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biotaPower Generation on the Colorado Plateau

Navajo Power Plant

The coal-fired Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona

The Colorado Plateau's economy, air quality, and water resources have all been affected by the development of the region for power generation. In the last 25 years several major power-generating facilities have been located atop the Colorado Plateau, mainly to provide electricity for metropolitan regions on the periphery including Phoenix, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada. The Four-Corners Power Plant in New Mexico and the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona are the largest of the coal-fired power plants now operating in the region. Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River is easily the largest hydroelectric producer.

Power generation via coal combustion has had a significant effect on the Colorado Plateau's once famous air quality. The sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates emitted from these plants have in some cases been reduced by the recent installations of "scrubbers" and other environmental control equipment, but these measures have so far been inadequate to restore the region's air quality. Currently, the largest single source of pollution affecting visibility at Grand Canyon is the Mohave Power Generating Station near Laughlin, Nevada along the lower Colorado River on the eastern edge of the Plateau. Pollutants from as far away as southern California may also be affecting air quality at the canyon.

Some facilities use a tremendous amount of ground water for coal transportation in slurry lines, consuming a valuable resource in this arid region. In 1968, Peabody Coal Company began strip-mining operations on land leased from the Navajo and Hopi Tribes on Black Mesa. Of the 11 to 13 million tons of coal that are extracted each year, an average of about 5 million tons are transported as slurry by a 273-mile-long pipeline from the coal-lease area west to the Mohave Generating Station. Transporting the coal in slurry form consumes, on average, about 3,800 acre-ft of water annually. The slurry water is provided through a network of 8 wells that tap the confined parts of the D and N aquifers underlying Black Mesa. Most of the slurry water is pumped from the confined part of the N aquifer which also is the primary source of water for municipal users within the 5,400-square-mile Black Mesa area.

The Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe became concerned about the long-term effects of industrial withdrawals from the N aquifer on the availability and quality of water supplies for domestic and municipal purposes. These concerns led to an ongoing investigation of the water resources of the Black Mesa area begun in 1971 by the U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.


Native Americans and the Environment. A comprehensive survey of twentieth century environmental issues facing Native Americans on the Colorado Plateau and throughout the Southwest, including discussions of agriculture, logging, mining, grazing, water rights, and tourism.


Ambler, M. 1990. Breaking the Bonds: Indian Control of Energy Development. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence.

GAO. 1994. Air pollution: regional approaches are needed to protect visibility in National Parks and Wilderness areas. GAO/T-RCED-94-102. General Accounting Office, Washington, D.C., 7 pp.

Goetz, C. L., Abeyta, C. G. and Thomas, E. V. 1987. Application of techniques to identify coal-mine and power generation effects on surface-water quality, San Juan River basin, New Mexico and Colorado. Water-Resources Investigations Report 86-4076. U.S. Geological Survey.

Gottlieb, R. and Wiley, P. 1982. Empires in the Sun. Putnam, New York, NY.

Jorgensen, J. G. 1984. Native Americans and Energy Development II. Anthropology Resource Center & Seventh Generation Fund, Boston, MA.

Lewis, D. R. 1995. Native Americans and the environment: A survey of twentieth century issues. American Indian Quarterly 19.

Littin, G. R. 1999. Monitoring the effects of ground-water withdrawals from the N Aquifer in the Black Mesa area, northeastern Arizona. <> 9/29/00.

Marion, K. and Wallick, D. M. 1991. Glen-Canyon Dam operation authority: Producing electricity and protecting the Grand Canyon environment. Land and Water Law Review 26: 183.

McGuire, T., Lord, W. B. and Wallace, M. G., editors. 1993. Indian Water in the New West. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Nies, J. 1998. The Black Mesa Syndrome: Indian Lands, Black Gold. Orion, Summer issue. Also available online at <>.

Reisner, M. 1993. Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water. Second Edition. Penguin Books, New York, NY.

Ringholz, R. C. 1996. Paradise Paved: the Challenge of Growth in the New West. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. 1995. Operation of Glen Canyon Dam: Final Environmental Impact Statement. USBR, Salt Lake City, UT.

Wright, A. G. 1997. Tall order in Arizona: scrubber retrofit at the Navajo Generating Station of electric utility Salt River Project. ENR 238: 30-33.