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Kansas Coal Plant Proposal Renews Debate Over Water Use From Arkansas River

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TOPEKA, Kan. — A western Kansas utility's push to build a new coal-fired power plant has already embroiled it in a lengthy public dispute about potential air pollution, and now the project could touch off a battle over water.

Sunflower Electric Power Corp., based in Hays, estimates its new plant in Finney County in southwest Kansas will consume 3.9 billion gallons of water a year. Most of the electricity generated by Sunflower's new plant initially would flow to a partner utility in Colorado, leading critics to suggest Kansas will be, in effect, exporting its water.

But as much water as the plant would consume, local officials calculate that it represents less than 1 percent of the existing annual water use in the state's heavily agricultural southwest corner. Farmers previously held the rights to the water Sunflower would use, and they would have been allowed to consume significantly more.

Water has received relatively little attention as Sunflower pursues an air quality permit from the state Department of Health and Environment. But eventually, the project will need a water-use permit from the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

And, Sierra Club spokeswoman Stephanie Cole said, for some western Kansas residents, "Water is of greater concern than the pollution."

Those in favor of the plant's construction don't see it as an additional strain on the Ogallala Aquifer and note that if farmers retained the water rights, their products most likely would be exported, too.

"We're being good stewards of the water," Sunflower spokeswoman Cindy Hertel said. "We're not using more than would be used for agriculture."

The water rights for Sunflower's project actually are owned by a division of Wheatland Electric Cooperative Inc., one of six western Kansas co-ops that formed Sunflower in the 1950s. Starting in 2005, Wheatland bought thousands of acres of land tied to the rights for more than 17 billion gallons of water a year, leasing the land back to farmers until the plant is built.

Under Kansas law, Wheatland must ask the chief water engineer in the Department of Agriculture to approve a "conversion" of the water rights to industrial use. Under state law, the chief engineer automatically decreases the water use allowed; Wheatland and Sunflower think they will lose 40 percent.

General manager Neil Norman said Wheatland isn't likely to go to the Department of Agriculture until 2014, when the plant is within two years of starting operations, so farmers can keep leasing the land.

Sunflower has been looking to add coal-fired generating capacity since 2001. Its current plan resulted from an agreement with Gov. Mark Parkinson in May 2009 designed to resolve regulatory, legislative and political disputes.

Sunflower's new plant would be 895 megawatts, producing enough electricity to meet the peak demands of 448,000 households. But 78 percent of that capacity, or 695 megawatts, will be owned by Sunflower's partner, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, of Westminster, Colo.

Tri-State's claim on the power remains a sore point for environmentalists. They say Sunflower's planned water use creates an irony because a dispute over the Arkansas River between Kansas and Colorado ended last year, after 24 years of litigation, with Colorado letting more water flow into Kansas and paying $34 million in damages.

"We are essentially proposing to give them that water back," Cole said.

But Mark Rude, executive director of the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District, which covers parts of 12 counties, said the same argument could be made about agricultural products. The district uses 554 billion gallons of water a year – less than half of what it could given farmers' water rights.

"Everything we produce as a result of labor and water use has a potential of going out of state," Rude said.

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Online:

Sunflower Electric Power Corp: http://www.sunflower.net/

Sierra Club: http://www.sierraclub.org

Kansas Department of Agriculture: http://www.ksda.gov/