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Posted: February 02, 2012

Utah taps its Colorado River Compact allocation for nuclear power

The surprising move shakes the water status quo and emboldens opposition

Bart Taylor

Last month, Utah's State Engineer approved the transfer of an established water right on the Green River, from the San Juan County (Utah) Water Conservancy District to Blue Castle Holdings. In many cases, such a transfer wouldn't muster a second look from observers in Utah or neighbors around the Western U.S.

Not so here. Two issues relating to this transfer have set in motion a flurry of activity among water, energy and conservation interests throughout the region.

For starters, the application approved by Utah officials changed the use of over 50,000 acre-feet of water from steam power generation at a coal-fired power plant to the same use in a nuclear plant. Blue Castle Holdings will use the water on the Blue Castle Nuclear Power Plant Project. The plant would be built on 1,700-acre parcel four miles west of the town of Green River and be capable of increasing the amount of electricity generated in Utah by 50 percent.

Although the U.S. is the world's leader in nuclear-generate with just over 100 plants in operation, none have been built in the U.S. since 1977. As many as 10 new plants are in various stages of permitting. A Nuclear Regulatory Commission review of Blue Castle's application is scheduled for 2013.

The change from coal-to-nuclear has mobilized voices opposed to nuclear power. The litany of objections is familiar, from cost to disposal of spent fuel rods, to the potential for a "Fukushima-style accident."

The one objection sure to rally opposition and unify the fragmented interests that may or may not push back on the idea of nuclear power, is water. Even though the water right in question had already been established, the project "does constitute a new diversion demand on the Green River, which is part of the (Colorado River) Basin." (State of Utah, Order of the State Engineer.)

A new diversion - to the tune of 53,600 acre-feet. And here is where the issue transcends Utah and plays to a rapt audience across the Western U.S.

One of the criteria the application had to meet was that a sufficient amount of "un-appropriated" water remained in the proposed source - in this case the Green River. This is a familiar term for planners in the West who live by the tenets of the Colorado River Compact. I wrote here recently about the coming battle in the Colorado River basin relating to allocation. Basically, the system's out of balance.

It's thought the collection of Upper Basin states has never used its annual Treaty allotment, and that the Lower has used and now relies on the surplus.

Utah is an upper Basin state, and its share is roughly 1.4 million-acre feet. The State Engineer for Utah decided that indeed, Utah did have a remaining allocation in the Colorado River system (the Green River being a primary tributary) that would allow the state to divert 50,000 or so acre-feet. The language, though, had to open eyes throughout the Basin. "It is estimated that Utah water users currently deplete approximately one million acre-feet annually, which represents an underutilization of Utah's share of the Colorado River allocation" (their bold).

Without agreement from other Upper Basin states, and with no data cited as a source, Utah officials acted to divert a substantial amount of water from the River basin - on an assumption. It's a gutsy move - at a time when both state and federal interests have been busy trying to measure supply and demand in the River - one sure to make waves in Western water circles.

States like Colorado have been very reticent to make a similar claim - though it's now clear they're entitled to more water - or act to develop their remaining share as Utah has done, even as this surplus from the River is sent downstream for use by the Lower Basin.

The fear is "curtailment," the dreaded Compact "call," where senior water right holders force junior right-holders to send more water downstream; water being utilized in a nuclear power plant, for example.

Utah's move may shake up this status quo and embolden the Upper Basin.

This will happen though in the face of increasingly organized and vocal opposition to any further diversion from the Colorado River. More on the developing battle later.

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Bart Taylor is the publisher of ColoradoBiz magazine. E-mail him at btaylor@cobizmag.com.

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