Shoshone plant water rights in Glenwood Canyon eyed by Colorado River District

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Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The Shoshone hydro plant in Glenwood Canyon uses water diverted from the Colorado River to make power, and it controls a key water right on the Western Slope.

The Colorado River District is renewing its efforts at preserving a major Western Slope water right: the Shoshone hydropower plant.

But this time around, under the new leadership of general manager Andy Mueller, the district’s discussions with plant owner Xcel Energy are focusing on finding a way to maintain the water right instead of purchasing outright the plant or associated water rights.

The Shoshone plant is located on the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon, upstream of Glenwood Springs and the popular Shoshone boating stretch of the river.

The plant began operating in 1909, and has a senior water right dating to 1902. That water right keeps 1,250 cubic feet per second flowing down the Colorado River.

That means upstream junior water rights holders must leave enough water in the river for Shoshone to receive its full decreed amount. It also means that full amount becomes available for downstream users.

Some Western Slope water managers fear that if Xcel were to sell the plant or discontinue generating power at the site, the guaranteed 1,250 cfs could be lost. It would be a major blow for Western Slope water users.

Library of Congress / Historical American Buildings Survey

The Shoshone hydro plant, circa 1940. The plant, which opened in 1909, carries senior water rights from 1902 for 1,250 cfs. The water right now dominates the flow regime in the Colorado River.

At the Colorado River Basin Roundtable’s meeting in May in Glenwood Springs, Colorado River District general counsel Peter Fleming delivered a history of the Shoshone hydropower plant and an update on the efforts of the river district to preserve the flows associated with the plant.

“Simply by virtue of its very senior priority and large size, it is the controlling water right on the river upstream of Glenwood Springs,” Fleming said.

He said river district officials have met with Xcel officials about five times over the past few months to talk about ways to preserve the Shoshone water right for the Western Slope, and he anticipates additional meetings in the future.

In the past, conversations have centered around the Colorado River District potentially purchasing the hydro plant from Xcel. But those talks have shifted to ways of preserving the flow without ownership changing hands.

“A lot of it is explaining to [Xcel] why this is an important issue for the West Slope and that we are not out to interfere with their business,” Fleming said. “We don’t have any interest in operating a power plant. But maybe there’s a win-win concept out there to achieve the permanency of the Shoshone flows.”

Michelle Aguayo, Colorado media relations representative for Xcel, said in a statement the company has begun discussions with the river district, 20 West Slope water providers, and government entities about the possibility of achieving permanent management of the flow of the Colorado River so that it mimics current and historic flows.

“Although Xcel Energy is willing to talk with parties that express interest, Xcel Energy wants to reiterate that this does not signal any desire or commitment to transfer or sell any rights related to the company’s assets,” the statement reads.

Mueller said he does not view Xcel’s statement as a closing of the door and remains optimistic a solution can be found.

The Minneapolis-based energy company provides electricity and natural gas to customers in eight states, including 1.5 million people in Colorado.

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The blown-out penstock in 2012 at the Shoshone hydro plant. It was a wake-up call for water managers in Colorado.

Preserving flows of the Shoshone plant has long been priority for Western Slope water managers and the Colorado River District.

In 2007, Xcel and Denver Water reached an agreement that during drought conditions, Xcel would “relax” Shoshone’s call on the river down to 704 cfs, cutting it roughly in half. The agreement allows Denver Water to fill its reservoirs earlier, which made some Western Slope water managers nervous.

Then came the 2012 Shoshone Outage Protocol, a 40-year agreement between Front Range and Western Slope water managers. It says that when the Shoshone plant is shut down for repairs, maintenance, or other reasons, the flows must still be maintained.

Colorado River Basin Roundtable member Chuck Ogilby said the Colorado River District should have played a bigger role in negotiating these deals and that the organization has not taken a strong enough lead in protecting the Shoshone flows.

Ogilby would like to see a group of Western Slope water managers attend an Xcel board meeting to lobby for protection of the Shoshone flows.

“It’s maddening to me,” Ogilby said. “They have missed the boat on this entire activity. … Now here we are trying to make up for their lack of engagement. We all pay taxes to the river district and this is the most important thing they can do and they are dragging their feet.”

That may be changing under the new leadership of Mueller, who took over in December.

“I was specifically requested by the board to lead that charge on behalf of the district, so I think yes, the discussions are reinvigorated and we feel reasonably optimistic about it,” Mueller said. “And we appreciate the willingness of Xcel to sit down and have discussions with us.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Vail Daily and the Summit Daily News on coverage of rivers and water. The Times and the Post Independent published this story on June 3, 2018.

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