River district: Stand tall to protect call

Post Independent Staff

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – The Colorado River Water Conservation District board unanimously voted Tuesday to recommend that Xcel Energy refuse to relax its controlling water right for the Shoshone hydroelectric power plant.

In the face of a record drought, Denver Water and other Front Range water users have suggested that the power plant in Glenwood Canyon reduce its call for Colorado River water. That would allow more water to be stored in upstream reservoirs for Western Slope and Front Range use later this year.

While the idea seemed practical, Western Slope water users said relaxing Xcel’s water rights, among the oldest on the Colorado River, would set a dangerously adverse precedent.

“I don’t think I’ve heard enough support from the Western Slope to take the call off for the winter months,” River District manager Eric Kuhn said.

The Colorado River District covers 15 Western Slope counties, and is the traditional defender of Western Slope water against transmountain water diversions. Its 15-member board includes a representative from each county.

Tuesday’s River District board decision is not binding – the water right is privately owned by Xcel and can be used as the utility sees fit – but Kuhn said it is unlikely the water right will be relaxed without support from the district and Western Slope communities.

But others worried that Denver Water could lobby Xcel to relax its call for water and let the reservoirs fill.

“Denver could do it unilaterally, but it would be difficult,” Kuhn said. “I don’t think that’s going to be the case.”

Mark Waage of Denver Water said while Denver is “committed to working with the Western Slope,” the drought is extremely severe. He made no promises that Denver Water would refrain from acting unilaterally.

Xcel Energy spokesman Randy Rhodes said he’d take the information he gathered at Tuesday’s meeting to the company’s management.

The power plant holds 1905 and 1940 water rights for a total of 1,250 cubic feet per second of water, and it usually places a call on the Colorado River in the winter months when flows would otherwise drop below that level.

Cubic feet per second is a measure of water moving past a point, and one cubic foot holds 7.5 gallons. In a day’s time, a flow of 1 cfs would cover a football field with 20 inches of water.

This winter, in spite of the call, Colorado River flows in Glenwood Canyon have fallen to 600 cfs because of the severe drought.

“You can’t call for water that’s not there,” said Chris Treese, spokesman for the River District.

Denver Water has proposed that Xcel drop its call for water to 500 cfs.

“Admittedly it would be a small amount gained, but after a year when we used every inch of stored water we had, we know there are times when every little bit counts,” Treese said.

Reducing the call for water in Glenwood Canyon would further lower river levels downstream.

Bill Sappington, public works director for the city of Rifle, said lower flows could affect Rifle’s water quality and its ability to pump water from the river.

Even at current levels, the water’s salinity and total dissolved solids are above standards, Sappington said. Lowering flows would only worsen that problem, he said.

The city’s intake system may have to be modified, as well, because the river is barely high enough now for the intake to gather water.

Glenwood Springs water attorney Scott Balcomb spoke firmly against relaxing the water call.

“You’re playing a game, and the minute you play with the water system, you’re destined to lose,” he said. “The fundamentally wise thing to do is stay out of the business of who gets water.”

Representatives from other communities, including Grand County, Middle Park and Glenwood Springs, also opposed the idea.

Jack Van Horn, an outfitter who works upstream of the power plant, said people in recreation businesses could be severely affected.

In the end, the board decided to carefully watch snowpack and reservoir levels and look for solutions to the water crunch.

And the River District board left the door open for discussions about relaxing the Shoshone call during spring runoff, perhaps to 700 cfs, Treese said.

In making a motion to recommend against relaxing the Shoshone call now, board member Dick Hunt of Garfield County also urged the River District staff to explore ways to address the adverse impacts that relaxing the call could have on Western Slope water users and the environment.

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