Shoshone Power Plant Breakdown

Posted: Mar 14, 2008
Written by: 
Joe Reiter, Lauren Ris, and Doug Kenney
 Upper Colorado River in Glenwood Springs
Photo by Bill Park

Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, U.S Bureau of Reclamation, Denver Water, Colorado River Water Conservation District, Grand Valley Water Users Association, Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, Grand Valley Irrigation Company, Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

History: On June 20, 2007, a section of a major water line ruptured at Xcel’s Shoshone Hydroelectric Power Plant in Glenwood Springs, CO.  As a result, the plant—which produces up to 15 megawatts of hydroelectric power (enough to power over 16,000 homes)—closed for several months just as high spring river flows began to recede.  Through the complicated process by which water rights are allocated and hydroelectric power is generated, the power line rupture resulted in much more than just a gap in the power production, it temporarily shuffled water availability throughout the state, threatening the river flows needed both by endangered species and by recreationalists.

The importance of the Shoshone plant in shaping water availability lies in the fact that the facility has senior rights (dating back to 1902) that are downstream of many other junior users, including several on Colorado’s Front Range, which ensures a steady year-round flow of water across most of western Colorado.  During the summer and fall months when the river is at its lowest, operation of the Shoshone Plant forces upstream junior water users to reduce consumption or replace the water they take with reservoir storage.

One of the major beneficiaries of this arrangement is the environment.  The Colorado River is home to four endangered fish species: Humpback Chub, Pikeminnow, Razorback Sucker, and Bonytail. Altered river flows from dams and diversions coupled with competition with as many as 40 non-native fish species have severely threatened the native fish habitat on the Colorado River.  The Shoshone water right helps meet the flow targets needed to maintain native fish habitat set by the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, a coalition of federal, state and private organizations within Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. It also, inadvertently, supports a successful rafting industry in Glenwood Springs. Approximately one dozen rafting outfitters operate on the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon accounting for 72,000 trips a year and $2 million in direct revenue. Individuals make 50,000 private trips per year on the same stretch of river.  Both environmental and recreational interests feared the temporary closure of the Shoshone plant would eliminate these benefits.

Accomplishments: The 2006 and 2007 winter provided a healthy snowpack in the Colorado River headwaters that left most reservoirs at or above average capacity. Without the Shoshone power plant online, reservoir managers temporarily had no legal obligation to make downstream releases for the facility, and after several years of drought, managers were reluctant to voluntarily give up water storage.  However, several pieces were already in place to pursue a collaborative solution.  First, the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, in operation since 1988, provided a tested framework for cooperative action.  Second, Xcel, Denver Water, and western slope water interests had already pioneered the use of temporary operating rules during the drought years of 2002 and 2003 to meet pressing Front Range water supply needs.  And third, water users, reservoir owners, and other interested parties had already been holding weekly telephone conferences for years to discuss water releases relative to the needs of Shoshone and endangered fish species. Collectively, these efforts helped establish the relationships, trust, and respect amongst the parties that was fully tested during the Shoshone power plant breakdown.

 Shoshone Hydroelectric Power Plant
Photo courtsey of the Colorado River Water Conservation District

In the end, junior water users normally subject to the Shoshone water demand partnered together to solve the river flow dilemma. The Bureau of Reclamation, Denver Water, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District combined to allocate 28,500 acre feet of water to help stabilize Colorado River flows, primarily to protect endangered fish, but also benefiting the rafting industry. The one-time agreement specified 1,200 cfs flows through Glenwood Canyon to benefit rafters and flows above 810 cfs in the Grand Valley for endangered fish. Environmental and recreational flow targets were met.  Repairs on the power plant are scheduled for completion in spring 2008 at a cost of $12 million.

Key to making the deal work was the wet winter.  As Kara Lamb, spokeswoman for the U.S Bureau of Reclamation, observed: “When Shoshone went off this year, the Blue River had a really huge year in snowpack, so we were looking at a full Green Mountain [Reservoir] and a full Dillon reservoir. We had all this water up there.”  Still, the decision by the water agencies to voluntarily give up water to serve instream uses was significant, as observed by Patty Gelatt, a biologist for the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, who lauded the water managers who chose to “step up to the plate and take some voluntary actions.”  As she noted, “Technically, under Colorado water law, they didn’t have to do that.”

Challenges: Several legal constraints made it very difficult to guarantee that the donated water would reach its intended destination, as Colorado water law provides that any water released for non-decreed reasons instantly becomes “system water” available to users with the highest priorities. Therefore, water released from the headwater reservoirs was not automatically protected against diversion during the three to four day transit period downstream to Grand Valley.  This issue was addressed by a combination of strategies, from scheduling releases during periods of low diversions, to arranging short-term water delivery contracts with users in the Grand Valley downstream of the target river stretches.

This agreement marks a truly special moment of collaboration amongst water users in a state infamous for water conflicts. Thanks to above average winter snowpack, a recent history of cooperation between water users, and sincere generosity, significant environmental and recreational impacts were avoided.  Given the central role of the Shoshone Power Plant water right in shaping water supplies throughout Colorado, the pressure to negotiate additional deals—both temporary and permanent—is inescapable.  Hopefully, the experience of the Shoshone Power Plant breakdown has strengthened the foundations for additional collaborative solutions.

For more information see:

Colorado Water Conservation Board

Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program

Colorado River Water Conservation District

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