While there's still no decision on the diversion of water for the proposed nuclear power plant at Green River, there's a potential obstacle for the development: endangered fish that also need the water.
Marc Stilson from the Utah Division of Water Rights reported to the Emery County Public Lands council that the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program developed flow and temperature recommendations to maintain adequate flows for four of the endangered species that call the Green River home.
These are the bonytail, humpback chub, Colorado pike minnow, and the razorback sucker.
The spring peak flow magnitude was listed in wet years, moderately wet, average, moderately dry and dry and targets were set between 39,000 cfs in a wet year to 8,300 cfs in a dry year. In dry years, the low flow target is 1,300 cfs at Green River. The higher flows should be maintained for at least two weeks was the recommendation. Last spring when the flooding occurred on the Green River, flows were more than 47,000 cfs for several weeks.
Stilson said the concern, raised in protests to the project, is whether the flows can be maintained to sustain the endangered fish when the water is taken out of the river for use at the nuclear power plant.
Stilson talked about the possibility that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could issue a jeopardy determination which may shut down all additional water developments to make sure there is protection for the fish if it was determined that flows were too low.
In this case a release of water would need to occur at Flaming Gorge dam. The question was raised of who the water belongs to that would be released to sustain these fish. Stilson said the endangered fish recovery is working with Flaming Gorge Reservoir to make water available.
If the water development project is less than 100 acre feet, there isn't a fee. Bigger projects of more than 4,500 acre feet need a more extensive approval process.
There was some question as to whether the fish liked higher flows or lower flows. According to the report the lower water temperatures at higher base flows in the wettest years may reduce growth and survival of young endangered fish. The higher water temperatures at lower base flows will enhance growth and survival of young endangered fish, particularly Colorado pike minnow and humpback chubs.
Stilson said it's best to keep a steady base flow. He said there have been some years where the Green River has fallen below the minimum flow target to keep the endangered species healthy. Stilson said one idea being proposed is to have a block of water in Flaming Gorge to regulate those low flow periods.
Gary Petty, council vice-chairman asked where the water rights for the nuclear project are coming from. Stilson said Blue Castle Holdings has secured water from San Juan County and also Kane County where coal fired power plants weren't built and the water is available from those sources. The water for the power plant is listed at 53,600 acre feet per year with a flow of 70 cfs year round. Stilson said the water to be used is similar in flow volume to the water that comes off the Green River into the Green River canal for irrigation.
Mike McCandless is the Emery County Economic Development Director, he has been working with Blue Castle Holdings to bring the nuclear power plant to Green River City. He wants everyone to know this is not a massive amount of water. It's similar to any large canal in use in Emery County. Utah citizens own the water, the State regulates the use of water, if they say no to this project then it will have a great impact on water not put to beneficial use in the upper Colorado river drainage. There are other large water users who in the future may try to get projects approved.
Sherrel Ward, board member wondered if the endangered species could stop the project. Stilson said to ask that question next month.
In Green River 4,381,000 acre feet of water flows by each year, of that, 67,000 acre feet is depleted along the main stem of the Green. If the rest of Utah's allocation in the Colorado River compact were developed on the Green River there would be around 200,000 acre feet of additional depletion. On the entire Colorado River there is currently an estimated 1.1 million acre feet of actual depletion. The water the nuclear power plant has leased for use is included in the water rights approved for use, but not developed or put to use. Stilson said, "There are a lot of approved applications that have not been put to use. One of the questions addressed in reviewing the Blue Castle Holdings application is whether or not the Colorado River has been overappropriated." The state engineers office doesn't receive a lot of big applications like the one from Blue Castle Holdings. The application was protested by environmental groups. Stilson said they have had to review each criteria on a step by step basis. The endangered fish was just one issue looked at and another was water supply. The application has been with the state engineers office since 2009 where these reviews have been taking place.
Stilson said there are some good studies out there and with 100 years of record keeping the average flow of the Green River is 15 million acre feet. Paleo historic data has shown 30 year drought periods.
Ray Petersen, public lands director said when he attended the Colorado River water users convention in Las Vegas there were many people there who don't live in the rural areas, "There are a lot of people interested in our water," he said.
The San Rafael River is also a target for three other fish not on the list. There are ongoing projects there to keep these additional fish from being listed. Petersen said the endangered species act is very powerful.
Val Payne, public lands consultant said Ray brought up a very real concern with the outside people being interested in our water. Las Vegas and California continue to become more thirsty and keep their eyes on our water. The Bureau of Reclamation is conducting a study which will be out this summer, but Payne said none of the universities and groups involved in the study are from Utah and this is a cause for concern. Who will look out for Utah's interests. Payne wondered what Utah is doing to protect the state's water.
Stilson agreed there should be more rural interests represented in Colorado River issues.
He said there has been some success in the recovery of the endangered fish species in the Colorado.