Arizona’s Drinking Water, CAP, NGS, and the EPA

by Patrick O’Malley
Precinct Committeeman
LD 12 / Queen Creek Precinct

Everybody in the East Valley relies on Central Arizona Project (CAP) for their drinking water. All the larger cities including Phoenix, Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, and others rely primarily on CAP and SRP canal water as the source for their drinking water, with wells mostly for backup. CAP is both the biggest water provider and the biggest electricity customer in Arizona.

It takes a lot of electricity to move water uphill from the Colorado River through Phoenix and on to Tucson. The Navajo Generating Station (NGS) located near Page is a coal fired power plant and it supplies 90% of CAP’s electricity. CAP receives special rates because they consume about 25% of all the power NGS generates.

All coal fired plants have been a target of the Obama administration’s EPA.

NGS has received special attention because amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1977 gave National Parks and wilderness areas special protection. The pollution from NGS may contribute to haze at the Grand Canyon. The EPA has reviewed NGS’s Air Permit more than once and has issued rulings on changes NGS would have to make to continue operating.

The first round of orders from the EPA came in the early 1990’s. As a result, $400 million in upgrades were installed in the late 90’s to reduce sulfur dioxide by 90%. In the 2000’s the EPA identified nitrous oxide emissions as a problem, and starting in 2008, NGS spent another $46 million in upgrades.

In 2010 the EPA required additional nitrous oxide improvements using a specific technology. The estimated cost is $1.1 billion.

The bureaucracy in the EPA sets the rules, and the taxpayers are forced to deliver.

If the price of NGS operation goes up, so will the cost for CAP to deliver water, and so will the price of your water. If this was a free market situation CAP might go out of business for relying too much on NGS. But it’s a government to government issue, so cities will continue buying CAP water, and rates will continue to adjust upward, so that we as consumers and taxpayers end up with the bill.

CAP considered taking this issue to court, but decided against it. Instead they started lobbying the federal government with a social and economic argument. The coal comes from land on the Navajo/Hopi reservation, and the coal mining and power plant provide a lot of jobs to Navajos and Hopis. The Navajo Nation helped with the lobbying. When it’s government to government business sometimes you can bypass the actual rules if it’s for the “greater good.”

On January 4, 2013 the Directors of the Department of the Interior, Department of Energy, and the EPA signed a joint statement to leave NGS in operation for now and start studies to determine its future. CAP would have liked to get 20 more years out of NGS, but they couldn’t kick the can that far down the road. They might get a 5 year extension.

Two of the Federal Directors who signed the joint statement have already announced their retirement. Will President Obama pick replacements for the Department of Interior and the EPA who will be friendlier to coal? And will the new appointees let CAP have their 5 years? We’ll see.