WATER SECURITYIn $100 Million Colorado River Deal, Water and Power Collide

By Alex Hager

Published 23 February 2024

The Colorado River District plans to buy the water rights that flow through Colorado’s Shoshone hydropower plant. The acquisition is seen as pivotal for a wide swath of the state, and has been co-signed by farmers, environmental groups, and local governments.

Colorado’s Glenwood Canyon is as busy as it is majestic. At the base of its snowy, near-vertical walls, the narrow chasm hums with life. On one side, the Colorado River tumbles through whitewater rapids. On the other, cars and trucks whoosh by on a busy interstate.

Pinched in the middle of it all is the Shoshone Generating Station.

“It is a nondescript brown building off of I-70 that most people don’t notice when they’re driving,” said Amy Moyer, director of strategic partnerships at the Colorado River District. “But if you are in the water world, it holds the key for one of the most interesting and important water rights on the Colorado River.”

Beneath a noisy highway overpass, Moyer looked at the hydropower plant through a chain-link fence. Her group, a taxpayer-funded agency founded to keep water flowing to the cities and farms of Western Colorado, is poised to spend nearly $100 million on rights to the water that flows through the Shoshone facility.

The purchase represents the culmination of a decades-long effort to keep Shoshone’s water on the west side of Colorado’s mountains, settling the region’s long-held anxieties over competition with the water needs of the Front Range, where fast-growing cities and suburbs around Denver need more water to keep pace with development.

Even though the Shoshone water rights carry an eight-figure price tag, the new owners will leave the river virtually unchanged. The river district will buy access to Shoshone’s water from the plant operator, Xcel Energy, and lease it back as long as Xcel wants to keep producing hydropower.

The water right is considered “non-consumptive,” meaning every drop that enters the power plant is returned to the river. The river district wants to keep it that way as long as they can and ensure the water that flows into the hydroelectric plant also flows downstream to farmers, fish, and homes.

The river district is rallying the $98.5 million sum from local, state, and federal agencies. The district has secured $40 million already, with deals in the works for the remainder. It’s rare for a big-money water deal to find this kind of broad approval from a diverse group of water users. But the acquisition is seen as pivotal for a wide swath of Colorado, and has been co-signed by farmers, environmental groups, and local governments.