Gallup Independent

Group: No San Juan water for nuclear power

By Kathy Helms
Dine Bureau

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

WINDOW ROCK -- A coalition of environmental organizations, small business owners and concerned citizens from across Utah have filed complaints in 7th District Court seeking to overturn a decision by the state engineer granting water rights to developers of a proposed nuclear plant in Green River, Utah.

The plaintiffs, led by the nonprofits HEAL Utah and Uranium Watch, argue that Utah State Engineer Kent Jones failed to uphold state law when he gave Blue Castle Holdings approval to take 53,600 acre feet of water to cool reactors at its proposed 3,000-megawatt plant near the Green River, a major tributary to the Colorado River.

The Blue Castle allocation includes 24,000 acre-feet of water leased by San Juan County Water Conservancy District in Blanding, where a couple dozen Utah Navajo families are deadlocked in a battle with the city to have drinking water piped to their homes at Westwater Canyon. The remaining 29,600 acre-feet were leased from Kane County Water Conservancy District.

An acre-foot of water is the equivalent of a football field covered in water a foot deep, or enough to supply a family of four for a year.

The complaint argues that the state engineer should have done much more in reviewing the water rights applications, including making sure that Blue Castle has adequately proven it has the financial ability to complete the project, as Utah law requires. The start-up company estimated construction costs at up to $18 billion, plus an additional $100 million to secure an early site permit from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Plaintiffs also contend the state engineer failed to show the nuclear plant won't interfere with other water rights or harm the fragile Green River ecosystem. The river is home to four species of endangered fish which must be accommodated in times of low flow.

Sarah Fields, program director of the Moab-based Uranium Watch, questioned whether there is enough water in the Green River during drought periods to supply the reactors.

"The state engineer had an obligation to ask hard questions and take a close look at the withdrawal of so much Utah water for such a risky enterprise," she said. "He did not do that. He did not meet the minimal standard for the review of a water right appropriation.

"This is some of the most beautiful, unique land in all of America, and thousands of people come from all over the world to the Moab area, the Canyonlands area. Why would they want to threaten this area with a nuclear reactor? I find it incomprehensible," Fields said Monday.

San Juan County Water Conservancy District's underlying water rights are based primarily on waters flowing in the San Juan River, a tributary to the Colorado River. Kane County's portion would come from Wahweep at Lake Powell. Blue Castle President and CEO Aaron Tilton, a former state lawmaker, wanted the points of diversion for the water changed to the Green River.

According to the complaint, San Juan County filed an application in 2009 to change the points of diversion, places and nature of use for the 24,000-acre feet of water. Blue Castle, through its predecessor, Transitional Power Development LLC, entered into leases with the San Juan water district on June 17, 2010, and with Kane County on July 14, 2010, to supply all water for the plant, which will require approximately 70 cubic feet per second.

The state engineer approved the change application this past January. Petitioners filed requests for reconsideration on Feb. 9, which the state engineer denied Feb. 28.

According to the San Juan lease, the water district was to receive an $80,000 pre-operation payment upon the state engineer's approval of the change application in January, with additional $80,000 pre-operation payments anticipated once a year for 10 years. Upon operation, the district would receive $800,000 a year, or $48.8 million over the plant's 60-year life expectancy. If there is a water shortage in the Green River, the water district's payments would be reduced.

While the nuclear plant has now obtained water rights, the Navajo Nation has yet to settle its claims in Utah to the Upper Colorado River Basin, which is already over-appropriated, according to a 2009 Utah Division of Water Rights report. Navajo has substantial federal reserved water rights, and compacts require Navajo's rights come from Utah's share.

Similar to the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River settlement proposed in Arizona, Navajo would settle for about half its paper water entitlement -- or 81,500 acre-feet compared to the 166,500 acre-feet it could claim -- in exchange for $156 million in wet water projects for Utah Navajos.

The Utah Legislature recently approved $2 million of its $8 million share of the settlement, but no money will be appropriated until there is a signed water rights agreement in hand. Navajo is hoping to piggyback the Utah settlement off the Arizona settlement already introduced in Congress by U.S. Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain, R-Ariz.