Negotiations are underway in Colorado to purchase one of the oldest, largest water rights on the Colorado River within state lines, expanding that water’s legal use to include environmental benefits, and creating one of the most significant opportunities in the state to protect streamflows for fish, habitat and wildlife.
Led by the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, the proposed $98.5 million deal would allow a coalition of Western Slope entities to purchase from Xcel Energy the most senior water right on that segment of the river and lease it back to Xcel’s Shoshone Hydropower Plant 8 miles east of Glenwood Springs.
“It feels like the biggest investment we could make for water security for this side of the mountain,” said Kathy Chandler-Henry, chair of the river district board and an Eagle County commissioner. She was referring to the Western Slope of the Continental Divide.
“I know it’s a big price tag, but in the future it will feel like a bargain,” she said.
That’s true in part because the volume of water is so large. According to Colorado River District documents, the water right generates anywhere from 41,000 to 86,000 acre-feet of water in a dry year. An acre-foot equals nearly 326,000 gallons. For comparison, Cheesman Reservoir, a Denver Water reservoir 50 miles southwest of the metro area, holds 79,000 acre-feet.
Western Slope water interests have been trying for decades to find a way to purchase or at least control the Shoshone plant water right because it provides an important buffer for the river itself and for Western Slope water users, Chandler-Henry said. If another electric company or water utility won control of the water right, Western Slope interests worried that the water would not be managed in their interests.
But Xcel has never agreed to a sale of the water right and as recently as 2018 has said it wasn’t interested in changing the status quo.
Xcel declined to comment on this proposed purchase, but Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, said a draft agreement with the utility is in place and that Xcel is ready to support the change, in part to help protect the crisis-ridden Colorado River system.
“Xcel has shown a renewed interest in the health and viability of the Colorado River,” Mueller said via email.
In Colorado, water rights are tied to a particular stream segment and are regulated, or administered, based on the date they were first legally established. The Shoshone water right has a 1902 date.
Under the terms of the current proposal from the river district and its Western Slope partners, which include 17 local governments and water entities, Xcel would continue to use the water to drive the turbines in the hydropower plant. When the plant isn’t operating, if it’s temporarily shut down for repairs for instance, the water would remain in the river, protected from upstream diverters by its 1902 water right.
Denver Water is one of those upstream diverters and, in years past, when the power plant wasn’t operating, has been able to use water it would otherwise need to leave in the river to flow downstream to fulfill the plant’s more senior water right. Whether the utility will back the purchase isn’t clear. Denver Water declined to comment, saying it was waiting to learn more about the proposal.
In or out of the stream?
In the water arena, a water right can have one of several designated rights to use, including agricultural, industrial, municipal and, just since the 1970s, instream or environmental.
Water rights are also classified based on whether they take water out of the stream for the intended use, termed a consumptive use, or whether they protect water from diversion so it can continue flowing in the stream for a prescribed benefit, which is referred to as a nonconsumptive use. Most uses fall in the consumptive use category. But the Shoshone water right, because the water returns to the stream once it passes through the hydropower plant, is nonconsumptive, as are environmental and recreational flow water rights, which keep water in the stream for the benefit of fish, wildlife, habitat and recreation.
“The whole state benefits from having a good, strong environment. And because this is the most senior nonconsumptive water right on the Colorado River, its ecological and environmental benefits are huge, especially with drought and climate change,” Chandler-Henry said.
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The river district has agreed to contribute $20 million to the $98.5 million purchase, and is asking the Colorado Water Conservation Board for an additional $20 million grant. Another $10 million would be contributed by 17 governments and water agencies. The river district is seeking another $48 million from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which has $4 billion set aside for drought resiliency in the Colorado River Basin, according to the grant proposal submitted to the CWCB.
The negotiations are likely to take months, Mueller said, and will require approvals from the CWCB and potentially state legislators, as well as the Bureau of Reclamation and eventually a state water court, which will have to approve the expansion of legal uses from industrial to both industrial and environmental.
Another benefit of the Shoshone Water right is that its bountiful flows help support the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, a federal initiative that works to protect four endangered fish species on the river. Water utilities are obligated to help support the program as well and can face harsh penalties if there isn’t enough water in the stream to support the fish.
“Importantly, upstream and downstream water users all benefit from Shoshone’s contributions to the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program,” Mueller said.
A unifying effect
Environmental groups such as American Rivers see the proposed purchase as a major opportunity to help stabilize the Colorado River within state lines and across its seven-state basin.
Matt Rice is southwest regional director for American Rivers. “I see this as a real opportunity to do a really big transformative thing for the river and the state, and an opportunity to unify the state around the river. A big thing like this has a way of bringing people together,” he said.
Chuck Ogilby is a long-time river advocate and former member of the Colorado Basin Roundtable, a public group that represents local water users reliant on the Colorado River main stem within Colorado and that helps decide how state funding is spent within the basin.
“It’s the best news the Western Slope could ever have,” Ogilby said. “All we can do now is cross our fingers and hope the West Slope gets those water rights.”
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors, a list of whom can be viewed at wateredco.org.