SHIPROCK, N.M. (KRQE) – A reservoir with over 800 million gallons of active water storage has changed hands from a power company to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The water will be funneled to the Navajo Nation and is just part of a larger transition away from coal power.

As northwestern New Mexico has shifted away from the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station, utility operators have been seeking ways to remediate the now-closed power plant facilities. In a presentation to New Mexico lawmakers, the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) says demolition work and coal removal are ongoing, but the plant’s water reservoir has been sold to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and has been renamed the Frank Chee Willetto Reservoir, after a World War II Navajo Code Talker.

“We’re very excited to be able to help the Navajo Nation clean water efforts”, Tom Fallgren, the principal generation advisor for PNM, told KRQE News 13. “It’s very much a win-win.”

The reservoir was built in the early 1970s. For years, fresh water was diverted from the San Juan River into the reservoir to be used for cooling at the power station. Now, a new pump will move water from the reservoir to a treatment plant about 10 miles to the southwest before connecting to taps in the Navajo Nation.

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Map of the Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

“It’s to help provide a reliable and sustainable water supply to Navajo homes and businesses and provide opportunities for economic development,” says Bart Deming, the construction engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Four Corners Construction Office. The idea is to “hopefully get to a point where the Navajo people no longer have to haul water to their homes, as more than a third of Navajo homes still have to do.”

The project will help bring water to over 200,000 people, Deming says. And having the reservoir connected via pipelines to Gallup, Standing Rock, and nearby communities will help provide a consistent supply in times of drought.

“It’s going to bring some substantial benefits,” Deming says, “providing a consistent water quality to the water treatment plant as opposed to when we pump directly off the [San Juan] river.”

Deming says it also can store enough water to serve the Navajo Nation project for three weeks. So, if there’s a chemical spill in the San Juan River (such as the Gold King Mine spill), the intake pump can be shut off and residents will still have water thanks to the reservoir.

All the benefits do come at a cost, not just financially, but also in terms of time. “The downside,” Deming says, is “it’s going to require an extension of the [water delivery] project by five years. We originally were set to be completed in 2024.”

Still, Deming says stakeholders agree that the benefits will be worth it in the long term.

Meanwhile, other equipment and materials at the closed San Juan Generating Station are on their way out. PNM has chosen a contractor for the demolition of the power plant, they’ve already sold off some equipment, and coal removal is ongoing, according to PNM’s latest report to lawmakers. PNM expects the site’s towering stacks to be demolished sometime in 2024. Eventually, they plan on taking everything down to the foundation.

Replacement renewable energy facilities will take over the plant’s energy production. The San Juan Solar 1 facility will be the closest to the closed powerplant site. The facility is expected to make 200 megawatts of solar electricity and have 100 megawatts of storage, according to PNM. Already, some workers that have been displaced by the transition away from coal have received payouts to help ease the change.