West Slope water interests aim to keep Colorado River power plant ownership on this side of the Divide
April 27, 2010
With its 1902 water right, the 101 year-old Shoshone hydroelectric plant east of Glenwood Springs commands a powerful place in the hearts – and legal hierarchy – of West Slope water users.
Owned by Xcel Energy, the plant’s calls for water enhance stream flows in Grand County, benefit fish and river recreation such as rafting enterprises at Gore and Glenwood canyons, and maintain historic flows that help meet the needs of downstream towns and irrigators.
The Shoshone Station generates 14 megawatts of “green” power from flows, each megawatt of which services 1,000 customers, including industry and business.
The 1,250 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water the power plant uses is returned to the river to the benefit of others downstream.
This nonconsumptive water use makes up about 20 percent of Colorado River flows carried out of the state in an average year.
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Similar to how people become aware of water during a draught, West Slope water users became acutely aware of the Shoshone plant’s importance when in 2007 it was taken off line after one of two penstocks ruptured from corrosion, causing 8 feet of water and debris to flood the generating station and switching yard.
According to Xcel, repairs cost $12 million and the work took 10 months to complete.
During that time, reservoir operators, stewards of the endangered fish program, The Colorado River Conservation District, the Bureau of Reclamation, the state’s major water utilities and other water users came together to draw up a plan to ensure adequate flows were in the river during the absence of the Shoshone call, especially during the dryer late-summer months.
Efforts proved successful, according to Jim Pokrandt of the Colorado River District.
“Everyone cooperated to make sure there were enough flows,” he said. “The West Slope wasn’t economically damaged.”
But the concern for the aging plant hasn’t subsided, leading those west of the Divide to ponder: What if those flows connected to the most senior right in the Upper Colorado were permanently lost?
The Shoshone call “provides stable flows and provides the mechanism for some predictability,” said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District, which aims to protect Western Colorado water.
The 1,250 cfs help meet the supply demands for irrigators west of Glenwood, especially senior rights on the Colorado belonging to the Grand Valley Irrigators.
The plant’s returns to the river also help with federally mandated endangered-fish recovery in the Grand Valley.
If the Shoshone call weren’t in place – say, hypothetically, a utility like Denver Water took ownership of the power plant – there’s the possibility the senior right could be abandoned.
This could increase the opportunity for transbasin diversions, never benefiting the West Slope and beyond.
By way of a 2006 franchise agreement with Xcel Energy, Denver Water would have a fair chance to buy the Shoshone power plant and its connected water rights, were the plant to be put up for sale, according to Denver Water’s Director of Planning David Little.
For this reason, West Slope water users hope to someday gain control of the plant rather than Denver Water gaining control of it.
“The West Slope sees it as a concern in the long run,” Kuhn said. “We want to keep the plant on the river as long as we can.”
Both Little and Kuhn confirmed it is not even known if Xcel Energy wants to depart with its Shoshone power plant, especially with an increasing value in green power in Colorado.
Even so, conversations with Denver Water have been initiated about its willingness to work with a West Slope coalition of water users and county governments about the destiny of the plant, Kuhn said.
Little said negotiations involve exploring other ways the Shoshone water rights could be managed if the plant were sold; for example, storing water in existing reservoirs and releasing it when needed.
Pokrandt said a West Slope idea is figuring out how the Colorado River District could one-day continue operation of the hydro-electric plant. “It’s new legs for an old idea,” he said.
“We are looking collectively on ways to support a West Slope ownership of the Shoshone power plant,” Little said, “…ways to preserve the values that the Shoshone power plant has provided historically and figure out ways to enhance those values.
“If the mediation works out, it would be the West Slope that would have the say in the power plant,” Little said.
But before such an agreement, according to Kuhn, other parts of pending water negotiations would have to first fall into place, such as “Grand County supporting the Moffat System project.”
And, the fact remains. No matter what comes out of East and West Slope water negotiations, Xcel Energy holds the ultimate veto.
– Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail email@example.com.