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A small hydroelectric plant with big water rights is the center of a proposal to keep Colorado River water in the state

A coalition of anglers, growers and water districts in the region say preserving the water right would aid them long into the future, but a major state water agency has big questions
Shoshone Dam, here on Aug. 13, 2021, near Glenwood Springs, is generating electricity through its turbines on the Colorado River. The dam and power plant near the Hanging Lake parking area was constructed in the early 1900s. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

A Western Slope coalition is making a play to buy the water rights of a small hydropower plant with a big role in how water moves across Colorado. If the group succeeds, farmers, water providers, anglers and rafters say they could sleep more easily for years into the future.

“Any kind of an agreement that would take the unknown out of the situation is a relief and allows me to sleep at night,” said Ken Murphy, who owns the rafting company Glenwood Adventure Company. “Recreation is only one aspect to this, and we’re just a small aspect of this, but a very important aspect in our local community.”

The Shoshone Power Plant, owned by Xcel Energy, is small compared with some of the company’s other power plants, but its right to water on the Colorado River is one of the oldest and largest within state lines. Local economies and communities from Glenwood Springs to Grand Junction are dependent on consistent flows out of the plant and have been worried for decades about another entity snapping up the Shoshone water rights and siphoning off their water supply.

The coalition, led by the Colorado River Water Conservation District, wants to buy the water rights for $98.5 million and lease them back to Xcel, a move it believes would protect the water and keep it in the river forever. The negotiations are in the early stages, and state officials are weighing some fundamental questions about the agreement. But the decadeslong effort to purchase the rights seems to be experiencing a moment of “convergence” that has Western Slope water users feeling hopeful.

“Today, we really are at a historic moment in our pursuit of Shoshone permanency,” said Peter Fleming, general counsel for the Colorado River District. His comments came Wednesday at a meeting of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, or CWCB. The coalition has asked the water agency for a $20 million grant to help fund the purchase.

The partners have a willing seller in Xcel, support from 17 municipalities and water providers across Western Colorado and access to “incredible” federal and state funding opportunities, he said.

“This is a big convergence that, in my long time at the river district, we’ve never come close to,” Fleming said.

Some board members asked how they could show support without tying up $20 million during a tight budget year. Others said they understood just how important Shoshone was to water on the Western Slope.

When you live along the main stem of the Colorado River, Shoshone is central to how the whole river system is managed.

“It’s how we all live,” said Paul Bruchez, a board member and rancher near Kremmling.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser questioned how the agreement would work, especially the portion related to instream water rights. State law says the CWCB is the only entity in Colorado that can own that type of water right. But as proposed, the river district would hold the title to the right, while assigning its management to CWCB in perpetuity. That’s not how things are ordinarily done, Weiser said.

“An alternative structure could easily be: Xcel doesn’t sell the right, which would then be held by the state as an instream flow right, until it’s done with it,” Weiser said during the meeting. “That would achieve the same result.”

“If we could convince the seller,” Fleming responded.

The board did not vote on the deal or discuss whether it would help fund the effort Wednesday. The deal is still in draft form, but the river district staff hopes it will be able to finalize the purchase and sale agreement in January.

It could take one or two years to wrap up the whole process. After the purchase agreement comes consultation with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and a water court case to legally update the water right – not to mention pulling together millions of dollars.

Why fight for Shoshone

Western Slope water users are hopeful that the deal will go through. They’ll support anything that keeps water flowing west, many said.

“It would guarantee there’s going to be water available for Western Slope agriculture in the mainstream of the Colorado Basin,” said Steve Child, a rancher and Pitkin County commissioner. “To me, it’s as close as you could come to a guarantee that we could keep irrigated agriculture going in this part of Western Colorado.”

The Shoshone Power Plant, about 8 miles east of Glenwood Springs, has been sitting on the Colorado River since the early 1900s, although the generating station and its two turbines are easily ignored by drivers speeding down Interstate 70.

The power plant helps bring consistent flows to hundreds of downstream users. There are approximately 140 water diversions that have over 600 combined water rights on the Colorado River main stem below the Shoshone Power Plant and above the Cameo Diversion where the Grand Valley Canal and Grand Valley Project water rights are taken, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

Glenwood Adventure’s Murphy said his business depends on the river. He runs rafting trips on the Colorado River downstream from Shoshone. The flows are consistent enough for him to be able to book trips a year or two in advance, which is key for his business.

The rafting season is also long, sometimes lasting from late March to the end of October. That’s helpful for his employees, many of whom work the ski slopes in the winter and want to work in the recreation industry year-round.

“Mother Nature is our boss, and there’s nothing consistent these days with Mother Nature,” Murphy said. “Any conversations or agreements that can come out to give us consistent flows, then we can manage our operations a little bit easier.”

For water providers, more water in the river equals better water quality, which makes it easier to treat for drinking water or to comply with wastewater treatment standards.

The Ute Water Conservancy District pulls from the river as a backup water source for 88,000 people in the Grand Junction area. The district, which drew water from the river for the first time in 50 years in 2021, joined the coalition to purchase the Shoshone water rights to keep the status quo and to preserve water flows for the Western Slope.

“It’s important because it provides the flow of water through all of Western Colorado,” said Larry Clever, the district’s general manager. “The big advantage to us is, it helps the irrigators down here with water quality and volume.”

Downstream, steady flows are vital for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, which runs along a 15-mile stretch of the river near Palisade.

The Colorado River District estimated that, in dry years, Shoshone sends 41,000 acre-feet to 86,000 acre-feet of water through the reach that wouldn’t otherwise be there. That equates to about 17% to 50% of the actual flow on that stretch of the river, Mueller said.

One acre-foot can provide a yearlong supply of water for two to three households.

Colorado water users are required to comply with the Endangered Species Act, and Andy Mueller, general manager of the river district, said Shoshone’s water rights can help Colorado fulfill that obligation.

“Keeping those fish thriving and being successful with that program as we have been over the last 40 years really rests on the back of the Shoshone Power Plant,” he said.

Ryan Davis, owner of Hookers Fly Shop, books trips on the Colorado River from Glenwood Canyon to Rifle.

When water is low and warm, the company can’t use the Colorado River at all because it is closed to protect fish populations, Davis said. During closures, all of the outfitters head to the Roaring Fork River, which leads to lines of boats waiting to launch and overfishing on the river, he said.

He and his team end up telling customers about the river conditions and leave it up to them to confirm the booking. Sometimes customers choose not to, he said.

“A lot of our customers only want to fish on the Colorado, so we book them to take them on the Colorado. If it’s too low or too warm, we can’t take them there,” Davis said. “It does cut into our business quite a bit.”

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