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Xcel Energy’s Comanche Generating Station, shown here in a March 5, 2020, photo, is the largest power plant in Colorado. The steam-driven, coal-fueled plant, located in Pueblo, generates 1,410 megawatts of power. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The closing of 30 coal-fired generating units across the West – including 10 in Colorado – could free-up more than 76 billion gallons of river and groundwater a year in the increasingly parched region, although utilities appear cautious about giving up their water rights.

An analysis by the Energy and Policy Institute, a non-profit, utility industry watchdog group, found that there were potential water savings in seven western states – Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada Montana and Wyoming – where coal plant closures are set to close over the next 10 years.

“The savings are significant in every state,” said Joe Smyth, the author of the analysis. The biggest savings could come in the Upper Colorado River Basin where power plants used an average of 53 billion gallons of water a year between 1991 and 2018.

As some of the smaller power plants in the basin have already closed, 2018 water consumption was 11% below the 1991-2018 average, according to U.S. Bureau of Reclamation data.

Twenty-one of the units scheduled to close use water from rivers, including the Yellowstone, the Green, San Juan, Laramie, North Platte, Yampa and Arkansas. Nine plants, including one in Colorado, use groundwater.

“The value of the water depends upon where it is,” said Stacy Tellinghuisen, senior climate policy analyst with Western Resource Advocates. “Does it have uses for growing cities, or environmental benefits, or agricultural benefits? It will be dependent on location.”

“Public utility commissions across the West should consider those water resources,” Tellinghuisen said.

Coal-fired power plants in northwest Colorado draw millions of gallons annually from the Yampa River, shown here flowing adjacent to the Fish Creek Mobile Home Park. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado has 13 coal-fired generating units at seven generating stations. All but three – Xcel Energy’s Comanche Unit 3 in Pueblo, its Hayden Unit 2 in Hayden and its Pawnee Station in Brush – are slated to close by 2030.

Between 2014 and 2018, the 13 plants’ average daily water consumption was 11.7 billion gallons. By 2031 water use for coal-fired power plants in Colorado will drop to 3.7 billion gallons – a 68% reduction, according to the Energy and Policy Institute, which used water consumption data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

MORE: The closure of Colorado coal-fired power plants is freeing up water for thirsty cities

That doesn’t mean, however, that all that water will immediately be available for other uses.

The Platte River Power Authority, which serves northern Colorado communities, plans to close its coal-fired Rawhide Energy Station, which uses an average of a little more than 1 billion gallons of water a year.

PRPA gets its water from Fort Collins in a swap. The authority gives the city freshwater from its portion of the Windy Gap project, which brings water under the Continental Divide from the Colorado River Basin, and in return gets reclaimed water from the city’s Drake Water Reclamation Facility.

Fort Collins provides about 4,200 acre-feet of water from the reclamation facility (an acre-foot is equal to 326,000 gallons), according to Steven Roalstad, a spokesman for the authority.

But while it appears PRPA will need much less water in the future – it has been adding wind and solar generating resources with the aim of 100% renewable generation by 2030 – it is hanging on to its share of the Windy Gap project and some junior water rights it has.

“The relationship with Fort Collins remains our best option for now,” Roalstad said. “We don’t know what kind of generating facility we will have in the future.”

Xcel Energy power plants draw about 18 million gallons of water a day from the Arkansas, South Platte and Yampa rivers.

The Comanche Station, in Pueblo, consumed the most water of any power plant in the state, about 9.4 million gallons a day, the analysis said.

The closure of Unit 1 in 2022 and Unit 2 in 2025 will cut usage by an estimated 70%. Xcel Energy leases Arkansas River water from the Pueblo Board of Water Works and the unused portion will be returned to the board, according to the company.

The Hayden plant in northwest Colorado uses about 4.4 million gallons of water a day from the Yampa River, through water rights owned by Hayden Partners and Xcel Energy. The smaller, 179-megawatt unit is set to close in 2030, with the larger 262-megawatt unit shutting in 2036.

The Pawnee Station uses surface water from the South Platte River, supplied primarily by contracts with agriculture suppliers and some water owned by Xcel.

Xcel Energy’s Pawnee Generating Station, viewed from Interstate 76 near Brush, draws water from the South Platte River. (Andy Colwell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

“We will be filing a resource plan with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission next year,” Xcel said in a statement. “That resource plan will be designed to meet the company’s goal of an 80% reduction in CO2.  If approved by the PUC, we expect that the resource plan will affect the future operation of our coal units, although its specific system changes and the effect of those changes on our water consumption is still to be determined.”

Colorado Springs Utilities is shuttering three coal-fired units at two generating stations – the Martin Drake Power Station and the Ray D. Nixon Power Plant – between 2023 and 2030. The closures will not affect any of Colorado’s surface waters as the plants, which use about 2.3 million gallons a day, rely on local reclaimed water and groundwater.

The Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, an electricity wholesaler to rural electric cooperatives, including 17 in Colorado, closed its coal-fired plant in Nucla last October and plans to close all three units of its generating station in Craig between 2025 and 2030.

MORE: Only three coal-fired power plants in Colorado are set to operate past 2030 after Craig Station shutdown date is unveiled

The Craig Station uses about 8.4 million gallons of Yampa River water daily and the fate of the water rights attached to the plant has already prompted discussion in the region.

“We’ve had numerous questions about the future of its remaining assets – including water – from our members and local communities,” Mark Stutz, a Tri-State spokesman, wrote in an email.  “The closure of our facility does present significant change and potential opportunity, and water issues will need to be carefully considered over time.”

“Tri-State has not made any decisions on the future use of its water from Craig,” Stutz wrote.  “We are and will listen to the input of interested stakeholders as we consider our options.”

In February, Tri-State filed a decommissioning plan for the Nucla Station with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and Western Resource Advocates filed a motion to intervene, contending that the disposition of the water rights, diverted from the San Miguel River, attached to the plant also should be reviewed by the commission.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association closed the coal-fired Nucla Station in September, more than two years earlier than expected. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The towns of Nucla, Naturita and the Colorado Cooperative Company, a ditch company, also filed to intervene, citing several issues including an interest in the “ultimate disposition and diversion” of the plant’s water. The plant used between 4,000 and 5,000 acre-feet of water annually, according to federal data.

Conor Farley, a PUC administrative law judge, rejected the Western Resource Advocates petition saying that the decommissioning plan was not the proper forum for reviewing the water rights, but urged Tri-State to involve the towns, the county, the ditch company and the advocacy group in the process of determining what to do with the water rights.

“We wanted to get a firm commission precedent that water rights were something the commission should weigh in on,” said Ellen Howard Kutzer, a Western Resource Advocates attorney. “We see a lot of power plant water rights on the horizon as more and more coal plants close. All those water rights should be reviewed by the PUC.”

In a July 15 filing, the PUC staff said any transfer of the Nucla plant water rights requires commission authorization since it is not part of the normal course of business and that any disposition of the water rights should be in the public interest.

“Tri-State is reviewing the staff filing on the Nucla decommissioning docket,” the company said in a statement. “It is and has always been our intent to comply with all applicable state and local requirements, with regard to the decommissioning and reclamation efforts at our retiring facilities.”  

UPDATED: This story was updated July 16, 2020, at 10:10 a.m. to make note of a recent Public Utilities Commission filing.

Mark Jaffe

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @bymarkjaffe