Nuclear power plant in Utah? First step is securing water rights

Published: Sunday, Oct. 30 2011 6:00 p.m. MDT

This August 2009 file photo shows rafters in Green River in Desolation Canyon.

Tom Smart, Deseret News archives

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GREEN RIVER, Emery County — When and if a nuclear power plant will be built in Utah depends largely on the waters of the Green River.

The pivotal question of whether there is enough water in the Colorado River's chief tributary will likely be determined by the end of the year with decisions rendered by the State Engineer's Office, the agency that decides water rights issues.

Blue Castle Holdings, whose president and chief executive officer is former state lawmaker Aaron Tilton, proposes to divert 53,600 acre feet of water from the Green River. An acre-foot of water is enough water to supply a household of four for a year.

Even if the applications for the diversions are approved, an appeal before a district court judge is anticipated.

To understand what is at stake, you have to understand the Green River.

Its annual average flow is 6,048 cubic feet per second — or nearly 4.4 million acre-feet.

The proposed diversion represents 1.2 percent of that annual average flow, but critics say the Upper Colorado River Basin — of which Utah is part — is already being tapped dry because there are too many straws in the bucket.

Winners, losers

San Juan and Kane County water districts own the water, which would be leased for the cooling process in the twin-unit plant.

San Juan's water, 24,000 acre-feet, comes from the San Juan River, another tributary of the Colorado River. Kane County's is from Wahweep at Lake Powell — 29,600 acre-feet. Both are unused rights to water previously approved by the state engineer for use in a pair of failed coal-fired power plants.

Tilton wants the point of diversion for the water changed to the Green River for a plant that would generate 3,000 megawatts of electricity.

A hearing earlier this week before the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission unveiled some of the extensive pre-application work that has to be done to determine if the 1,700-acre parcel four miles west of the town of Green River is suitable.

Foes of nuclear power and water watchdogs of the Colorado River system say Utah is not the place for a new nuclear power plant and the Green River — home to a trio of endangered fish — can't sustain such a withdrawal.

The three counties with a financial stake in the fight disagree.

Green River's Emery County has come out in support of the proposal, hungrily eying the thousands of high paying jobs that will come during construction and the hundreds that will stay after the plant is built.

Both San Juan and Kane County water districts have penned contracts with Blue Castle that district managers say will bring them a financial windfall for a significant quantity of water they say they can't envision needing for decades to come.

Kane County's district will get $1 million a year once production starts at the nuclear power plant, while San Juan's district will get $800,000 for leasing its water.

In the interim — while the plant goes through the federal licensing process — Kane would get $100,000 a year, while San Juan would receive $80,000 annually.

"The water we'd lease is not being utilized at all," said Norman Johnson, general manager of San Juan's water district. "It's flowing past us down the San Juan and we gain no benefit. If we utilize it for the Green River, we stand to gain tremendously because we put our water to use."

For perspective, the district's annual budget is a mere $76,000 a year. The annual payments of $800,000 to lease the water will be mind boggling, he admits.

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