Water and Power

According to a January KVNF radio report, it takes water to produce electricity, but how much water varies a lot depending on the fuel source and the power generating technology. In Colorado, around half a percent of our total water usage is used to generate electricity. It’s a small percentage, says Stacy Tellinghusen, water policy analyst for Western Resource Advocates, a non-profit conservation group, but adds that it’s not inconsequential. “The total volume is around 65,000 acre feet of water per year that’s consumed by power plants,” said Tellinghusen.  “That’s about equal to the water that could be used otherwise by 500 to 600,000 Coloradoans.” Tellinghusen adds that pretty much all of the water in Colorado is spoken for, so more water to make electricity means less water for agriculture or any other use. “Most of our river systems are fully or over-allocated and fully used,” said Tellinghusen.  “So any new water use for a power plant or for drilling or fracking is necessarily going to impact an existing water user in that basin.”

Hydraulic fracturing - or “fracking” - uses pressurized water and chemicals to crack shale and release deposits of oil and natural gas trapped deep underground. The technology has led to a rapid increase in oil and gas drilling in Colorado, especially in the northeastern part of the state and in Garfield County on the Western Slope. Energy companies buy the water for fracking from any willing seller and it’s often hauled by trucks to drilling sites. In 2011, the city of Greeley sold 500 million gallons of water to energy companies. But the amount of water used to generate electricity at a natural gas-fired power plant is less than a coal-fired plant, even when factoring in the amount required for fracking. That’s according to James Meldrum, research associate for a project called the Western Water Assessment at CU-Boulder. “This shift over to natural gas, the net is a reduction in the water use compared to coal,” says Meldrum. “With the hydraulic fracturing, you still have a net benefit from a water perspective if you’re looking at an overall level.” But Meldrum is quick to echo Stacy Tellinghusen on the need to factor in water scarcity.