Margie and Alvin Tso have waited decades for electricity on Navajo Nation. Photo Courtesy: George Hardeen
LE CHEE, ARIZONA – Alvin and Margie Tso have lived here among the ancient, cross-bedded sandstone with their livestock since 1954 when Mr. Tso returned home from the Korean War.
They raised eight children, saw work begin on the Glen Canyon Dam and the town of Page emerge from Manson Mesa. They watched in the mid-1970s as the Navajo Generating Station rose day-by-day where their cattle used to graze.
“So it’s been a while,” Mr. Tso said. “And we’re here as ranchers. My dad and my grandfather had their roots here, too. They’re the ones that ran cattle from the past. Sowe’re that breed.”
For decades, the Tsos waited patiently for their turn for electricity.
This month, they will join more than five dozen families from the LeChee
LeChee Electrification Project lights up skyline for first time ever
Chapter on the Navajo Nation who will receive power for the first time through a $4.8 million joint project of Navajo Generating Station (NGS), the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) and the LeChee Chapter. Additional funding came from the Navajo Nation Abandoned Mine Lands Program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Beginning in October 2012, the LeChee Electrification Project installed power poles, strung lines, wired homes and brought electricity to the first 17 homes.
Since then, more than 75 miles of power poles and lines have been constructed and another 25 homes have been connected. All will have electric lights on for the first time by mid-April. A total of 63 homes will be electrified by 2015.
“We understand that families along this route had lost hope because they have been waiting for years,” said NTUA General Manager Walter W. Haase. “With this partnership, our goal is to restore that lost hope as we extend utility service to the area.”
LeChee Chapter obtained grants to wire homes and bring in electrical power. That was matched with $2 million from the six participant-owners of NGS and $1.1 from NTUA, which also provided the manpower to build the project.
“For many of us, having access to electric service is taken for granted,” NGS Plant Manager Robert Talbot said. “We welcome the opportunity to work with the NTUA and the LeChee Chapter to bring members of the community without access to electricity a product that will have a lasting and positive impact on their lives.”
Three years ago, NGS Community Liaison Regina Lane received a $200,000 funding request from the LeChee Chapter for a power line right-of-way study. Lane forwarded the request to Barry Drost, SRP Director of Major Projects for Baseload Generation in Phoenix. After discussing the idea with other managers, they thought the amount of the request just wasn’t right. So they decided to recommend to NGS’s owners to make a $2 million contribution for the project instead.
“This $200,000 request meant it was going to be another 10 years or so before those people got electricity,” Drost said. “They really needed more money. And this was an opportunity for NGS to step up and to really show that they care about the community that they’re in and that they want to participate and be good neighbors.”
Multi-year project bringing electricity to LeChee, Arizona on Navajo Reservation. Michael McNamara Photo/SRP
From the beginning, LeChee Chapter Manager Wilford Lane guided the project through the tribal process. He said many of these chapter residents have been waiting for electricity for 35 years or more.
“They’re just really grateful for it,” he said. “Some families have health problems that require electricity. One uses a breathing apparatus. She had to go to another location to use it.”
Mr. Lane said some of the residents who will receive power have school-aged children while others are 80 years old.
The chapter used its own funds to wire the homes at a cost of about $1,200 each, He said. Funding of Phase 3 to continue the project is through the Navajo Nation Abandoned Mine Lands Program.
Asked how long he waited for electricity, Mr. Tso said, “I suppose a lifetime since we moved here.”
“When the power plant came in, that’s what we hoped for,” he said. “All we see is that place lit up over there and here we’re sitting behind in darkness, you know? We wondered when it would happen.”
Margie Tso said it was not easy raising a family and doing all the laundry by hand with a washboard and tub. When she heard that there was a project to bring electricity to their home off U.S. 98 east of NGS, she said she would drive out every day to see how close the poles were.
“But to tell you the truth, we are very thankful that this has come about as it has,” she said.
Every summer, she and her husband put on a large Christian camp meeting and had to buy a generator in order to run the lights. When their daughters heard about the electrification project bringing power to their home, they said, “Daddy, now you don’t have to do that. Now you’ll get electricity,” Mrs. Tso said. “We’ll all celebrate that in the summer during the camp meeting. So we are going to enjoy that electricity.”
Down the highway, Laverne Etsitty and her husband Dennis raised five children near where she grew up in LeChee. Like the Tsos, they can see NGS from their home but have always been too far away from a power line for a costly extension.
Although NGS produces electricity, it’s against the law for it to distribute power on the Navajo Nation. Since 1959, NTUA has steadily electrified the Navajo Nation on a priority basis. The utility purchases electrical power from off the Navajo Nation and transmits it to homes throughout northern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southeastern Utah.
“For a long time, since when we were little, we always wanted electricity in our home,” Mrs. Etsitty said. “I got my own house now and I wanted it so badly. I probably used up a lot of money on generators.”
Her last generator is being repaired in Phoenix now, she said. She said they had to become creative to power their TV and charge their cell phones.
“My husband parks the truck right up here close so we use the power inverter just to watch TV,” she said. “Yes, it costs gas. The truck has to run.”
This region of the Navajo Nation is known for its summer heat, with temperatures frequently above 100 degrees. That requires residents without electricity to make regular trips to town to buy ice to keep food cool.
Mrs. Etsitty, who has become expert in knowing which brand of ice stays frozen longest, says she looks forward to the end of that chore and being known in town as “the ice lady.”
“Everyone’s dream is a refrigerator and a new stove,” she said. “I want electric stuff like a microwave and crock pot and a toaster. Usually, I have to put it under the broiler thing to make toast.”
Most of all, she says, she hopes having electricity will make it possible for her children to move back home. Today, they live in Phoenix, Mesa, Farmington and one will graduate from welding school in Chicago in June.
When she told them she would finally get electricity in March, they were skeptical, she said.
“Are you for sure? That’s what they’re always saying to us,” she said. “Hopefully, they will. That’s what they want. My daughter said that if the electricity comes that she wants to move back and build a home here and live here. She has four kids so she’s living down in Mesa right now.”
Emma Brown lives in a traditional hogan between LeChee Rock and the scenic, craggy cliffs of Navajo Canyon where she raised her family. A wood stove warms it in winter and kerosene lamps have always provided light.
Through an interpreter she says she remembers that planning for a power line extension to her remote hogan began around 1980. But it never came. Then, about a month ago, an electrician arrived to install the wiring.
“He ran all the wires and connected them all,” she said in Navajo. “They told us it was all connected and ready. That will be very good when that is done for me.”
Soon, she said, power poles began to come closer and closer.
Mrs. Brown’s daughter, Ruby Jackson, lives nearby. Until now, she said, they have used solar power just to run lights but have had to use a battery to operate a small TV. It’s been a long wait, she said.
“Finally!” she said. “But we got so used to not having it, you know? And we’re finally happy that it’s coming.”
She said she looks forward to replacing her gas refrigerator with an electric one, and will surprise her mother with one, as well.
“I so desperately need a refrigerator,” Mrs. Brown said. “It gets so hot during the summer! I will get a refrigerator!”
Told she could store a whole sheep in her new refrigerator, she said, “In that case, I will go look for a cow to butcher!”