June 12, 2023

PNM transfers reservoir to Reclamation for Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project

Hannah Grover

The Frank Chee Willeto Reservoir is seen June 9

Gallup Mayor Louis Bonaguidi was serving on city council in 1988 when a geologist the city hired to evaluate its water supplies informed Gallup that it would run out of water within a matter of decades. 

It didn’t take long for the city to discover that its neighbor, the Navajo Nation, was also looking for ways to increase access to water. 

On Friday, the city and Nation got one step closer to achieving a reliable water supply that will serve more than 250,000 people on Navajo Nation, the Jicarilla Apache Nation and in the Gallup area.

The Public Service Company of New Mexico handed over the virtual keys–as company president and Chief Operating Officer Don Tarry called it–to the reservoir that once provided water from the San Juan River for San Juan Generating Station operations to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for use in the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project.

“There is a significant connection between energy and water,” Tarry said, explaining that the coal-fired power plant that ceased operations last fall required a large amount of water. 

Bart Deming is the construction engineer and manager for the BOR’s Four Corners Construction Office. He said when the supply project began, the plan was that there would be a direct intake off of the San Juan River. But turbidity concerns led to the planned intake being relocated to an area near Hogback where there could be turbidity control.

Turbidity is the measurement of how cloudy the water is, or how much sediment it is carrying.

Preliminary designs had been completed when PNM approached the bureau in November 2018 with a proposal to repurpose the reservoir at the power plant. 

Deming said a lot of studies followed over the next four years to ensure the reservoir could meet that need, including making sure it was not contaminated by nearby power plant operations.

Using the reservoir and associated infrastructure reduced project costs by about $70 million compared to the Hogback plans. 

The reservoir also comes with other advantages, including increased storage that will allow for better water resilience in the face of drought and climate change. Deming said that the intake can also be shut off when there is a lot of turbidity in the water, such as during monsoon season, or if another incident like the Gold King Mine spill was to occur. 

The bureau purchased the reservoir and associated infrastructure for $8 million using funding available through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or bipartisan infrastructure bill. 

The use of the reservoir meant delaying completion of the project until 2028 or 2029. 

The Navajo water rights settlement of 2005 that led to the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project required the project to be completed by the end of 2024. 

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez introduced legislation on Friday that will amend the 2009 project authorization in light of increased costs and the delay. She said the bill will also expand the number of Navajo communities that will benefit from it. 

“It is a beautiful day, not just because we get to see this beautiful water that reflects the wonderful blue sky above it, but (because of) what we are celebrating,” she said. “Today’s transfer is more than just a transaction…it is the symbol of water itself.”

She said it represents both life and a future for the communities. 

The reservoir has been named Frank Chee Willeto Reservoir after a late code talker who was influential in getting the Navajo water rights settlement and also served as vice president of Navajo Nation.

His family was there for the ceremony and members of his family helped unveil the new sign that will be displayed there. 

Arvin Trujillo, who was involved in the project during his time as director of the Navajo Nation Department of Natural Resources, spoke on behalf of President Buu Nygren.

He said over the years, those pushing for the project kept having people tell them, “you can’t do this. It’s not possible.” 

But now sections of the pipeline are already supplying water to communities that have had to haul water in the past. 

At the same time, Trujillo urged people not to lose sight of the end goal and to continue working together to complete the pipeline. 

Once finished, the project will feature approximately 300 miles of pipeline, two pumping plants and two water treatment plants. 

It will supply about 250,000 people with water over the next 40 years.