Energy's Big Bycatch: Power Plant Water Use Still Sucks

Recently, I was on a panel at the 2014 River Rally, one that sought to answer the question: How quickly can the United States halt the hundreds of aging, predominately fossil fuel power plants from sucking up enormous amounts of water that kill billions of fish each year?

Our answer was as soon as possible (yesterday if we could).

An average power plant can withdraw billions of gallons of water every day and there are thousands of industrial facilities including power plants nationwide. When withdrawing this water, billions of fish and other aquatic organisms are killed and injured, particularly small eggs and larvae, which harm aquatic food chains and ecosystems.

The workshop called “Reeling in Power Plants: A Citizen’s Guide,” was moderated by GRACE’s own Kyle Rabin and featured Reed Super, the foremost environmental attorney on the issue, and Paul Gallay, president of Riverkeeper. We discussed the tremendous problems associated with power plant and industrial water withdrawals for their antiquated and destructive once-through cooling systems. The emphasis was how to compel power plants to switch to less water-intensive closed-cycle cooling systems or shut down entirely.

The site for this year’s River Rally was Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which makes sense since it took place in the city’s Golden Triangle, nestled at the confluence of the Three Rivers, the Allegheny, Monongahela and the Ohio. If you seek the comfort of people who devote themselves to the protection of streams, rivers, lakes, estuaries and watersheds – the country’s freshwater resources – then the River Rally is the only place to be. The Rally brings together a large group of grassroots environmental leaders to identify emerging issues, discuss water protection strategies and offer support, not to mention good cheer. This year’s Rally was all the more energizing because it was jointly hosted by the River Network and Waterkeeper Alliance, the convening organizations.

What heightened the panel’s conversation was the US EPA’s recent announcement of a final rule that governs the power plant “fishkill” problem under the wonky administrative title, Requirements for Cooling Water Intake Structures at Existing Facilities (Clean Water Act 316(b)). Over 40 years in the making, the final rule was a disappointment for environmental groups. Among the rule’s glaring shortfalls was the lack of “best technology available” requirements for power plants to retrofit systems to water and fish-saving closed cycle cooling and instead gave seven technology options, some of which do little to help. As Reed Super observed, "Deferring some of the best technology decisions on harmful aquatic impacts potentially to the second permit cycle, which can be ten or more years down the road, is yet more foot dragging and delay that should not be tolerated." For most environmentalists, the EPA maintained the ineffective status quo of once-through cooling systems for old plants. (You can find out much more through Ecocentric’s “Power Plants Kill Fish” blog series.)

As Reed Super observed, "Deferring some of the best technology decisions on harmful aquatic impacts potentially to the second permit cycle, which can be ten or more years down the road, is yet more foot dragging and delay that should not be tolerated."

Despite the inadequate rule, panel members noted that a rule does now exist and they set out to challenge it while providing activists insight and tools to help them stop this needless slaughter. The big picture is that how power plants use water is not just about the fish, but about the entire ecosystem. Whether you are an outdoor enthusiast, boater or fisherman/woman (and yes, especially if you’re a fish), there is a good chance that you will be impacted by power plant water withdrawals.

Moreover, as a society we need to strike a better balance when it comes to sources of electricity generation that move away from fossil fuel (e.g., coal, natural gas, oil) and towards renewables and energy efficiency. By greatly relying on renewables and energy efficiency, we can not only save fish and local ecosystems, but also help to improve water quality, local economies and the community resilience required to endure the ravages of a changing climate.

In the end, we must understand and address the cumulative impacts our energy extraction and generation processes have on our waterways and watersheds. This takes a more integrated, holistic approach that doesn’t let one system create conflict with others but rather harmony. Taking all of these impacts into account is not just for the fish but is real sustainability at work and also makes life better for us and our communities.

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