We headed up to the west entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park over Berthoud Pass on Day 1 and drove into the park up the Kawuneeche Valley as far as we could for the official start to our jaunt along the Colorado River. It was cloudy (and smoky?) and rained off an on. Cold and wet is pretty much my favorite weather so things were near perfect.
It was great to see the river bank to bank on the way to Kremmling. It was roiling in Byers Canyon and there is a lot of the snowpack left at higher elevations to feed the runoff in the weeks ahead.
After driving my 2017 Leaf for six years the range of the new Leaf, greater than 200 miles, helps immensely with range anxiety. The first road charge for the new Leaf was in Granby on the way to Rocky Mountain National Park although we could have easily waited until after the excursion in the park. I always charged the old Leaf in Granby on the way to Steamboat Springs and old habits die hard. Also, the chargers at the Kum & Go have CHAdeMO connectors which the Leaf requires for fast charging. All of the ChargePoint chargers I’ve used in western Colorado have those connectors. The free chargers provided by the Town of Kremmling were working when I tested them.
The charging infrastructure along US 40 has improved greatly since my first EV adventure to Steamboat Springs in 2017 so you can concentrate on the scenery. Much of this is due to the Colorado Energy Office’s efforts.
Colorado will probe the pairing of solar panels with canals and reservoirs. Can solar integrated into agriculture help solve the San Luis Valley’s water woes?
Agrivoltaics—the marriage of solar photovoltaics and agriculture production— has been filtering into public consciousness, if still more as an abstraction than as a reality. In Colorado, other than Jack’s Solar Garden near Longmont, there’s little to see.
Aquavoltics? The idea of putting solar panels above water? Similarly thin. You have to travel to North Park to see the solar panels above the small water-treatment pond for Walden.
SB23-092, a bill passed on the final day of Colorado’s 2023 legislative session, [ed. Signed by Governor Polis May 18, 2023] orders study of both concepts. In the case of aquavoltaics, the bill headed toward the desk of Gov. Jared Polis authorizes the Colorado Water Conservation Board to study the feasibility of using solar panels over or floating on, irrigation canals or reservoirs. The bill also authorizes the state’s Department of Agriculture to award grants for new or ongoing agrivoltaics demonstration projects.
Still another section requires the Colorado Department of Agriculture, in consultation with related state agencies, to begin examining how farmers and ranchers can be integrated into carbon markets. The specific assignment is to “examine greenhouse gas sequestration opportunities in the agricultural sector, including the use of dry digesters, and the potential for creating and offering a certified greenhouse gas offset program and credit instruments.”
While Democrats and Republicans got angry with each other in some cases, in this case there was broad comity. The primary Democratic sponsors were from Denver and Boulder County, and the Republicans from the San Luis Valley and Delta. Votes were lopsided in favor.
The agrivoltaics idea was originally included in the 2022 session in a big suitcase of ideas sponsored by Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver. It fell just short of getting across the finish line.
This past summer, Sen. Cleve Simpson, a Republican from the San Luis Valley whose district now sprawls across southwestern Colorado, took keen interest—and for very good reason. A fourth-generation native of the San Luis Valley, his day job there is general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, whose farming members must cut back water use so that Colorado can comply with the Rio Grande Compact with New Mexico and Texas. It will be a tough challenge—and he’s trying to figure out how to leave his communities as economically whole as might be possible.
The aquavoltaics idea is new to this year’s bill, though.
Hansen, who grew up along the edge of the declining Ogallala Aquifer in Kansas, said his study of water conservation efforts around the world found that aquavoltaics was one of the most advantageous ways to reduce evaporation from canals and reservoirs. Doing so with solar panels, he said in an April interview, produces a “huge number of compounded value streams.”
Covering the water can reduce evaporation by 5% to 10%, he explained, while the cooler water can cause solar panels to produce electricity more efficiently, with a gain of 5% to 10%. Electricity can in turn be used to defray pumping costs.
Solar panels in cooler climates can actually produce electricity more efficiently, which is why solar developers have looked eagerly at potential of Colorado’s San Luis Valley. At more than 7,000 feet in elevation, the valley is high enough to be far cooler than the Arizona deserts but with almost as much sunshine.
Colorado already has limited deployment of aquavoltaics. Walden in 2018 became the state’s first location to deploy solar panels above a small pond used in conjunction water treatment. The 208 panels provide roughly half the electricity needed to operate the plant. The town of 600 people, which is located at an elevation of 8,100 feet in North Park, paid for half the $400,000 cost, with a state grant covering the other.
Other water and sewage treatment plants, including Fort Collins, Boulder and Steamboat Springs, also employ renewable generation, but not necessarily on top of water, as is done with aquavoltaics.
Hansen said he believes Colorado has significant potential for deploying floating solar panels on reservoirs or panels installed above irrigation canals. “There is significant opportunity in just the Denver Water reservoirs,” he said. “Plus you add some of the canals in the state, and there are hundreds of megawatts of opportunity here.”
Bighorn, Colorado’s largest solar project, has a 300-megawatt generating capacity on land in Pueblo adjacent to the Rocky Mountain Steel plant Comanche’s two remaining units have a combined capacity of 1,250 megawatts, although both are scheduled to be retired by 2031.
Why now and not a decade ago for aquavoltaics? Because, says Hansen, most of the best sites for solar were still available. Because aquavoltaics has an incremental cost, land-based solar was the low-hanging fruit.
Now, as land sites are taken, the economics look better, says Hansen, who has a degree in economics. Plus, with solar prices dropping 10% annually, the economics look even better. The Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress in August 2022 delivers even more incentives. “I think there will be more and more aquavoltaic projects that will pencil out,” he said.
Arizona water providers have resisted aquavoltaics but are now taking a second look. The Gila River Indian Community announced last year that it is building a canal-covering pilot project south of Phoenix with aid of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “This project will provide an example of new technology that can help the Southwest address the worst drought in over 1,200 years,” said Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the tribe.
When completed, the canal-covered solar project will be the first in the United States. But both the Gila and a $20 million pilot project launched this year by California’s Turklock Irrigation District are preceded by examples in India.
Officials with the Central Arizona Project, the largest consumer of electricity in Arizona, responsible for delivering Colorado River water through 336 miles of canals to Phoenix and Tucson, will be following closely the new projects in Arizona and California, according to a report in the Arizona Republic.
In its final legislative committee hearing in late April, the bill got robust support. Both the Colorado Farm Bureau and the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union voiced support.
So did a Nature Conservancy representative. “If we want to solve the climate crisis while at the same time not exacerbating biodiversity and farmland loss, we have to think creatively,” testified Duncan Gilchrist.
“This bill has nothing but winners,” said Jan Rose, representing the Colorado Coalition for a Livable Climate.
The most probing questions were directed to Byron Kominek, the owner and manager of Jack’s Solar Garden. There for the last several summers, vegetable row crops have been grown in conjunction with dozens of solar arrays assembled on a portion of the 24-acre farm. He readily receives reporters and all others, casting the seeds of this idea across Colorado and beyond.
The questions were directed by State Sen. Rod Pelton, whose one district covers close to a quarter of all of Colorado’s landscape, the thinly populated southeast quadrant. A farmer and rancher from the Cheyenne Wells area, Pelton wondered how high off the ground the panels were and what kind of racking system was high enough to address the issue of cattle rubbing against them?
The question, though, jibes with what Mike Kruger, chief executive of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association, sees for agrivoltaics. “I don’t think it will ever be ‘amber waves of grain’ under panels,” he said in April. “It will more likely be cattle and sheep grazing.”
Hansen, in his wrap-up comments before the committee in April, talked about different places needing different approaches depending upon climate zones, topography, growing conditions and other factors. That, he said, was the intent of the studies: to figure out how to maximize potential, to get it right.
Click the link to read the article on the Newsweek website (Robyn White). Here’s an excerpt:
Some of the U.S’. most famous lakes could disappear as climate change worsens.
The Great Salt Lake in Utah could disappear in 10 years if nothing is done, an expert told Newsweek.
Lake Mead could reach “dead pool” in just a few years, which would plunge the Southwest into a severe water crisis.
Lake Powell hit its lowest levels ever this year.
Climate change is causing extremely long periods of drought, particularly in the western U.S—a region that has suffered extreme drought for over two decades. Rising water temperatures caused by climate change are enhancing evaporation, which in turn dries out the soil…
The Great Salt Lake
Utah’s Great Salt Lake— the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere—has reached historic lows in recent months. The lake has now lost 73 percent of its water. Ben Abbott, plant and wildlife sciences professor at Brigham Young University in Utah, told Newsweek that it could be gone within just ten years.
“Irrigated agriculture has diverted too much of the river flow that Great Salt Lake depends on. If we don’t increase the amount of water getting to the lake, it could be gone within a decade,” Abbott said. “Even those who live far from Utah will be affected if we lose the lake. Industry and agriculture across the country and beyond depend on magnesium and fertilizer from Great Salt Lake, and it is the most important inland wetland in the western US.”
Lake Mead, the largest man made reservoir in the U.S., lies on the border between Nevada and Arizona, and is formed by the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. It is a popular recreational spot, but is now most famous for its rapidly declining water levels. Being located in an area seeing severe drought and water shortages, Lake Mead’s water—which provides for 25 million people—is being used too quickly, with no means to replenish itself. In summer last year, the lake reached its lowest level yet recorded at around 1,040 feet. This was the lowest it had been since it was constructed in the 1930s. As of May 10, the lake’s water levels stood at 1,051.07 feet. The slight rise was due to wet weather that descended on the U.S. throughout winter, but again, it provides only a short-term solution. The reservoir is inching closer to “dead pool” level, around 895 feet, which would have dire consequences for the surrounding areas—it would plunge the Southwest into a major water crisis. And experts predict that this could happen in just a few years…
“Ultimately, the only way to save the Colorado River and other major waterways in the West is to use less water. This means prioritizing system stability over maximizing all water deliveries. Our current rules, policies, and funding are not currently sufficient to protect the West for the medium or long-term,” [Karyn] Stockdale said…
Lake Powell is another Colorado River reservoir that faces the very real threat of drying up in the near future…In February this year, Lake Powell’s water levels reached a historic low of 3,521.77 feet. The water levels has since risen to 3,532.90 feet as of May 9, but this is still dangerously low…
While the Great Salt Lake, Lake Mead and Lake Powell are of the most concern as climate change worsens, there are many others in the U.S. that face a dire future if nothing is done.
The May 15th forecast for the April – July unregulated inflow volume to Blue Mesa Reservoir is 830,000 acre-feet. This is 131% of the 30 year average. Blue Mesa Reservoir current content is 468,000 acre-feet which is 57% of full. Current elevation is 7475.3 ft. Maximum content at Blue Mesa Reservoir is 828,000 acre-feet at an elevation of 7519.4 ft.
Based on the May forecasts, the Black Canyon Water Right and Aspinall Unit ROD peak flow targets are listed below:
Black Canyon Water Right
The peak flow target is equal to 6,400 cfs for a duration of 24 hours.
The shoulder flow target is 810 cfs, for the period between May 1 and July 25.
Aspinall Unit Operations ROD
The year type is currently classified as Average Wet.
The peak flow target will be 14,300 cfs and the duration target at this flow will be 2 days.
The half bankfull target will be 8,070 cfs and the duration target at this flow will be 20 days.
The ramp up for the spring peak operation has been paused as flows on the Gunnison River at Whitewater are already above the spring peak target flow. Flows on the Gunnison River at Delta are close to the flow level that could impact the Delta Wastewater Treatment Plant. Currently Crystal Reservoir is spilling with a total release of 5,300 cfs. Flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are 4,600 cfs.
With the projected increase in flows on the North Fork of the Gunnison River, releases at Morrow Pt Dam (which is now controlling the spill at Crystal Dam), will be reduced by a total of 1,400 cfs by tomorrow, May 19th. This should bring flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon down to around 3,200 cfs. This release rate will be maintained through the weekend and may possibly continue well into next week.
This adjustment to the release plan is based on the latest forecast for river flows in the Gunnison Basin. Adjustments in Aspinall Unit release rates may be made in either direction to achieve downstream target flows or if water gets too high at points along the Gunnison River through Delta.
Click the link to read the article on the Sky-Hi News website (Kyle McCabe). Here’s an excerpt:
Smith Creek Crossing and Sun Outdoors residents started making public comments at Granby Board of Trustees meetings in April expressing concerns about their water rates increasing from $10 per thousand gallons to $50 per thousand gallons. At the second meeting with public comments dominated by residents of the Sun Outdoors’ properties, the trustees decided to hold a workshop session during their May 9 meeting to discuss the West Service Area water system, which serves Sun Outdoors and its residents.
Town Manager Ted Cherry included a memo in the board’s meeting packet that outlines the history of the West Service Area and its water rates. When Sun bought its property from the town in 2018, it agreed to make necessary improvements, including to the water system, Cherry said…Cherry’s memo states the agreement also requires Sun to cover all the costs involved with operating the West Service Area system…In February 2021, SGM, the town’s engineers, completed a draft rate study for the West Service Area. It used estimates for water usage and total cost of operation provided by Sun, according to Cherry. Those figures came in at 69,562,125 gallons and $527,900 for 2023, respectively. SGM used the number to estimate that 2023 potable water rates in the West Service Area would be $7.59 per thousand gallons. When Sun later applied for initial acceptance of its water system improvements, it prompted a final rate study, which SGM completed in August 2022. Cherry wrote in his memo that the study used updated figures for water usage and total cost of operation based on data collected by the town.