Harnessing the Power: Inside the Stagecoach Dam
Steamboat Springs — It is a careful balancing act at the Stagecoach Dam, where electricity is generated for homes, fish habitat is managed and water is stored for a time when cities, ranchers and industry need it.
Behind the steel door, mineralized sludge covers the concrete walls and incandescent bulbs dimly light the narrow corridor.
These are the guts of the Stagecoach Dam southeast of Steamboat Springs, and it can be a little unnerving knowing that at the other side of the wall, 9,360 pounds of pressure push against each square foot of concrete.
Water drips from the ceiling and falls from drain pipes that collect water from the seeping concrete.
“All dams get water into them,” said Kevin McBride, adding that not having a system to drain the water would create pressure and put the dam’s integrity at risk.
McBride is general manager for the Upper Yampa River Water Conservancy District, a taxpayer-funder organization that built, maintains and oversees the complex operations for the hydro-electric dam that was conceived in 1982 for southeast of Steamboat Springs.
Since the dam was dedicated in 1989, it has fostered a thriving trout fishery and created a reservoir with a state park that is visited by thousands annually and serves as an homage to one of Colorado’s most celebrated water conservationists. Most importantly, it collects runoff from a 228-square-mile area that helps surrounding communities ensure their taps will not run dry and ranchers don’t have to worry about empty irrigation ditches as in previous drought years.
After the water district built Yamcolo Reservoir in 1979, board member Tom Sharp suggested the building of the Stagecoach reservoir to John Fetcher, a Routt County legend who was an electrical engineer, longtime rancher, co-founder of Steamboat Ski Area and manager for the water district.
“He (Fetcher) goes back to his office, pulls out his pad of paper and noodled around with some numbers,” Sharp told the Steamboat Pilot & Today in 1997. “Eight-and-a-half years later, we have a reservoir.”
Last week, Sharp explained the process was actually more complex.
Decades before the land was built, the Bureau of Land Reclamation had identified the site for a future dam, at a time when the western United States was expanding, but the land was not available. Colorado-Ute Electric Association, the company that owned the Craig Station power plant, had purchased the land after the Stagecoach development went bankrupt.
When Colorado-Ute encountered financial trouble, it became unlikely the company would build the dam.
The water district took advantage of the opportunity.
Sharp said he was driving to Denver with Fetcher went he mentioned the idea of building the dam.
“John Fetcher went further to seek some federal loans and modest grants,” Sharp said.
To show politicians there was support for the project, the dam project was put to a local vote in May 1984.
“The election was successful — not by a lot,” Sharp said.
The building of the dam structure began June 7, 1988. Concrete was poured around the clock, and the structure was complete 38 days later.
The total construction cost was $18 million. The Bureau of Reclamation loaned the water district $7 million, $7.9 million came from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the water district contributed $2.6 million.
State and local dignitaries dedicated the dam Aug. 12, 1989.
“Getting a reservoir built — the idea in 1982 to completion in 1989 in seven years — is unheard of in Colorado,” Sharp said.
In 2010 and 2011, the water district had secured permits, and the dam was raised by 4 feet to boost capacity by 3,185-acre-feet to 33,275-acre-feet at a cost of $3 million.
Today, Tri-State Generation and Transmission’s Craig Station, which pays the water district $304,500 annually to store 7,000-acre-feet of water, is the water district’s biggest customer. Local municipalities and ranchers also store water at Stagecoach.
Harnessing the power
Following a strong January storm, a plow truck had to be called in to clear the road to the dam where operators Eddie Rogers and Matt Blankenship monitor sensors, log activity and maintain equipment.
Sometimes, it takes a snowmobile to reach the dam in the picturesque canyon.
“It’s pretty much paradise here,” said Blankenship, who most recently worked at a coal mine and previously worked in the power house of the USS Enterprise for the U.S. Navy.
Rogers has an electrical engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines.
In addition to monitoring the integrity of the dam, they oversee the hydroelectric power plant, which was named the John Fetcher Power Plant in 1997. He pushed to make electricity generation part of the dam design.
“I think John was a natural conservationist and to have this capability in a project that size and not do it was a bad thing,” said McBride, referring to Fetcher, who died in 2009 at age 97 after being recognized as one of the state’s water leaders.
Above the loud turbine in the power house sits a sign warning people not to stand underneath. That is because above, there is a large, weighted steel lever that will come crashing down if the power generated at the plant needs to immediately come off the grid.
On Tuesday afternoon, the electrical turbine was generating upwards of 500 kilowatts. The system can generate as much as 800 kilowatts, but generation is limited by the amount of water that is flowing into the reservoir.
“The generation, it fluctuates wildly,” said Andi Rossi, the water district’s engineer. “If the flows get too low, we shut down for power generation. In a big wet year, we’ll make a lot of power.”
The water district had been selling the power to Xcel Energy, but Yampa Valley Electric Association began buying the power last year for six cents per kilowatt hour. In 2016, YVEA paid more than $230,000 for the 3.85 million kilowatt hours generated at the dam. That is enough energy to power about 355 homes.
Power generation varies and is dependent on runoff. During the drought year of 2002, only 1.85 million kilowatt hours was produced. When there was abundant snowfall in 2011, 4.7 million kilowatt hours was produced. Since 1999, an average of 3.8 million kilowatt hours has been made each year.
Located in a rack on the wall of the power plant at the Stagecoach Dam is the emergency action plan, with detailed instructions on what to do and whom to call if the unthinkable is imminent.
McBride said the procedures are rehearsed each year like all dams are regulated and inspected annually by state and federal agencies.
Pressure transducers at different elevations of the dam constantly monitor the integrity of the dam, and alarms sound if something is wrong.
McBride said the monitoring is most important after a dam is built.
“It’s more or less functioned as designed without any surprises,” he said.
McBride said the dam was designed so it will never fail, and it could withstand a wall of water 12 feet high coming over the spillway in a scenario known as the probable maximum flood.
In that event, impacts from the extreme flooding in the region would overwhelm emergency responders.
“We’d have big problems already,” McBride said.
There are maps in the emergency action plan that show what could occur if the unthinkable happened and the dam failed.
With a probable maximum flood, a predicted 1,000-year or 10,000-year flood and a dam breach, water from the reservoir would arrive at the Haymaker Golf Course in slightly less than three hours and inundate it with a peak flow of 227,600 cubic feet of water after about five hours.
The water would flood U.S. Highway 40 and approach Walton Creek Road to the north. The Old Town Hot Springs pools would be overcome and flood to the entire downtown corridor.
An angler’s paradise
The amount of water released from the dam is determined by obligations to customers who pay to have water stored, the amount of water flowing into the reservoir and the environment, including the thriving trout habitat below. The water district also carefully monitors the snow that is projected to build up in the surrounding mountains.
“It is a balancing act,” McBride said. “We’ve got all these moving targets.”
There is a spillway on top of the dam to handle overflowing water, but it is not preferred to have water spill over because trout-eating pike from the reservoir can make their way into the Yampa River.
A tower of concrete in the reservoir beside the dam has three gates that allow different temperatures of water to be mixed and sent through a pipe under the dam toward the generator.
From there, the water is either sent through the generator or through a pipe called a jet flow, which shoots water out of the power plant and helps oxygenate the water for fish habitat in the section of river in front of the dam known as the tailwaters.
The area is an angler’s delight and can only be accessed by snowmobile from the Catamount area or by hiking along a county road from Stagecoach State Park.
“It’s phenomenal,” Colorado Park and Wildlife fish biologist Billy Atkinson said.
With improvements by Parks and Wildlife to the river habitat, the area has thrived for fishing, partly because of the dam and reservoir. Relatively warm water released from the dam keeps the section of river from freezing over, and the water from the reservoir is rich in nutrients for the fish.
“The system is very productive,” Atkinson said.
In 2016, 25 percent more people visited the section of river, and 4,000 trout were measured per mile.
Not all tailwaters below dams in Colorado are experiencing similar success.
“It depends on the dam and the operations of the dam,” Atkinson said. ■
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Steamboat Springs is expected to finish off July with slightly more precipitation than in previous years.