From KUNC (Luke Runyon):
Coal-fired power plants are closing, or being given firm deadlines for closure, across the country. In the Western states that make up the overallocated and drought-plagued Colorado River, these facilities use a significant amount of the region’s scarce water supplies.
With closure dates looming, communities are starting the contentious debate about how this newly freed up water should be put to use.
That conversation is just beginning in the northwest Colorado city of Craig, home to nearly 9,000 residents and hundreds of coal industry workers. In January, TriState Generation and Transmission announced it will fully close Craig Station by 2030. The same goes for the nearby Colowyo coal mine.
The news comes on the heels of several high profile closures or closure announcements in Wyoming , New Mexico and Arizona . Each has a coal plant that taps into the Colorado River or its tributaries…
Craig’s economy is intimately tied to the coal plant. But as the conversation about the announcement continued, other nagging questions came up, [Jennifer Holloway] said. Like what’s going to happen to the plant’s sizable water portfolio? It uses more than 10 times more water than all of Craig’s residents. Like what’s going to happen to the plant’s sizable water portfolio? It uses more than 10 times more water than all of Craig’s residents.
In the arid West, water, and access to it, is intertwined with local economies. Where water goes — to a coal plant, a residential tap, or down a river channel — says something about a community’s present and future economy, and its values…
Holloway wants to see Craig make a transition plenty of other Western communities have attempted over the last century, from an extractive economic base to a recreation-based one. She’s quick to name drop the region’s new slogan — “Colorado’s Great Northwest” — and list the various draws, like Dinosaur National Monument, the nearby Steamboat ski resort and the relatively free-flowing Yampa River.
“One idea that I fully support is switching Dinosaur National Monument into a national park,” she said. “And hopefully TriState would partner with that effort and maybe use some of that water as we legislated that park to guarantee that we had the water moving west.”
Without local input into what happens to Craig Station’s water rights, Holloway worries it could hurt the Yampa, which is the coal plant’s current water source. Colorado has a long history of transmountain diversion, where water from the wetter Western Slope is diverted eastward to the populous Front Range.
“That’s the biggest fear, is they’re going to go into the headwaters of the Yampa, make a pipeline going over to the eastern slope,” Holloway said.
So far TriState hasn’t tipped its hand on what it plans to do with the water. Duane Highley, TriState’s CEO, said at a news conference shortly after Craig Station’s closure announcement that his company is already fielding calls from interested buyers, but didn’t elaborate as to who has inquired.
“When you look at a typical coal facility it uses an enormous amount of water,” Highley said, “and the fact that that will be liberated and available for other reuse will be significant.”
Craig Station uses on average 16,000 acre-feet of water each year… A 2019 Bureau of Reclamation report showed thermal electric power generation in the Upper Colorado River basin accounted for 144,000 acre-feet, or about 3% of all water consumed in the watershed in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah and parts of northern Arizona…
“As a legal matter, the owners of the water rights, at least in Colorado, could do something else with them. As a practical matter, there’s not much else they can do with them,” said Eric Kuhn, former head of the Colorado River District and author of Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River.
TriState has limited options with the water rights, Kuhn said. The energy provider could sell them to a local municipality, though communities along the Yampa River, like Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Craig, likely wouldn’t be able to use that much water all at once. TriState could offer them to local farmers, though most of the easily irrigable land has already been irrigated for a long time. They could turn them into in-stream flows. Or they could sell them to a user outside the Yampa basin, like a Front Range city. Any project proposed to pump the plant’s freed up water more 200 miles eastward would face significant political pushback and a multi-billion dollar price tag, Kuhn said.
According to Kuhn, these coal closures also have implications for broader Colorado River management. The recently signed Drought Contingency Plans task water leaders in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico to begin exploring a conceptual program called demand management, where in a shortage, water users would be paid to use less. Coal plants using less water would alleviate the situation.
“What it’s going to do is take the pressure off of these states to come up with demand management scenarios, because where does that water go? It’ll flow to Lake Powell,” Kuhn said.