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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

Connecting the Drops

connectingdropslogo4.1Bringing you the reporting you crave over the radio airways with extras and archives on our website. Visit the audio archives or listen to the latest story on the connection between Colorado's forests, watersheds, and forest fires:

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Water Education Colorado

Run of the River

By Lori Ozzello

It's feasible.

And to the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, the possibility of adding a revenue stream and hydropower to their project offers a handful of opportunities.

‘We have the water,’ explains Umcompahgre's manager Marc Catlin. ‘It seems to be the best answer: We take water we already have and use it before we send it to the farmers.

‘What better way to store energy than in a snowbank?’

Consultants tell Catlin the association, which operates the Gunnison Tunnel, could expect to produce 3 to 4 megawatt hours. Uncompahgre would, says Catlin, be a peak power producer. The cost to build is about $1 million per megawatt.

Hydropower—using water to turn a wheel or turbine—has been around for centuries. It can be generated either by the release of water stored in a reservoir or by a run-of-the-river system, in which the force of the current applies the needed pressure to turn the turbines. In Colorado, 415 electric utilities currently produce hydropower, up from 334 a year ago, according to a U.S. Department of Energy report. The state has 38 independent power producers.
The major advantages to hydropower are that:

  • Water is a renewable, cheap source of energy;
  • Hydropower causes no thermal or air pollution; and
  • Turbines can be started and stopped in a comparatively short amount of time.

Hydroelectric power makes an important contribution to Colorado and the West's energy supply. The Aspinall Unit reservoirs and power plants near Gunnison, with a total capacity of 275 megawatts, now provide up to 50 percent of the peaking power in the Colorado River Storage Project system. Two federal agencies, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Western Area Power Administration, operate the water and hydroelectric facilities at Aspinall. Companion features in the Upper Colorado River Basin are located at Navajo (547 megawatt capacity), Flaming Gorge (152 megawatt capacity), and Lake Powell (1,300 megawatt capacity).

The Federal Power Act provides that power from these hydroelectric plants is offered for sale first to federal facility, municipal, rural electric, and tribal customers. Any remaining power can then be sold to investor-owned utilities. The power revenues repay the federal government's investments in the power features and are also used for environmental programs like salinity control projects, the Upper Basin Recovery Implementation Program for endangered fish species, and the Glen Canyon Adaptive Management Program.

Across the United States, the DOE says hydropower accounts for only 7 percent of electricity generated, but it's 73 percent of all renewable energy now produced.

Opportunities may exist to install low head hydroelectric units on irrigation canals and reservoirs in Colorado, as the state implements its renewable energy mix. Stagecoach Reservoir in the Yampa River Basin includes a hydropower feature, and Umcompahgre may be next.

The Gunnison Tunnel diverts water from the Gunnison River in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and supplies the water users association with 60 percent of its water. The 6-mile tunnel, a USBR project completed in 1909, has a 750-foot vertical drop.

Catlin ticks off a list of advantages, for the region and the western power grid.

‘There are tangible benefits,’ he says. ‘If we're making electricity, we can help with systemized irrigation in the (Uncompahgre) valley. Low head power is feasible. More grants and loans for these kinds of projects will be available.

It could be a win-win situation because there's no waste and no smoke. We have the market. The southwest is going to keep growing and needs the peak power. It's a value-added crop in a lot of ways.’

Most importantly, Catlin believes the revenue will help preserve agriculture by reducing power costs for the association's members.

‘I want other irrigators to think about this,’ Catlin says. With the alternative energy technology advancing every day,

‘Someday we'll be plugging our tractors in.’

The project Catlin and his 40-member staff operate is 100 years old. He wants to see its legacy continue and sees hydropower as part of the equation.

‘The answer today is 'Let's be flexible and creative' not 'That's the way we've always done it.'’ q

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