RIDGWAY – Trophy fishing and inequities in property tax mill levies were the only two gripes Tuesday night, as representatives of Tri-County Water Conservancy District, along with the Bureau of Reclamation, held a first scoping meeting in Ridgway to discuss Tri-County’s plan for a hydropower generating facility at the Ridgway dam.
Citizens in attendance found little to question in a project that could generate clean energy equivalent to running 2,000 households for a year while saving carbon emissions equivalent to taking 4,400 cars off the road.
Questions remain on who would purchase the power generated, according to Tri-County’s long-time manger Mike Berry. Negotiations have included the City of Aspen, which expressed interest years ago in a power purchase agreement. San Miguel Power Association and its parent, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, are also potential buyers.
Following a power-point presentation on the history and prospects for the project, Tri-County’s Berry fielded questions about super-saturated nitrogen in the Uncompahgre River below the dam. Citizen activist Scott Williams brought up the subject, which has been the bane of those who hoped the river below the dam could become a draw for sportsmen, the way the trophy-trout waters below the Taylor River Reservoir have enticed anglers to Gunnison County. Williams said the Colorado Division of Wildlife has had difficulty growing the fishery downstream due to the high concentrations of nitrates in the release water.
Berry explained that Tri-County has long been aware of the problem. It occurs, he said, because water is released from deep in the reservoir where nitrogen is concentrated. “This project won’t make the nitrogen problem worse,” he said. “We’ll make it better if we can afford to make it better. No promises.”
Winter release rates were a related problem, Williams said. Winter releases of as low as 30 cfs have compounded the fisheries challenge.
Winter flows are “a contractual matter from the 1970s,” Berry responded. “They were part of the negotiated criteria set out by the people who are paying for this [Dallas Creek] project, the irrigators. We’ll look at opportunities to release a little more water. There are opportunities. No promises.”
A second line of questioning came from Ouray County Commissioner Lynn Padgett. She pointed out that last year’s Tri-County WCD mill levy of 1.9 mills affected the tax bill of every property owner in Ouray County to the tune of about $177,000 total. (By comparison, Padgett said, the county’s road and bridge fund was only able to spend about $150,000 last year.) And yet few in the county receive their drinking water from Tri-County. Could the profits from the sale of electricity be used to reduce the mill levy?
Berry answered directly: “No. The hydro project probably won’t reduce your mill levy.” He explained that the mill levy was established (the actual number fluctuates) by a vote of the three counties, Ouray, Montrose and Delta, in 1976, as a way of repaying the cost of building the dam, planned since the 1940s and completed in 1987. The dam provides flood control, irrigation water and M&I (municipal and industrial) water for subscribers in the three counties.
“The mill levy was set up,” Berry said, “to repay the project, not for Tri-County’s expenses. Profits from the sale of electricity will be used to offset Tri-County’s expenses,” which could include reducing water bills to customers.
He went on to say, however, that the proposed hydro generator “is probably going to be in the red for five years depending on the [terms of the] power purchase agreement, which needs to be negotiated, and will be, hopefully, in the next couple of months.”
Details of the plan include the installation of two generators at the base of the dam with a total generating capacity of seven megawatts. Both would use the existing river outlet. The smaller 2.1 MW generator would be turned by the lower, winter flows. Both generators, including a 4.9 MW, would operate during the higher, summer flows.
A power substation would be built nearby. It was unclear still, according to Berry, just which existing powerlines would transport the new electricity into the grid. Other negotiations have yet to be worked out as well, including the Lease of Power Privilege with the Bureau or Reclamation, which would allow the use of the federal facility (the dam) for power generation.
Berry was optimistic that the required Environmental Assessment could be completed this year, that further design and equipment procurement could happen in 2012, and that construction could begin in 2013, with the first sparks coursing onto the grid by late that year.
Reclamation, which is in charge of producing the EA, will be taking comments through the end of May. Contact Dan Crabtree, 970/248-0652; email@example.com or Steve McCall, 970/248-0638; firstname.lastname@example.org.