Inside the Stagecoach Dam: Harnessing the Power — Steamboat Today

Photo credit Upper Yampa River Water Conservancy District.
Photo credit Upper Yampa River Water Conservancy District.

Here’s a report from a tour of Stagecoach Dam from Matt Stensland writing for Steamboat Today. Click through for the cool photo of the drain system from inside the dam. Here’s an excerpt:

It is a careful balancing act at the Stagecoach Dam, where electricity is generated for homes, fish habitat is managed and water is stored for a time when cities, ranchers and industry need it.

Behind the steel door, mineralized sludge covers the concrete walls and incandescent bulbs dimly light the narrow corridor.

These are the guts of the Stagecoach Dam southeast of Steamboat Springs, and it can be a little unnerving knowing that at the other side of the wall, 9,360 pounds of pressure push against each square foot of concrete.

Water drips from the ceiling and falls from drain pipes that collect water from the seeping concrete.

“All dams get water into them,” said Kevin McBride, adding that not having a system to drain the water would create pressure and put the dam’s integrity at risk…

“It’s pretty much paradise here,” said Blankenship, who most recently worked at a coal mine and previously worked in the power house of the USS Enterprise for the U.S. Navy.

Rogers has an electrical engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines.

In addition to monitoring the integrity of the dam, they oversee the hydroelectric power plant, which was named the John Fetcher Power Plant in 1997. He pushed to make electricity generation part of the dam design.

“I think John was a natural conservationist and to have this capability in a project that size and not do it was a bad thing,” said McBride, referring to Fetcher, who died in 2009 at age 97 after being recognized as one of the state’s water leaders.

Above the loud turbine in the power house sits a sign warning people not to stand underneath. That is because above, there is a large, weighted steel lever that will come crashing down if the power generated at the plant needs to immediately come off the grid.

On Tuesday afternoon, the electrical turbine was generating upwards of 500 kilowatts. The system can generate as much as 800 kilowatts, but generation is limited by the amount of water that is flowing into the reservoir.

“The generation, it fluctuates wildly,” said Andi Rossi, the water district’s engineer. “If the flows get too low, we shut down for power generation. In a big wet year, we’ll make a lot of power.”

The water district had been selling the power to Xcel Energy, but Yampa Valley Electric Association began buying the power last year for six cents per kilowatt hour. In 2016, YVEA paid more than $230,000 for the 3.85 million kilowatt hours generated at the dam. That is enough energy to power about 355 homes.

Power generation varies and is dependent on runoff. During the drought year of 2002, only 1.85 million kilowatt hours was produced. When there was abundant snowfall in 2011, 4.7 million kilowatt hours was produced. Since 1999, an average of 3.8 million kilowatt hours has been made each year…

A tower of concrete in the reservoir beside the dam has three gates that allow different temperatures of water to be mixed and sent through a pipe under the dam toward the generator.

From there, the water is either sent through the generator or through a pipe called a jet flow, which shoots water out of the power plant and helps oxygenate the water for fish habitat in the section of river in front of the dam known as the tailwaters.

The area is an angler’s delight and can only be accessed by snowmobile from the Catamount area or by hiking along a county road from Stagecoach State Park.

“It’s phenomenal,” Colorado Park and Wildlife fish biologist Billy Atkinson said.

With improvements by Parks and Wildlife to the river habitat, the area has thrived for fishing, partly because of the dam and reservoir. Relatively warm water released from the dam keeps the section of river from freezing over, and the water from the reservoir is rich in nutrients for the fish.

“The system is very productive,” Atkinson said.

In 2016, 25 percent more people visited the section of river, and 4,000 trout were measured per mile.

Not all tailwaters below dams in Colorado are experiencing similar success.

“It depends on the dam and the operations of the dam,” Atkinson said.

CDPHE and @EPA hope the Lower Ark is allowed to join their lawsuit

Report: Remediation Scenarios for Attenuating Peak Flows and Reducing Sediment Transport in Fountain Creek, Colorado, 2013
Report: Remediation Scenarios for Attenuating Peak Flows and Reducing Sediment Transport in Fountain Creek, Colorado, 2013

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Robert Voczkiewicz):

The state and federal agencies told a judge Thursday that they support the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District’s request to have a courtroom voice in a clean-water lawsuit against Colorado Springs.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are suing the city, which discharges pollutants into Fountain Creek and other tributaries.

The Lower Ark district wants to join the case as an intervenor to protect the district’s interest during the litigation…

Senior Judge Richard Matsch is presiding over the case in U.S. District Court in Denver and will decide whether to grant Lower Ark’s request.

The EPA and the state health-environment department filed the lawsuit Nov. 9. It alleges that Colorado Springs’ storm sewer system is violating federal and state clean water laws.

The city denies it is violating the laws. Mayor John Suthers recently pointed to additional expenditures the city is making as an example of its commitment to correct storm water problems.

The storm water contains pollutants, including E. coli, that flow into the river from creek tributaries.

The district encompasses Bent, Crowley, Otero, Prowers and Pueblo counties, where considerable produce, including Rocky Ford melons, are grown.

In Thursday’s court filing reviewed by The Pueblo Chieftain, the EPA and the department told Matsch they agree with Lower Ark that it should have a voice in court because the district wants the river water to have adequate quality.

To achieve that, the agencies and the district want Colorado Springs to reduce the amount of polluted discharges.

The environmental agencies contend Colorado Springs mischaracterizes the lawsuit as being focused on past issues, but it in fact “seeks to remedy current and ongoing violations.”

The environmental agencies disagree with Colorado Springs’ arguments that the district has no legal right to become an intervenor and that intervention will unduly complicate the litigation.

The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the city “to develop, implement and enforce” its stormwater management program, as required by permits the government has issued. The lawsuit goes on to ask a judge to impose monetary penalties on Colorado Springs for the violations.

Merino: The trials and tribulations of reverse osmosis

Ashcraft & Brown Building, Merino, Colorado, as it appeared on a 1909 postcard. Image courtesy of Ken Wilson.
Ashcraft & Brown Building, Merino, Colorado, as it appeared on a 1909 postcard. Image courtesy of Ken Wilson.

From The Sterling Journal-Advocate (Jeff Rice):

The Merino Town Board learned during its regular meeting Monday night that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Hazardous Waste Group had some pretty stringent criteria for granting the town a permit to build and operate the “brine pits” needed for the new water treatment system. There was no way, the trustees said, they could afford what the state was proposing.

The reverse osmosis system Merino plans to use results in effluent containing all of the contaminants that have been filtered out of the water. That effluent is pumped into a series of ponds in rotating order. Once one pond is filled, the effluent is directed to another pond while the first pond evaporates out and the dried waste is removed and sent to a landfill. Because the dried waste is considered hazardous, Merino has to be able to remediate the pond site, should it ever be abandoned.

The CDPHE had proposed that the town set aside $10,000 a year for ten years to go toward that eventual reclamation. But even the $100,000 that would result was less than one-third of what Merino’s consulting firm, Rocky Mountain Water Solutions of Broomfield, estimated it would cost to remediate the abandoned brine ponds. Town officials said Monday night they had been told CDPHE thought that estimate was high, but didn’t indicate what they thought a more accurate number might be.

The funds to be set aside would have to come from revenue generated by the town’s water enterprise fund. Water rates were recently increased in anticipation of building the new water treatment facility. And town officials said they have no idea what it’s going to cost to run the new system; they have estimates based on other towns’ experiences, but conditions and estimates vary widely.

The problem is, regardless what the real number is, it’s doubtful Merino can afford it, and the town certainly couldn’t afford the $100,000 over ten years the state agency was suggesting.

Boyd Hanzon, Merino’s contact at RMWS, said Monday night that CDPHE was setting up a conference call for Tuesday morning to discuss the reclamation amount. Hanzon was told, if the state sticks to its $100,000 goal, all bets were off.

“We’d have to start over with engineering fees, consultant fees, the whole thing,” said Trustee Dan Wiebers. “Would they go for, say, $5,000 a year for ten years and then stop? Would they let us just run the things for a year or two until we know how much it’s going to cost?”

Hanzon said those all were questions the trustees needed to ask during the conference call.

“So, basically, the future of this project hinges on this one phone call,” Wiebers said.

“I think they’ll be pretty reasonable,” Hanzon said, “but it could be a very stressful call.”

By Tuesday afternoon, the stress levels has subsided markedly. Reached at his office, Hanzon said the CDPHE officials had tentatively agreed to an amount Merino’s trustees thought they could live with, but he wasn’t prepared to say what that amount is yet.

“I’ll be working on getting that finalized. We should know something in about a week,” he said.

Once this issue is settled, Hanzon said, Merino will be able to move ahead almost immediately in awarding contracts to begin building the system.

Reverse Osmosis Water Plant
Reverse Osmosis Water Plant

Widefield aquifer pollution update

Southern Delivery System map via Colorado Springs Utilities
Southern Delivery System map via Colorado Springs Utilities

From The Colorado Springs Independent (Nat Stein):

‘It’s amazing, really, how it worked out,” says Roy Heald.

Heald, general manager of the Security Water and Sanitation District (SWSD), is referring to perhaps the only piece of good news in the ongoing story of water contamination in communities south of Colorado Springs.

“We got into planning [the Southern Delivery System] two decades ago for redundancy, thinking we’d use it if anything happened, and then it comes online not three weeks before we really needed it,” he says.

In May, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory lowering what’s considered a safe amount of perfluorinated chemicals — a highly prevalent but unregulated toxin that’s been linked to low birth weights, heart disease and cancer. Wells drawing from the Widefield aquifer, which supplies around 80,000 people’s drinking water, then tested at nearly 20 times the EPA’s recommended threshold in some cases.

Right away, SWSD took mitigating steps by instigating watering restrictions, fast-tracking an infrastructure project to boost connectivity between service areas and negotiating more access to surface water through the newly operational SDS pipeline. By September, all groundwater wells were shut off. But all that came at a price.

“The exact cost is hard to pin down at this point because we’ve still got bills coming in,” Heald says, “but yeah, this was a huge unanticipated expense.” To get an idea, consider groundwater typically accounts for half the district’s total water supply. Forgoing cheap groundwater in favor of more expensive surface water, even if just for the last four months of the year, cost SWSD around $1 million in 2016, when it expected to spend $100,000. The district has deferred other capital projects, prioritized new ones and diminished its cash reserve, meaning it needs money.

But from whom?

At the very least, the Security, Widefield and Fountain water districts are all expecting some portion of the $4.3 million the Air Force pledged over the summer after Peterson Air Force Base admitted a chemical-laden fire retardant used for decades on base could be the source of contamination.

Air Force spokesman Steve Brady gave the Indy a rundown of how the money’s being spent: Homes on private well water will get reverse osmosis systems installed; NORAD and Security Mobile Home Parks will get granular activated carbon systems, as will Stratmoor Hills, Fountain and Widefield public water systems; First United Pentecostal Church will tap into Security water; SWSD will construct new piping to hook into Colorado Springs Utilities; the Fountain Valley Shopping Center, private homes that don’t agree to take ownership of a filtration system once installed and the Venetucci farmhouse will continue getting bottled water.

The Air Force’s pledge has been messaged as a “good neighbor” gesture and not a signal of responsibility, meaning that for now, available funds are finite. The Air Force Civil Engineer Center is working to confirm or deny the possibility that contaminants came from Peterson Air Force Base while public health officials (and private litigants) continue to investigate other possible polluters.

A damning outcome of those inquiries could warrant additional compensation, but until then, affected parties will have to just deal on their own.

“I know we’ll get some share of that $4.3 million, but whatever it is won’t be enough to cover our costs,” says Heald, whose district hasn’t received a check from the Air Force yet. “There could be grants available at the state level, but those are in the thousands or tens of thousands range. We’re looking at millions. I’ve talked to our congressional representatives but I don’t know about federal sources. Maybe folks will have other ideas, because whatever the source, our ratepayers didn’t cause this so they shouldn’t have to pay for it.”

Security residents will start seeing higher water bills immediately. Rates were already scheduled to rise in 2017 before this situation arose, but now the hike could be steeper. Unless some new windfall comes through before the next rate study gets underway in the fall, you can guess what direction rates will continue to go. Still, a typical water bill in Security during 2016 was $36 —about half of a typical Colorado Springs bill.

Fountain is in a similar, though not identical, position. “We don’t need to use groundwater in the wintertime — that’s been the standard for years,” Utilities Director Curtis Mitchell tells the Indy, explaining that groundwater only ever flowed through taps during peak demand over the summer. Ahead of that time this year, Mitchell has negotiated extra surface water through a capacity swap with Colorado Springs Utilities. Groundwater will only enter the equation once filtration systems are installed and working reliably.

Widefield has been off well water since November, according to department manager Brandon Bernard, who says four pilot projects are underway to find the best technology for filtering out PFCs. He’s aiming to get a small treatment facility built by May and another, bigger one “in the near future.” (Because Widefield isn’t an SDS partner, it has limited surface water, hence the primary focus is on treating well water.)

“All of the capital costs to pilot and build the treatment will be taken from cash reserves,” Bernard wrote by email. “The only costs the customers will incur through rates will be to cover operation and maintenance of these facilities. … We aren’t sure how much of the $4.3 million is portioned for WWSD and have not heard when we will receive it.”

Fountain and Security’s increased reliance on SDS may cost their customers, but it provides some relief to Colorado Springs — primary investor, owner and operator of the $825 million pipeline. As partners, Fountain and Security already contributed their share of construction costs, but moving more water through it offsets operational costs.

“We’re running at really low levels right now, so there’s plenty of room in the pipe for our partners,” says Colorado Springs Utilities spokesman Steve Berry. “The bottom line is we’re one big community here in El Paso County, so we’re happy to be flexible for them, but it also takes some of the financial burden [of running SDS] off our customers.”

The costs of getting SDS up and running have been factored into CSU’s rates over the past five years, Berry says, so Phase 1 is pretty much paid for. Phase 2, including new storage construction and reservoir resurfacing, has yet to be reflected in customers’ water bills. Other capital improvement projects like maintaining aging pipes elsewhere in CSU’s raw water system, replacing main lines under downtown and modernizing storage tanks and treatment facilities are coming later.

So whatever reprieve Colorado Springs water users get will be overshadowed by other expenses. “Unfortunately, base rates typically don’t go down — they either stay constant or they increase,” says Berry, who emphasizes that partners’ usage won’t compromise CSU’s access to water. CSU still has precious “first-use” water rights and plenty of redundancy built into its overall system. “But to have a high-quality, reliable water source requires a hefty investment,” Berry adds.

Reliable is the key word there, as demonstrated by the crises playing out in Security, Widefield and Fountain, and communities across the country where drinking water is compromised. Part of the trend is having better detection instruments and part is better science showing potential harm, Heald observes. But, he says, what remains constant is America’s “leap before you look” approach to regulating toxins in our environment — chemicals get introduced to the market before anyone really knows what risk they pose.

Heald offers this summation: “You don’t know what you don’t know, but when you do know, you know it’s going to cost more.”

Colorado Springs denies Fountain Creek pollution in first salvo against @EPA, CDPHE

Fountain Creek
Fountain Creek

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Robert Boczkiewicz):

The city of Colorado Springs, in response to a lawsuit that seeks court action against the city for discharging pollutants into tributaries of the Arkansas River, denies it is violating clean water laws.

The city’s denial is its first response in court to a lawsuit that claims discharges of pollutants into Fountain Creek and other tributaries violate the laws. The discharges are from Colorado Springs’ stormwater system.

“The City has complied with the law,” states the response filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Denver.

The lawsuit was filed Nov. 9 against Colorado Springs by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment.

The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the city “to develop, implement, and enforce” its stormwater management program as specified in permits the government has issued in past years.

Colorado Springs asserted in Monday’s filing that it “has at all times been in compliance” with permits issued by the state agency to govern the discharges and the stormwater system.

The city contends it should not be subjected to court orders or monetary penalties that the environmental agencies want a judge to impose.

Colorado Springs also contends that allegations in the lawsuit misrepresent the facts of issues in dispute.

@USBR: Reclamation Awards a $3.7 Million Contract for Silt Pumping Plant Modernization

Rifle Gap Reservoir via the Applegate Group
Rifle Gap Reservoir via the Applegate Group

Here’s the release from the US Bureau of Reclamation (Justyn Liff):

The Bureau of Reclamation has awarded a $3.7 million contract for modernization of the Silt Pumping Plant to Aslan Construction, from Berthoud, Colorado. The pumping plant is part of the Silt Project located near Rifle, Colorado.

The pumping plant was completed in 1967 and pumps water from the Colorado River to be stored in Rifle Gap Reservoir. Water from the reservoir is used for irrigation in the area. Modernization of the pumping plant includes: installing new pumps, refurbishing the pump motors, and replacing the electrical system.

Manufacturing of equipment and parts will begin during the winter of 2016. In the fall of 2017, after the irrigation season ends, work will begin to modernize the pumping plant. The project will be completed before the 2018 irrigation season.

#ColoradoRiver: Glen Canyon Dam structurally sound, no underachiever — Marlon Duke

From the Arizona Daily Sun (Marlon Duke):

Glen Canyon Dam is a National Resource

Last Friday’s editorial (“Lots to unwind if Glen Canyon Dam shuttered too soon“) discussed the newly signed management plan for Glen Canyon Dam, but incorrectly attributed its 20-year focus to a possible end to federal management by 2036. Glen Canyon Dam is a crucial national resource and the federal government remains fully committed to its long-term successful management well into the future. This new plan enhances certainty and predictability for water and power users, while protecting downstream environmental and cultural resources. The plan’s 20-year focus simply provides a timeline for regularly adjusting dam operations as ongoing science and other factors inform future planning.

Several other assertions merit correction as well. There are no mounting bills for dredging or structural upkeep. Silt buildup hasn’t yet reached the dam and sediment deltas are more than 100 miles upstream in the reservoir. Estimates predict silt won’t fill behind the dam for 700 to 1,000 years. Sediment buildup poses no threat to the dam’s integrity–it is completely structurally sound.

Claims of lost water through seepage are also overstated. Some groups advocate decommissioning the dam based in part on outdated water loss studies. However, a recent assessment by the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University found seepage rates are much lower than those groups claim and that rates are actually declining over time. Seepage water enters the ground water system and eventually returns to the reservoir or river channel.

Without both Lake Powell and Lake Mead, basin-wide drought impacts would have been even more severe. In fact, seven of the past 17 drought years saw less than 8 million acre feet (maf) of unregulated inflow into Lake Powell—that’s the amount that would flow to Lake Mead without Glen Canyon Dam. Four years saw less than 6 maf and 2002’s inflow was only 2.64 maf. However, during even the driest years, storage in Lake Powell allowed full water deliveries with average annual releases of 8.71 maf throughout the drought.

Examining total water storage and use further highlights Lake Powell’s continued importance. Storage capacity at Lakes Mead and Powell is finite—Lake Mead’s maximum capacity is 28.9 maf and Lake Powell’s is 26.2 maf, for a total combined capacity of 55.1 maf. Both reservoirs were at or near full when the drought began in 2000. By the end of water year 2016, regular water deliveries had depleted combined reservoir storage by 30.7 maf—more than either Lake Mead or Lake Powell could support on its own. Without Lake Powell’s storage, those obligated water deliveries would have completely drained Lake Mead before 2016.

Far from being an underachiever, Glen Canyon Dam is doing precisely what is was intended to do — storing water in wet years to ensure predictable, full deliveries across the basin every year. Populations in Arizona and the west continue to grow, as do the challenges and complexities of efficiently managing limited water resources. Glen Canyon Dam has been integral to meeting those challenges for more than 50 years and will continue its role for many decades to come.