Pitkin County Exploring Concern That Shoshone Deal Could Harm Roaring Fork

Pitkin County Exploring Concern That Shoshone Deal Could Harm Roaring Fork

An historic deal to put a senior water right in the hands of the Colorado River Water Conservation District has been celebrated as a victory for the Western Slope. But Pitkin County officials say there’s a chance it could harm the upper Roaring Fork River.

In December, the Glenwood Springs-based River District signed a deal with Xcel Energy to buy water rights associated with the Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon for $98.5 million. As some of the biggest and oldest non-consumptive water rights on the mainstem of the Colorado River, they ensure water keeps flowing west to the benefit of downstream users because the water runs through Shoshone’s power-generating turbines and then returns to the river.

Pitkin County’s concerns have to do with the complex interaction of the Shoshone water rights with another set of big downstream water rights known as Cameo, which are made up of Grand Valley irrigation water rights. These two senior water rights have the ability to command the flow of the Colorado River and force Front Range cities that send water from the Colorado’s headwaters across the Continental Divide to shut their diversions off.

Under Colorado’s cornerstone of water law, known as prior appropriation, oldest rights get first use of the water. When a senior water right isn’t receiving its full amount, it can place a “call.” When Shoshone, which dates to 1902, places a call, transmountain diverters like Denver Water and Northern Water have to shut off. When Cameo places a call, the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., which takes water from the top of the Roaring Fork basin to Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Aurora, has to shut off because its 1930s water rights are junior to Cameo’s 1912 water rights.

Pitkin County’s concern is that with Shoshone under new ownership — and the proposed addition of an instream flow use for the water along with hydropower — the call for the water through Glenwood Canyon could be on more often, which might delay or reduce the need for the Cameo call. Aspenites like to see the Cameo call come on because it forces the Twin Lakes diversion to shut off, which means more water flowing down the Roaring Fork, typically during a time of year in late summer and early fall when streamflows are running low and river health is suffering.

“The upper Roaring Fork lives and dies on the Cameo call because that’s what curtails Twin Lakes,” Pitkin County Attorney John Ely, who sits on the River District’s board, said in an interview with Aspen Journalism. “If the Cameo call is changed through administration of the river because there is a change in the flow going to satisfy Shoshone, then that could delay Cameo, which would prolong the operation at Twin Lakes and deplete the upper Fork.”

Pitkin County in November hired Golden-based engineering firm Martin and Wood Water Consultants to do a technical analysis and modeling of the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers. They bill in monthly installments and have charged Pitkin County $6,600 so far, according to Ely; the firm is expected to produce a report after they finish studying the issue, although Ely did not say when that would be.

Health of Roaring Fork dependent on Cameo

The River District has said the goal of owning the Shoshone right is to preserve the status quo and keep water flowing west the same way it always has. Xcel representatives have said they intend to keep operating the plant for hydropower, but the facility is old, frequently offline for repairs and located in a treacherous area of Glenwood Canyon.

Ely isn’t so sure that nothing would change. If the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) was to place a Shoshone instream flow call, it could alter the way the system has historically operated, he said. The CWCB is the only entity allowed to hold an instream flow water right, which is intended to preserve the natural environment to a reasonable degree.

“If it wasn’t going to change the administration of the river, why would anyone pay $98 million for it? … The potential for injury (to the Roaring Fork) is most definitely there,” he said.

River District General Counsel Peter Fleming said the organization is working with Pitkin County to look into the issue.

“The question has arisen and we’re working in good faith with the county to identify and resolve any concerns,” he said. “We’re going to determine whether there is an actual issue that we can accommodate.”

The Cameo call comes on most years in late summer. But it occurs for more days in dry years than wet ones. According to a database maintained by the Colorado Division of Water Resources, in 2019 and 2023 — both years with above-average snowpack and runoff — the Cameo call was on for 22 and 24 days, respectively. In 2020 and 2021 — two back-to-back below-average years — Cameo called for 88 and 75 days, respectively.

The health of the upper Roaring Fork may be more dependent on the Cameo call in drought years.

Wendy Huber is board chair of Pitkin County Healthy Rivers, a taxpayer-funded organization focused on maintaining and improving water quality and quantity in the Roaring Fork watershed that doles out grants and advises the board of county commissioners. She said Healthy Rivers needs more information from engineers about the impacts from any changes to Shoshone on the Cameo call.

“The Cameo call may allow more water to remain in the Roaring Fork to satisfy the call,” Huber said. “We need to understand the potential impact on quantity of water in our Roaring Fork Valley rivers, especially the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers.”

Ely said he is optimistic Pitkin County will reach a resolution with the River District, at which point the county would be in a position to support the Shoshone permanency campaign. The River District has committed $20 million from its own pocket, and so far has secured $20 million in funding from the CWCB and $2 million from Grand Valley domestic water provider Ute Water Conservancy District toward purchasing the Shoshone rights. It is in the process of seeking funding from other entities in its 15-county district.

“Water is just simply too scarce a resource to not be mindful that you must protect your interests,” Ely said. “We’re not looking to get in the way of Eagle and Garfield and Mesa counties protecting themselves, but we don’t want to sacrifice our river for them to be able to do so.”


By: Heather Sackett| Aspen Journalism I February 21, 2024

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