State’s two halves try to reconcile competing interests in Shoshone

The Shoshone hydroelectric power plant generates 14 megawatts of electricity from water that is diverted from the Colorado River to spin its turbines. It then is returned to the main channel. The plant’s water right ensures that the river flows to, and through, Glenwood Canyon.



052010 Shoshone Hydro Plant
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The Shoshone hydroelectric power plant generates 14 megawatts of electricity from water that is diverted from the Colorado River to spin its turbines. It then is returned to the main channel. The plant’s water right ensures that the river flows to, and through, Glenwood Canyon.

The Shoshone hydroelectric power plant in Glenwood Canyon is the Holy Grail of water politics in the Colorado River Basin, one that Western Slope water interests have a sliver of hope of getting in their grasp.

Shoshone generates 14 megawatts of electricity from water that is diverted from the Colorado River to spin its turbines. It then is returned to the main channel. Its 1902 water right ensures that the Colorado flows to — and through — Glenwood Canyon, so its value to Western Slope water users hardly can be overstated.

Shoshone “is the primary controlling senior right on the Colorado River,” Colorado River Water Conservation District spokesman Chris Treese said.

Primary control over the water right, however, resides with Shoshone’s owner, Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy. Xcel operates in Denver under a franchise agreement with Denver, whose mayor appoints Denver Water’s board of commissioners.

Denver Water depends on the Colorado River to supply its customers, sometimes in conflict with Western Slope water interests.

Denver Water and the River District have been engaged in what are termed “global settlement talks” for years about the management of the Colorado River from its headwaters to the Utah state line.

The operations of Shoshone “have inevitably arisen” in the global settlement discussions, Treese said.

Western Slope interests are hoping to include Shoshone in the global settlement talks, theorizing that Denver would be willing to influence Xcel to cede some control over Shoshone. Denver in return would get greater certainty about its share of Colorado River water.

Not that the question of who runs Shoshone is particularly new.

“It’s kind of always been out there, the issue of the Shoshone plant and what might happen if it doesn’t run,” said Jim Lochhead, a Glenwood Springs water attorney who has counted Grand Junction and other Western Slope water users among his clients.

On June 1, however, Lochhead will take over as manager of Denver Water. Lochhead was chosen to succeed Hamilton “Chips” Barry, who was to retire at the end of May. Barry died this month in an accident on his farm in Hawaii.

Discussions about who should operate Shoshone at this point are “a little bit of an academic conversation,” Lochhead said.

It could be that any hope of the River District owning Shoshone and its twin 287-foot-long, 9-foot-diameter penstocks filled with Colorado River water is nothing more than a pipe dream.

Shoshone isn’t for sale, Xcel spokesman Tom Henley said, and if it were, “We wouldn’t be negotiating in the newspapers.”

Plus, the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would have to be involved, Henley said.

The issue, however, might not be quite that cut and dried, because Denver Water and the River District each have reasons to seek an accord on the way the most powerful call on the river, Shoshone’s, is used.

“We all face an uncertain future with climate change and other things that make East and West more interdependent on each other,” Lochhead said.

Denver, Treese said, “wants long-term certainty of the water it will get from the Western Slope and how much effort it will have to put into getting it.”

One way for Denver to gain the assurances it wants could be to aid the River District with its interest in influence on the operations of Shoshone.

“I think it would be a wise move on the West Slope’s part if we could make sure that the Shoshone power plant continues to run,” said Dick Proctor, manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association. “It’s a sure, stable source of water.”

Exactly how to accomplish that is an open question, but the Western Slope’s lack of say in the management of the power plant chafes on more than just the question of the water right, Proctor said.

The century-old plant no longer is manned on a 24-hour, seven-day-a week basis, and the downstream users would prefer that people, not computers, monitor Shoshone, Proctor said.

“A human interface is always needed,” he said. “It’s a 100-year-old plant. I think we’re grateful and astonished that it’s operated for 100 years.”

Shoshone was shut down from June 2007 to May 2008 when one of the pipes, or penstocks, ruptured. The $12 million repair job included installation of a system that allows for remote operation of the plant.

It also gave Western Slope water users a peek into a future without Shoshone, and they didn’t like it.

Farmers, ranchers and fruit growers depend on the Colorado River water that passes through Shoshone for their products, and domestic-water providers such as the Clifton Water District depend on it for quantity and quality, he said.

“If Shoshone is shut down and the water taken elsewhere, we would greatly miss it,” Proctor said.

As important as Shoshone is, it is but one tributary in a rushing river of relationships between the Western Slope and Front Range water providers.

Denver is affected by the relationships between the Western Slope and the water providers in the south metro areas. The Northern Water Conservation District has a project in Grand County, one of the Western Slope’s headwaters counties. And the list goes on.

Keeping track of how everything works “is kind of like 4D chess,” Lochhead said.

The idea of a global settlement includes meeting environmental, recreation and water-quality goals, in addition to accommodating future growth on both sides of the Continental Divide, Lochhead said.

Both sides hope to reach a conclusion to the talks soon, within the next couple months, Lochhead said.

With pressure on both sides to reach a deal, the River District might have a bargaining point on Shoshone, a point Proctor said he’s eager to see pressed in the talks.

“Whether it’s doable is anybody’s guess,” Proctor said. “We have some issues to get across to begin discussion on that.”

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