Regional drought has dollar impact
Rain has been heavier than usual in many places in Utah during July.
Images of water rushing down washes on television newscasts, and even a story on the Sun Advocate front page recently about the damage done by a flash flood that was created by a downpour miles from Price, make a lot of people think that the recent rains have solved the problem drought.
But the annual summer monsoon storms have done little to change the region's lack of water.
The west and southwest have caught a bit of a break through these generous storms, with some places getting well over their normal water from the sky. Others, though, sometimes only a few miles away from a localized deluge that is reported in the news, have barely gotten a drop.
Statewide it is a flood or wilt kind of situation for some. As of this writing, Cedar City has received 2.69 inches so far in July, well above the average of 0.57 inch. But then there is Moab. It has missed out on rain that in other places only a few miles away came down hard. It had received only 0.18 inch through July 23. That is about only 30 percent of normal for the month.
The rains can also be a problem, as was demonstrated by the washed-out culvert on Mead's Wash last week near the Eastgate Apartments construction site. It also can be very bad for areas that were burned in the fires last year. On July 24 rain came down hard in Huntington Canyon once again, hitting the scar from last years Seeley Canyon fire. While SR 31 did not need to be closed this time, water and mud did get on the road. It could have been much worse.
Presently Scofield Reservoir is just below 40 percent of capacity, which is just about 60 percent of what would be normal for this time of year. That reservoir is the main source of drinking water for Carbon county. The rains around the reservoir have brought in some flow, but the ground in many places is so dry that it is quickly absorbed. What does get into the reservoir makes little difference.
The problem of drought is often well beyond what most people can see or perceive. For the average citizen, the water still comes out of the tap and they can take a shower. Even in communities where voluntary or forced restrictions are taking place, only the lawns get a little yellow or brown spots appear.
But the cost, the cost to the economy when water is not available in the quantities needed, affects everything from agriculture to manufacturing to power production to the tourist industry.
For most people power generation seems simple. They flip on a switch and the lights come on, the television flickers to life, the computer brings up the web. Many have no idea how the power they use is made.
Some have a basic understanding that in coal, gas and nuclear plants heat from the energy source turns water into steam which turns turbines hooked to a generator that produces power. Most also know that in hydro-electric plants, the power of the water falling over turbine blades causes them to turn and a generator above the turbine produces power.
In all cases water is a key component, and with fossil fuel plants as well as with nuclear plants water is used for more than just the propellent: it is used to keep the operating system cool as well.
So the lack of water in an area can affect the generation of power greatly, in two different ways.
In hydro-electric plants, a drought can mean a cutback of water flow through the turbines. Dams where large hydro units are installed have largely been built to control flooding on a river or used to store water for agricultural or even domestic/industrial use. Few dams have ever been built in the United States just to produce power; their priorities are for these other purposes. When water is scarce the authority over the dam will consider many factors as to how much water can be released from a reservoir through the dams infrastructure. Agreements with water users, both up and down stream, with regulatory agencies, such as the US. Fish and Wildlife Service, can determine water flow or lack of it. Dams often have to release so much water through the dam to meet certain needs, but must also consider what needs to remain for use by those that utilize the water from the reservoir.
In a poor water year, when reservoirs are not full or use is very high this may mean not being able to put water through every generator station, or only running them so many hours at a time. This of course reduces power output.
Most of the power generated by hydro-electric plants in the west come from mammoth dams on the Colorado River and its tributaries and in the Columbia River Basin. In a sense when there is snow in the mountains and hills above these drainages in the winter and spring, that is where the electricity is stored.
Water that is turned into steam by fossil fuel and nuclear generation can also be limited during droughts. Some power plants such as the Huntington Canyon plant have their own reservoirs (Electric Lake) while others like the Carbon plant take it out of the Price River. The Hunter Plant water comes from Joe's Valley Reservoir. Recent articles in the paper have highlighted the fact that water for the Sunnyside Co-gen comes from Grassy Trail Reservoir, with some controversy associated with it. Companies have water rights to the water or they have a contract with those that own the water rights. Water rights come in a number of forms, but water must be shared with others who also use it. This can cause some big problems for generation when only a percentage of the normal amount of water is available to all users.
Cooling water for power plants is regulated, particularly for nuclear plants. The parameters under which these plants operate include the temperature of intake water for cooling. If water that comes into a nuclear plant for cooling purposes is too warm, without a variance from regulatory agencies, the plant could be shut down for a time.
The combination of hot temperatures and less water can really affect the temperature of cooling water. The smaller the pool, the warmer the water can be, even when temperatures are average.
In 2012 a number of plants in the mid-west, where the drought was going strong in places like Illinois and Iowa, had to vary their activities. One plant able to obtain variances from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to allow them to take in warmer than permitted water for cooling. Another had to get permission from the Environmental Protection Agency to pump more water from another source into a rapidly decreasing cooling pool to keep going. At two other plants, the only option was to shut completely down for one and back way off on generation for another. One plants cooling intake was left high and dry when the water in the cooling reservoir fell below its level. In the other case the pool of cooling water became to warm, and the plant had to reduce its power generation.
According to Margaret Oler, a spokesperson for Rocky Mountain Power, this year there is projected to be enough water for the plants in western Castle Country to keep operating.
"The water supply for the company's three plants in the Carbon-Emery area is sufficient for this year," she said on Monday. "That said, all three plants are emphasizing conservation measures this summer and exercising wise and careful water use."
What the future holds may be different however. Another dry winter and it is hard to surmise what may happen. Oler says that the company is working closely with other water users and stakeholders in the region regarding water management.
Those other users include municipal/industrial users and agriculture. If the drought goes on much longer some things may need to change, and how those users are impacted can have a direct affect on the area's economy.