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Dam of questions breaks around hydropower plan for one-of-a-kind canyon in western Colorado

Creating Xcel’s renewable energy “battery” in Unaweep Canyon could put part of the rare two-mouthed canyon underwater

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UNAWEEP DIVIDE — The honey bees are over there, by the organic garden. The peregrines nest up on the cliffs. A mess of metates — Native American grinding stones — are over in the dense pinion. Every winter the elk gather in the meadow below the granite cliffs. There’s a table up in those cliffs, for “sunset dinner on the rocks,” said Paul Ashcraft. 

“Man, I love this place,” he said, showing visitors around the home he built in 2009 on 33 acres at the top of Unaweep Canyon. The walls of his house are thick and energy efficient. The place sips propane to stay warm. He’s cleared all the beetle-kill trees away from his home in case of fire. 

“I feel like I’ve done everything right here,” he said. “And now here comes the biggest threat. A power company. And I’m not sure my house will survive.”

A few months ago, Ashcraft and several of his neighbors at the highest point in Unaweep Canyon saw a plan proposed by Xcel Energy to build a hydro power plant that will help the company reach its renewable energy goals. The plan put a 75-foot dam holding back the edge of an 88-acre reservoir in Ashcraft’s front yard. The proposal also puts his neighbors’ homes and Colorado 141 underwater. 

Paul Ashcraft’s home, at right, and James Farkas’s home, at left, inside Unaweep Canyon. Xcel Energy is seeking a preliminary permit to study the possibility of a pumped-storage hydropower project on this site in the Unaweep Canyon. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The plan would move water between a reservoir on BLM land on top of the cliffs and a reservoir on private land on the valley floor. In times of the day and year when the flow of solar and wind energy ebb, water would zoom 4,900 feet downhill in buried tunnels and turn turbines to create electricity. When wind and solar are strongest, powerful pumps would move the water back up to the top reservoir, ready to deliver another round of energy on demand. Renewable energy folks call pumped storage facilities a battery because they deliver energy when needed in the evening when solar and wind generators fade. 

Pumped storage hydro facilities consume more energy than they create when they pump that water uphill. So it’s not a very efficient battery. But it does create energy when other renewables can’t. 

Xcel Energy sketched its conceptual plan for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as part of an application for a preliminary permit that would allow the company to more closely study the site for a power plant that would produce 800 megawatts of electricity an hour for 8 to 10 hours a night. That’s enough to power about 326,000 homes when power from solar and wind is not as robust.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The map Xcel provided to FERC sketches the Unaweep Pumped Storage Hydropower Project overlapping acreage owned by 11 homeowners in the canyon and many acres of Bureau of Land Management land.

And the bottom reservoir is positioned at the very top of a geologic wonder that has impressed scientists for decades. The Ute translation of Unaweep is “parting waters” or “canyon with two mouths.” The canyon has streams that flow both east to the Gunnison River and west to the Dolores River. It’s a geologic marvel that makes the two-exit canyon the only one of its kind in the world. 

“The very part of this canyon that makes it an anomaly will be destroyed for this? I feel like this whole thing just hasn’t been thought through,” says Ashcraft, kicking through sage near a small pond he built to capture snowmelt for wildlife he watches from a tripod-mounted spotting scope in his living room. “It would be a travesty to lose this place. Everyone, not just me, would lose if this place is swamped.” 

Paul Ashcraft and Amy Lambert in front of their home on May 12. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

First valleywide gathering in a while was not for fun

A few dozen canyon residents — Unaweepers, they call themselves — gathered at the Gateway Community Center later that afternoon. They hugged and chatted, relishing a valleywide get-together that hasn’t happened as frequently as they would like in recent years. 

But this was not fun. Faces were stern as everyone settled into folding chairs under the fluorescent lights. 

“I want to dispel any rumors that bulldozers are coming,” said Brad McCloud, Xcel Energy’s head of community relations for the Western Slope. 

McCloud brought Xcel executives from company headquarters in Minneapolis and Denver to the meeting. After a brief introduction to the project proposal, he addressed 23 questions submitted by neighbors and then volleys of occasionally passionate pleas. He and the executives used the words “conceptual” and “preliminary” dozens of times.  

Xcel Energy is seeking a preliminary permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to study the possibility of a pumped-storage hydropower project in Unaweep Canyon south of Grand Junction. (Xcel Energy / FERC filing)

This is the start of a very long process, McCloud said. If Xcel gets the preliminary permit from FERC, which is likely, the company would study the plan for three years. If Xcel files for a license through FERC, that’s another two to three years and would include environmental review with the Bureau of Land Management. All those years would involve more public meetings and chances for residents to voice concerns. And if that process eventually leads to a licensed project, construction would take another four years. 

“This is far from the only bite of the apple you are going to get,” said McCloud, who hoped to keep tempers dampened this early in the process.  

The company’s early plan calls for five wells next to the Gunnison River near Whitewater that would pump up to 800 gallons per minute to fill the hydro-power system. The water would follow about 19 miles of new pipeline and it would take about a year to move 6,900 acre-feet into the reservoirs. About 45 days a year the wells would pump an annual 673 acre-feet to replenish water lost from evaporation on the two reservoirs. 

McCloud said Xcel studied different locations, but “the number of feasible sites for a project of this size is extremely limited.” The utility abandoned possible locations in Garfield County after finding issues with soils. 

Xcel Energy spokesman Brad McCloud listens to a resident during a public meeting on May 12 in Gateway. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The company needs a location that does not impact an active water source. There must be enough land to build two reservoirs. There can’t be too much or too little space between the impoundments. It can’t involve land managed by the Forest Service, which does not allow new utility scale power plants. The soils and geology have to work. There has to be available water rights. There must be rights of way to allow for many miles of 120-foot transmission towers. 

“We did not find another project that ranked any higher at this preliminary level,” McCloud said, noting that Xcel does not have any other location under consideration for the hydro plant that would push Xcel closer to its goal of providing coal-free energy by 2050. 

Xcel, the largest electricity provider in Colorado with 1.5 million customers, plans to spend $1.6 billion on the project, which would be the utility’s second pumped hydro storage plant in the state. Xcel’s Cabin Creek facility above Georgetown opened in 1967 and drops water 1,500 vertical feet to generate up to 324 megawatts of electricity. 

Residents asked about light pollution and noise. What about emergency vehicles stuck in construction traffic on the stretch of Colorado 141 where cell phones don’t work? What would the fencing look like? How is the company going to get the right of way for transmission towers along a route designated by the state department of transportation as one of 13 Scenic and Historic Byways in the state? What about endangered wildlife in the canyon? 

These are the details that will be determined in those years of review and study, the executives said, apologizing for saying “preliminary” and “conceptual” so many times.

“Just by announcing this there’s a cloud over our properties.”

The Xcel executives said it’s been a while since the utility launched a new major power generation facility. It doesn’t have detailed processes for how it will address landowner issues for a project that will likely use eminent domain to acquire land and rights of way. 

“We hope to destroy no homes,” McCloud said. “This is just so preliminary. We may come back in a year and tell you we will not be moving forward.”

One resident asked if it’s even possible for landowners to successfully fight a utility pursuing national energy goals. (It is: Reclusive conservationist and billionaire financier Louis Bacon in 2013 beat back state approval of a transmission line to move Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation solar power across his sprawling Trinchera Ranch in the San Luis Valley.)

“I realize the uncertainty and ambiguity is not welcomed,” said Terri Eaton, the director of regulatory administration and compliance at Xcel. “But this project is really early and we have a whole lot of work to do to even figure out if this makes sense at all.”

The meeting grew heated when residents described the shadow the project had placed over their properties. Xcel will have to acquire all the properties inside the project boundary. 

“Just by announcing this there’s a cloud over our properties now,” said James Farkas, who lives part of the year next door to Ashcraft and will lose his entire property if the project moves forward as planned. Farkas has scientific questions about the size of the project. He wonders why it needs to be so big. He calls it “the Chernobyl of pumped-hydro storage facilities.”

“Are they trying to achieve all their renewable hydro-power here?” Farkas asked.

Amy Lambert, Ashcraft’s girlfriend, said they felt “held hostage” by Xcel’s plan.

“We can’t sell it. We might not be able to keep it,” she said. “This thing is here, in our lives, all day, every day. It never goes away. Every time we look out the window, it’s threatening us.”

James Farkas hikes above his home in the Unaweep Canyon. The proposed reservoir is planned in the flat area in background. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Paul Ashcraft throws a toy frisbee with his dog on their property. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

One man who owns a gravel mine along the route where Xcel hopes to pipe water and install transmission lines promised he would not approve any easement granting access to his mine land and wondered if his mining permit rights might trump a utility’s eminent domain. 

“Is it worth it to remove people from their homes and displace people just to meet renewable energy goals?” another man asked. 

Xcel executives suggested it is. 

“The federal government wants to see new pumped storage projects in terms of the value they bring in reaching zero-carbon goals,” Eaton said.  

Colorado air quality regulators are ordering closure of three coal-fired power plants by 2028 to help the state meet greenhouse reduction targets. Xcel has promised to close its coal-burning Comanche 3 power plant — the largest remaining coal-fired plant in the West and by far the largest polluter in the state — by 2035. Colorado law requires all utilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2030 and Xcel plans to be 100% carbon free by 2050. 

McCloud said the preliminary permit from FERC is a “place holder” that gives the utility time to study pumped storage hydro without competitive pressure from other utilities or speculators who are scouring Colorado for locations to anchor lucrative renewable energy projects.

Utilities are scrambling to get renewable energy projects online to meet those goals. Will Toor, the head of the Colorado Energy Office, said the state sees pumped hydro storage as a “useful technology” but one that is limited due to Colorado’s topography and tight federal-private land ownership. 

“In principle we think pumped storage is a viable approach if the local impacts can be addressed,” Toor told an economic development group in Grand Junction earlier this year. 

Should rural Colorado sacrifice for urban consumers?

The farm where Janie VanWinkle was born and raised is underwater in Xcel’s Unaweep proposal. The influential rancher, who serves as president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, traces her family’s roots back to the pastures on Unaweep Divide where Ashcraft, Farkas and 10 others have homes. 

She stills runs cattle and grows hay on her family’s last parcel up there. 

“It’s an integral part of our ranching operations. Without it we could not do what we do,” said the lifelong rancher. “It’s a pretty special place for a lot of different people.”

But it’s too early to freak out, VanWinkle said. She’s reached out to Xcel, the BLM and Mesa County leaders and “there are more questions than answers,” she said. 

“And squeezing harder is not getting those answers,” she said. “Am I concerned? Absolutely. Am I spending every waking moment worrying about it? No. I have bigger fish to fry right now.”

But VanWinkle sees this as yet another trampling of the Western Slope by Front Range interests. 

“This is rural Colorado footing the bill and making the sacrifices for urban consumers. That’s what I see as the biggest issue around all this,” she said.

Janie VanWinkle at work moving the cattle near Whitewater in 2021. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

VanWinkle said residents need to be strategic in the coming years of opposition. They need to find partners, like rock climbers who flock to the canyon and supporters of the scenic highway program. This is bigger than energy needs or clean technology. 

“There are bigger factors here than ‘not in my backyard.’ The geologic uniqueness of this place needs to be considered. The rural Colorado piece is important,” she said. “There are a lot of people who care deeply for Unaweep Canyon and we need to be strategic in including them in how we go about this fight.”

Tempers are raw in Unaweep Canyon, but they are not erupting. Yet. 

The meeting earlier this month was civil. There wasn’t any shouting or name calling. But there will be many more meetings to come and residents are digging in for battle. 

“What would you do if this was your home? Would you fight?” resident Dean Rickman asked McCloud and the Xcel executives. They declined to say for sure, but Rickman pressed. 

“I probably would,” McCloud said. 



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