Diminishing reservoir levels raise nuclear plant and other concerns

On a dried-up lake bed, wild sunflowers frame a heron and a family boating on Clinton Lake Monday. The Kansas Water Office has estimated that John Redmond Reservoir, a federal reservoir near Burlington, will be at only 5 percent of its capacity by Nov. 1 if no rain falls in the interim. Lakes near Lawrence are faring better. Both Clinton and Perry lakes are expected to be at about 80 percent of their normal capacity by Nov. 1.

Reservoir levels in Kansas

A new report from the Kansas Water Office projects how full several eastern Kansas lakes will be by Nov. 1, given current weather patterns.

• Fall River: 70 percent capacity

• Toronto: 65 percent

• Elk City: 70 percent

• Big Hill: 85 percent

• Milford: 70 percent

• Tuttle Creek: 50 percent

• Clinton Lake: 80 percent

• Perry Lake: 80 percent

• Melvern: 85 percent

• Hillsdale: 75 percent

• Pomona: 75 percent

• Kanopolis: 60 percent

• El Dorado: 80 percent

• Cheney: 60 percent

• Marion: 65 percent

• Council Grove: 60 percent

• John Redmond: 5 percent

Come to find out, it is not just farmers and folks who have dry yards that root for rain. The owners of the Wolf Creek Nuclear Power Plant are rooting hard as well.

A new report from the Kansas Water Office projects a key federal reservoir used in helping cool the nuclear power plant near Burlington will be almost dry by Nov. 1, if current weather patterns persist.

Wolf Creek officials said the dwindling water levels at nearby John Redmond Reservoir pose no safety risk, but they could make it difficult for the plant to operate if the drought continues for many months.

“Just like with about everything at a nuclear plant, we have plans in place to deal with that type of situation,” said Jenny Hageman, a spokeswoman with Wolf Creek.

Officials with the Kansas Water Office estimated John Redmond Reservoir, a 1950s-era federal reservoir just outside of Burlington, was at about 75 percent of its normal capacity as of Aug. 1.

But by Nov. 1, the office projects the 9,400 acre lake will be at only 5 percent of its capacity. In other words, the lake will be 95 percent dry.

Earl Lewis, assistant director for the Kansas Water Office, said the projections are meant to show kind of a “worst-case scenario” for the area.

“These projections really don’t project any rainfall,” Lewis said. “Unfortunately, the long-term weather forecast also is not projecting much rainfall through the fall.”

The new report from the Water Office projects water levels for 17 reservoirs in eastern Kansas. In addition to John Redmond, the report notes Cheney Reservoir, which is used for water supply by the city of Wichita, will drop to about 60 percent of its normal capacity by Nov. 1, and Tuttle Creek outside of Manhattan will be just below 50 percent of its capacity by Nov. 1.

Lakes near Lawrence fare better. Both Clinton and Perry lakes are expected to be at about 80 percent of their normal capacity by Nov. 1.

Lewis said John Redmond was the lake drawing the most concern from the Kansas Water Authority, the state board that oversees a variety of water issues.

The lake plays an important role in providing water to cool the reactor of the state’s only nuclear power plant. The Wolf Creek Power plant uses the 5,000-acre Coffey County Lake to directly cool the power plant.

But Wolf Creek uses water from John Redmond and the Neosho River to keep Coffey County Lake full. Lately, Wolf Creek hasn’t been able to replenish Coffey County Lake at its normal rates.

But Hageman said Coffey County Lake still has plenty of water to maintain normal operations at the plant for the foreseeable future. Thus far, Coffee County Lake is only two feet below its normal levels.

Officials at the Kansas Water Office agree the power plant isn’t facing an immediate shortage of water.

“They have a good supply of water in their cooling lake right now,” Lewis said. “But if the drought goes on for another year, that might be another situation.”

Hageman said Coffey County Lake would have to drop another 11 feet before the water levels were too low for the plant to operate. Even in that scenario, though, Hageman said the plant would still have plenty of water to keep the nuclear reactor cooled in a shutdown mode.

Hageman said Coffey County Lake was built with an area called the “ultimate heat sink.” It is a particularly deep part of the lake that is designed to hold water during the severest of droughts or emergencies.

“There would be sufficient supply there even if you lost the dam and all the water drained out of Coffey County Lake,” Hageman said.

Wolf Creek officials, though, obviously are hoping for rain to refill the lakes this fall and next spring. If the power plant had to shut down for any extended period of time, the three utility companies that own the plant would have to buy power elsewhere to compensate for the losses at Wolf Creek.

Wolf Creek supplies electricity to large parts of eastern Kansas and western Missouri. The plant produces enough electricity to power about 800,000 homes.

Lawrence City Manager David Corliss, who serves on the Kansas Water Authority, said the John Redmond situation is important for more reasons than just Wolf Creek.

“John Redmond is kind of the canary in the coal mine,” Corliss said. “It is the thing that reminds eastern Kansas, which thinks it has a plentiful water supply, that there are issues we need to be paying attention to here.”

Corliss said he hopes the recent drought will cause leaders to have more discussion about the need to dredge area lakes. As lakes fill in with sedimentation, their capacity to store water during droughts is diminished.

“In this part of the state we have been in a more favorable position than others have been, but we don’t want to take that for granted,” Corliss said. “Clinton Lake sedimentation is kind of middle of the road, but it is not an issue we want to forget about.”