The pivotal role of a tiny hydropower plant in preserving the Colorado River’s future

A sprawling water district that serves residents, ranchers and recreators on the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains is preparing to invest a mammoth $98.5 million on a tiny hydropower plant in a bipartisan, multi-sectorial effort to help secure the Colorado River’s future.

In the coming weeks, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) is expected to sign into law a comprehensive water conservation bill that would include a $20 million state contribution through the Colorado Water Conservation Board to the overall purchase of the water rights associated with the Shoshone Generating Station.

This sum would cover a significant share of the total purchase and sale agreement signed in December by the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which represents 15 counties on the Western Slope, with the Public Service Company of Colorado, a subsidiary of Xcel Energy.

The deal has earned vast support from voices that would not usually come together as a united front: the farmers, whitewater rafters and environmental advocates who may have diverse motivations, but whose efforts could safeguard the river for its 40 million users downstream.

“Every interest group out there in western Colorado who cares about the greater river — they see great advantages to preserving the flows on the river,” Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, told The Hill.

The Shoshone station, a Glenwood Springs, Colo., mainstay since 1909, has a small capacity of just 15 megawatts but is “one of the oldest hydroelectric plants in western Colorado that relies on the river flow rather than water stored in a reservoir,” according to Xcel.

As a basis of comparison, the Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell has a capacity of 1,320 megawatts, while the Hoover Dam at Lake Mead has a capacity of 2,080 megawatts, according to the federal Bureau of Reclamation. Both of those facilities do rely on water stored in reservoirs.

The importance of tiny Shoshone is tied to the Western concept of “water rights” that stems from the mid-19th century homesteading and gold rush era. Also known as “prior appropriation,” this system was built upon a first-come, first-serve hierarchy and is not based on proximity to a river — meaning that those with more “junior” status are the first to give up water during a shortage.

This approach allowed farmers, miners and other landowners to claim and divert water for “beneficial use,” such as irrigation, industry and power production. But if a decade passes without putting that right to beneficial use, the owner loses the title in what the Colorado Department of Water Resources deems a “water rights abandonment.”

Despite its small size, the Shoshone Generating Station also holds the Upper Colorado River’s most senior “non-consumptive” water right, which dictates that every drop used by the power facility must go back into the river.

But because Shoshone’s maintenance is expensive, Western Slope stakeholders have long feared that its rights could be sold to an upstream entity in the higher-populated Eastern Slope, resulting in a diversion of water that would otherwise flow downstream.

However, if the purchase agreement is finalized, it would place the power station’s rights in the public’s hands: a senior appropriation from 1902 and a second, more junior allocation from 1929.

The retention of Shoshone’s senior status, Mueller explained, would prevent the river from being “siphoned out of the headwaters.” Secure river flow would also strengthen the fish population, supporting the survival of both sport fishing and endangered animals, he said.

Mueller emphasized the need to further the success of a federal, state and community partnership initiative called the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, which has helped revive floundering fish populations.

A robust river would also give reliable access to high-quality resources to both farmers who irrigate their lands and cities that withdraw and then discharge treated water into the system, Mueller explained. The knock-on effects, he added, would persist downstream, by preventing cuts from the physical amount of water flowing “from the headwaters all the way to Lake Powell.”

“By preserving this right, we are assisting the functioning of the entire Colorado River system,” he said.

The deadline for closing the transaction is Dec. 31, 2027, by which time the Colorado River District must not only secure all the necessary funding, but it also must negotiate what’s called “an instream flow agreement” with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

In simpler terms, the parties need to redefine what constitutes a “beneficial use” for the Shoshone water rights. While the Colorado River District plans to lease the water to Xcel for now, cessation of power generation for more than a decade would currently lead to a water rights abandonment.

The board has been approving instream flows, natural flows for environmental purposes, as a beneficial use since 1973.  But such authorizations must occur in one of Colorado’s “water courts,” specialized forums that preside over each of the state’s seven river basins.

Mueller explained that the Colorado River District is now working with the state and plans to file a request in water court to add this new beneficiary to the existing decree, while maintaining the same 1902 senior appropriation date.

Doing so, Mueller reiterated, would be vital for any future incident in which hydropower production is suspended.

“This instream flow will remain in place and will keep the river functioning and flowing the exact same way that it has for the last 120 years,” he said.

Hattie Johnson, Southern Rockies restoration director for American Whitewater, echoed these sentiments, noting that “having a flowing, functioning, healthy river helps everybody.”

Johnson, whose organization promotes river conservation and safe recreation, noted that such a waterway is “a fun one to paddle on,” emphasizing how those who do recreate on rivers “are empowered and excited to protect” them.

As far as funding is concerned, the Colorado River District has collected a sizable number of pledges toward the $98.5 million total sales price — plus an additional $500,000 in transaction costs — but still has some fundraising to do.

By the end of last month, the partners had raised $48.05 million, including the $20 million from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, $20 million from the district’s Community Funding Partnership and the remainder from Western Slope communities.

The buyers are hoping to secure the remaining $49 million through the Bureau of Reclamation, with $4 million possibly coming from Inflation Reduction Act funds designated for drought mitigation.

“We think there’s incredible value to the federal government from this transaction,” Mueller said.

Johnson, meanwhile, expressed hopes that the message of cross-sectoral support “is received across the board.” Recognizing that there is still much to accomplish, she described the efforts to date as “a really cool example of what folks can do when they come together on something.”

The partnership to protect the Shoshone water rights developed following more than a century of debate and looming uncertainty over Eastern versus Western slope usage of the Colorado River.

“The legal right to appropriate and transport water from one watershed to another has been attacked since statehood,” water rights lawyer Jim Lochhead said in a 1987 article on the subject.

Such challenges, he explained, stem back to an 1882 case in which judges recognized “Colorado’s arid nature and the ‘imperative necessity’ of allowing diversion of water for beneficial use elsewhere.”

“The Eastern Slope is relatively arid, whereas the Western Slope provides a snowpack which sustains the entire Colorado River,” Lochhead wrote.

Because the Eastern Slope also “holds the bulk of the state’s population and economic activity,” it has “outstripped its local water supply” with growth, causing officials to look toward the Western Slope for more resources.

Part of the reason it is so important to the Colorado River District to secure the Shoshone rights is due precisely to these circumstances — concerns that in the case of a future sale, Front Range communities on the Eastern Slope might rush to ramp up their water security, Mueller explained.

While Mueller credited Denver for already developing a robust water portfolio, he looked toward areas south of the capital, such as Douglas County, that are actively seeking alternate supplies.

“Let me be really clear, we don’t want to deprive any of our population centers or cities or industries of water — we understand how connected we are,” Mueller said.

“We also think there are responsible ways we can all develop, as we continue to grow to make sure that we live within the means of the Colorado River.”

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