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Boaters breath sigh of relief

David O. Williams

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Advocates for Colorado’s drought-plagued whitewater rafting industry applauded a decision Jan. 21 by the Colorado River Water Conservation District not to back a proposal to relax the Shoshone call.Heeding the objections of numerous water users along the Colorado River, the 15-county board of directors of the River District agreed to continue seeking consensus among West Slope water users as to what might ease current drought problems.But for now, they won’t support a plan by the Denver Water Board and Xcel energy to reduce winter flows through the Shoshone Power Plant in Glenwood Canyon a move officials for the Colorado River Outfitters Association (CROA) feared would set a dangerous precedent.”From our standpoint as a rafting and tourism community, we didn’t want to see any precedent set there,” says CROA board member Kevin Schneider. “If we get in a situation where they reduce the call in the summer months, the economic impacts to all of these small towns where people come to fish and raft would be significant.”Those ripple effects could reach Vail-area outfitters who rely on the Shoshone stretch of the Colorado, just below the power plant, for the bulk of their commercial runs in the summer. In fact, outfitters from around the Central Rockies bring whitewater enthusiasts to the Class III section of the river.”There’s a community of water users in the West, and tourism is a big part, a huge part, of the economy,” says Jack VanHorn, a Grand County river rafting company owner. “Even Front Range water users are customers of Western Slope recreation.”And Front Range water users would have been the primary beneficiaries of a reduction of the Shoshone call, which would help to fill Denver Water Board reservoirs in Grand and Summit counties, such as Williams Fork, Green Mountain and Dillon.VanHorn says he’d like to see some “meaningful” conservation measures on the Front Range, reminding River District Board members that the tourism industry is a major “water user.”Schneider, whose outfitting company is based in Glenwood, says it’s not fair to put all the blame for drastic measures like the proposed Shoshone call reduction at the feet of Denver.”Obviously we’re in a very challenging situation, and Denver is not the only culprit,” Schneider says. “Our rivers and our resources are why people move to Colorado and the mountains, and so all of us need to do everything we can to protect those resources. Conservation is always a good practice, period.”A reduction in flows through the Shoshone stretch of the Colorado during summer months, Schneider says, would be another blow to an industry that saw an estimated 40-percent drop-off in business statewide last summer, with areas like the popular Arkansas River off by as much as 55 percent.Denver officials were driving the proposed Shoshone reduction which would have required them to reimburse Xcel Energy for lost revenue due to reduced hydo-electic production because of extreme watering restrictions last summer and predictions of more of the same this summer.”All of the reservoirs are the lowest they have ever been, and Denver has been at the highest stage of restrictions,” Marc Waage, Denver’s manager of raw water supply, told a packed conference room at the River District’s bi-monthly meeting in Glenwood Springs Jan. 21. He outlined watering restrictions that might mean Denver lawns would get no water until May, and added that, “What we’re trying to do is come up with enough water to save our trees.”The River District’s decision not to support a reduced call is non-binding, but would have carried considerable weight.”The ultimate decision on the level of the Shoshone call belongs to Xcel Energy, the owner,” says Eric Kuhn, River District executive director.The Shoshone call is a water right owned by Xcel which literally is the “controlling water right on the Colorado River system throughout the entire winter season, and often in the spring and fall,” according to background provided by the River District’s Dave Merritt.The power plant “consists of two turbines, each with a capacity of approximately 700 cfs (cubic feet per second) with a Senior Water Right (1902) of 1,250 cfs and a Junior Water Right (1942) of 158 cfs.”Kuhn explains that the River District became involved in tentative talks between Xcel (formerly Public Service) and the Denver Water Board in December when it became apparent that current drought conditions, even with average spring runoff, may not fill reservoirs in any of the river basin systems.A “call reduction” that would reduce Colorado River flows at the power plant to no less than 500 cfs in January, February and March was proposed. Xcel officials determined that 500 cfs was about the minimum flow required to keep the plant from freezing.Kuhn says that in 1986 Denver Water secured an agreement that when water available to Denver’s diversion and reservoirs “is critically impacted by Public Service’s senior water right for hydro power generation at it Shoshone plant,” Denver can “withhold water otherwise required to meet that call,” but also adds “only if no vested downstream or upstream water decrees in Colorado will be injured.”That last phrase seems to answer the question raised by several in attendance at the meeting as to whether Xcel and Denver couldn’t just make a “unilateral” agreement to cut the flow back to 500 cfs for the next few weeks.Doing that would likely insure that Green Mountain Reservoir would fill completely, and the action would also improve the prospects for returning Williams Fork, Wolford Mountain and Dillon reservoirs to near average levels.”We don’t want to take action unilaterally. We’re committed to cooperation, but we do think there would be some benefits to the West Slope” in relaxing the call for several months, Waage says.Although specific issues were raised as to quality and quantity of water if the call were reduced to 500 cfs, the overriding fear seems to be what kind of precedent might evolve.In a briefing paper, and at the meeting, Waage and several others say they thought fears that the plan was precedent-establishing were unfounded. River District president Paul Ohri says, “I think any agreement could be very specific for these circumstances.”Others, most notably Glenwood Springs water attorney Scott Balcomb, warns against allowing change.”The very existence of the Shoshone call is almost religion on the West Slope,” Merritt’s briefing paper notes.”Where do we go from here?” asks Grand County Commissioner James Newberry. Grand County officials had earlier expressed opposition and provided a list of minimum items they would request in case of an agreement to relax the call.”The River District will continue to monitor and work on an agreement that can address all problems and concerns,” Kuhn says. “I have not heard enough support on the West Slope to feel like we can go to Xcel and say ‘let’s take the call off’.”


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