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Closing Of Coal Power Plants Means Debates On What To Do With The Water They Used


Coal-fired power plants are being closed across the country. In the arid West, those plants use a lot of the region's scarce water supplies. Now, with closure dates approaching, communities are having sometimes contentious debates about how this newly freed-up water should be used. From KUNC in Colorado, Luke Runyon reports.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: It's snowing in downtown Craig, Colo., when Jennifer Holloway walks into the local bookstore. She runs the city's chamber of commerce and says the start of 2020 has been full of mixed emotions.

JENNIFER HOLLOWAY: It's been hard to face the fact that, OK, we aren't needed.

RUNYON: In January, Craig's dominant employer, the company operating the nearby coal plant and mine, confirmed the rumors - it will shut down by 2030.

HOLLOWAY: Because we've been providing electricity for millions of other people - and that is a source of pride.

RUNYON: At first, people worried about the loss of jobs at the plant. Now they wonder what's going to happen to the sizable amount of water it uses. It's 10 times more than all of Craig's nearly 9,000 residents use.

HOLLOWAY: There is some discussion on this in the community, and people have different views. But my personal view is that that water needs to be safeguarded for long-term environmental usage.

RUNYON: Because, Holloway says, a healthy environment means a healthy local economy.

Across the West, more than 35 coal plants have either closed recently or are slated for closure in the next 15 years.

DUANE HIGHLEY: When you look at a typical coal facility, it uses an enormous volume of water.

RUNYON: Duane Highley is CEO of Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which operates Craig's plant. Coal plant closures will free up more than 2 million acre-feet of water in Western states, about as much as the Phoenix metro area uses in a year.

HIGHLEY: And the fact that that will be liberated and available for other reuse is going to be significant.

RUNYON: Significant because, in this part of the country, it's unheard of for large amounts of water to suddenly become available. Highley says Tri-State is already receiving calls from buyers interested in Craig's water, drawn from the Yamba River, part of the drought-plagued Colorado River basin.

GOKCE SENCAN: This creates a big opportunity to, you know, make the water decisions more wisely.

RUNYON: Gokce Sencan researched coal plants and their water rights in a grad school project for The Nature Conservancy. It's one of a few environmental groups interested in buying water from plants slated for closure in Wyoming, New Mexico and Arizona - and keeping it in rivers.

SENCAN: 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.

RUNYON: But with no large-scale regulated market for water rights in the Colorado River basin, it's hard to say exactly how much money it's worth. People like Maegan Veenstra would like to see water from the Craig plant stay local.

MAEGAN VEENSTRA: We just got the place painted.

RUNYON: She and her husband run Good Vibes River Gear.

VEENSTRA: Rafts, life jackets, all kinds of stuff just to get you out on the water and...

RUNYON: She says Craig is starting to make a transition that other communities in the West over the last century have gone through, from mining to recreation-based economies.

VEENSTRA: It's been a boom-and-bust town for a long time. And it's time to just kind of get away from that and be just a steady growing town.

RUNYON: Plenty of other growing Western cities have the means to pay top dollar for the Craig plant's water. But moving it from one place to another is in some cases physically or legally impossible. And you can count on locals to put up a fight to hold onto it.

For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Craig, Colo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOCCER MOMMY SONG, "INSIDE OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.