With the three goals of water storage, power and flood control, the Colorado River Storage Project was made into law by Congress in 1956 and ushered in one of the last great Western water projects of the “big dam” age.
Four units were built as part of the project: the massive Glen Canyon and Lake Powell in northern Arizona, Flaming Gorge in northeastern Utah, Aspinall in Colorado and the lesser known Navajo Dam and Reservoir in northwestern New Mexico and southern Colorado.
Built in a high desert area that receives just 10 inches of rain a year, Navajo Dam collects the valuable spring runoff from the mountains of Colorado as it flows down the Pine, Piedra and San Juan rivers. The water is stored for irrigation use—such as the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project—and hydroelectric power for the surrounding communities.
The earthen dam, completed in 1962, is 40 stories high and 3,648 feet long. The reservoir covers a surface area of over 24 square miles with 159 miles of shoreline, making it the state’s second largest lake and a water recreation paradise for New Mexicans now enduring a third year of severe drought.
The San Juan River continues through the dam and eventually travels west through the Navajo Nation and Utah’s canyon country to Lake Powell, where it joins up with the Colorado River for its journey through the Grand Canyon and, if there is any water left, draining into the Sea of Cortez.
At-Large Guide to the West James Orndorf was born in Minnesota, but knew at a very young age that the future lay out west. He is currently photographing and illustrating outside of Durango, Colorado. You can see what he’s up to at inlandwest.tumblr.com and roughshelter.com.