The vast potential of small hydropower — Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

February 9, 2015

Micro-hydroelectric plant

Micro-hydroelectric plant


From Inside Energy via The Durango Herald:

A prime example of the future of hydropower is perched in the rugged peaks outside of Silverton.

This is no behemoth new dam blocking one of America’s rivers. It’s a humming generator no bigger than a wheelbarrow, pulling in water from a mountain stream and making enough power to serve 10 homes.

“I think the days of the megaprojects in hydropower are gone,” said Boulder-based energy analyst Cameron Brooks.

Instead, a fledgling industry is taking shape, focused on putting small electricity generation on already existing non-powered hydro infrastructure. It’s a flurry of new economic activity for which Congress can take much credit, and it’s an issue with opportunity for further political compromise as Republicans take control in the U.S. Senate.

The San Juan County Historical Society operates an 8-kilowatt plant near the historic Mayflower Mill that overlooks the Animas River about a mile northeast of downtown Silverton. The group was given the mill site about 15 years ago.

Millworkers used the pipeline in the early 20th century to help process gold and silver ore mined in the neighboring mountains.

Historical society chairwoman Beverly Rich wanted to use the pipeline to generate electricity. Yet, the project stalled when she was told her generator would have to go through a federal licensing process akin to what would be required if the historical society wanted to build a new Hoover Dam.

In the summer of 2013, the Silverton mill project was a poster child in hearings on legislation meant to showcase an overly-burdensome federal regulatory process for small hydropower. The hearing proved persuasive to lawmakers.

“Incredibly enough, in this horrible time of gridlock, it passed unanimously,” Rich said of the bill.

President Barack Obama went on to sign that and another major reform bill for small hydro.

These laws dramatically streamlined the federal licensing process for projects like the mill.

Brooks said the package of legislation hit a rare bipartisan sweet spot. For lawmakers on the right, the legislation shrank federal bureaucracy. On the left, it meant a win for renewable energy without building new dams.

Fans of small hydropower are actually happy with Congress right now. Still, they are looking for more.

Kurt Johnson is a Colorado-based hydropower consultant who testified at a congressional hearing for the 2013 bills. He agrees that the new laws have been very helpful in spurring more development of small hydro. Yet, he describes them as a kitchen knife gently cutting the government’s red tape, when what really is needed is a machete.

For Johnson, it shouldn’t just be a matter of reducing the licensing process.

“If the projects are tiny and non-controversial,” he asked, “why is the federal government involved at all?”

Johnson said 97 percent of the nation’s nearly 80,000 dams currently do not have hydropower, showing the scope of the opportunity. But to really make it happen will require more congressional slashing of remaining red tape.

Removing all federal oversight may be a tall order even for this new Republican-controlled Congress.

However, hydropower legislation likely will make a reappearance. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski is set to be the new chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Her office declined multiple interview requests for this story, but she’s on record calling hydropower an under-developed resource, saying more hydro could support economic growth and create jobs. As far as the country’s energy needs, there is vast potential.

Johnson recently met for an interview at the base of Button Rock Dam near Longmont, where a surging jet of water was launching at least 50 feet into North St. Vrain Creek.

“This is a great example of an enormous amount of mechanical energy which is currently being completely wasted,” he said.

There is no generator hooked up at the outlet of Button Rock Dam. If there were, it could power 500 homes.

A project of that size is considered small hydro; in fact, a project more than double that size would be labeled as such. Johnson said a developer for Button Rock is in the early stages of the federal application process set out under the 2013 bills.

The Department of Energy estimates that if generators were put on all existing non-powered dams in the U.S., such as Button Rock, it would create about as much power as a dozen large coal-fired power plants – or, to put it another way, enough electricity for at least 4 million homes.

The Durango Herald brings you this report in partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS I-News. Inside Energy is a reporting collaborative led by Rocky Mountain PBS. Email Dan Boyce at danboyce@rmpbs.org.

More hydroelectric/hydropower coverage here.


USGS: Wonder where all the wind turbines in the US are?

February 8, 2015


President Obama’s proposed budget includes $1.1 billion to fund Reclamation water projects

February 3, 2015

President Obama at Hoover Dam

President Obama at Hoover Dam


Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation:

President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget request released today identifies a total of $1.1 billion for the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, continuing the President’s commitment to be prudent with taxpayer dollars while setting consistent spending priorities for Reclamation. The budget would provide robust investments in the safety, reliability and efficiency of America’s water infrastructure and in conservation, reuse and applied science to address the nation’s water supply challenges, especially in the West.
As the nation’s largest wholesale water supplier and second-largest producer of hydroelectric power, Reclamation’s projects and programs are critical to driving and maintaining economic growth in the western States.

“President Obama’s budget for Reclamation reflects a strong commitment to our ongoing mission of effectively managing water and power in the West,” Commissioner Estevan López said. “Reclamation and its partners provide water and clean hydropower for communities across 17 states. With the resources provided in this budget blueprint, we can continue to be an engine of progress across multiple sectors of the western U.S. economy.”

The proposal for Reclamation’s Water and Related Resources account of $805.2 million includes $367.4 million for resource management and development activities. This funding provides for planning, construction, water conservation activities, management of Reclamation lands—including recreation— and actions to address the impacts of Reclamation projects on fish and wildlife. The request also emphasizes reliable water delivery and power generation by requesting $437.7 million to fund operation, maintenance and rehabilitation activities at Reclamation facilities, including dam safety.

The budget emphasizes Reclamation’s core mission to address the water demands of a growing population in an environmentally responsible and cost-efficient manner; and to assist states, tribes and local entities in solving water resource issues. It also emphasizes the operation and maintenance of Reclamation facilities in a safe, efficient, economic and reliable manner—ensuring systems and safety measures are in place to protect the public and Reclamation facilities.

Reclamation’s funding request addresses Administration, Interior, and Reclamation priorities. The budget supports water rights settlements to ensure sufficient resources to address the requirements of legislation passed by Congress to settle litigation. The request includes increases for specific Indian water rights settlements that support the goal of strengthening tribal nations.

The FY 2016 budget proposal also balances needs for climate variability adaptation, water conservation, improving infrastructure, sound science to support critical decision making and ecosystem restoration.

Reclamation’s challenges – The extreme and prolonged drought facing the West affects major U.S. river basins in virtually every western state. The effects of the current drought on California water, its agricultural economy and its communities are topics of nationwide concern and extensive media coverage. The Colorado River Basin—crucial for seven states and several Tribes, in addition to two countries—is also enduring historic drought. About 33 million people rely on the Colorado River for some, if not all, of their municipal needs.

Reclamation’s dams, water conveyances and power generating facilities are critical components of the Nation’s infrastructure. Protecting and extending the lives of these structures are among the many significant challenges facing Reclamation over the next several years and beyond. They present major hurdles to achieving progress on water supply confidence, sustainability and resiliency. Reclamation’s water and power projects and activities throughout the western United States are a foundation for essential and safe water supplies, provide renewable hydropower energy and sustain ecosystems that support fish and wildlife, recreation and rural economies. Climate variability and competing demands are increasingly affecting already-strained systems. The Bureau of Reclamation’s FY 2016 budget addresses these challenges and reflects a very deliberate approach to accommodating mission priorities.

WaterSMART Program – The President’s proposed budget for Reclamation calls for $58.1 million for the WaterSMART Program – Sustain and Manage America’s Resources for Tomorrow — to assist communities in optimizing the use of water supplies by improving water management. The WaterSMART Program components include: WaterSMART Grants funded at $23.4 million; the Basin Studies Program, $5.2 million; the Title XVI Water Reclamation and Reuse Program, $20.0 million; the Water Conservation Field Service program, $4.2 million; the Cooperative Watershed Management program, $250,000; the Drought Response program $2.5 million; and the Resilient Infrastructure program, $2.5 million.

Strengthening tribal nations – To meet trust and treaty obligations, Reclamation’s budget request makes Indian water rights settlements among the highest priorities. The FY 2016 budget proposes $112.5 million for a new account entitled Indian Water Rights Settlements to ensure continuity in the construction of four of the authorized projects and to highlight and enhance transparency in handling these funds. The budget includes $89.7 million for the ongoing Navajo-Gallop Water Supply Project (Title X of Public Law 11-11) as well as $22.8 million to continue implementation of three settlements authorized in the Claims Resolution Act of 2010. These settlements will deliver clean water to the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, the Taos Pueblo of New Mexico, the Pueblos of Nambe, Pojoaque, San Ildefonsi & Tesuque in New Mexico named in the Aamodt case and the Crow Tribe of Montana.

Specifics of the budget request include:

America’s Great Outdoors Initiative – Reclamation has a responsibility to focus on the protection and restoration of the aquatic and riparian environments affected by its operations. Highlights of Reclamation’s ecosystem restoration activities, many of which support Endangered Species Act (ESA) recovery programs, include:

$16.7 million is for the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program to provide long-term Endangered Species Act (ESA) compliance for river operations.

$24.4 million for ESA recovery implementation programs, including $17.5 million to implement the Platte River Endangered Species Recovery Implementation Program and $4.4 million for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Programs. $6.8 million of the $18.0 million Klamath Project supports wildlife refuge and environmental needs, the remainder supports studies and initiatives to improve water supplies to meet the competing demands of agricultural and tribal and facilities operations and maintenance activities.

$37.0 million for the California Bay-Delta Restoration, equal to the FY 2015 budget. The account focuses on the health of the Bay-Delta ecosystem and improving water management and supplies. The budget will support the co-equal goals of environmental restoration and improved water supply reliability, under the following program activities: $1.7 million for a Renewed Federal State Partnership, $7.2 million for Smarter Water Supply and Use, and $28.1 million for Habitat Restoration. These program activities are based on the Interim Federal Action Plan for the California Bay-Delta issued December 22, 2009.

$49.5 million for the Central Valley Project Restoration Fund to continue funding a variety of activities to restore fish and wildlife habitat and populations in the CVP service area of California.

Within California’s Central Valley Project (CVP), $11.9 million and an additional $1.5 million in the Central Valley Project Restoration Fund are for the Trinity River Restoration program.

$9.5 million, as part of the Middle Rio Grande Project budget, targeted to support environmental activities developed through an Endangered Species Act Collaborative Program.

$18.0 million for the Columbia and Snake River Salmon Recovery Project for implementation of the biological opinions for the Federal Columbia River Power System.

Other project highlights –

$123.0 million to operate, manage, and improve CVP. More than one-half of that amount provides for operation and maintenance of project facilities, including $20.3 million for the Replacements, Additions, and Extraordinary Maintenance program which provides for modernization, upgrade, and refurbishment of facilities throughout the Central Valley. The remainder supports studies and initiatives to improve water supplies and environmental needs.

$36.5 million for rural water projects to undertake the design and construction of five projects and operation and maintenance of tribal features for two projects intended to deliver potable water supplies to specific rural communities and tribes located primarily in Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota and South Dakota.

$12.8 million for the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project, which will continue funding grants to implement conservation measures and monitor the effects of those measures on the river diversions. Funding is also included to continue construction on fish passage facilities at Cle Elum dam.

$88.1 million for the Dam Safety Program to continue dam safety risk management and risk reduction activities throughout Reclamation’s inventory of dams. Corrective actions are planned to start or will continue at a number of facilities. A focus continues to be modifications at Folsom Dam (California).

$26.2 million for site security to continue Reclamation’s ongoing site-security program, which includes physical security upgrades at key facilities, guards and patrols, anti-terrorism program activities and security risk assessments.

The Bureau of Reclamation, throughout the 17 western states, is committed to helping meet the many water challenges of the West. A driving force behind bureau initiatives is resolution of water issues that will benefit future generations and providing leadership on the path to sustainable water supplies.


The City of Aspen councilors decide to let FERC hydropower application expire in March

January 28, 2015


From The Aspen Times (Karl Herchenroeder):

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted Aspen its first three-year preliminary permit for a 1,175-kilowatt hydropower plant on lower Castle Creek in November 2008 and a second three-year permit in March 2012.

City Attorney Jim True recommended allowing the permit to expire on March 1, which would officially put the controversial Castle Creek Energy Center on ice, for now. City officials did, however, agree to continue exploring micro-hydro projects on Castle and Maroon creeks, which True said would involve protection of city water rights.

“We will update you on those issues,” True told the council, adding that there will be more detailed analysis later. “We do believe there are additional protections.”

Will Dolan, the city’s utilities project coordinator, said that if the city were able to install low-head hydro on Maroon Creek, it would allow it to run more water through the existing Maroon Creek hydroplant and “optimize production.” Councilwoman Ann Mullins asked if it will affect streamflows.

“It wouldn’t affect the flow regimes necessarily,” Dolan said. “It would allow us to more fully utilize our water rights, but it wouldn’t create any additional diversion from the stream.”

“These are issues we want to bring back in greater detail,” True said, adding that consultation with federal and city water attorneys is needed.

Councilman Adam Frisch said he believes there is broad community support to explore micro-hydro and called the plan that True laid out “a great step forward.” None of the council members offered objections to True’s recommendation.

“I agree to let it expire, continue the investigation of micro-hydro and have a universal statement on protecting water rights,” Councilman Dwayne Romero said.

In March, the city filed a progress report saying it was still working on the Castle Creek project, despite a November 2012 advisory vote where 51 percent of city voters said the city should stop doing so.

However, in June, the city settled a lawsuit over its water rights for the proposed hydroplant. Both the settlement and a subsequent city council resolution said the city “will not be pursuing or seeking to complete the Castle Creek Energy Center hydroelectric project at this time.”

More hydroelectric/hydropower coverage here and here.


After Human-Caused Earthquakes, Company Injecting Wastewater Cleared Of Wrongdoing — KUNC

January 23, 2015
Deep injection well

Deep injection well

From KUNC (Jackie Fortier):

A company whose oil and gas wastewater injection was linked to earthquakes in Northern Colorado did nothing wrong, according to an investigation by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

The first earthquake was felt in the Greeley area in late May 2014. Another followed on June 23, triggering an investigation by the COGCC into whether NGL Water Solutions DJ LLC violated its permit. The company was allowed to resume using the disposal well three weeks after the second earthquake, but at lower volumes and lower pressures.

The investigation cleared NGL of any wrongdoing, and the COGCC also granted their request to boost the amount of wastewater the company can inject into its well to 12,000 barrels per day.

More oil and gas coverage here.


The truth behind oil shale’s water demands — Anne-Mariah Tapp and David M. Abelson #ColoradoRiver

January 19, 2015

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Anne-Mariah Tapp and David M. Abelson):

As the new Congress ramps up in the coming weeks, energy policy will quickly top the list of priorities. Debates over the Keystone Pipeline, natural gas exports, and climate change may dominate, but they won’t be the only issues demanding Congress’ attention. In the West, the link between energy development and water use has never been more dire. And for the Colorado River Basin’s 40 million residents —and the water they depend on — a critical piece of legislation on the docket is the PIONEERS Act.

The PIONEERS Act seeks to jumpstart the non-existent oil shale industry in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming for private gain at the expense of Colorado River Basin water resources. Oil shale, the poor cousin of the shale oil and fracking boom, is technically feasible to extract, but in 100 years of dogged attempts by the federal government and the oil industry, extracting it has never turned a profit. Now provisions in the PIONEERS Act attempt to improve the economics by providing federal subsidies in the form of cheap public land and below-market royalties.

In securing passage of the PIONEERS Act in the past three sessions of Congress (each time the bill has been thwarted in the Senate), Colorado Reps. Doug Lamborn and Scott Tipton have maintained that oil shale development, should the technologies be successfully commercialized, would require little water. This claim seems to be based solely on public assurances made by the oil industry. However, recent water court filings by oil shale developers now cast doubt upon these assurances, and it’s time for Lamborn and Tipton to reconsider their endorsement of the industry.

In recent months, oil shale industry leaders Chevron Oil and ExxonMobil have undercut Lamborn and Tipton’s lead talking point. Chevron filed a lengthy report in Colorado water court showing that the company’s proposed oil shale development activities alone would require up to 125,000 acre-feet of water per year. That’s enough to supply more than half of Denver Water’s 2.3 million customers. ExxonMobil is seeking rights to even more water than Chevron, saying oil shale’s water demands “are anticipated to be higher than that of other sectors.” Other companies across the Colorado River Basin are also pursuing water rights to support oil shale operations.

For those of us who actually depend on Colorado River water to live, from the headwaters in Colorado to the delta in California, these projected water demands are alarming. By 2050, when oil shale supporters predict a mature industry might flourish, the competition for water could be extreme, pitting vital agriculture and recreation economies against a burgeoning population and water-intensive energy demands. If oil shale indeed develops at a large-scale, the family farm — the bedrock of our rural communities and a critical economic driver for our region — will face a full-court press from industry for water rights.

Even without oil shale development, water providers throughout the Colorado River Basin will be hard-pressed to meet existing and future demand. Colorado’s Water Plan, published in December 2014, indicates that by 2050, the gap between water availability and demand will be roughly 500,000 acre-feet, more water than the cities of Denver, Salt Lake City and Albuquerque collectively use in a year. Oil shale gets scant attention in this analysis, but developing these deposits would increase the gap and further strain water supplies.

As James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, has noted, “No single issue will have a more direct impact on Colorado’s future than our ability to successfully and collaboratively manage our life-giving water.” This challenge is not unique to Colorado. States throughout the West are grappling with complex supply and demand questions.

As Congress takes up the PIONEERS Act and considers whether to fast-track oil shale development in the Colorado River Basin, it’s time to examine supporters’ key talking point that oil shale won’t use much water. We must remember the court filings and hold our elected officials accountable. There is too much riding on the myth that oil shale wouldn’t require much of a far more precious resource: water.

More oil shale coverage here and here.


USDA Selects First Projects for New, Innovative RCPP Program

January 17, 2015
RCPP Proposals map via the USDA

RCPP Proposals map via the USDA

Here’s the release from the United States Department of Agriculture (Petra Barnes). (Click through for the data):

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced that 100 high-impact projects across all 50 states, including Colorado will receive more than $370 million as part of the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).

RCPP’s historic focus on public-private partnership enables private companies, local communities and other non-government partners a way to invest in efforts to keep our land resilient and water clean, and promote tremendous economic growth in agriculture, construction, tourism and outdoor recreation, and other industries.

This year’s projects in Colorado will accomplish a wide diversity of agricultural and natural resource goals from facilitating the conversion of flood irrigation systems to more resource-efficient pressurized irrigation systems with integrated hydropower to significantly increasing water use efficiency by coordinating expanded efforts and by integrating off-farm irrigation conveyance system and on-farm water application efficiency improvements.

“Partners are seeing the value of conservation and investing in their future,” Vilsack said. “These partnerships are forging a new path for getting conservation on the ground and are providing opportunities for communities to have a voice and ownership in protecting and improving our natural resources. The Regional Conservation Partnership Program ushers in a new era of conservation, and we’re excited about the down-the-road benefits from this new Farm Bill program.”

This year’s projects will engage hundreds of partners with wide-ranging interests, including communities, conservation districts, agribusiness, non-government organizations, for- and non-profit organizations, state and federal agencies and Tribal governments. In addition to USDA funds, partners’ will contribute an estimated $400 million, more than doubling USDA’s investment.

“RCPP puts our partners in the driver’s seat,” said Elise Boeke, Acting USDA’S Natural Resources Conservation Service state conservationist in Colorado. “Projects are led locally, and demonstrate the value of strong public-private partnerships that deliver solutions to tough natural resource challenges.”

More than 600 pre-proposals were submitted for RCPP in 2014. Of those, more than 200 were invited to submit full proposals. “With so many strong project proposals, the project selection process was extremely competitive. RCPP is a 5-year $1.2 billion USDA commitment; projects not selected in this first year may be eligible in subsequent years,” Boeke said.

For more information on all RCPP projects please visit http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/.

To learn about technical and financial assistance available through conservation programs, visit http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/GetStarted or local USDA service center.

Uncompahgre River Valley looking south

Uncompahgre River Valley looking south

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

Nearly $10 million in federal funding will go to boost water efficiency in the Gunnison Basin and boost the generation of electricity from irrigation systems.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District will administer $8 million to be used with regional conservation partnership programs, which were established in the 2014 Farm Bill, to use water more efficiently and reduce the amount of salts and selenium carried in the Colorado River and its tributaries.

The grant “will really help our agricultural producers implement new conservation practices that not only produce more ‘crop per drop’ of water, but significantly reduces their environmental footprint,” said Dave Kanzer, senior water resources engineer for the River District.

The agency will coordinate efforts to boost water efficiency by coordinating canals, ditches and pipes that deliver water to farms with improvements in the way water is delivered to crops, frequently by eliminating flood irrigation in favor of sprinkler and other irrigation systems.

The River District will use the money from the Agriculture Department to match funding from the Interior Department, as well as state, local and River District funds, to pay for the projects, Kanzer said.

“This grant is a big win-win for agricultural, economic and environmental sustainability,” Kanzer said.

The program will focus on the Bostwick Park, North Fork and Crawford water conservancy districts, as well as the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, for the projects, Kanzer said.

Micro-hydroelectric plant

Micro-hydroelectric plant

The Colorado Department of Agriculture will coordinate a $1.8 million grant to support development of hydropower generation from agricultural canals and ditches.

Congress previously approved legislation easing the development of small hydropower projects by U.S, Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo.

Tipton and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., each served on their houses’ respective agriculture committees, which crafted the Farm Bill.

“These projects will help Colorado and other states across the West better manage our water resources in the face of increased demand and persistent drought conditions,” Bennet said in a statement.

More conservation coverage here. More hydroelectric/hydropower coverage here


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