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The Shoshone plant with its 1905 water right for 1,250 cubic feet per second of Colorado River water is drawing public interest in the wake of the Xcel-Denver agreement to relax the call in low snowpack years. Read an interpretation of the agreement by the Colorado River District and the text of the agreement itself.
Shoshone disruption rattles water-rights issue
June 29, 2007
by Cathy Proctor
Western Slope water officials shuddered when a 98-year-old pipe funneling water from the Colorado River to the Shoshone power plant ruptured June 20.
It wasn't because the power plant shut down. It was the Shoshone plant's pivotal role in the complicated allocation of Colorado River water that has Western Slope officials anxious.
Here's why: The plant has a water right dating back to 1902 to pull water from the Colorado River for power generation, after which it tumbles downstream to Glenwood Springs, Rifle and the state border.
And, under Colorado water law, if the plant doesn't put the water to beneficial use, the water falls to holders next in line -- the Denver Water Board, Aurora and Colorado Springs.
The ramifications of the plant's shutdown "are huge," said Jim Pokrandt, spokesman for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which manages the river.
"Our feelings are that this is a big deal because the Shoshone basically runs the river," he said.
The hydroelectric plant is small and old, dating back to 1909. It generates just 15 megawatts of power, enough to support about 15,000 homes. The plant lies about eight miles east of Glenwood Springs on Interstate 70. Xcel Energy Inc., the state's largest utility, with about 1.3 million customers, owns it.
In the winter, the Shoshone's water right -- up to 1,450 cubic feet of water every second, of every day year-round -- is nearly all the water that's in the river at that time of year.
Even during this year's peak, during the spring runoff of melting snows, Shoshone's water right made up about 25 percent of the water in the river.
Front Range cities have eyed the plant's water right for decades.
Western Slope officials, who don't want any more water diverted to cities east of the Continental Divide, have fiercely protected that water right.
"For some on the Western Slope, the Shoshone plant is almost like a religion," said Marc Waage, director of raw water supply for Denver Water. The state's largest water provider, Denver Water has more than 1 million customers in Denver and surrounding suburbs.
The Shoshone plant's water right has priority over other rights that would send water to the Front Range, Waage said.
Once assured that no one was injured when the pipe ruptured, "the concern from our perspective was the water right," said Chris Treese, director of external affairs for the Colorado River district.
How long would the plant be down? And, more importantly, would Xcel fix it?
Treese said the district's constituents "are concerned. They all recognize the significance of the Shoshone to Western Slope water rights and the river's flow and health."
For now, Xcel says it will repair the plant.
But others are concerned that Front Range interests will use this event as an opportunity to lobby or financially encourage Xcel not to bring the power plant back online, Treese said.
Waage said he thought Western Slope officials might lobby Xcel, too.
"I think regardless of the cost of repair, the Western Slope water interests will push Xcel to fix it so it will continue to pull water downstream," Waage said. "To the Western Slope, the water right is much more valuable than the hydropower that it generates."
The ruptured water pipe sent office furniture crashing out of the plant, littering the river with office cabinets, chairs and coffee cups
-- anything that wasn't nailed down.
"Anything that would be in an office building washed out and onto the shore," said Ethnie Groves, Xcel spokeswoman.
Xcel still was cleaning mud, rocks and sand from the plant a week later, and won't assess the damage or the needed repairs until the first week in July.
But Groves was adamant that Xcel will repair the plant and return it to operation -- essentially keeping the water right intact.
"It will be repaired regardless," Groves said. "We'll return the plant to full operation."
Asked why Xcel had made such a decision before a damage assessment, Groves focused on the Shoshone plant's 15 megawatts of power.
"This is green power, and we're committed to increase our use of clean energy in Colorado," she said. "Our customers have shown a desire for us to use clean generating resources, and this is one way that we can do that."
Groves said she didn't know of any conversations between Xcel and water interests on either side of the Continental Divide.
CATHY PROCTOR | 303-837-3521 firstname.lastname@example.org
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