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  • Dylan Anderson

Tri-State, Xcel Energy want Colorado to pass law protecting water rights from abandonment after plants close

Utilities argue protecting their historic rights is good for the Yampa River, good for irrigators and good for the prospects of future power generation in the Yampa Valley.


Tri-State Generation and Xcel Energy want Colorado to pass a law protecting their water rights on the Yampa River from abandonment after the companies’ coal-fired power plants in Hayden and Craig shutter at the end of the decade.


The idea would essentially pause the record of each utility company’s water use when plants close at the end of 2029 and protect those rights from appearing on the state’s once-a-decade Abandonment List until 2050. This would allow the companies to stop using water in 2030 while protecting their right to use it in the future for alternative power generation concepts.


The utilities argue this would have numerous benefits to irrigators and river health because their allotment of roughly 44 cubic feet per second of water will stay in the Yampa River. Additionally, protecting their water rights keeps the Yampa Valley high on the list of potentially viable locations for future utility-scale power generation technologies.


Rich Belt, who until June 2023 was Xcel Energy’s director of chemistry and water resources, told the Routt County Commissioners last week that while the companies may not know what generation technologies would be best to pursue at this time, they all need water.


“There’s lots of existing infrastructure, transmission, substations, plant sites, workforce that are in the area that make the basin a pretty attractive site for future generation,” Belt said. “But if there’s no water to back it up, especially with the situation on the Colorado River being uncertain, it might be hard to justify the very large investments that are probably going to be required.”


The idea was discussed as part of the Colorado River Drought Task Force work last year but was ultimately not part of that group's final recommendations published at the end of December. That group focused on statewide solutions and this idea is likely only viable in the Yampa River Basin, one of the few in the state that isn't completely over-appropriated.


Jackie Brown, an industry representative on the task force and Tri-State’s water and natural resources policy advisor, acknowledged that the concept could be seen as giving the utilities special treatment that other water rights holders are not getting. Still, she said, they are also being singled out when it comes to closing their power plants.


“We did not choose to close down our coal-fired power plants when we are being asked to do that by 2030,” Brown said. “We’re asking this as an industry that’s been hit pretty hard and is doing the very best we can with our research and development to get to where we need to be by 2050.”


“If there are other industries that want to go out and make this ask, great, do it,” Brown continued.


Protecting these water rights from the abandonment list would likely require a new state law. Sen. Dylan Roberts, whose vast district includes much of Northwest Colorado and the entire Yampa River Basin, said he has continued to work with stakeholders on the idea but wasn’t sure that he would be bringing a bill forward this year.


“My sense right now is this is something that is going to take a little longer than that,” Roberts said. “While the merits of the idea make sense, it is really more to get the details right because there could be some unintended consequences.”


“It might take the whole rest of this year and maybe we get something next legislative session,” Roberts continued. “Or, maybe we don’t need to pass a bill at all and we can work with Tri-State and the community to put in some protections for that water using existing programs.”


In the meeting with commissioners, Brown said the current draft legislation is still being adjusted and that stakeholder outreach has only just started. Conversations are so fluid that Brown hesitated to reference the current draft language that she said would likely be different in a week or so.


In addition to protecting the utilities’ water rights, leaving that additional water in the river could help water managers avoid putting the river under administration and allow junior rights holders to continue to access their water later in the season. Water could also be designated for in-steam flow as well, with the idea of protecting aquatic life.


Exactly how these decisions would be made is a key question unanswered at this point. While currently they would be vetted by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, that doesn’t make everyone happy, Brown said.


“We’re just trying to see how this duty of water can be all things to all people,” Brown said. “We don’t know what the answer is yet, but we’re really working hard on it.”


Under the current language, Tri-State and Xcel would also maintain the authority to divert water at any point between now and 2050 to test new technologies, though Brown said they would not be able to rent that water out to others.


Each of the Routt County Commissioners expressed general support for the idea last week, though they were not being asked to take any formal action. Commissioner Tim Redmond, whose district includes Xcel’s Hayden Station, said he was comfortable with the direction currently but would like to “see the next draft.”


“I personally think that this is a very innovative proposal,” said Commissioner Sonja Macys. “I’m obviously sensitive to the notion that when we talk about exceptions, people start to raise their hands about ‘why not me.’ … I think there are a lot of reasons why your situation is different.”


Top Photo Caption: Hayden Station owner Xcel Energy has joined Tri-State Generation to propose legislation that would protect the utility companies' water rights on the Yampa River until 2050. (Dylan Anderson/The Yampa Valley Bugle)


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