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Tumbling rock destroys bridge to Ouray Ice Park, pipeline to the country’s oldest running hydroelectric power plant

Rockfall destruction challenges green-power provider and the nonprofit, member-supported ice park as repair costs climb.

A boulder destroyed the penstock and bridge inside the Ouray Ice Park. The pipeline supplied water to the country's oldest, continually operating hydroelectric power plant. (Eric Jacobson, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Workers arriving early at the Ouray Ice Park on Tuesday found a disaster.  

A boulder the size of a pool table had sheared off the canyon wall and destroyed the metal walkway accessing the park’s popular ice climbs. And it ripped out the penstock that ferries water to the oldest operating hydropower plant in the U.S.

“Just water squirting everywhere and the access bridge, laying at the bottom of the canyon,” said Eric Jacobson, who owns the hydroelectric plant and pipeline that runs along the rim of the Uncompahgre River Gorge. 

There used to be a walkway on top of the penstock inside the Uncompahgre River Gorge so ice climbers could access the southern portion of the Ouray Ice Park. Rockfall destroyed it Monday night. (Eric Jacobson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The rock tore through the penstock, its trestle and the decades-old steel walkway in the park’s popular Schoolroom area late Monday. There was no one in the gorge and no injuries. 

“We are incredibly fortunate it happened at night,” said the park’s executive director Peter O’Neil. 

Ice farmers stopped sculpting routes about a week ago as overnight temperatures climbed. 

“If this had happened at the start of the season, we would have lost half the ice park,” O’Neil said, describing how pipes from the destroyed penstock supplied the water to build as much as 70% of the park’s routes. “If this had happened earlier in the season, we would have been up the creek.”

Jacobson, who has leased 60 acres along the gorge to the City of Ouray for ice climbing for a dollar a year since he bought the property in 1992, has dealt with rock fall for 20 years. But those were smaller rocks and pipe damage was easy to access and fix. Monday night’s rockfall ripped out an entire section of pipe in an area where vehicles cannot reach. 

“This is probably the worst spot for replacing pipe in the gorge and certainly the biggest rockfall we’ve had,” he said. 

When the overnight temperatures are cold enough in December, January and February, a team of ice farmers use as much as 200,000 gallons of water a night trickling from the penstock to create internationally renowned ice-climbing routes. More than 15,000 climbers flock to Ouray every winter to scale the 150-foot fangs of ice, supporting the city’s winter economy. And Jacobson generates about 4 million kilowatt hours a year from water flowing into his antiquated but updated Ouray Hydroelectric Power Plant. He sells the power to the San Miguel Power Association. 

Owner and operator Eric Jacobson inside the Ouray Hydroelectric Power Plant with his dog, Cora. The electric plant was built in 1885 and is one of four of the oldest working hydroelectric power plants in the world. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The plant generates about 5% of the association’s power needs, which has a robust collection of green power sources, including several small hydropower plants and a solar array in Paradox. 

“The Ouray hydropower plant, while unfortunate, it’s not going to have a huge impact on our power or profile,” San Miguel Power Association spokesman Alex Shelley said. “We are really pulling for Eric to get it repaired and we will help in any way we can. None of us wants that plant to fall into disuse.”

Ouray Ice Park opened in mid-December and is set to close Sunday. 

In January, thousands watched the 26th annual Ouray Ice Festival online, with the world’s top ice climbers competing in the only ice climbing contest in North America this winter. The online event was supported by the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, the Colorado Office of Film, Television and Media, the Colorado Lottery, the Colorado Tourism Office and the City of Ouray. The first-of-its-kind collaboration also supported the creation of a half-hour documentary detailing the 2021 event and the history of the park. 

Jacobson is preparing a report for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on the power plant shutdown. And he’s hoping he can work with the nonprofit Ouray Ice Park Inc.board to scrape up funding to rebuild the trestle that accesses the park’s busy Schoolroom. 

When his contract with San Miguel Power expires soon, Jacobson will make 2.2 cents for every kilowatt hour of electricity he produces with water-powered turbines that have been delivering power to Ouray since the 1890s. That will provide about $100,000 in gross revenues. It costs more than that to operate, he said, so he’s got little capacity for pricey repairs. 

The main access to that part of the park was on a metal grate atop his penstock. A budget fix likely won’t be as climber-friendly and likely will not have the access bridge and pipes to feed the ice farmers. 

“We can figure out a cheap repair but I’m not sure it will be a purpose-built structure like the old one,” he said.

Climbers work their way up and down columns of ice in Box Canyon on a northern section of the Ouray Ice Park Sunday January 5, 2020. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

O’Neil met with the park board on Wednesday night. They have a lot of work ahead, he said. 

A structural engineer is estimating the cost of replacing the penstock, the climber’s walkway and the trestle that supports the steel pipeline, all of which is a mangled mess in the bottom of the gorge.

“It’s not going to be $1.98,” O’Neil said. “This is going to be expensive.”

And the repairs need to happen this summer if the park hopes to open next winter. “Otherwise, literally half the park will not open,” he said. 

Volunteers, members and industry sponsors keep the Ouray Ice Park afloat. Like public radio, O’Neil said. 

“We are going to have to put a call out to our members,” he said. “The park is free, but we need your support. Especially this year.”

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