Western Slope coalition strikes historic $98.5M deal with Xcel for Colorado River water rights

West slope residents along a stretch of the Colorado River are one step closer to greater water security thanks to a historic deal signed Tuesday.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District and Xcel Energy formalized the agreement that will allow the district to buy long-coveted water rights for the Shoshone Power Plant from Xcel — as long as efforts to secure $98.5 million in funding are successful.

The deal is a major step in a decades-long effort to ensure stable flows for water users and ecosystems below the power plant, from Glenwood Springs to the Utah border. “We’ve been talking about this potential acquisition for about 85 years,” Andy Mueller, the river district’s general manager, said during a special board meeting Tuesday. “We’re very excited about this.”

The Shoshone Power Plant, located off Interstate 70 near Glenwood Springs, has the oldest water right directly on the Colorado River in Colorado. Under water law, in times of shortage, upstream water users with lower-priority rights must shut off their water early to fulfill Shoshone’s senior water rights. Since the plant releases all of the water it uses to generate electricity, it provides a steady flow to downstream users whether water is plentiful or scarce.

Local economies and communities from Glenwood Springs to Grand Junction depend on consistent flows out of the plant and have been worried for decades about another entity snapping up the Shoshone water rights and siphoning away their water supplies. The steady flows from Shoshone are also critical to avoiding low water levels in a 15-mile stretch of the Colorado River near Grand Junction where an endangered fish species recovery program operates.

“Anything that can maintain adequate flows in Shoshone for recreation — which is my future, my business — is a positive for the future of water recreation in our area,” said Ken Murphy, who owns the rafting company Glenwood Adventure Company which operates on the Colorado River below Shoshone. “This is a move in the right direction.”

The Colorado River District board unanimously approved the deal to buy Shoshone’s water rights Tuesday in a room packed full of spectators and officials at Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs. Under the agreement, the Colorado River District will own the water rights and lease them back to Xcel so the facility can continue to generate hydroelectric power.

“This is an important agreement for the 1.6 million electric customers and communities we serve statewide by allowing us to continue generating clean electricity as part of our commitment to be good stewards of the Colorado River and all who rely on it,” Xcel Energy Colorado president Robert Kenney said in a prepared statement.

The river district also wants to keep Shoshone’s water in the river — not diverted to other uses — whenever the power plant is not generating hydropower. To make that change, the Colorado River District has launched negotiations with the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). If the district, Xcel and the CWCB reach an agreement, the three entities will go to water court to legally change the rights. Xcel must also seek approval for the deal from the state’s utility commission, and the district will need to find $98.5 million for the sale to be complete.

The Colorado River District board voted unanimously Tuesday to allocate $20 million toward the overall price, and its partners — a coalition of 19 local governments and water entities — plan to contribute another $10 million. The coalition aims to secure the rest of the funding by 2027 and has requested $20 million from the state.

Fresh Water News was launched in 2018 as an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.


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