February 20, 2017

Around NM: Navajo Generating Station, Gila River plans and climate change in the news

Mattia Panciroli via flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/dtpancio/30724781306/

Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona

The Navajo Generating Station is on the Navajo Nation near Page, Arizona. But the plant’s closure in 2019, announced last week by Salt River Project, will have implications across the West.

The coal-fired power plant is among the region’s largest polluters, contributing to smog at National Parks like the Grand Canyon and emitting 44,000 tons of carbon each day. It also employs nearly 1,000 people, most of whom are from the Navajo Nation or the Hopi Tribe.

The Associated Press covered the announcement from SRP and how it might affect local economies and the Kayenta Mine, which is owned by Peabody Energy and has supplied coal to the plant for decades.

Other media outlets covered it, too, including High Country News. In an easy-to-digest web exclusive, contributing editor Jonathan Thompson noted that the plant is shutting down because of economics, not because of the “so-called war on coal or federal environmental protections.”

Thompson wrote that SRP officials have said that it’s cheaper to buy electricity for their customers from other sources, including natural gas, than from the coal-fired power plant:

None of this will change even if President Donald Trump rolls back the Clean Power Plan or other regulations put in place by the Obama administration. In fact, if a drill-heavy energy policy is put into place, it will increase natural gas supplies, thus increasing the spread between natural gas and coal. Having said that, California’s move away from coal power lowers the value of the plant’s power, and the requirement that the plant install nitrous oxide-reducing equipment increases costs—so environmental protections do play a role, albeit a smaller one than economics.

Some of the plant’s electricity goes toward pumping water via the Central Arizona Project from the Colorado River to cities like Tucson and Phoenix.

In an Arizona Republic story, Central Arizona Project officials explained that water prices may now go down.

From that story:

CAP bought $81.2 million in power from Navajo last year. It could have saved $38.5 million buying the same power on the open market, officials said, and that analysis included the time of day purchases were made to reflect hour-to-hour price changes.

Selling surplus power from Navajo netted $12 million last year, but CAP would have come out $26.5 million ahead purchasing gas power.

That would have saved about $27 in energy costs per acre-foot of water the CAP delivered. (An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, enough water to serve two households for a year.) CAP customers pay various rates that include other charges beyond energy costs.

CAP officials said low natural-gas rates should produce similar results this year and for the foreseeable future.

In light of those figures, board member Terry Goddard asked if CAP should push SRP and the other owners to close the plant sooner than 2019.

“Twenty-six point five million really sticks in my craw,” said Goddard, a former Phoenix mayor and state attorney general. “We are subsidizing or moving in a losing proposition. We should do something to stop that if we possibly can. Are we the dog or the tail, the windshield or the bug?”

Gila updates

The Silver City Press is the best place to look for updates on what’s happening with the state’s controversial proposed diversion on the Gila River.

Last week, Christine Steele wrote about a letter the New Mexico Office of the State Auditor sent to the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission regarding a potential procurement violation by AECOM, the company hired to design the diversion.

According to the story:

Now, the ISC’s contract with AECOM has come under even closer scrutiny than before from New Mexico State Auditor Tim Keller’s office. Keller sent a letter to the ISC in late January which revealed that AECOM, while under consideration for the up-to-30 percent design contract, made a donation of $1,000 to the Susana PAC — a political action committee that supports New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who appoints the board members of the ISC.

The executive director of the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, the agency now tasked with overseeing the project, responded in that story to the letter:

“I will not comment on the AECOM contract, due to potential litigation,” said CAP executive director Anthony Gutierrez. “We would like to prepare ourselves in case the contract is terminated. We have already approved hiring an engineer of our own.”

The story, which reviews the CAP Entity’s recent meeting also pointed out that Mary Alice Murphy, owner of the Grant County Beat, said she and her webmaster were interested in operating the agency’s website.

Although formed in 2015, the agency still lacks a website. To read meeting agendas or minutes, members of the public must request those from the agency’s chair.

(Although the Silver City Press noted that those are posted on the ISC’s Arizona Water Settlements Act website, the most recent one is from August 2015.)

It’s also worth noting that the ISC paid Murphy more than $4,000 in 2013 and 2014 for providing “assistance to the ISC in conducting AWSA/Gila meetings” at the same time she was writing news articles about the issue for the Grant County Beat.

Climate change news makes local TV

In a terribly exciting turn of events, KOB-TV aired a story last week about Blair Wolf, a University of New Mexico biology professor who studies the impacts of rising temperatures on bird populations.

From the story:

Although the Australian and Indian deserts are on the other side of the globe, Wolf said the trend is spreading here in New Mexico.

“This is kind of a warning of what can happen here in the future,” he said.

Beyond bird deaths, Wolf said increasing temperatures could affect our water supply, which will affect everything else.

“What we’re doing now is going to have effects downstream for hundreds of years,” he said.

The story’s not an uplifting one. But it’s encouraging to see a local television station covering climate change and its impacts.

Deep plans for Quay County

The federal government and private companies have been exploring possible sites to store nuclear waste in deep boreholes.

One of the sites is in Quay County, though the federal government has told local the boreholes are only test sites, and will not be used to store waste.

But last week, the Quay County Commission decided to pull its support for a test site in Nara Vista, N.M.

According to a story in the ExchangeMonitor:

Enercon Federal Services and DOSECC Exploration Services have been exploring a site about 300 miles north of DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Citing economic and educational benefits, the commission in October approved a resolution in support for the project. But with public fears that a successful test would lead to additional nuclear waste storage in the state, the three-member board agreed unanimously on Monday that public backlash against the project was too great to sustain their support. Officials said local residents packed Monday’s meeting to express their concerns about the borehole test plan.

The story also mentions that the Department of Energy has four test locations. In addition to the Quay County location, sites are being explored in Pecos County, Texas, Otero County, New Mexico and Haakon County, South Dakota.

Climate and the Colorado River

John Fleck left the Albuquerque Journal a few years ago, but still writes about water news regularly at his website. This weekend, he wrote about a new study that shows climate change is already reducing flows in the Colorado River.

According to Fleck, who now directs the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico, this new study is particularly notable because it shows how even modest precipitation declines this century have affected the river’s flows: “While we have seen projections of the future impact of climate change on the Colorado for more than two decades,” he wrote, “this study is important because it is one of the first to argue empirically that the change is already underway.”

Read his full post here, and read the study from Bradley Udall and Jonathan Overpeck in Water Resources Journal here.

Speaking of John Fleck, on Sunday night and Monday morning I sent out a message on Twitter, asking for someone—anyone!—to alert me to any stories about the environment in New Mexico that aren’t depressing. Fleck was the only one to respond before I wrote this week’s wrap-up. He asked: “Will big snowpack help minnows? Possible good news?”

Fleck was referring to the endangered silvery minnow, which relies on a bump in spring flows to spawn. Like I told him: we’ll have a story coming out next week on the Rio Grande. And I’ll be sure to let you all know what folks are saying about the snowpack.

In the meantime, if you come across stories related to wildlife, water, energy, climate change and other environmental issues in New Mexico, drop me a note at laura@nmpoliticalreport.com or Tweet them and CC me: @LauraPaskus.