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Speaker McCluskie: Shoshone water rights offer once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Colorado's namesake river that we must secure

Jan 25, 2024

Article originally posted in the Colorado Sun.

At the narrowest point in Glenwood Canyon, where steep cliffs compress the Colorado River, the Union Pacific Railroad, and all four lanes of Interstate 70 into an area no more than 50 yards across, a small brown building houses the historic Shoshone Hydropower Plant. For more than a century, the turbines inside that building have spun Colorado River water into electricity for local communities. It may not look like much on the outside, but like so many places in our beautiful state, there is far more than meets the eye.

Today, the Shoshone Hydropower Plant still produces energy for Colorado’s electric grid, but its true importance is on the river. The senior water rights tied to Shoshone’s power production hold the key to a more secure water future not only for the Western Slope, but for the entire state of Colorado.

Shoshone’s benefits are unique because its water rights are nonconsumptive, which means the water used for hydropower production — more than 1,400 cubic feet per second — returns entirely to the river after a short trip through its turbines.

Because of its nonconsumptive nature, communities large and small along the Colorado River benefit from the water security and water quality provided by Shoshone’s flows. These water rights provide certainty for farmers, ranchers and recreational outfitters upstream and downstream of Glenwood Canyon. And all Colorado River water users — from Greeley and Colorado Springs to Grand Junction — benefit from the Shoshone’s flows as a bedrock for the success of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, which provides Endangered Species Act compliance and protections for over 1,250 water projects on both sides of the Continental Divide.

In an increasingly arid West, where the Colorado River is stretched-thin, we believe that permanent protection of the Shoshone Water Rights presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to preserve many of the values we hold dear as Coloradans — clean drinking water, productive agriculture, world-class recreation, a healthy environment and much more.

With these benefits in mind, an unlikely coalition of western Colorado governments and water users — including Summit, Grand, Eagle, Garfield and Mesa counties — have been working for decades with the Colorado River District to forge a path toward preservation of Shoshone’s flows. Together with Denver Water, many of these entities recognized Shoshone’s importance, and memorialized the need to protect it, in the 2013 Colorado River Cooperative Agreement.

And now, for the first time, Colorado River water users and the state of Colorado have an opportunity to finalize this long-standing goal.

Just a few weeks ago, Xcel Energy, the owner and operator of the Shoshone hydropower plant, and the Colorado River District signed a purchase and sale agreement setting out a clear path to transfer ownership of the historic Shoshone water rights to the river district for $98.5 million. This historic agreement marks the start of a broad-based effort to partner with the state of Colorado to protect the Shoshone water rights.

We strongly support the agreement reached between Xcel Energy and the Colorado River District, and we applaud the tireless efforts of Xcel, the river district and everyone else involved in getting to this historic point.

In order to succeed, this effort will need the support and partnership of the state of Colorado through the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Gov. Jared Polis recently praised the deal, and next week the conservation board will decide whether to match the river district’s investment of $20 million and move forward toward permanent protection of Shoshone’s flows. This presents an opportunity for the people of Colorado to come together to achieve durable and permanent protections for the Colorado River.

The $98.5 million agreement to acquire the Shoshone water rights is no small price tag, but the one-time investment to protect Colorado River flows in perpetuity will provide priceless benefits for generations of water users to come. The effort aligns with the Colorado Water Plan’s focus on healthy watersheds and vibrant communities, and we believe it is a true value — especially in view of the permanent protection that the funding will help to ensure.

The state- and basin-wide importance of this effort cannot be overstated. If the power plant were to cease operation without permanent protection of the water right, the negative economic and environmental impacts to Western Colorado and to the state of Colorado would be immediate and profound.

Colorado has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to permanently protect the most influential water right on our state’s namesake river. We cannot let this opportunity pass us by, because we all depend on a healthy Colorado River — whether we live on the Front Range or the West Slope. Our fortunes are tied. Our futures are linked. When the Colorado River thrives, we all thrive.

Julie McCluskie is the speaker of the Colorado House and has served as a  Representative since 2018 and was re-elected in 2022 to represent House District 13. She is the first woman Speaker elected from the Western Slope.

Russ George is a fourth generation resident of the Rifle area. He represented northwestern Colorado counties in the Colorado House for four terms, serving as Speaker from 1999-2000.

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