The War for the Roads — Jonathan Thompson (@jonnypeace)

From RiverofLostSouls.com (Jonathan Thompson):

This story by Jonathan P. Thompson ran in the Silverton Mountain Journal in winter of 2002. Given the historic avalanche cycle, and the lengthy closure of Red Mountain Pass, it seemed like an opportune time to re-up it. Spoiler: Silverton has been shut off from the world by avalanches many times in the past. In 1932, the roads and railroad were shut down from February until the end of April. Yikes!

Eddie Imel died 10 years ago this March (editor’s note: in March 1992). Imel was a plow driver for the Colorado Department of Transportation on the Ouray side of Red Mountain Pass. Like all the plow drivers between Ouray and Cascade, Imel was part of the infantry; he was a foot soldier in the war to keep Highway 550 into Silverton open and keep the town it feeds alive. Imel was the third soldier to die in that war in 22 years and, like the other two, he was slain by the deadliest enemy of this unending conflict: the East Riverside Slide.

The winter of 1991-1992 was not an especially heavy one in these parts. In fact, after a good start–43″ of snow fell in Silverton in November–the snowfall petered out. December (15″), January (10″), and February (15″) were all unusually dry months for snow in the San Juans. Long periods of sunny days and cold, clear nights between storms served to rot out the early, scant snowpack. In other words, conditions were ripe for a serious avalanche season upon the arrival of the big, spring storms.

And arrive they did: Over 30 inches of snow fell in the San Juan Mountains and the slides were running all over the place. Highway 550 was finally closed, but by the time the gates were shut, it was too late. The CDOT truck that swept the road to make sure all motorists were out of danger dodged big slides before being blocked by a portion of the East Riverside Slide that had hit the road just north of the snowshed. Edie Imel and Danny Jaramillo were piloting a CDOT plow, attempting to clear the road so that the sweep truck and other motorists inside the snowshed could get to safety. The plow came to a stop, the two soldiers got out to adjust the chains, and, as the East Riverside is apt to do, it ran again, burying the plow and the drivers.

Everyone in the snowshed, CDOT officials, and local law enforcement reasonably assumed both victims of the slide were dead. A body recovery effort would have been too risky, so it was delayed. The motorists in the shed were escorted back to safety, the mourning began, and, 18 hours after the slide ran, a call came in from the emergency telephone in the snowshed. Danny Jaramillo had tunneled his way out of the cement-like snow. Imel’s body was recovered not long after.

The system, or rather the lack of a real system, for determining avalanche hazard and deciding when to close the road had failed one too many times. Things had to change.

Silverton’s connection with the outside world has always been vulnerable to snowslides. Before there were plow drivers risking their lives to keep the arteries and veins of San Juan civilization from being blocked, there were mail carriers. Before the railroad arrived in 1882, Silverton’s winter link to the lowlands usually consisted of no more than one man on a set of “snowshoes,” or long, wide, heavy wooden skis. Men with names like Greenhalgh, Aspaas, Bales, Mears, and Nelson skied regularly over Cunningham Pass (south of Stony Pass) with huge, 50- to 60-pound sacks on their backs or dragging sleds full of mail and supplies. It was not a job for the faint at heart — avalanche danger was ignored, at least one froze to death, and others, somehow, survived both snow and cold — but it was a necessary one. Without their efforts, Silverton would have had to shut down come winter.

Newspaper clipping from March 1906, after a huge storm resulted in a deadly St. Patrick’s Day avalanche cycle.

In 1882, the railroad finally reached the heart of the San Juans, but by no means did this signal an end to avalanche troubles. The snowshoe-riding mail carriers of old, as long as they avoided being hit by slides, could simply ski over the top of the slide debris, but the train could not. From Needleton to Silverton, the tracks pass through the depository for dozens of slides, some of significant size. Dramatic photos of the Saguache slide (probably also known as the Snowshed slide north of Elk Park) show a trench dug for the train through a 60 foot pile of snow and debris. Nearly every winter saw at least one avalanche-caused blockade during which the train could not reach Silverton. Sometimes they only lasted a few hours while tens or even hundreds of men cleared the tracks. But there were times when Silverton was cut off from the world for days, weeks, and, in one case, three months. In 1884, Silverton was without a train for 73 days. Food ran short and milk cows were killed for beef.

The winter of 1906 will long be remembered as the most tragic, avalanche-wise, in the San Juans. Big January storms pounded the region following a relatively dry November and December, and the slides came down. Five men were killed at the mouth of the tunnel of the Sunnyside Mine near Eureka when they were engulfed by a slide. Eleven avalanches were reported between Silverton and Elk Park that ranged from seven to 30 feet deep and 50 to 450 feet long; the train was kept at bay for 18 days.

All of that was minor compared to what followed in March when an enormous storm sat over the region for about a week, relentlessly pounding the San Juans. Slides swept away the Shenandoah boarding house, killing twelve men, and ravaged a number of other structures in the area, often killing their inhabitants and making that the most deadly avalanche season ever in the San Juans. Twenty-four people lost their lives to snowslides in San Juan County that winter.

Transportation in and out of Silverton came to a standstill. Two-hundred men of Japanese descent worked to clear 50-foot deep piles of debris that at least 15 slides had deposited on the tracks between Needleton and Elk Park. It took 33 days for them to break through. Local newspaper editors blamed the Railroad, not the snowslides, for the delay in opening the tracks, a sentiment that would echo throughout the years, even after the highway became the main link between Silverton and everywhere else.

Perhaps the worst winter, in terms of Silverton being cut off from the outside, was 1931-1932. By then the highways to Ouray and Durango were gaining importance as supply routes through the San Juans. That gave the newspapers someone else, the highway department, to blame for closures. After a December storm, the editor of the Silverton Standard wrote: “Now during the recent storm it was not deemed expedient for men to attempt to keep the highway open, but after the storm settled it was clearly the duty of the maintenance department of Colorado to open the roads, or at least determine that they should not be opened. What was done? Nothing. How long in our case did the situation continue? For at least one week.”

Silverton continued that year to be pummeled by storm after storm. In February, following a devastating “San Juaner,” all highways were closed, including those to Howardsville and Gladstone; a slide wrecked the Iowa-Tiger boarding house at Silver Lake; all telephone lines in and out of Silverton were down; and the train crashed near Rockwood while attempting to reach Silverton. One couple hiked out to Ouray in order to escape the confines of Baker’s Park, some snowshoed to Rockwood in order to catch the train, and a 350-pound load of butter, eggs, and meat was brought by toboggan from Ouray. In April, it was reported that the Riverside Slide had deposited a pile of snow 300 feet long and 60 feet deep. The road to Durango (which at that time traveled down avalanche-riddled Lime Creek, not over Coal Bank Pass) was opened on April 30, and the Ouray side was cleared shortly thereafter.

Only four years later Silverton was shut off again by slides for weeks, prompting a team made up of Louis Dalla, E.F. Sutherland, James Baudino, John Turner, and Carl Larson to snowshoe down the canyon to Needleton to fetch the mail.

By the time one of the biggest winters in San Juan history hit in 1951, the railroad’s importance had been diminished somewhat by the improved highways, especially to the south. But in the San Juans even good highways, which traveled through slightly less avalanche-prone areas, are liable to be shut down, and that’s exactly what happened that year. There was so much snow that people had trouble getting around town, not to mention over the passes. The Highland Mary Mill in Cunningham Gulch was wrecked by a slide, killing one. The highway to the north opened after six days, and it took several more days of around-the-clock effort, to break through the dozens of slides that covered the road to the south.

In spite of the huge winters, the series of avalanches that hit the roads with regularity, and the lack of any avalanche policy governing Highway 550 at the time, not one motorist had been killed by an avalanche on the highway by the middle of the 20th century. Nevertheless, following the huge winter of 1952, the Colorado Highway Department implemented an official policy dealing with road closures and avalanche hazard. The policy said that if avalanche danger was determined to be high, the road would be closed, control work would be done, the debris would be cleared, and the road re-opened.

At first glance, the system seems identical to the current one. In practice, however, the road was usually kept open until the slides were coming down so big, and with such frequency, that the plows were simply unable to punch through them anymore. It was a policy that, at best, was unscientific. Louie Dalla, road supervisor for the Silverton district, who was known as a man who almost always kept the roads open, described the non-policy policy in a 1963 interview with Allen Nossaman: “About the only good rule is not to go in a storm. They ask us how an accident could have been prevented in many slides. The best answer to that is — They should have stayed in bed. The study of slides is a science, and the study comes pretty close to getting the answers but not close enough.”

In other words, it was up to the motorist, not the highway department, to ultimately assess the danger and make the decision about whether to travel the road or not. It is a noble sentiment, and one from another time before liability and lawsuits were the norm. Up until 1991, the only avalanche forecasters were the plow drivers themselves, their command centers the cabs of their plows. The policy was imperfect, at best and, in 1963, its fatal flaws were first revealed.

On March 3, 1963, Reverend Marvin Hudson made his usual trip over Red Mountain Pass to preside over services at the Silverton Congregational Church. He had his daughters Amelia and Pauline in the car with him. A large storm had hit and the East Riverside Slide had already run once. His car was slip-sliding across the road as he passed under the ominous East Riverside slide, so the Reverend stopped to install his chains. That is when the Riverside ran again. It took rescuers a week to find the Reverend’s body and another to find Amelia’s. Pauline was not recovered until May 30.

The tragedy inspired a Colorado Highway Department Engineer to recommend the construction of a snowshed under the Riverside, a suggestion made by a Swiss avalanche expert two years earlier. The shed was not built, the road closure policy remained the same, and, in 1970, plow driver Robert Miller was killed by the Riverside’s infamous second release.

Angered citizens demanded the construction of a snowshed but Highway 550, which is still one of the last places to get funding from the state transportation coffers, would get no protection. Nothing was done.

It took yet another fatality, under similar circumstances, to motivate the state to finally build the snowshed. This time it was plow driver Terry Kishbaugh who was taken by the East Riverside on February 10, 1978. Seven years later, the snowshed was built. At least one expert recommended the snowshed be 1,200 feet long; others said that the absolute minimum length for it to be effective was 400 feet. When all was said and done, the snowshed only covered 180 feet of highway (as it does today), leaving cars, and plow drivers, and Eddie Imel and Danny Jaramillo exposed to the deadly torrent known as the East Riverside slide.

Those were the fatalities. Then there were the close calls. According to CDOT statistics, 68 cars were hit by slides between 1951 and 1991 between Coal Bank and Ouray. These included a Trailways bus that was knocked off Molas Pass by the Champion slide and a bus bashed by the Brooklyns filled with miners coming home to Silverton from their shift at the Idarado Mine. Injuries were relatively minor. Finally, when the San Juans had to say goodbye to a third plow driver in 22 years, things changed.

In July 1992, CDOT announced its new Highway 550 Avalanche Hazard Reduction Plan. Weather and snowpack evaluation stations would be installed under the plan; avalanche control equipment such as Howitzers would be implemented; CDOT workers would all be trained in avalanche awareness; and fixed control-gun towers would be installed. Most significantly, however, the avalanche forecasting job would go to two Colorado Avalanche Information Center professionals based in Silverton (plow drivers, however, continue to serve an important role, communicating their on the road observations to forecasters).

Silverton’s forecasters are devoted, full-time, to assessing the avalanche hazard on the passes. Even during long periods between storms, they patrol the passes and analyze the snowpack, its structure, and its stability, allowing them to know approximately how much snow, and at what density, the current snowpack can hold in the event of a storm. When a storm does hit, the forecasters are out on the highway alongside the plow drivers, constantly monitoring conditions and passing recommendations on to the local road supervisor in Durango or Ridgway. Ultimately, it is the road supervisor, not the forecaster, that makes the decision to close the road.

The days of waiting for several big slides to come down before deeming the hazard high are over, according to Silverton Avalanche Forecaster Andy Gleason. This has sometimes caused impatience in Silverton, where people still remember the old days and where mail, supplies, and commuter routes are shut down along with the roads. And, of course, when the road is closed it means the precious few winter tourists and their money are kept out, an issue that may even get more urgent when the new ski area opens. Many citizens, especially those that have been around for a while, feel that it is premature to close the roads before any slides have come down.

Gleason disagrees. “When I recommend closure I’m always asked: ‘What slides hit the road,” said Gleason. “If we were doing our job really well we would answer that nothing hit the road, but this is what is about to hit the road.” Gleason concedes that, partly because of the importance of the roads to Silverton, the road is usually not closed until smaller “indicator” slides such as the Blue Point have run. Or, he says, if two inches of snow fall in one hour or less in the Uncompahgre Gorge, then it is time to lock the gates with or without indicator slides. “It will avalanche,” said Gleason.

The ultimate goal of the avalanche reduction program, according to Gleason, is to create more avalanches of smaller size. “Our perfect avalanche control day would be if every slide ran small to the edge of the road so that there is no clean-up necessary,” said Gleason.

Although this policy may mean more frequent and earlier closures, ultimately it could result in cumulative closures of fewer hours during a winter than under the old policy. Most importantly, of course, it means that everyone — the plow drivers, the motorists, the law enforcement people patrolling the roads — are safer.

Its first decade of existence has been a successful one for the Avalanche Hazard Reduction Plan. Imel’s was the last avalanche-related fatality on Highway 550, close calls are rare, and during the past five years, long, sustained closures have been kept to a minimum. In 1998-1999 Red Mountain Pass was closed for a total of 110 hours and Molas/Coal Bank for 17 hours; in 1999-2000, the road to the north was only out of service for a total of 33 hours and Molas was closed for a paltry 6.5 hours; and last year, an average snow year, Red Mountain was down for 83 hours and Molas/Coal Bank for 30 hours. These numbers are not small, but in earlier years it was not unheard of for the road to be closed in both directions for 83 hours at one time.

Improvements during the last five years have helped the forecasters and controllers immensely. Snow measurement stakes have been placed in the starting zones of the West Lime Creek and Mother Cline slides; Howitzers have returned to their traditional place in avalanche control work, making helicopters less necessary and allowing for more efficiency and quicker control work; and the forecasters learn more about the snowpack each year.

Still, the new plan is not perfect. Gleason would like to see more forecasters here (two, Silverton-based forecasters cover Coal Bank, Molas, and Red Mountain Passes in addition to Lizard Head Pass, which is two hours away by CDOT truck); more passive control measures such as snowsheds, snow fences, and snow defense structures; better automated weather stations; and a remote avalanche detection system (one is being researched here but Gleason signed a waiver promising not to talk about it).

John Greenell (a.k.a. Greenhalgh) and his trusty pair of snowshoes was one of the mail carriers that provided Silverton a link with the outside world in its earliest winters of existence. He was known as a man that could make the trip up Cunningham Gulch, over Cunningham Pass, into the Rio Grande Country and to Del Norte and back in any type of weather.

On Monday, November 27, 1876, Greenell set out from Carr’s Cabin on the other side of the divide on the return trip (over Stony Pass this time) to Silverton. He never arrived. A group of searchers found his body a few days later, frozen to death near the top of Stony Pass, his hand rigidly clutching his mailbag.

We have changed a great deal since Greenell’s days, but the mountains are just about the same. Winters are still hard, avalanches still rush down mountainsides, and Silverton is still, occasionally, isolated from the outside world.

A heavy duty snow blower punches a hole through the snow that came down the West Riverside slide triggered yesterday, Monday, March 4, on north Red Mountain Pass, US 550. The snow shed which protects the traveling public from natural slide activity is seen in the background.

The City of Montrose scores $400,000 grant from @CWCB_DNR for Uncompahgre River through town

River Bottom Park Uncompahgre River. Photo credit: PhilipScheetzPhoto via the City of Montrose

From The Montrose Daily Press (Andrew Kiser):

Parts of the Uncompahgre River have become “unstable” and “injured” over time due to past land use practices, leaving some areas packed with landfill material like debris and rubble, City Engineer Scott Murphy said.

But now, the City of Montrose will be able to refine portions of the river, in part due to a $400,000 grant given to the city by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). The funds come through the Colorado Watershed Restoration Program to enhance the Uncompahgre.

The grant will begin the first phase of river restoration improvements for 0.65 miles of the Uncompahgre within city limits…

Additionally, aerial images have shown the river channel has migrated around 400 feet in some places over the past 50 years, Murphy indicated.

“It’s a pretty unstable breach of the river which is bad for the habibat because once the fish habibat gets established it gets wiped out as the river moves,” he said.

City of Montrose grant coordinator Kendall Cramer also said the Uncompahgre has experienced flow modifications and encroachment, which has developed a wider channel, bank stabilization issues and a lack of aquatic and riparian habitat.

“It’s an excellent project that’s going to enhance the river corridor,” Cramer said. “It’ll invest in the Uncompahgre River, which is one of our greatest assets in terms of tourism and recreation.”

He added the project will fix those problems as well as create better aquatic environments, stabilize the river banks and give the public better access to the water.

The city is hopeful this project will be the first step in receiving a gold medal fishery designation within the Uncompahgre River, Murphy said. Once completed, this section of the river will join a section of the Gunnison River which connects to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and joins the Gunnison Gorge…

The project design is being done by Ecological Resource Consultants, which won the bid for it in 2017. The River Restoration Committee and volunteers have helped the project come to fruition and have given input on the design, Cramer said.

The city anticipates construction to begin in winter of 2019-2020. Due to the river flow, work has to be completed within a four-month timeframe of November to February, when the water is at its lowest point.

New outlet works for Cerro Reservoir to be constructed in 2019

Joel Evans, an outdoor writer and angler from Montrose, holds the first tiger trout caught at the new Cerro Summit State Wildlife Area located east of Montrose. He caught the fish on Sept. 29. Fishing at the area is catch-and-release only. Photo credit Colorado Parks & Wildlife

From The Montrose Daily Press (Andrew Kiser):

The Montrose City Council voted unanimously, during its Dec. 18 meeting, to award a contract change order to RJH Consultants for $72,100 in the redesign of Cerro Reservoir.

The original amount of $270K had to be increased as “surprises in the reservoir’s design showed a lot of unforeseen layers,” said City Engineer Scott Murphy to the councilors on Dec. 18.

The dam at Montrose Reservoir on Cerro Summit needed major repairs earlier this year, which required the lake to be drained over the summer, as previously reported…

The city has been trying to figure out dam conditions there for some time and was more recently able to send divers down a 15-foot opening in the dam works for inspection, Murphy said.

This inspection confirmed it was time to replace the outlet works for the 1912 dam.

The outlet works consist of an 8-inch pipeline that runs through the dam’s foundation and below the western embankment; the pipe is about 50 feet below the crest of the dam and dates back to the original dam construction…

He added the city is currently working on its contract bid with Colorado Division of Water Resources.

“Something with this class goes through a pretty thorough review process with the state,” Murphy said, estimating the city should be awarded the contract in the next two months.

Shortly afterward ground will be broken in early February, he said. The construction will then start later that month and finished end of 2019.

The reservoir is tentatively planned to be filled in the spring of 2020.

Forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir = record low territory #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Liz Forster):

The Blue Mesa Reservoir, which feeds into the Colorado River, is at 39 percent capacity, according to the Bureau of Land Reclamation. The last time the reservoir west of Gunnison was at a similar level was in 1987, said Sandra Snell-Dobert, a spokeswoman for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Curecanti National Recreation Area.

Soon, water levels are expected to drop to the point where launching and operating boats at most ramps won’t be possible, Snell-Dobert said

Low water levels and rising temperatures also have allowed for blue-green algae blooms. Although no direct environmental impacts have not been observed, some species of this algae can produce toxins that are harmful to dogs.

The Gunnison River Basin varied between 50 percent and 80 percent of its average snowpack this winter, hitting a low of 51.6 percent Dec. 20 and a peak of 79.81 percent April 20.

Other Colorado River reservoirs are facing similar shortages.

Lake Powell and Lake Mead in Arizona dropped to dangerous levels this week because of what scientists are calling the effects of the Colorado River’s worsening “structural deficit,” The Associated Press reported.

Lake Powell and Lake Mead hit 48 percent and 38 percent capacity, respectively.

The Colorado River basin, which feeds lakes Mead and Powell, has been drying out over the last two decades, scientists said. With the demands from farms and cities exceeding the available water supply, the strains on the river and reservoirs are being compounded by growing population, drought and climate change.

From Colorado Public Radio (Grace Hood):

The Colorado Division of Water Resources reports the basins were 50 percent full at the end of August, in contrast to last year’s 120 percent average capacity. The average for this time of year is about 82 percent.

The Yampa-White, San Juan-Dolores, Rio Grande, Gunnison and Colorado river basins are classified as being in either “moderate” or “severe drought.”

The Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison on the Curecanti National Recreation Area, is near historic lows — it’s 39 percent full — and has closed almost all its boat ramps. Iola closed Thursday night, the Lake Fork ramp closes Monday. That will leave only the Elk Creek ramp on the reservoir’s north shore along Hwy. 50 open, said recreation area spokeswoman Sandra Snell-Dobert. “Elk Creek, the ramp will remain open as long as we can keep it open.”

The last time water levels were this low on the reservoir was in 1987, Snell-Dobert said. Blue Mesa usually only closes if there’s not enough staff or if the reservoir freezes. The reservoir levels now have also caused some abnormal boating hazards.

“Mostly it’s rocks that are becoming exposed as the water level decreases. There are a lot of rock promontories and islands, and those kinds of things that we haven’t seen in a long time,” she said. But despite the boating restrictions, Snell-Dobert said shoreline fishing, kayaking, canoeing and other hand-launched, non-motorized boating are still allowed at the reservoir.

Event Listings from Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership

From email from the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership:

11th Annual Ridgway RiverFest, Saturday, June 30, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Rollans Park, Ridgway. Enjoy a community watershed celebration with live music, river races, food booths, arts & crafts, beer, margaritas, silent auction, and more. Funds raised support activities of the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership. For info: http://ridgwayriverfest.org…

River of Lost Souls Reading, Monday, Aug. 13, Sherbino Theater, 604 Clinton St., Ridgway. Come meet and ask questions of author Jonathan P. Thompson about the gripping story behind the 2015 Gold King Mine disaster that turned the Animas River orange with sludge and toxic metals. Organized in cooperation with the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership. For info: http://www.uncompahgrewatershed.org/events/…

Ouray Ice Park – Uncompahgre River Canyon Cleanup & BBQ, Saturday, September 15, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Join the Ouray Ice Park and Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership volunteers to pick up litter and debris in the ice climbing areas of the Uncompahgre River Canyon in Ouray. Then, enjoy a BBQ party to celebrate our efforts. For info: http://www.uncompahgrewatershed.org/events/

Ouray “State of the River” meeting recap: “We can survive one bad drought” — Bob Hurford

Uncompahgre River Valley looking south

From The Telluride Daily Planet (Tanya Ishikawa):

[Bob] Hurford’s general sentiment about this year’s drought was shared by all who presented reports at the Ouray State of the Rivers meeting at the Ouray County 4H Event Center May 16. The presentations came two weeks after Gov. John Hickenlooper activated the Colorado Drought Mitigation and Response Plan for the agricultural sector in 34 of the state’s 64 counties, including San Miguel, Ouray, Montrose, and Delta counties…

Hurford explained that over half of the Rocky Mountains’ water supply is in its snowpack. As of April 1, Colorado’s snowpack was 68 percent of average and 64 percent of last year’s. Data maps show that the April 1 snowpack was between 50 percent and 69 percent for Ouray and Montrose counties, and below 50 percent for San Miguel County. Division 4, the eastern area around Gunnison, has the most snowpack; the San Juan Mountains have the least, with snowpack above Ridgway Reservoir at just 46 percent of average.

Colorado, Utah, Arizona and California had the lowest amount of precipitation in the U.S. this winter, and those four states — plus Nevada and New Mexico — had the highest temperatures from November 2017 to January 2018, according to statistics in Hurford’s report.

Data from reservoirs in October 2017 show that Colorado had one of its best years with close to 120 percent of average water levels statewide, 100 percent of average in Division 4 and around 116 percent of average in Ridgway Reservoir. Over the last two decades, reservoirs were at or above 100 percent for 11 years.

“We can survive one bad drought. Two bad droughts in a row and that gets us,” Hurford said.

Ridgway Reservoir Dam Superintendent Tony Mitchell, of Tri-County Water Conservancy District, showed National Weather Service forecast data that estimated January-April 1 flows into the reservoir at 88 percent of average in 2016, 111 percent in 2017 and 49 percent in 2018. For the period of April 1 through July, the main runoff season, flow estimates were 92 percent of average in 2016, 96 percent in 2017 and 40 percent in 2018.

Responding to a question about why the reservoir has looked lower than usual this spring, Tri-County Water Conservancy District Manager Mike Berry said late-season releases to the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (UVWUA) were larger than usual last year, precipitation was low last summer and storage levels are kept lower than normal to avoid water spilling over the dam, which would send non-native fish into the Uncompahgre River, endangering the trout there.

UVWUA Manager Steve Andersen, who is also a director on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said, “My association will be OK this year. There’s not as much water as we would like to have, but we will be able to make a crop this year.”

However, to ensure its downstream water users have enough water, the association in Montrose may have to put a call on water use later in the season, shutting headgates to irrigators upstream in Ouray County (who have junior water rights). Andersen does not expect to make a similar call on water on the upper Gunnison River side because of better snowpack, which should maintain higher flows there. He said the association would use that Gunnison water before resorting to a call on the Ouray side…

The last time that Ouray irrigators had to shut their headgates due to low stream flows and obligations to more senior water rights holders downstream was in 2012. That is when the Ouray County Water Users Association was founded…

With the drought conditions came concerns about wildfires, and Ouray and Montrose counties implemented Stage 1 Fire Restrictions on [May 21, 2018]. Stage 1 limits the areas where fires, smoking and spark-igniting activities can take place, according to the State of Colorado Department of Fire Prevention. Stage 2 adds more restrictions, while Stage 3 is the strictest, limiting entry into closed areas and setting fines as high as $10,000 for violators, or imprisonment for six months.

#Colorado co-ops consider dropping their energy provider — The Mountain Town News

Craig Station in northwest Colorado is a coal-fired power plant operated by Tri-State Generation & Transmission. Photo credit: Allen Best

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

A cooperative that serves four Western states could soon be losing customers amid concerns it’s not moving away from coal quickly enough.

Colorado-based Tri-State Generation & Transmission boasts of having the most solar generation of any G&T in the United States.

But whether it’s shifting to renewables quickly enough from its coal-heavy portfolio — and flexible enough to accommodate locally-generated electricity — has become a central issue with several of the 43 member cooperatives.

Directors of one of those member co-ops, La Plata Electric Association, voted in January to study alternatives during the next 10 to 15 years. The decision was made by the Durango, Colorado-based co-op after a petition was signed by 1,000 people and 100 businesses calling for 100 percent renewables with deeper penetration from local sources.

“We are buying our electricity from one of the dirtiest sources in the United States and paying well above market prices,” says Guinn Unger Jr., a La Plata director who favors a study of the co-op’s alternatives. “Why wouldn’t we want to explore our options?”

Colorado’s Delta-Montrose Electric Association began negotiating a buy-out with Tri-State last year with much the same goal: greater development of local renewable resources.

A template for both Colorado co-ops was established in 2016 when a New Mexico co-op, Taos-based Kit Carson, left Tri-State and signed an all-requirements contract with Guzman Renewable Energy Partners, a wholesale broker. Guzman paid the $37.5 million exit fee to Tri-State. It also promised to work with Kit Carson to develop 35 megawatts of solar arrays in Kit Carson’s three-county service area until 2023, when federal investment tax credit is set to expire. Kit Carson and Guzman are also planning to add battery storage.

Luis Reyes Jr., chief executive of Kit Carson, says consultants to his co-op concluded that ratepayers would save $50 million to $70 million over the life of the 10-year contract. The plan includes rapid construction of local solar farms and robust purchases of wind generation likely combined with battery storage.

Bob Bresnahan, a Kit Carson director and retired executive from Nike, says he believes solar will meet a third of residential electrical demand by 2022. He also contends the co-op can make deep inroads in its goal of 100 percent renewable generation by 2030.

La Plata’s contract commits it to getting 95 percent of its wholesale electricity from Tri-State Generation & Transmission through 2050. This commits La Plata to paying Tri-State 7.3 cents a kilowatt-hour even as wind and solar prices continue to tumble. Elsewhere in Colorado, Xcel Energy has received bids from wind developers at less than 2 cents a kWh and solar plus storage far below what Tri-State is charging La Plata.

Member cooperatives of Tri-State can produce more than 5 percent of their total electrical use, the result of a 2015 ruling by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Still in question are the terms. Tri-State, in an appeal to FERC, wants a ruling that says that member co-ops must pay for what Tri-State calls its fixed costs related to power production. FERC has not ruled on that case, which was filed in early 2016.

‘We’re bullish on renewable energy’

Tri-State’s 43 member cooperatives collectively deliver electricity to 200,000 square miles in New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming. Their 615,000 metered members/customers include Telluride and other ski areas in Colorado and giant circles of corn on the Great Plains, oil-and-gas fields in New Mexico and some of Denver’s fastest-growing suburbs.

Co-ops created Tri-State in 1952 to deliver electricity from new giant dams being built in the Missouri and Colorado River basins. Hydro still provides about half of Tri-State’s 1,115 megawatts of renewable generation. Wind constitutes the largest share of the new renewables, but the 85 megawatts of contracted solar are tops in the nation among G&Ts. Member renewable projects total 98 megawatts.

“We are bullish on renewable energy,” says Tri-State spokesman Lee Boughey.

In 2005, with demand still rising sharply, Tri-State was bullish on coal. Wanting to build a major new coal-fired power plant in Kansas, it asked member co-ops to extend their all-requirements contracts by a decade, to 2050, the presumed lifespan of the plant. Kit Carson and Delta-Montrose refused.

Finally, in March 2017, Tri-State got permits from Kansas to build the plant but has indicated it will not do so. Instead, it is shedding coal-fired generation. In December, the association lost its 40-megawatt stake in a unit at New Mexico’s San Juan Generating Station. It’ll lose another 100 megawatts of part-time generating capacity at Nucla, Colorado, by 2023 and then 102 additional megawatts of generation at Craig, Colorado, before 2026. All are the result of settlements under the Clean Air Act to reduce regional haze.

Unger, the La Plata board member, says 60 percent of Tri-State’s electrical generation still comes from coal. Tri-State will only confirm 49 percent for 2017, but also reports 19 percent of its electricity comes from contract purchases.

In Durango, La Plata’s subcommittee has met several times, but Unger says it’s still not clear to him that La Plata should, like Kit Carson, leave Tri-State. He’s disturbed that nearly half the board members didn’t want to evaluate the co-op’s options.

“We should be asking ourselves, what are the facts?” he says. “People are not willing to look at it.”

Unger is also annoyed by implications that Kit Carson was forced to increase rates after it left Tri-State to pay the exit fee. “News articles indicate that the rate increase was to help the co-op with unprofitable affiliates, but the timing is a concern,” wrote Mike Dreyspring, chief executive of La Plata Electric, in an op-ed published in the Durango Herald.

Kit Carson’s rates, responded CEO Reyes, “have not increased one cent due to the buyout.”

‘Coal is no longer the lowest cost fuel’

Directors of Delta-Montrose were unanimous in January 2017 in approving exit negotiations. Neither DMEA representatives nor Tri-State will comment on the talks, citing a non-disclosure contract.

“What our board members want most is the flexibility to be able to diversify generation resources,” says Jim Heneghan, DMEA’s renewable energy engineer. Directors, he says, see local renewable generation as a vehicle for economic development.

Delta-Montrose began pursuing this vision of local generation about a decade ago. it’s in a region of organic apple farms and other agriculture production along with one remaining coal mine. Scores of high-paying coal mining jobs have been shed and the region still lags the economic vigor found in more urban areas.

South Canal hydroelectric site — via The Watch

A diversion project east of Montrose completed in 1909 contains a major fall before delivering water to farms. In harnessing that falling water to produce electricity, Delta-Montrose hit Tri-State’s 5 percent cap on local generation. When an outside developer proposed a third hydro plant to Delta-Montrose, the co-op took the proposal to FERC. In 2015, FERC agreed that the co-op was required, under the Public Utility Regulatory Act of 1978, to negotiate purchase of power generated by what PURPA calls a qualifying facility.

Tri-State concedes that it cannot interfere with a member’s purchase of energy from a qualifying facility. But it wants to be able to assess the co-ops for the fixed-cost portion of sales it has lost above the 5 percent threshold.

“It’s a question of how members relate to each other within their association,” explains Tri-State spokesman Boughey. “Each association member agreed to equitably share costs, and that if members self-supply in excess of the 5 percent provision they would not be paying their fair share of the association’s fixed costs. These costs would have to be made up by other members.”

In Durango, Mark Pearson sees a different equity issue. The director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an advocacy group, he says the tens of millions of dollars exported from the local economy to Craig and other coal-mining towns would be better kept at home. Of La Plata’s revenues, 67 percent goes to Tri-State for electrical production elsewhere.

“This is great for Craig to have this money raining down on their community, but we should have that money circulating in our community. If we can keep the money local, it’s better economically for us,” he says.

Taking the long view, DMEA director John Gavan sees community choice aggregation coming, where consumers will have the choice of many power suppliers.

Unlike electrical generation even today, he foresees changes driven from the grassroots that pose questions about Tri-State’s one-member, one-vote setup. He contends smaller co-ops have been more easily influenced by the expertise of Tri-State’s coal-minded officials. “Tri-State is a Senate without a House of Representatives,” he says.

Both Pearson and Gavan see resistance to change being the fundamental issue. “It’s just hard for the old guard to change as quickly as the world is changing, to realize that coal is no longer the lowest cost fuel,” says Pearson.

ABOUT ALLEN BEST

Allen Best writes about energy, water and other topics from a base in metropolitan Denver. He began writing about energy, the climate, and their relationship in 2005. He can be found at http://mountaintownnews.net