Water from retired coal plants could help endangered fish in the Yampa River

Ice breaks up on the Yampa River as Spring invites warmer temperatures. Should the water that the nearby Hayden and Craig power plants use be allowed to stay in the river once the plants cease to operate, native and endangered fish species in the river would have a higher chance of survival. Photo by Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

By Allen Best

CRAIG — Endangered species of fish in the Yampa River may benefit as coal-fired power stations close in the next 10 to 15 years.

Water demand in the Yampa River valley has been flat, and only modest population growth is expected in coming decades. Unless new industries emerge, the water will probably be allowed to flow downstream.

And that will be of value in recovering populations of fish species.

The Yampa River downstream from Craig has been designated as critical habitat for four species of fish listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act: Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, bonytail and humpback chub.

The Yampa River can fall to very low levels, especially during late summer in drought years, but the water now consumed by power plants at Craig and Hayden could possibly help augment those flows.

The power plants at Craig and Hayden together use about 10% of the water in the Yampa River basin. Municipalities, including Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Craig, use about 10%, and irrigation accounts for 80% of the use, which is common on Western Slope rivers.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission, the dominant owner of the 1,283-megawatt Craig Station, located just outside of Craig and not far from the Yampa River, will close the first unit in 2025 and unit 3 by the end of 2030.

The retirement date for unit 2 isn’t entirely clear. Tri-State has said 2030, but former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who convened stakeholder discussions last year that led to the shutdown plan, told a congressional committee in late February that unit 2 will be closed by 2026. Tri-State spokesman Mark Stutz said the wholesale provider’s partners still need to agree on a retirement date.

Thermoelectric power generation plants in Moffat County, which includes the Craig plants, used 17,500 acre-feet of water in 2008, according to a 2014 study. Routt County used 2,700 acre-feet.

Xcel Energy, the dominant owner of 441-megawatt Hayden Station, will make its plans more clear in early 2021 when it submits its electric resource plan to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission as it is required to do every four years, said Xcel spokeswoman Michelle Aguayo.

Nobody knows for sure yet how the water will be used once those plants close and remediation is completed. But Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, expects the water will be allowed to flow downstream. He points out that demand in the Yampa Valley has been flat.

“What will happen with that water being used? Probably nothing,” Kuhn said.

And that could help the endangered fish, which are struggling to survive in a river depleted by humans.

“We have a hard time meeting our flow recommendations, particularly in dry years,” said Tom Chart, program director for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.

“As water becomes more available through the closure of those power plants, we could improve performance in meeting our flow recommendations, and that would certainly benefit the aquatic environment and the endangered fish,” he said.

Tri-State, however, has not divulged plans for future use of water from Craig Station. Tri-State spokesman Stutzsays Tri-State will continue to use the associated water during the decommissioning of its power plants and mines.

Steamboat-based water attorney Tom Sharp sees the water from the power plants mattering most in low-water years, such as 2002, 2012 and 2018.

And in the pinch time of August and early fall, Sharp said, the water from the coal plants could make a difference for endangered fish if the water is left in the river or held in storage for release during low-flow times.

Doug Monger, director of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, shows the abandoned meander of the Yampa River that flows through his ranch, Monger Cattle Company, outside of Hayden, Colo. Monger said he isn’t too concerned about Front Range water diversions in the grand scheme of things. Photo by Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

Front Range ‘water grab’?

Diversions by Front Range cities remains a worry by many in Craig, but experts see no cause for fear of a “water grab” by Front Range cities.

“I don’t want to see these water rights sold to the highest bidder on the Front Range,” a woman told the Just Transition workshop in Craig on March 4, provoking sustained applause from many among the more than 200 people in attendance. The state’s Just Transition advisory committee was created by and tasked by the state legislature in House Bill 19-1314 with creating reports, first this July and then December, about how to best assist coal-dependent communities as mines and plants close.

Not to worry, say experts. Geographic barriers between the Yampa Valley and the Front Range that have precluded diversions over the past century remain.

Also, experts point out that rights associated with the power plants are relatively “junior,” in the lexicon of Colorado’s first-in-time, first-in-right doctrine of prior appropriation. The oldest right, from 1967, belongs to the Hayden plant. More valuable by far are water rights that predate the Colorado River Compact of 1922.

“If Front Range entities were inclined to a water grab, they would be looking for something a little more useful, and pre-compact rights are on the ranches,” said John McClow, a water attorney in Gunnison and an alternate commissioner from Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Water Commission.

The compact governs allocations by Colorado and the other six states in the basin, and pre-compact rights will be most valuable in avoiding a compact curtailment, should the Colorado River enter even more extended and deeper drought.

Hayden rancher Doug Monger, a member of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable and director of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, similarly downplays worries about Front Range diversions.

“I don’t think it will be as much of a threat in the bigger scheme of things,” he said.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Steamboat Pilot & Today and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers in the upper Colorado River basin. This story ran in the April 7 online edition of The Steamboat Pilot & Today and the April 7 edition of Aspen Journalism.

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