Shoshone water project halfway to fully funded as governor signs water bills

Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Frisco speaks at the Silverthorne Performing Arts Center ahead of Gov. Jared Polis governor signing a bill creating a permit program for certain types of development.
Elliott Wenzler/Summit Daily News

A major deal to secure flows along the Colorado River in perpetuity is gaining momentum after Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill appropriating $20 million to the water right acquisition Wednesday in Silverthorne.

The Shoshone Power Plant, located along Interstate 70 near Glenwood Springs, has some of the oldest and most significant water rights on the river. The Colorado River Water Conservation District has agreed to buy the rights from Xcel Energy for about $99 million

“I’m not being hyperbolic when I say it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Zane Kessler with the river district. “This has been a priority for our predecessor’s predecessors on the Western Slope.” 

Under the deal, the water would continue to be used by Xcel Energy to produce electricity, but every drop would then be returned to the river, protecting upstream and downstream water rights, recreation activities and fish populations. The right represents more than 1 million acre feet of water per year. That’s more than enough water to fill Blue Mesa Reservoir, Colorado’s largest reservoir, which has the capacity to hold 940,000 acre feet of water. 

“We’re really just protecting the status quo,” Kessler said. “The investment is important today because we are facing a hotter, drier future.” 

With the $20 million from the state, another $20 million from the river district and about $11 million from several other entities across the Western Slope, the sale is halfway to being fully funded. The district hopes to receive the rest of the funding from the federal government by the 2027 deadline to secure enough money. 

“This shows the state of Colorado has a commitment to the local governments and partners led by the Colorado River District in protecting that crucial flow on the Colorado River,” said Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Frisco. “By protecting those in perpetuity, we can make a huge difference in securing our water future here in Colorado.”

The senior status of the plant’s water rights means that, in times of shortage, lower-priority water users upstream have to stop or supplement the water they use while downstream users are guaranteed consistent flows. 

The funding was part of the annual water projects bill, which lawmakers pass each year to dedicate funding to various projects throughout the state. This year, about $56 million total was set aside. That’s higher than in years past because of an increase in revenue gained from sports betting. The state will ask voters to let them grow that funding further in November. 

Other than the Shoshone water rights, the bill will also fund projects like a turf replacement program and improved water supply forecasting. 

The governor also signed a bill creating a permit program for certain types of development at the event at the Silverthorne Performing Arts Center.

House Bill 1379 forms the new permitting program, regulating when developers can dig up and fill in streams and wetlands under a process called “dredging and filling” under the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The program, designed to protect the state’s streams and wetlands, became necessary after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling withdrawing protections for about half the streams and wetlands about a year ago. 

The bill protects a wide swath of waterways in the state, going beyond the protections that were provided before the Supreme Court ruling. 

“This bipartisan bill helps make sure that our water resources are protected the Colorado way,” Polis said, “and it gives the drivers of our economy the certainty they need.” 

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