Water interests hope to buoy raft firms
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Water managers on both sides of the Continental Divide are scrambling to keep Colorado River rafting companies afloat during their peak summer season.
Officials with the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District and Denver Water say they are looking into ways to maintain adequate flows on the river despite the recent shutdown of the Shoshone power plant in Glenwood Canyon because of a ruptured supply pipe.
The hydroelectric plant has a senior water right on the river, and traditionally that has guaranteed sufficient flows downstream to support a rafting industry in Glenwood Springs that provides 72,000 trips a year. Another 50,000 people make private trips on that stretch of river, said Rich Doak, recreation program manager for the U.S. Forest Service, which regulates commercial rafting in the canyon.
About a dozen outfitters operate on the river in Glenwood Canyon, and combined they make $2 million in direct revenues off those trips each year, Doak said. Representatives for several of those outfitters appeared at a meeting of the river district board Tuesday afternoon at the Hotel Colorado to voice concern about possible lower flows due to the plant problems.
They also heard river district general manager Eric Kuhn express hope that water managers can find a way to keep river levels high enough for the industry’s needs.
“I think that’s something we can work out, but that remains to be seen. We know that there’s a short time frame and the river’s dropping fast,” Kuhn said.
He said he thinks he has an agreement with Chips Barry, manager of the Denver Water Board, to work on a target of keeping at least 1,250 cubic feet of water flowing through Glenwood Canyon through Labor Day, which is near the end of the rafting season.
Bob Harris, owner of Blazing Adventures based in Snowmass Village, told the river district board that a flow below 1,000 cfs “pretty much puts us out of business.”
Dave Merritt, the district’s chief engineer, said the river was flowing at more than 1,400 cfs Tuesday but was heading down fairly quickly. With the spring runoff season over, the river is expected to continue dropping unless action is taken.
The Shoshone plant shut down June 20 after a penstock that supplies water to it ruptured. Xcel Energy, which owns the plant, is working on repairs, but Kuhn said that’s expected to take several months, or even longer.
The problem has complicated management of water in western Colorado for numerous reasons. Water used by the power plant also helps to provide adequate flows for endangered fish recovery in the Grand Junction area. Merritt said water rights and instream flow programs upstream also have been developed on the assumption that the Shoshone plant is using its water.
“We’re in a real delicate balance here, and Shoshone kind of holds everything together,” Merritt said.
Irrigators in the Grand Junction area also hold senior water rights that can help maintain flows higher up the Colorado River. But whether they have to issue their so-called “Cameo” call to release upstream water to meet their entitlement depends on water conditions each season. Also, that call often comes later in the summer, but the rafting industry needs water sooner.
The river district directly controls only one reservoir, Wolford Mountain near Kremmling. As a result, a lot of its efforts to deal with the Shoshone problem involve lobbying other water entities.
“Our goal is to cajole, encourage, push, whatever – embarrass, whatever is necessary to keep flows in the 1,200 to 1,300 cfs range in Shoshone,” Kuhn said.
While Denver Water appears to be willing to help out, “we’ve got to figure out actually how to do it,” Kuhn said.
One issue to be resolved surrounds releasing water from reservoirs for recreation uses. Kuhn wants to make sure the state engineer doesn’t say that isn’t a beneficial use, and that reservoir operators can’t refill their reservoirs if they contribute water to the rafting industry.
In a phone interview, Barry said Denver Water’s concern is that releasing water from its Williams Fork Reservoir for any purpose – agricultural, industrial or recreational – could be deemed to be inconsistent with its water rights decree.
“I’m not going to get stuck in that box and so we’re going to need a written agreement from the state engineer on that,” he said.
He said Denver Water is willing to try to be a partner in dealing with the Shoshone situation, as long as other water entities pitch in as well. He doesn’t feel the goal should be to supply all the water that would flow based on Shoshone’s water rights, but he thinks Denver Water’s supplies are adequate this year to try to help address problems caused by the power plant’s outage.
“I think for this particular summer time we are in reasonably good shape. We can afford to be charitable and generous with water to help the West Slope solve a problem,” he said.
Some Western Slope water interests are worried that the Shoshone incident could lead to Xcel closing the plant permanently. But Kuhn said the utility has told him it is working on reopening it.
Despite the plant’s old age and limited power generation, Merritt said it helps Xcel meet its requirements for alternative energy production as required by state Amendment 37.
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