab, Utah, via Page, Arizona. The weather was clear, with only a light breeze. Page, Arizona owes its current existence to the nearby Glen Canyon Dam and its reservoir, inaptly named “Lake Powell”. Loved by power boaters but decried by environmentalists since its completion in the mid-1960s, both the dam and the “lake” are anachronistic constructs of 20th century groupthink. To justify its initial construction, dam advocates and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) had touted the proposed dam as a flood control mechanism.

Later, those running the dam’s As water levels continued to fall, by May 2021, Wahweap Marina stretched from bank to bank across its bay - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)electrical generators switched to promoting its ability to produce electricity from a supposedly renewable resource. Current lake levels would suggest otherwise. By 2023, the hydro-power intake structures will stand above the projected lake level. In other words, the dam will likely create no hydro-power at all.

As of 2021, drought and structural overdrawing of Colorado River water supplies have made a mockery of the Glen Canyon Dam and its rapidly shrinking reservoir. The Upper Colorado River Basin is in such extreme drought that the prospects of a catastrophic flood are near zero. As for the power boaters, most of their launch ramps now look like ski jumps, with a long drop-offs to the rocks below. The lake itself is so much smaller, snags, unseen sandbars and lack of beaches for camping make the boating experience more hazardous each year. Shorelines of quicksand and Looking as if they stepped out of an earlier century, two your girls run and play at Wahweap Overlook at Lake Powell, Arizona. Missing from the mesa in the background is the recently dismantled Navajo Generating Station - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)gravel bars not seen in over fifty years will consume the unwary. Lake Powell is fast approaching its all-time low water mark and is unlikely to rebound in the next decade or two.

In November 2019, the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) near Page, Arizona ceased operations. If anyone thought that Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell were cynical constructs of 20th century infrastructure, they should study the development and ultimate demise of the coal fired NGS. Owned by the Salt River Project, the largest public utility in the State of Arizona, the main purpose of NGS was to create electricity to pump Colorado River water over five mountain ranges to Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona.

The abandoned coal silos at Shonto, Arizona once stoked the Navajo Generating Station in Page, Arizona - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)To power the three huge furnaces at NGS, miners extracted and shipped coal from the Black Mesa Complex, near Kayenta, Arizona. Black Mesa lies above what used to be the largest aquifer in the Navajo Nation. Contemporaneous with the NGS, unscrupulous power brokers had tapped that aquifer to send a slurry of coal to a now defunct power plant at Laughlin, Nevada. Peabody Coal and its successor corporations operated the Black Mesa Mine on contract to the Navajo Nation. In exchange for some transitory jobs and revenue, the Navajo received a strip-mined mesa and the despoilment of their precious water resources. As a concession to the Navajo, the mine offered free coal for home heating each year. Since many Navajo households have no electricity, the foul and deadly coal was their only heat source during the winter. To add insult to injury, the Navajo had to line up with their personal pickup trucks and trailers to cart off the "free coal".

The old aquifer at Cow Springs, Arizona is now dry, which was a consequence of strip mining at nearby Black Mesa, Arizona - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Although the mine and the NGS did provide some jobs for Navajo tribal members, the true legacy of the NGS was polluted groundwater and air throughout the Four Corners Region. For over forty years, visitors to the nearby Grand Canyon often looked down on a smokey pit, not the natural wonder they came to see. At one time, the NGS was the largest producer of airborne nitrogen oxide in the United States. Only far cheaper electricity provided by natural gas and renewable sources doomed the NGS.

When Arizona won a larger share of Colorado River water in federal lawsuits during the 1960s, the largest user of water in Southern Arizona was agriculture. Pima cotton got its name from Pima County, where Tucson now boasts a population of over one million residents. In the days when cotton was king, Phoenix, Arizona had a population of under 600,000. Today, Greater The now defunct Navajo Generating Station at Page, Arizona was once the largest single nitrogen oxide emitter in the continental U.S. - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Phoenix has a population of 4.485 million. As agriculture subsided, the vast and thirsty megalopolis of Phoenix/Tucson grew in its place.

A little-known fact about the NGS was its thirst. During its 45-years of operation, it was the single largest consumer of water from Lake Powell. It also used over ten percent of its electrical power generation to transport coal via rail and to pump its cooling water from Lake Powell. Looking back, the NGS stole water from the Navajos and wasted that precious water to power itself and its electric trains. To complete the circle of complicity, Arizona built its current wealth on the false premise of abundant water, pumped from an unsustainable water supply. Like a science fiction monster, the NGS laid waste to water and land while using profligate amounts of energy to power itself. For 45-years, the NGS wasted water, power and environmental resources, all in the name of “progress”.

By 2021 and prior to the major delivery cutbacks to come, Arizona had banked about two years of water supply in shallow desert aquifers. Most of it is near The Navajo Generating Station on a cool day in October 2015, with all three furnaces emitting toxic gases and all six cooling towers wasting untold amounts of Colorado River water - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, west of Phoenix. With the water table so close to the surface, water samples there can register over 80-f degrees. To stave off potential water shortages, construction crews are installing pumps and delivery systems from those aquifers to north Phoenix. For as long as that water bank lasts, Phoenix can continue to pretend that it has an adequate supply of water. When it becomes obvious that supplies will tighten, expect land values in more recent suburbs, like Anthem Arizona to experience a major slump in housing prices. Water may soon become too expensive or scarce to supply all who want it.

When the reservoir downstream from Lake Powell, which is Lake Meade reaches its official drought emergency level in August 2021, Arizona and Nevada will take the deepest cuts in future water deliveries. With unending
A parched view of the Navajo Generating Station in August 2018, with all three furnaces still spewing pollution into the Four Corners Region - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)drought and decreased flows in both the Upper Colorado Basin (Lake Powell) and the Lower Colorado River Basin (Lake Mead), there is no guarantee of sufficient water in either or both basins to supply basic water needs to the 40 million people in the Southwest who depend on it. Although Arizona and Nevada will take the biggest initial cut in water deliveries, the entire region is likely to experience extreme shortages in the next decade.

The history of water politics in the West is one of over optimism and faulty projections. Instead of inaction and dithering as the West dries up and blows away, both the federal government and the states that make up the Colorado River Compact should take bold action.
Each year, Lake Powell losses up to fifteen percent of its volume to evaporation and percolation into its sandstone basin. The ongoing dismantling of the Navajo Generating Station in May 2021 - Click for larger image (htts://jamesmcgillis.com)The USBR should immediately decommission Lake Powell. They should then conduct a controlled release of water from Lake Powell into the Colorado River. When that still substantial volume of water reaches Lake Mead, it will then occupy a smaller geographical “footprint”. Unlike the substantial percolation at Lake Powell, Lake Mead’s granite lined basin will retain much more of its received water.

How would these bold moves affect the Colorado River and its water consumers? First, Page Arizona would decline in population, back to near its size before construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. Power boaters would have to travel to a more viable Lake Mead, farther downstream. As Lake Powell recedes, river runners could once again conduct rafting tours of the actual Glen Canyon. For the first time in over fifty years, hardy tourists could visit the most spectacular ecosystem ever destroyed by a desert reservoir. In time, Glen Canyon would recover, and the “Eden of the Rolling through Kanab, Utah, a scrapper hauls away remnants of the Navajo Generating Station - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Desert” could well become a greater draw than the transitory “lake”. With luck and realistic planning, Phoenix, Las Vegas and even Los Angeles could survive, albeit on a much tighter water budget.

On the bright side, Page Arizona could become both a rafting and a mining center, quarrying desert sandstone for use in xeriscape throughout California, Arizona and Nevada. Personally, I would be happy to repopulate my Southern California front yard with succulents and cacti, interspersed among expanses of “Navajo Sandstone”. As I write this in August 2021, my plan sounds harsh. In 2022 and beyond, it may sound like “too little and too late”.

This concludes Part Three of a Five-Part Article. To read Part Four, click HERE. To return to Part One, click HERE

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