Power, water – and money
Denver has built itself into a corner, a very dry corner. Denver needs water, especially during drought years. One very attractive source is the Shoshone hydroelectric plant in Glenwood Springs.Xcel Energy acquired the Shoshone power plant through a series of mergers in the 1990s. The plant is valuable, not only because it has produced clean, sustainable electricity for nearly a century, but because it comes with the most senior water right on the Colorado River -1902.Denver covets that senior water right for a transmountain diversion to the Eastern Slope, which Xcel is willing to enable by reducing Shoshone’s water use at certain times. This means curtailing energy production at the power plant, which is a worthwhile tradeoff since the company derives more income from the transfer of water than on what it loses in hydropower generation.The impact of that seemingly sound business decision is felt downstream on the Colorado River and also upstream in the Roaring Fork and Crystal valleys. When Denver takes water from Shoshone, it also takes from all water users down the line who depend on the river for municipal, agricultural, environmental and recreational uses. Shoshone’s senior rights could trump junior water rights if calls are made in low-water years.Shoshone’s senior water right is traditionally nonconsumptive because, as a power plant, it cycles water through its turbines, returning it to the river. But when that water is removed upstream, it becomes a consumptive use. Less water flows by Glenwood, where the Yampa Hot Springs naturally discharges 1,000 tons of salt per day into the river.The resulting salinity of the Colorado River makes drinking water less palatable in downriver communities that face additional costs treating salty water. This raises rates for customers and has the potential to corrode pipes and poison irrigated land with salt.In the spring of 2003, Xcel agreed to relax the Shoshone call so that reservoirs like Green Mountain, Dillon and Williams Fork could refill. This caused problems for downstream municipal diverters like Rifle and Silt. Now there is talk of relaxing the call annually. Municipalities are not the only concerned parties. Since local ranchers depend on river water to irrigate their fields, and because their rights are junior to Shoshone’s, they may face shortfalls when calls are made.”Folks are really scared about the agreement,” Dave Merritt, chief engineer of the river district, told the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. “It has the potential to impact things very heavily, and we’re trying to go through and identify to Denver all of the potential land mines out there.”The diversion also reduces the amount of clean, renewable energy produced at Shoshone. Instead of reaping those benefits for its energy customers, Xcel reaps the benefits of overdevelopment on the Front Range where Denverites water bluegrass lawns.According to the Daily Sentinel, Dave Little, manager of water resources at Denver Water, has suggested an even larger diversion than the one in 2003. “Relaxation of the call,” he is quoted, “seems to us to be a common-sense alternative to more expensive, complex and difficult forms of drought protection.”That may be fine for Denver, but local and downstream impacts may not justify the de-watering of Shoshone. Glenwood’s clean, renewable energy production, for which the water was originally intended, is at risk. So are all Western Slope water users dependent on Western Slope water.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.
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