MONTROSE – One of the largest renewable energy projects on the Western Slope is moving forward.
The South Canal hydroelectric project recently got the go-ahead from the feds, and with a recent riverfront land purchase to help mitigate lost fishing opportunities, project officials are excited about their progress.
“I think it's a win-win deal,” Steve Fletcher, manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association said.
The potential for hydroelectric power from the South Canal was recognized at its 1909 inception, with an article published Aug. 22, 1909 in The New York Times stating that such a project could “generate electric power sufficient to light every town and every farmhouse in the Uncompahgre Valley and provide power for all kinds of commercial and industrial purposes.”
There are more farmhouses and a lot more electrical need in the valley since that 1909 article, but officials say the South Canal project still has great potential.
The hydro project, with its estimated 6 to 7 megawatts of capacity, could supply approximately 5 percent of the cooperative's electrical demands – enough to service 3,500 homes, according to Delta-Montrose Electric Association.
The South Canal is a primary channel of a 575-mile irrigation network that spiderwebs throughout the valley's agricultural communities. The water is managed by the Bureau of Reclamation, while the canals and ditches are managed by the UVWUA. Water from the Gunnison River travels through several dams in the Black Canyon before some of it is diverted into the Gunnison Tunnel during the irrigating months (usually March through October). After six miles of tunnel, the water flows into the South Canal, where it drops approximately 375 feet in a short distance.
In the 1980s, five sites on the South Canal were identified as having drops significant enough to support hydroelectric systems. Of those five sites, sites one and three – just a few miles from where the water exits the tunnel – will be developed in this project, DMEA Renewable Energy Engineer Jim Heneghan said.
“It [South Canal] serves irrigating first and we are piggybacking on that,” he said.
The water is already there, explains Fletcher, and after the $22 million project is paid for, the UVWUA expects to see revenues of $1.5 to $2 million annually – about a third of the association's budget, he said.
The money will come from a Clean Renewable Energy Bond, a low-interest loan program created by the Energy Tax Incentive Act of 2005. DMEA said it expects to pay off the loan in 15 years through savings the project creates, i.e., the money DMEA doesn't have to send to its wholesale power provider, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, DMEA spokesman Tom Polikalas said.
With a “finding of no significant impact” from the Bureau of Reclamation, the DMEA and UVWUA project officials are now waiting for the lease of power privilege to be signed by the bureau's regional director in Salt Lake City, which could happen any day now, said Dan Crabtree, the bureau's water manager group chief.
The reports required a public scoping process and the 10-page FONSI report outlines environmental commitments that must be followed by DMEA , UVWUA and their contractors.
Among those commitments – which sprung from public comment and input from the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife – is an electronic fish barrier to be constructed and operated at the Gunnison Tunnel to deter fish from entering the tunnel and moving into the turbines of the hydro project.
The project will be diverting water that normally falls down a steep shoot into a parallel pipe, or penstock, at around 1,100 to 900 cubic feet per second, Heneghan said. The water's velocity increases as it reaches the turbines; as the turbines rotate, they generate power that is collected by a generator within the powerhouse. The water is then returned to the canal with no effect on the downstream flows.
The turbines are fish-friendly, Heneghan said, but because of the larger, trophy-sized fish that now travel through the tunnel and into the South Canal, the wildlife division recommended the electric fence because of possible fish fatalities.
State Area Wildlife Manager Renzo DelPiccolo said the fish sense the electric fence and avoid that area, however, some fish will make it through the fence and turbines to the South Canal, then making it into the Uncompahgre River. He expects that those fish will be significantly smaller, and fewer in number, than the ones found now.
“The South Canal was never intended to be for fishing, but it was and there are some good Gunnison trophy fish there,” DelPiccolo said.
With the fence, a lot more fish will stay in the Gunnison River and out of the South Canal – good for guides and anglers in the canyon, but frustrating for local fisherman who have enjoyed no-limit fishing in the canal for decades.
Montrose resident Richard Howden, a South Canal fishing enthusiast, complained to the project entities and several media outlets that fishing the South Canal wasn't considered in the project. He stated that there was very limited access to fishing on the Uncompahgre River, and steep, long hikes make reaching the Gunnison River in the canyon difficult for many people, and called for a compromise.
To mitigate the fishing loss, DMEA promised to find its Uncompahgre Valley residents alternative fishing access points. That commitment also is outlined in the FONSI.
Just weeks after the Finding of No Significant impact was released in late February, DMEA and the City of Montrose partnered to purchase a one-mile stretch of property along the Uncompahgre River behind Target and JCPenney, running north. DMEA's contribution was $300,000 toward the purchase – the total of which is required by the FONSI for mitigations – while the city contributed $30,000 and a private donation of $100,000 was provided by neighboring river enthusiasts Jim and Sharen Branscome.
“We think it's a very good mitigation, and are very excited in the fact that DMEA and the city partnered to make this available to the public,” DelPiccolo said. “It's a great, great thing for the community, and we hope to make it even better by doing habitat improvements and fishing structures…. It wasn't going to be easy to mitigate for that South Canal loss, but this came together nicely.”
Howden, however, isn't pleased.
“It's all great to get fishing access, but if there are not fish in the Uncompahgre, then what good does it do you?” he asked. “Their win-win is to put 10-inch stockers into the Uncompahgre, but that's not going to replace the loss…that quality of fish [in the South Canal] will never be replaced.”
DelPiccolo said a 2011 sampling of the fish in the South Canal showed a 50-50 split of brown to rainbow trout.
He said studies of the Uncompahgre River within the newly acquired area should tell the wildlife division what level of fish stocking that area may need, if any.
Howden said fishing the Uncompahgre will never compare to the 6.5-pound rainbow trout he got in the canal.
“There are some absolutely incredible fish out there,” he said.
Howden also is concerned that the Uncompahgre River fishing will be hit with a “double whammy” as another hydroelectric project is moving forward at Ridgway Reservoir.
That lease of power privilege was signed in early February, Crabtree said.
The preliminary design calls for a system with a capacity of 7 megawatts of power, producing an average of 22,600 megawatts-hours of energy per year, by use of a larger turbine during peak flow seasons and a smaller turbine during low flows, according to the Final Environmental Assessment by the bureau.
That report, however, says that there will be little impact to fish habitat for downstream or reservoir fisheries, and that the hydro plant may actually reduce nitrogen super-saturation problems downstream, a problem that has been killing fish in the Uncompahgre.
But some downstream recreational fishing areas may be temporarily affected during the construction period, the report goes on to state.
Howden, however, voiced concern that problems may arise as the project moves forward that are not addressed properly – something he contends happened regarding the South Canal design. He said that those involved in the project could have designed a system that allows for large fish to continue to move into the canal, but were to eager to move the project along, and did not do so.
“This is a lousy situation for the valley,” he said.
Although the fish won't be the size of those in the South Canal, DelPiccolo said this new property has potential to be a real “gem” in the community because of its proximity to Montrose.
And as far as safety and trespassing issues at South Canal, Fletcher said, “It's going to be a safer situation for sure.”
Many of DMEA's commitments, such as security plans, must be submitted to the Bureau for approval before the hydro project can move forward.
Heneghan's goal is to have those in by the end of this month so that the contractors can get started.
In the spring of 2011, DMEA bid out the design-build contract to Idaho-based Mountain States Hydro; the firm has subcontracted work locally to earth-moving and concrete companies, he said.
Heneghan expects the project to generate more than 60 jobs from now until the project is completed next June.
In conjunction with this project, DMEA is constructing its east Montrose substation that will be able to accept the power generated by the hydro project and convert it for use on DMEA's grid.
“We are on schedule to have that constructed this summer and completed by February or March of next year,” he said.
Another benefit, in addition to jobs and energy, is the offset of carbon dioxide emissions – an estimated 47 million pounds per year, according to the FONSI report.
“This is going to be good for the community,” Fletcher said. “Even the construction…it's extra income coming into the community.”