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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

As Western Coal Plants Close, What Happens To Their Water?

 February 27, 2020 at 10:14 AM PST

Speaker 1: 00:00 Coal fired power plants are closing across the country and arid Western States. These facilities use a significant amount of the region, scarce water supplies with closure dates looming. Luke Runyon reports communities are starting the contentious debate about how to use this newly freed up water after coal. Speaker 2: 00:20 Hi, you must be the guy looking for Jennifer. It's snowing in downtown Craig, Colorado when Jennifer Holloway walks into the local bookstore. I'm glad you came. No, I was thinking maybe you just didn't call me because Holloway runs the city's chamber of commerce. The start of 2020 has been full of mixed emotions. She says in January the company operating the nearby coal plant, Tristate generation and transmission confirmed the rumors it will shut down by 2030 it's been hard to face the fact that okay, we are needed because we've been providing electricity for millions of other people and that is a source of pride. At first, people worried about the loss of jobs and the ripple effects it would have on local businesses. Then other nagging questions came up like, what's going to happen to the plant's sizable water portfolio? It uses about 10 times more water than all of Craig's nearly 9,000 residents. Speaker 2: 01:18 There is some discussion on this in the community and people have different views. Um, but my personal view is that that water needs to be safeguarded for longterm environmental usage in the arid West. Water and access to it is intimately tied to 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. Water is becoming quite the commodity if you will, and it's a very precious Ray back is a Moffett County commissioner. The coal plant is in his district and he's a longtime booster of the industry discussion over the plant's water rights is just beginning, he says, but he'd like to see some of it set aside for agriculture. His worst case scenario that it didn't get utilized for anything and they just hung onto the water. Right. So far, tri-state hasn't tipped its hand. Speaker 2: 02:19 Dwayne highly Tristate CEO said at a news conference that his company is already fielding calls from interested buyers. When you look at a typical call facility, it uses an enormous volume of water and the fact that that will be liberated and available for other reuse is going to be significant. The interest is due to scarcity. Craig's coal plant and the Yampa river, which it draws from are both in the drought plugged Colorado river basin in the Southwest. It's unheard of for large amounts of water to be freed up all at once. This quiz, a big opportunity to, you know, make the a lot of decisions more wisely. [inaudible] John researched coal plants and their water rights while a grad student at the university of California. The project was commissioned by the nature Conservancy. It's one of the environmental groups interested in buying water from plants, slated for closure in Wyoming, New Mexico and Arizona and keeping it in rivers. Speaker 3: 03:18 It all comes down to who can negotiate with these plant owners and you know who can make a better claim or make a better offer Speaker 2: 03:25 and to the priorities of the energy provider. If it sees water as a moneymaking asset, sell it off to the highest bidder. If it wants to do a good deed, listen to the local community. We just got the place painted. Okay. People like Megan Veenstra, she Dodges rolls of woven plastic fabric as we walk through her new storefront in Craig, she and her husband run good vibes, river gear Speaker 4: 03:51 rafts, life jackets, all kinds of stuff to just to get you out on the water and get your recreate. And on our beautiful river, Speaker 2: 03:58 she says, Craig is starting a transition that other communities in the West over the last century have gone through from mining to recreation based economies. Speaker 4: 04:09 It's been a boom and bust town for a long time. It's time to just kind of get away from that and be just a steady growing town. Speaker 2: 04:18 And if the community is ready to double down on a new persona as a tourist destination, Veenstra says the decision is simple. Leave the water in the river. I'm Luke Runyon in Craig, Colorado.

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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.
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