Pondering Page, Arizona (and Lake Powell)
The strangeness of a dam and power plant man-camp tourist town
Dropping into Page, Arizona, from the east can be a strange and magnificent experience. After crossing a high-desert plateau, the intrepid motorist glides along the asphalt down a vast, tilting swath of sandstone toward the Colorado River, losing nearly 3,000 feet of elevation along the way. The Vermillion Cliffs, jutting up from the horizon ahead live up to their name, especially at sunrise, and Navajo Mountain looms dark and mysterious to the right.
Up until a few years ago the vista was marked — or marred — by the Navajo Generating Station’s trio of smoke stacks and the attendant cloud of brown smog juxtaposed against the pale pink stone and the shimmering blue shock of Lake Powell. Now the stacks and the pollution-belching behemoth are gone and the reservoir’s diminishing waters only barely visible at times, replaced in the traveler’s view by the white bathtub ring — the ghost of the abundant water years of yore.
Last week I took in this same view, along with the void that now exists where the power plant once stood. I was on my way to the Phoenix area to do some reporting (a journey that would be cut short by a whiny, grindy wheel-bearing on the Silver Bullet), but I also wanted to visit Page to see for myself how far the reservoir level had fallen and to get a sense of how the community was faring. On that March, spring break-time day, I joined a convoy of vehicles rolling into town. I wondered what their first impressions were.
Did they experience a sense of uncanniness as they sailed along in their gleaming late-model cars? Were they struck by or curious about the seeming newness of the place? Could they feel the emptiness spawned by the utter lack of history?
Oh, I don’t mean the place doesn’t have a history. It does. But it doesn’t belong to Page. Just 70 years ago even the mere idea of Page didn’t yet exist. The mesa the community is now built on and around, along with all of the surrounding sandstone-covered land east of the Colorado River, was part of the Navajo Nation. But when construction began on Glen Canyon Dam in the 1950s, the workers needed a place to live. Though the most logical place would have been Big Water, on the Utah side, the Arizona politicians were more powerful at the time (and Big Water was of the plural marriage persuasion) and wanted the camp on their side of the state line.
So, the feds finagled a lopsided land trade in which the Navajo Nation got land (albeit not the mineral rights) in southeastern Utah in exchange for the big parcel across which Page now sprawls. Page, née Government Camp, was established in 1957. That helps explain the surreal feeling here, the sense that the whole town was just plopped down in the desert, prefabricated. This isn’t unique to Page. Any Western town that experienced substantial post-World War II growth has areas like this. Consider Farmington, New Mexico, or Grand Junction, Colorado. But those communities also tend to have an older, more solid-feeling center or downtown, with stone or brick buildings from the late 1800s or early 1900s. Page does not.
Page gained economic substance in the 1970s, when Navajo Generating Station was built just east of town on the Navajo Nation. Many of the workers lived in the young town and if they did not, they probably bought groceries and cars and supplies there. Page developed a middle class thanks to the plant. Wages were good, housing affordable. Maybe you could save up and buy a boat. By the time the power plant shut down in 2019, it was contributing about $51 million per year to the Page economy, according to a Northern Arizona University study, and paid $2.7 million in property taxes to the Page school district.
Page is also the main gateway to Lake Powell and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. More than 4.5 million people visited the park in 2017, with 80% or more of them coming through Page and spending more than $300 million per year eating in restaurants, shopping in grocery stores, and filling up the tanks of their vehicles or boats. The National Park Service, together with the major concessionaires running the marinas at Lake Powell, employed nearly three times as many people as the power plant.
But the power plant shut down in 2019 and Lake Powell’s water levels plummeted, leaving most of the boat ramps inoperable. Hundreds of high-wage power plant and coal mining jobs vanished almost overnight. Visitation to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area cratered: Fewer than 2 million people went boating or sightseeing or camping in 2021, nearly 60% less than in 2017, and spending declined as well.
As if that wasn’t enough, the first, devastating wave of COVID-19 hit just a few months after the power plant closed, promptly cutting off virtually all international tourism. By all rights, Page — having been hit by a double whammy to both of its primary economic sectors — should be a virtual ghost town. And yet ….
I find myself in Page at least twice a year. I’m drawn by the dwindling reservoir and the surrounding landscape, which more than makes up for whatever the town may lack in history, charm, or even identity. It’s a sandstone junkie’s paradise. I like to run or walk along the rim trail to the unpeopled area overlooking the reservoir north of town in the morning or evening and watch the light dance with stone. And besides, they overbuilt hotels back in those 4.5-million-per-year-visitation days so you can usually find a nice room for relatively cheap.
But this visit felt different, somehow. A warehouse for the defunct coal plant had been converted into a Zennihome modular house production facility. Many hotels were sold out and the others were busy enough not to have to beg for my business. The Safeway was packed, mostly with the international tourism crowd. While I munched on a green chile cheeseburger at the Sonic a large family or maybe tour group occupied the table near me. They appeared to be Asian, spoke in a language unfamiliar to me, and seemed enraptured by the tater tots and onion rings.
I was too timid to ask them why they were here, what drew them to Page rather than, say, Moab. Clearly they weren’t boating or swimming — it was too cold for that and the boat ramps are all inoperable. Perhaps they were taking the tour of Antelope Canyon, the iconic slot canyon east of town, or shooting machine guns at Gunfighter Canyon in a strip mall next to Sonic, or hoping to catch a glimpse of some celebrity staying out at Amangiri, the ultra-luxury resort near Big Water favored by the Kardashian-crowd.
Only at Amangiri can you stay in a tented pavilion, where one can experience “intimate wilderness encounters with no compromise on comfort,” for a mere $6,375 — per night. It provides an entry point into the “wilds of the Old West” and even features a “bespoke … via ferrata route,” whatever the hell that is. These folks take slickrock-gentrification to the extreme.
I noticed a couple of new restaurants in town, including a chain brewery/distillery cut from the same faux-rustic-hipster mold that can be found in just about any tourist town. I skipped it, preferring to eat a can of sardines while I watched the last light set Navajo Mountain’s snow covered slopes aglow.
They’re building homes in Page, too. Big rectangular and modern ones with huge windows overlooking the reservoir. I can’t tell if people live in the new houses, though. Page’s population, if the data are to be believed, decreased by about 100 after the power plant closed. But then it rebounded and now sits at about 7,600 — another 100 more than before the plant was shuttered. Go figure.
I suspect folks are drawn here not in spite of the lack of town history, but because of it. It’s the old colonizer’s myth reborn, and the notion that the West is a blank canvas on which you can realize your dreams or even reinvent yourself. The myth only leads to despair, but until it does, it’s great for the real estate business.
Dead Pool Watch
Speaking of Lake Powell, after months of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing over the prospect of Glen Canyon Dam losing hydropower production capacity or even reaching the dreaded dead pool due, the Bureau of Reclamation is now predicting this winter’s bountiful snowpack will be enough to fend off further water level declines through 2024.
It may not seem that way, looking at the giant bathtub ring around Lake Powell and seeing so much of Glen Canyon Dam’s backside exposed. But the snow-blanketed mountains promise a big, maybe even huge, spring runoff. That, combined with reduced releases from the dam should bring reservoir levels up substantially this summer, maybe even enough to make a few boat ramps usable again.
So far, the snowpack in the watershed feeding Lake Powell rivals that of 2011, when unregulated inflows to Lake Powell were a whopping 16 million acre-feet. Whether that size of runoff will be repeated is still up in the air, though, as a hot, windy, dusty spring or the lack of a summer monsoon could offset some of winter’s gains.
Great post Jonathan, thanks! Your bit about Page is kind of disheartening with the new home building going on. It baffles my feeble mind that the resort and exclusive home building is ramping up in spite of our situation in the desert SW. Your photo of the exclusive Indigo Ridge at Lake Powell resort reminds me of the exclusive Lionsback resort being built in Moab. Strange that these towns still let these big corporations take over. I guess Zennihome coming into the old San Juan Generating Plant is a good thing as far as providing jobs. It's still a paradox that building Gucci small homes will happen on Navajo Nation property were so many live without the basics.
Our snow situation is amazing! Snotel today, 3/23/23, for our Gunnison Basin is 165% and a whopping 181% for the Dolores Basin. Today both are above the 2019 record year. We were in Green River, UT a week ago and the river was definitely beginning to swell. I guess Reservoir Powell may get a slight reprieve.