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Colstrip Appeals To Legislature To Ensure Water Continues To Flow

Kayla Desroches
Yellowstone Public Radio
The Colstrip coal-fired power plant seen across the Castle Rock reservoir, which holds water the power plant owners contracted to transport for the city of Colstrip, taken on Apr. 15, 2021.

The residents of Colstrip rely on the local coal-fired power plant pumping in clean drinking water from the Yellowstone River. The plant uses the water for its operations, but also sends some of it to town. This means there are major questions about what will happen to the local water supply if the plant ever shuts down.

State lawmakers have passed a bill aimed at ensuring Colstrip city residents have access to clean drinking water in the years to come.

For the last twenty years, the city of Colstrip has paid the owners of the Colstrip coal-fired power plant to redirect nearly 3% of the plant’s water intake 30 miles from the Yellowstone River to a reservoir on the edge of town.

Castle Rock Lake is a popular fishing and boating spot for Colstrip's population of 2,300 people. It’s full of birds and fish, and a trail circles the entire lake.

Rick Miller and his two labs have just wrapped up a walk during a windy, rainy lunchtime.

Miller worked as an electrician at the power plant and raised a family in Colstrip. Now in his retirement, he walks his dogs around Castle Rock Lake every day.

“This is the kind of thing here that keeps you positive, ” Miller said.

It’s been a year since two of the Colstrip power plant’s four units shuttered, and most of the current power plant owners are tied to states phasing out coal generation within the next ten years. Miller believes closure of the power plant is inevitable at some point.

The city of Colstrip meanwhile says it’s facing increased water transport costs from power plant owners and it can’t afford to bring water from the Yellowstone River to the city by itself.

So Republican Sen. Duane Ankney of Colstrip carried the legislative proposal to require the owners of the power plant to pay for a study of what needs to happen to make sure the town continues to have access to the water.

“If the owners was to shut down [and] maintain the water rights for whatever reason, the city would not be able to get water,” Ankney said.

When Ankney first introduced the bill, it would have required Colstrip owners to pass along water rights to the city and ensure the city could afford to maintain access and conveyance.

Multiple power plant owners spoke against the earlier version of Senate Bill 87, including Portland General Electric and Avista Corporation through attorney Tom Ebzery of Billings.

“If and when the plant closes down the road, the owners will work with the city and the residents to receive necessary water service. If additional water is needed, accommodations can be reached in line with the existing agreements since the town was incorporated,” Ebzery said.

He assured the senate committee that owners would continue to transport water as part of cleanup at the power plant.

In the form SB 87 passed the Legislature, it requires the power plants owners to finish a study by November 2022 that includes planning details to ensure the local government is able to access water rights and infrastructure to transport the water. It also requires owners to estimate costs that could follow up to 30 years after the plant closes and include recommendations on paying for maintenance of transport.

Money is one of the biggest barriers for the city, according to Colstrip Mayor John Williams. He says the power plant owners increased the cost of their 10 year water contract when they renegotiated it with the city last year a few months after Units 1 and 2 closed. He says the city is reluctantly paying an increase.

“Our concern is a viable continuing source of water that is both affordable and reliable,” Williams said.

He says it’s a comfort to have the legislature call for the owners to look into the cost and details of ensuring the city has access to clean drinking water in the years to come.

The bill heads next to the desk of Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte.

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.