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Some Personal Thoughts on Navajo Generating Station, and the Lake Powell Region of Arizona

I’m an East Coast guy, born and raised.  I grew up in Queens, NYC and have spent most of my life in the suburbs of New York and Philadelphia.  Lots of folks, not many open spaces.  I had the chance to visit the Page-Lake Powell region of northern Arizona last year, when I spent about eight weeks there working at the nearby Navajo Generating Station (NGS).  NGS is the largest coal fired power-plant in the West, totaling about 2250 MW.  It is adjacent to the Navajo Nation, and the majority of workers at the plant are of Navajo descent.  The coal burned at NGS comes from the Kayenta mine, which is also on Navajo land.

Page is a small town by any standards, with a population of around 7500 folks.  As with many towns in the West, once you leave town, it’s a long ride to the next town.  Not anything like the suburban Northeast.  The Colorado river runs nearby, and just north of town is Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam.  The dam provides hydropower, up to 1300 MW when the lake is full.  Between the dam and NGS, a lot of power can be generated in that region.

It is an area of spectacular scenery.  The Colorado river runs in a deep gorge, twisting and turning.  Just south of town is Horseshoe Bend, a natural formation where the river bends about 270 degrees back on itself.  The north rim of the Grand Canyon is about a ninety-minute drive away.  After visiting the area for the first time, I commented to my wife that it was impossible to go there, see the scenery, and leave as an atheist.  Surely there is a Master Architect behind all that incredible scenery.

The town also has a thriving tourist industry geared around the natural wonders of the West.  It is close to the Utah border, and folks both domestic and foreign come to take in the sites, many on bus tours or using RVs.  Lake Powell is the second largest man-made lake in the US, and boating is a big deal.  Many folks rent houseboats and spend their vacation time on the lake.  The weather is typically warm and dry.  Very pleasant indeed.

But there’s trouble brewing in paradise.  The owners of NGS have decided to close the power-plant.  Coal cannot compete cost-effectively with other sources of generation such as natural gas and solar.  Most of the power generated in northern Arizona is shipped down to the Phoenix area for consumption.

The closure is going to have a major impact, both on the Navajo Nation and on the Page-Lake Powell area.  In addition to the relatively good jobs provided by the power-plant, you can see a section of town dedicated to suppliers who sell goods and services to support NGS.  They will lose their major client.

Furthermore, there is talk of draining the lake.  It’s been dry out west and the river is low.  Lake Powell has been hovering around 50% full.  Not too far downstream is the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead.  Lake Mead is also low.  The Arizona heat causes a lot of evaporation and moisture loss in an area that desperately needs water.  Having two lakes at 50% capacity actually increases the water lost to evaporation, as it increases the total surface area of the water subject to the sun’s beating down on it.

So, there is talk of draining Lake Powell and letting the water run down the river into Lake Mead.  No doubt there is some merit to that argument.  And one cannot fault a business for wanting to lower its costs and the price it subsequently charges its customers.  So NGS will close.

But the closure of NGS and the draining of the lake would be a huge blow to the area.  Yes, the natural wonders will still be there (sans the lake perhaps), but the impact will be significant.  I have no ties to the area other than my impressions from the time I spent there.  The people are nice and are hard-working folks.  I hope the area can reinvent itself, based on tourism and whatever else it chooses for its future.  Maybe solar power.  There’s a lot of land, a lot of sun, and existing transmission lines.  But I dread the thought of going back in five or ten years and seeing what I fear will happen.  Another town that used to be and has seen better days.  I hope it turns out differently.

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