Unaweep Canyon – Hydroelectric Proposal
Issues: Renewable Energy, Watersheds, Wild Lands
Partners: Colorado Wildlands Project, Living Rivers, The Access Fund, Western Colorado Climbers’ Coalition
Airport Origin : Grand Junction, CO
A controversial hydroelectric project is proposed for Unaweep Canyon, a place of pristine views, world-renowned climbing, and a geological phenomenon. A diverse group of passengers joined EcoFlight to view the Unaweep Canyon from the air and voice their views to the press as experts, property owners, recreation advocates, and conservationists.
Unaweep Canyon, a Ute name meaning 'the canyon with two mouths', is the only canyon in the world that has two rivers flowing out in opposite directions. From the air, the natural wonder is clear. Xcel Energy is exploring a pumped storage hydroelectric project in Unaweep Canyon.
While this hydroelectric project adds to Xcel Energy's clean energy portfolio, critics point out the inefficiency of consuming energy to pump water, and say the downsides far outweigh minimal clean energy benefits. Construction of the reservoirs, roads, pipelines, and power lines will cause damage to the local ecosystem, loss of private property, loss of aesthetic value, and will reduce access to recreation areas.
The Unaweep Pumped Storage Hydropower Project is in the initial exploration steps, but the current plans would make it the largest hydropower project on the Western Slope. We flew above the project site and saw where water would be pumped from East Creek, near the confluence with the Gunnison River, to a lower reservoir, then up to a high reservoir on the rim of the canyon, then released back to the lower reservoir. This process is incredibly inefficient at generating electricity; in fact, more energy is needed to pump the water uphill than would be created. However, the water stored in the higher reservoir can be released when needed, making it a reliable source to meet peak electricity demands. Many feel, as flight passenger John Weisheit put it, "this is a consumptive use for a river that doesn't have anything left to give." During this megadrought, the possibility of clean energy production in Unaweep Canyon comes at a high cost.
Constructing this massive hydropower operation will greatly disturb the pristine, natural canyon and the experience of those who visit it. Climbers and climbing access representatives on board the flight aired their concern that the project will require infrastructure like power lines that will destroy climbing features and decrease access to climbing areas. Unaweep Canyon is a hub of the Grand Valley climbing community, offering some of the best climbing on the Western Slope of Colorado, and this project puts that resource at risk. Other recreation opportunities would also be affected, along with a decrease in aesthetic values and the ability to enjoy the undisturbed, undeveloped landscape. Although the project is in the exploratory stage, the current plan will put multiple homes underwater and require Highway 141, a Colorado scenic byway, to be rerouted to accommodate the lower reservoir. Climate change heightens the immediate need to increase clean energy production, but also demands thoughtful solutions that protect remaining healthy ecosystems and use limited resources efficiently.