Natural Resources Defense Council report: Western Water Supply at Risk from Dual Impacts of Oil Shale Development and Climate Change


Here’s the release from the NRDC (Serena Ingre):

Cities & farms from Wyoming to Southern California could face water shortages due to oil shale development in the Colorado River Basin and a warming climate

San Francisco, CA (August 18, 2011) – Thirty million people from Wyoming to Southern California who depend on the Colorado River as a major source of water supply, including farmers who produce 15 percent of our nation’s crops, could face unprecedented water shortages if oil shale development increases in the Colorado River Basin alongside unchecked climate change, according to a new report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“The Colorado River – a critical source of water supply for millions of people – has become a house of cards as water use in recent years has exceeded what the basin provides,” said Monty Schmitt, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “If oil shale development moves forward, it will compete with farms and cities in the West for limited water supplies that will become scarcer because of climate change. The time is now for the Bureau of Reclamation and Colorado River Basin states to tackle this challenge head on, through effective planning, water smart energy policies and dramatic investments in water use efficiency – the reliable water supply of the future.”

NRDC’s report, Between a Rock and a Dry Place: The Water Supply Impacts of Oil Shale Development and Climate Change on the Colorado River Basin Water Supply, explores how oil shale development would exacerbate the looming water crisis for states in the Colorado River Basin – Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming. In conjunction with climate change, which is likely to reduce Colorado River Basin’s water supply by 9 to 25 percent by 2050, new oil shale development would further strain future supplies that already are under pressure from current water uses and ongoing growth in urban areas.

Oil shale is found largely in the arid northwestern region of Colorado and in Utah. Producing oil from this rock requires an estimated 3 to 5 barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced. A new oil shale industry producing 1.55 million barrels of oil a day would require a projected 360,000 acre-feet of water a year – the equivalent to one and a half times the city of Denver’s annual water use. This is a “mid-range” estimate of potential water use by oil shale development; high-end estimates of oil shale development could require more than a million acre-feet of water – more than four times Denver’s annual water use.

Agriculture could be most severely affected by future oil shale development. More than half of the water flowing in the Colorado River and its tributaries is used for irrigation. In Colorado, energy companies own senior water rights that could significantly reduce the water available for that state’s agricultural production if oil shale development moves forward. These senior rights would enable energy companies to divert billions of gallons of water from rivers in western Colorado for production of oil shale; much of that water is expected to come initially from agricultural water users. However, the potential impacts could reach other states and Western cities as well.

Agricultural water users today can reduce water consumption during droughts by increasing irrigation efficiency, changing crops or irrigating fewer acres. By contrast, industrial oil shale use could be inflexible in drought years. This inflexible oil shale demand could reduce the existing potential for urban areas to purchase water from agricultural users, increasing the challenge of meeting the water needs of cities during dry periods. Turning flexible agricultural water use into inflexible industrial use could increase basinwide conflicts by reducing water supply to lower basin states, particularly Arizona, making it more difficult to develop a basinwide strategy to live within the long-term supply provided by the Colorado River.

Oil shale processing is also known to significantly degrade both surface and ground water quality. Oil shale tailings and processing waste are known sources of toxic pollutants. For instance, underground oil shale processing that applies heat to oil shale deposits to extract liquefied oil, could become a cause of groundwater contamination. The potential for contamination has been shown by decades of pollution caused by a relatively small amount of spent shale waste at Anvil Points in Colorado.

Finally, the report reveals that oil shale development would significantly contribute to climate change. Oil shale production and refining results in appreciably greater greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil fuels. Well-to-wheel greenhouse gas emission estimates for oil shale show it to have 23 to 73 percent greater emissions in comparison to diesel.

The report proposes key recommendations that NRDC advocates to ensure California, Colorado and the rest of the West have reliable sources of water:

Develop a Comprehensive Colorado River Basin Plan

The Bureau of Reclamation is currently preparing a Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study. That study should incorporate the potential state and basin-wide impacts of oil shale development and identify management options to meet future water needs.

Develop State Water Management Plans

Basin states individually and together should develop comprehensive water management plans that take into account current and likely future Basin yield, protection of listed species, climate change, future demand, and opportunities to promote local, state and regional conservation and water use efficiency.

Reconsider Oil Shale Development

Based on current information and existing technologies, proceeding with oil shale development would be inadvisable given significant impacts to water resources and the environment, including increased greenhouse gas emissions. Any further exploration should begin with an analysis of potential impacts to water users, groundwater, and sensitive protected species.

Develop Climate Change Adaptation and Greenhouse Gas Reduction Efforts

Colorado River Basin states should take immediate steps to implement a comprehensive regional greenhouse gas reduction effort, including more energy-efficient construction standards, smart growth planning to reduce vehicle miles travelled, and increased use of clean sources of energy such as wind, solar, and geothermal.

Read more about oil shale and Western water solutions from our water and lands experts:

Bobby McEnaney, public lands analyst:

Barry Nelson, senior Western water policy analyst:

Edward Osann, senior policy analyst:

More oil shale coverage here and here.

Southern Delivery System update: Past and present Colorado Springs officials show up for ‘construction celebration’ Friday


From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The event, called a construction celebration, was staged on the south side of the plunge pool just below the dam. Water gushed from the dam through the gates on the dam. On the far side, a crane, trucks and buildings at the future North Outlet Works provided a backdrop for a series of brief speeches before 150 people in attendance. Council and board members from all four SDS member communities — Colorado Springs, Fountain, Security and Pueblo West — attended. Commissioners from both counties were on hand. And some current and former members of the Pueblo City Council showed up, as well.

Schoolchildren from all four communities filled a time capsule that will be buried at the new water treatment plant in El Paso County. Guests signed a ceremonial section of 5 1/2-foot diameter pipe similar to that which will be buried along the 50-mile route of the pipeline to El Paso County…

Work actually began three months ago. More than 1,500 cubic yards of concrete have been poured to form the base of the North Outlet Works so far, Fredell said. The entire assembly, which will take water through the dam for river flows and to serve the SDS pipeline, should be completed in late 2012.

More coverage from Daniel Chacón writing for The Colorado Springs Gazette. From the article:

The city-owned utility celebrated another historic milestone Friday: the start of major construction on SDS. The backdrop of the ceremony was the massive concrete wall of Pueblo Reservoir, where the 62-mile, $2.3 billion water pipeline starts. “We can actually see a crane over there putting in concrete right now,” Utilities CEO Jerry Forte told dozens of dignitaries and guests, including Springs Mayor Steve Bach…

Utilities still must acquire about 120 properties where the pipeline will go. The project also lacks a “financing mechanism” similar to the now-defunct Stormwater Enterprise to maintain storm water and retention facilities as required under a crucial SDS land-use permit from Pueblo County. John Cordova, chairman of the Pueblo County Board of Commissioners, which issued the so-called 1041 permit, said he remembers when the Colorado Springs City Council disbanded the Stormwater Enterprise following the passage of ballot Issue 300 in November 2009. “We were shocked,” said Cordova, who attended Friday’s ceremony. “We had never — and that must’ve been our fault — we hadn’t considered that the citizens of Colorado Springs would vote that enterprise out of existence,” he said…

The enterprise, which levied fees on property owners, was created without voter approval, generating anger among some residents. Opponents dubbed the storm water fee a “rain tax,” and some people refused — and continue to refuse — to pay their past-due fees.

More coverage from Catharine Tsai writing for the Associated Press (via Business Week). From the article:

Colorado Springs is already served by three water pipelines, but two are more than 40 years old. Plans to expand other parts of its water system, which relies heavily on the Colorado, Arkansas and Fryingpan rivers, ran into opposition from environmentalists, the recreation industry and homeowners. Water planners see the Southern Delivery System as a needed backup amid forecasts of population growth in the region and the potential for drought. For Fountain, which gets some water from wells, the project strengthens diversity in its water portfolio.

[Southern Delivery System program director John Fredell of Colorado Springs Utilities] said the downturn in the economy is helping contain costs. Bids to date have come in under budget by about 20 percent, he said.

Building the Southern Delivery System is projected to create an annual average of 786 regional jobs, according to Colorado Springs Utilities.

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Ben Noreen):

Whether you are an SDS supporter or critic, it’s undeniable the project has survived unlike many others, overcoming political and bureaucratic hurdles.

Most of the big water projects proposed during the last 30 years in Colorado have one thing in common — they never got built. This one has a long way to go, and there are sure to be a few bumps in the road, which happens with big construction projects.

But construction has officially begun. That cannot be said of Denver’s ill-fated Two Forks Dam, or of Homestake II, the project once planned by Colorado Springs and Aurora, or the Union Park project, which was to have diverted water from the Gunnison River Basin to the Denver area.

The era of big water projects ended when federal subsidies ended and when environmentalists began defeating projects that called for new dams. In the era that followed, intra-state political fights became the new obstacles for water projects to hurdle…

The feds aren’t paying for SDS. There’s no new dam, no endangered species issue. We’re not taking West Slope water. That’s the formula for success.

More coverage from Kendra Potter writing for From the article:

With 62 miles of underground pipeline, water will be delivered from the Pueblo Reservoir to residents in four communities: Pueblo West, Colorado Springs, Security and Fountain. Officials from all four communities and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commemorated the historic event with a special ceremony at the base of the Pueblo Dam Friday. “This project has been so carefully considered, so hard won, and so well worth it,” said Mayor of Fountain Jeri Howells.

Guests paid witness to the crews hard at work on the project at the Pueblo dam. Something Former Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera worked 8 years in office to see. “I just feel tremendous satisfaction and tremendous hope for the future of Colorado Springs and the entire region of Southern Colorado,” said Rivera.

More coverage from Joe Hanel writing for The Durango Herald. From the article:

It will take generations to pay off the project through bonds, utility rate increases and higher fees that builders and developers have to pay for new water taps.

Colorado Springs Utilities is raising rates 12 percent per year through 2016, but it said only two-thirds of the increase is attributable to paying for the Southern Delivery System. The rest of the increase is being used to support work on the existing infrastructure.

Some work on the new infrastructure has already begun, but the celebration Friday formally marked the start of major building after roughly 20 years of planning, negotiations with regional partners and seeking various permits to start the work.

More Southern Delivery System coverage here and here.

Rio Grande River basin: The San Luis Valley Irrigation District is looking for ways to fund reservoir repairs


From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

Beaver Creek Reservoir, which sits roughly five miles south of South Fork, currently can store only half its capacity of 4,400 acre-feet. The development of a sinkhole last year forced the reservoir to be drained down.

The district owns the 52,000-acre-foot reservoir that sits on the Rio Grande, roughly 20 miles southwest of Creede. Built in 1914, the Rio Grande Reservoir is in need of a spillway enhancement, a new outlet tunnel and a fix for seepage problems — repairs that are estimated to cost between $16 million and $23 million. “That’s a tall order,” said Travis Smith, the district’s superintendent…

A key aspect of this proposal is that the DOW is looking at partnering on the reservoir repairs so it can store up to 5,000 acre-feet at Rio Grande Reservoir. That amount of storage in the Rio Grande’s only on-channel reservoir could give the DOW more flexibility in how it moves both water from the basin and transmountain water, said Tom Spezze, a DOW regional director. The DOW, which is the largest holder of water rights in the valley, uses the water to enhance habitat for fish, waterfowl and other wildlife and to increase hunting and fishing opportunities. The repairs also would benefit agriculture because the irrigation district delivers water to roughly 60,000 acres of farm ground in the north-central part of the valley.

More Rio Grand River basin coverage here.