New reservoir coming to the region?

Dolores Water Conservancy District studies large project on Plateau Creek

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In an effort to keep local control over local water issues, the Dolores Water Conservancy District has filed an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a preliminary permit to study the feasibility of a large water project on Plateau Creek, a tributary of McPhee Reservoir.

The paperwork filed by the local water district is a competing proposal, a response to a similar application filed by Bellevue, Wash., engineering firm INCA Engineers.

DWCD’s permit application, filed on May 10, seeks “municipal preference” for feasibility studies over the out-of-state company, which filed application paperwork with FERC on Nov. 30, 2011.

At the heart of the contest is a pumped storage project on Plateau Creek which would include two reservoirs. The project would comprise an upper reservoir with a total storage capacity of 8,000 acre-feet and a surface area of 275 acres and a lower reservoir with a total storage capacity of 9,500 acre-feet and a water surface area of 200 square acres. The purpose of the project would be hydroelectric capabilities with 500 megawatts of generating capacity and a 7-mile-long, 230 kilovolt transmission line. An acre-foot of water is the equivalent filling the surface of a football field to the depth of one foot.

DWCD hopes its historic water rights and involvement in local water issues will win the day when permits are awarded, according to district manager Mike Preston.

“DWCD holds the water rights on McPhee and certainly Plateau Creek is a tributary to McPhee Reservoir,” Preston said. “We want to maintain local control over this issue. We believe we have municipal preference because we are what is call a municipal provider, and we think we are very likely to be granted the permit.”

The local water conservancy district already operates two hydropower plants owned by the Bureau of Reclamation, Preston said. The plants generate all the electricity used by DWCD, making the water district carbon neutral. However, because the two plants, located on the McPhee dam and on the Towaoc Highline Canal, are subject to changes in inflow rates and irrigation water availability, the power is not consistent.

A hydropower plant constructed on a tributary of the reservoir would provide much more reliable energy, Preston said.

“The flows would’t be dependent on the state of (McPhee),” he said. “That would make for a great power source and could be a revenue source for DWCD, which we need as we are beginning to need to replace much of our infrastructure.”

Preston said the primary concern of the local water district will be balancing current water demands against future development.

“Our primary mission is to supply water to everybody, irrigators and the community and the fisheries and manage releases for boating and manage McPhee Reservoir to the benefit of the local community,” Preston said. “We want to know that the benefits of such a project would outweigh the detrimental aspects of it. That is our priority and our core mission. We don’t want anything extraneous to have a negative impact on our ability to meet our obligations.”

By taking over the project, Preston said DWCD will be able to ensure local concerns and water needs are considered first, before any outside companies or investors decide to use water that is already spoken for.

“We certainly don’t want some kind of speculative investment classing or undermining our core mission,” Preston said.

This is not the first time a water storage project has been considered for Plateau Creek. Over 20 years ago, the water conservancy district took steps toward studying the feasibility of the project, but initial studies were abandoned due to the cost and magnitude of the project.

“It was actually something that was studied a few decades ago, so it has always been in the back of our minds,” Preston said. “We just really didn’t see a need to pursue it until this outside firm picked up the concept and started to run with it.”

Due to its scope, the project will be time and labor intensive, and not cheap, Preston said. Estimates place the cost the feasibility studies alone between $2 and $3 million. The Long Hollow Reservoir, a project that broke ground near Red Mesa last week, is planned for 5,400 acre-feet and is estimated to cost a total of $22.5 million.

The initial feasibility study permit, if awarded, would be good for three years, with a possible extension for another three years. If the district decides the project is a go, time and money will be major components of moving forward. Additional permits will also be necessary as much of the project area is located on federal land.

“It is a very large project and it is the sort of project that would take outside investors to make it a reality,” he said. “Even the feasibility studies are in the millions of dollars. DWCD would not try to develop this project with our own resources. But we felt if somebody were going to try and pursue this, it is our responsibility to be engaged and we should exercise the preferences we are entitled to. Whatever happens, we want to be sure it is done with benefit to the local community.”

Reach Kimberly Benedict at kimberlyb@cortezjournal.com.