Friday, May 20, 2005

Sempra counting on water source

Power plant would require 7,600 acre feet per year

Express Staff Writer

Among the reasons energy giant Sempra Generation selected a site in Jerome County for the proposed construction of a coal-fired electrical generation plant was availability of water.

Sempra's planned 600-megawatt power plant northeast of the city of Jerome would require 7,600 acre-feet of water per year, according to a company press release.

Art Larson, a Sempra Energy spokesman, previously said the company has options for sufficient groundwater to meet that need.

In addition to finding a willing seller, the company must apply to the Idaho Department of Water Resources to obtain a transfer of water right if the use would change from agricultural to industrial.

"They have to find some water they can acquire ... a willing seller of a water right ... and apply to have that transferred," said Mike Keckler, a spokesman for IDWR. "As long as it doesn't cause harm to someone else's (water right), then they can do that."

As of Thursday, May 19, Sempra had not filed such an application with the Southern Regional Office of IDWR, said regional manager Allen Merritt.

No specific radius is established for who can claim to be harmed, Keckler said, but typically it would be someone with water rights in the vicinity.

If a party opposes the sale and those concerns can't be informally addressed, IDWR will schedule a hearing, Keckler said.

After the hearing, a hearing officer issues a preliminary order.

"If one or both sides are not happy, they can petition the director for reconsideration," Keckler said. "If one side or both sides are still unhappy, they can appeal to District Court."

Typically, senior water rights holders in Idaho have appropriation priority. But if there's a curtailment issue, junior water right holders who have the highest use value, according to the Idaho Constitution, can initiate a condemnation process.

The Idaho Constitution states that when water isn't sufficiently available for all those wanting it, those using water for domestic purposes have preference over those claiming it for any other purpose, and those using water for agricultural purposes have preference over those using it for manufacturing purposes.

Keckler said industrial use would likely fall under the manufacturing category, meaning agriculture uses could trump a coal plant's need for water if agriculture users took the issue to court.

If a court grants water rights to another user, the entity losing their water right would have to be compensated.

Keckler emphasized, however, that such a remedy is rarely, if ever, invoked.

"The condemnation process has not been used ... at least in the past 30 years that we know of ... because there are always willing sellers," he said. "This is a scenario that isn't likely. There tends to be enough water out there, if you can find someone to sell it."

In addition to a transfer of water right and an air quality permit from Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, Sempra's coal-fired plant would have to pass Jerome County's fire and building inspections, said Art Brown, Jerome County planning and zoning administrator.

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