Although agricultural producers continue to be the largest users of water in the West, environmental groups are putting new energy into attacking power plants for their high rate of consumption.
Power plants in eight Western states pulled 650 million gallons of water from rivers, reservoirs or aquifers in 2000, according to "The Last Straw," a study by Western Resource Advocates, a Boulder-based policy center that advocates the use of renewable resources.
That amount of water could meet the demands of 3.64 million people for a year.
The spotlight turned to power plants as the West heads into the third year of record drought and competing interests -- environmentalists, recreationalists, agriculture producers and energy producers -- battle for use of the limited resource.
It takes about three-fifths of a gallon of water to produce one kilowatt-hour of electricity, enough to burn one 100-watt light bulb for 10 hours.
Power plants use water in several ways, but primarily by condensing it into high-pressure steam used to rotate turbines that, in turn, create energy. It's also used to cool steam back into water.
There are three cooling methods used by power plants -- once-through cooling, re-circulation cooling and dry cooling. Dry cooling uses the least amount of water and retrofitting cooling systems is one step the report recommends power plants take.
But, that may not be enough. Environmental groups are using the study as a way to advocate increasing the use of renewable resources for energy generation.
"Increased production from many renewable energy technologies, particularly wind and solar photovoltaic power, would displace the use of power generation resources that would otherwise cause a wide range of environmental impacts and further depletion of scarce water resources," the report states.
It recommends the next step be a reduction in the reliance on fossil fuels.
"This study was intended as a tool for evaluating some of the lesser-known impacts of coal-fired power plants," said Claudia Putnam, communications director for Western Resource Advocates. "Planners cold make better decisions as to the placement of new power plants, weighing the cost versus the benefit."
Putnam said the study is one of many that tries to quantify the environmental cost of running a coal-fired power plant. It's the goal of Western Resource Advocates that environmental costs could be weighed as heavily in decision making as monetary costs.
Craig is home to the largest power plant in Colorado.
The coal-fired facility operates using 22 cubic feet per second of water per year, which equals to more than 5 billion gallons of water. Much of that is recirculated and reused.
And that's just how it is, Tri-State Generation and Transmission spokesman Jim VanSomeren said. At this point, it's the choice between water and power.
"If we stop using water, we stop operating the plant. It's pretty simple," he said.
Tri-State owns all of Unit 3 at the Craig Station and is part owner of Units 1 and 2.
"We certainly use water. It's a key ingredient in the power-generating process," Van Someran said. "We make as efficient use of it as possible."
Although power plants have a high rate of water use, VanSomeren said that's not a new situation. He added that through new technology, water is used more efficiently at power plants.
"I don't think it's an issue as long as the public needs, requires and wants electricity," he said.
Craig Station uses a zero discharge evaporative cooling system in which no water is released back into the Yampa River.
Tri-State and its partners own a portion of the water rights in Elkhead Reservoir, Stagecoach Reservoir and Yamcolo Reservoir as well as water rights on the Yampa River.
They've made two releases from Elkhead Reservoir and one from Stagecoach Reservoir in the last two years in order to supplement flows on the river. One of those releases was at the request of the Fish Recovery Program, which sought to increase flows for fish health.
Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 210 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.