Retiring coal plants as a Colorado River Basin demand management strategy

OK, “strategy” is not exactly the right word here, but we take our water conservation where we can find it, eh?

Luke Runyon took a nice dive into the water supply implications of the West’s wave of coal plant retirements. Because coal plants use water. Here’s my coauthor Eric Kuhn on the implications:

“As a legal matter, the owners of the water rights, at least in Colorado, could do something else with them. As a practical matter, there’s not much else they can do with them,” said Eric Kuhn, former head of the Colorado River District and author of Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River.

TriState has limited options with the water rights, Kuhn said. The energy provider could sell them to a local municipality, though communities along the Yampa River, like Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Craig, likely wouldn’t be able to use that much water all at once. TriState could offer them to local farmers, though most of the easily irrigable land has already been irrigated for a long time. They could turn them into in-stream flows. Or they could sell them to a user outside the Yampa basin, like a Front Range city. Any project proposed to pump the plant’s freed up water more 200 miles eastward would face significant political pushback and a multi-billion dollar price tag, Kuhn said.

According to Kuhn, these coal closures also have implications for broader Colorado River management. The recently signed Drought Contingency Plans task water leaders in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico to begin exploring a conceptual program called demand management, where in a shortage, water users would be paid to use less. Coal plants using less water would alleviate the situation.

“What it’s going to do is take the pressure off of these states to come up with demand management scenarios, because where does that water go? It’ll flow to Lake Powell,” Kuhn said.


  1. John, we did a West-wide assessment of opportunities associated with coal plant retirement in collaboration with UCSB Bren school students. Our conclusion was there simply isn’t all that much consumptive use at those plants that could be transferred to other uses or environmental flows. Happy to share the report. Brian

  2. This would be the beginning of the public condemnation of private property as is not afoot in Abati v. IID and the news policieis of the MRGCD to have the last say as whether or not to approve transfers of water rights rather than the State Engineer whose authorities derive from NM Const. Art. XVI. How about limiting residential building permits and discouraging development. Water is a zero-sum-game John. Finite supply mostly in private hands that the have nots are trying to take. That is the ugly truth. There is no such word as drought.when talking in terms of the hydrological system. But, drought means we don’t have enough because of our poor planning. Climate is what it is. Blame it on God but one has to live within his means. Population must always be in balance with food, water and space. See the Idiots Journey at You cannot plan your way around Le Chatlier’s Principle for any amount of money.

Comments are closed.