As the Pelton Wheel Turns

Bridal Veil Falls power plant at night

Bridal Veil Powerhouse still offline after 2016 mishap

By Samantha Tisdel Wright

Perched on the brink of a sheer cliff overlooking Telluride astride the longest free-falling waterfall in Colorado, the 115-year-old Bridal Veil Powerhouse, a hydroelectric power plant, is often touted as one of the oldest operating industrial AC power plants in the world.

For the past six years, though, this antique beacon of innovation has been, well, not operating, leaving Telluridians to wonder what went wrong and when the storied powerhouse will ever spin water into electricity again.

Bridal Veil’s owner/operator Idarado Mining Company (and its corporate parent Newmont) had to take the 0.5-megawatt facility offline for repairs in 2016 after a hydraulic surge event severely damaged its inner workings.

The problem stemmed from a tricky water-sharing agreement between the Town of Telluride and Idarado, which acquired the Bridal Veil Powerhouse and its far-flung water storage and conveyance infrastructure in Bridal Veil Basin in the 1950s, along with other assets from the recently liquidated Telluride Mines, Inc.

Idarado didn’t need the hydro plant to power its own mining operations, since coal-fired electricity was by then so cheap and easy to buy. But the valuable water rights associated with the hydro plant came in handy down at the Pandora Mill, so the mine company at least made an effort to keep the aging Bridal Veil water system intact.

Those water rights and that system are the key to this story.

An Engineering Marvel

Built in the early 1900s to power the Smuggler-Union mine and mill, the interconnected water storage and delivery system that feeds the Bridal Veil Powerhouse is an engineering marvel.

Most of the water comes from a remarkably deep, exceptionally pure vessel called Blue Lake, a shimmering liquid jewel cupped in a hidden glacial cirque two miles above Bridal Veil Falls. The natural, dam-augmented lake holds 6,000 acre-feet of water.

Water leaves Blue Lake via a hole drilled into the side of its lake bed in the 1930s—like a bathtub drain—and gets sucked into the Blue Lake penstock, a two-mile-long pressure pipeline with a 1,900-foot drop that goes all the way down to the Powerhouse to turn its turbine, picking up additional water from a few other lakes along the way.

When the level of Blue Lake gets too low, it can be topped up with water from nearby Lewis Lake via a two and a half-mile pipeline—like a bathtub faucet. Lewis Lake, a shallow lake whose depth is also augmented by an elegant historic drywall dam, sits at a slightly higher elevation (12,704 feet) than Blue Lake (12,220 feet), which means gravity can facilitate the transfer of water from the higher lake to the lower.

This ingenious water conveyance system, and the Powerhouse it serves, ran continuously until October 1928 when the Smuggler-Union closed, and intermittently after that under a series of other mine operators until Idarado came along and shut the Powerhouse down.

For years, it slumped toward ruin at cliff’s edge.

Hexavalent Chromium Blues

As the Idarado Mine went through its own death throes and began the lengthy process of decommissioning in the 1970s, Telluride morphed from a virtual ghost Town to a fledgling ski resort.

The Town was looking to increase its water supply, and drilled several test wells in Town Park. The well water contained an industrial pollutant called hexavalent chromium, traced to a reagent used at Idarado’s Pandora Mill.

In exchange for that loss of potential drinking water supply, Idarado ultimately gave the Town some of its precious water rights in Bridal Veil Basin, along with access to its water conveyance infrastructure.

Those rights included a portion of the tremendous water storage capacity of Blue Lake, which could serve as a jumbo, high-altitude raw water storage tank to help Telluride meet its future municipal water needs.

First, though, these water rights had to be converted from mining/industrial use to municipal use in water court, a years-long controversial endeavor.

It took many more years after that for the Town and Idarado to finally hammer out a Comprehensive Settlement Agreement, signed in 2012, that dictated exactly how all the water and conveyance infrastructure they now shared in Bridal Veil Basin would be cooperatively managed.

During this lengthy negotiation process, Idarado also gave a two-acre parcel of land to the Town near the old Townsite of Pandora, on the hillside above the decommissioned Pandora Mill, where the Town built a brand new one-million-gallon-per-day water treatment plant to convert raw water from Blue Lake into municipal drinking water. 

As the Town of Telluride’s Environmental & Engineering Division Manager Karen Guglielmone describes it, the idea was that the Town would pick up the “exhaust” water that comes out of the Powerhouse’s tail race after running through the Idarado turbine, along with some direct flow right out of nearby Bridal Veil Creek during certain times of year, and pipe all this water down the cliff to the nearby Pandora Water Treatment Plant.

Here, it would pass through another hydroelectric turbine to power the Pandora Plant, after which some of the water would be returned to the San Miguel River at the Marshall Creek confluence, while the rest (the Town’s share) would be treated and stored for municipal use.

The Pandora Water Treatment Plant was completed in 2015 with a final price tag of almost $20 million, and this elaborate plan went into effect. The system worked quite elegantly until one day, it didn’t.

It’s still a touchy subject that no one likes to talk about, but public records of the incident paint the full picture of what happened.

Things Fall Apart

On the morning of August 4, 2016, Town staff was working to reactivate the Town’s receiving pipeline at the Powerhouse, which had been offline for about a week while Idarado conducted annual servicing on the plant’s ancient Pelton wheel.

Something went wrong with the procedure, causing air bubbles to build up. Shortly after the reactivation was complete, a devastating high-pressure surge in the Town’s receiving pipeline “burped” explosive columns of water back up into the Powerhouse.

Newmont’s Bridal Veil Hydroelectric Plant Supervisor David Swanson was running errands in Telluride when the incident occurred. Once alerted to the situation, he raced up the hill to intervene.

Swanson’s witness statement, included in an incident report that Newmont later filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, spelled out in detail what he saw when he arrived onsite: “Upon entering the plant I noticed a loud roar of water. Upon walking down to the generator room I noticed water gushing up through the floor. The floor had been blown up almost two feet exposing the flume and the electrical wires and conduit.”

Swanson and his helper Wyatt Collins drove three rugged miles up to Blue Lake to turn off the water main. When they came back to the power plant, Swanson reported, “Water was still gushing around inside the plant from the exploded flume.”

Closer inspections revealed even more wreckage.

Newmont dispatched a slew of engineers, high-angle rope technicians, welders, and earth movers to help muck out and repair the damage. The Town assumed financial responsibility for these repairs, as documented in a letter from then-Town Manager Greg Clifton to Newmont, penned in February 2017.

The first priority was to install a new bypass from the penstock above the Powerhouse to allow the Town to continue receiving Blue Lake water for its Pandora Water Treatment Plant while the Powerhouse was shut down. Additional safeguards addressed the issue of air backflow in the Town’s infrastructure, protecting the Powerhouse and ensuring this kind of accident could never happen again.

While the plant was offline for repairs, Idarado/Newmont took the opportunity to initiate decades’ worth of deferred maintenance and upgrades on the historic inner workings and substructure of the Powerhouse, making it safer and easier to operate.

This included everything from the installation of a catwalk out along the rim of the cliff, providing a safer place to do exterior repairs and maintenance on the most exposed portion of the plant, to the replacement of the buried antique pipeline that penetrated the Powerhouse twelve feet below the surface from its back side, feeding pressurized water into the turbine.

A Silver Lining

Although the accident caused a lot of heartache, it came with a silver lining. “As far as the upgrades to the plant itself, it has definitely opened up that window to get in there and do some real and much needed open heart surgery,” said Devon Horntvedt, the 38-year-old Director of Legacy Site Management at Newmont who collaborates with David Swanson to oversee the entire project.

Work in the Powerhouse will continue this summer, with upgrades to the switch gear, the governor mechanisms, and the electrical components that run the antique generator. The original Pelton wheel assembly weathered the accident quite well and patiently awaits reactivation. “That thing is a rock star piece of equipment,” Horntvedt said. “There’s nothing better on the market that we could replace it with right now.”

Over the past six years that the Powerhouse has been offline, the Pandora Water Treatment Plant has remained up and running, making drinking water for Telluride, and the scheduled upgrades to the water storage and conveyance infrastructure in Bridal Veil Basin have continued.

Idarado is in charge of doing the work and the Town pays 15/39ths of the expenses—the portion of the shared infrastructure and water rights owned by the Town, according to the terms of the 2012 CSA.

Not an Easy Fix

It would have taken several years to complete this massive, multi-pronged, multimillion-dollar undertaking under the best of circumstances. Crews typically only have about twelve weeks per year to get stuff done in the high country—less if winter comes early or there’s been a big snow year that delays summer access. Even the Powerhouse, at a mere 10,279 feet, remains largely inaccessible throughout the winter months, with several formidable avalanche paths crossing its access road.

The COVID-19 pandemic, with all of its complications, from brutal supply chain issues to labor shortages, has delayed things even further. “It’s like trying to push five different pebbles forward with a bunch of wet noodles,” Horntvedt said.

In spite of the delays, Idarado and Newmont remain committed to seeing the project through according to the highest standards. “We’re trying to do it the right way the first time,” Horntvedt said. “So that’s probably the biggest reason why things are taking a little longer than we’d like. Of course, the pandemic and supply chain issues and everything else certainly hasn’t helped.”

If Horntvedt squints his eyes, though, he can finally see the light at the end of the penstock. He’s optimistic that the historic hydro plant will be up and running again sometime next summer (2023)—spinning clean, green electricity to light up Telluride’s post-pandemic future.

From her perspective with the Town of Telluride, Karen Guglielmone is happy to see that light. “The goal for us all is to get a 21st-century water system in that basin,” she said. “To have it dialed in, so we can operate it like the Starship Enterprise.”

Back from the Dead

The Bridal Veil Powerhouse probably wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t for Eric Jacobson, a Grand Junction native who took advantage of a new program through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in the 1980s aimed at bringing historic hydroelectric plants back online.

Through this program, Jacobson was able to get a 99-year lease on the decrepit hydro plant in 1988, in spite of Idarado’s best efforts to thwart him.

Jacobson coaxed the aging ruin back to life and started selling electricity into the grid in 1991. He ran the Bridal Veil hydroelectric plant for almost two decades. But things were never easy between Jacobson and the mining company, and in a sealed settlement agreement in 2010, his 99-year lease terminated early, and operation of the power plant reverted to Idarado and Newmont.

The corporate behemoth takes its odd role as operator of the hydroelectric plant seriously. Which begs the question: What possible interest could a global mining giant have with rehabbing and running an antique hydroelectric plant in southwestern Colorado, that will ideally produce enough electricity to light up a couple hundred houses?

Why not just shut it down, or turn it into a museum, or sell it to Sting, or Airbnb it?

Connecting the Drops

“There are a lot of reasons we’re continuing to invest in the Powerhouse,” Horntvedt said. “The primary one is our legal obligations as per the CSA. Those go hand in hand with the maintenance of our water rights (which are tied to making hydroelectricity) and the operational flexibility associated with those.”

After the water from Blue Lake makes electricity at both the Bridal Veil Powerhouse and Pandora Water Treatment Plant, Idarado’s share of it returns downstream to the San Miguel River—helping Idarado meet state-mandated water quality standards in the river as outlined in its Remedial Action Plan.

Electricity generation is the frosting on the cake.

Once the Bridal Veil plant comes back online, its electricity will be sold to San Miguel Power Association, which secured a 25-year contract in 2012 to purchase all of the power produced at the plant as part of its Green Blocks program, a renewable energy initiative that allows members to purchase renewable energy credits to offset their energy consumption. 

The Town of Telluride, in turn, has committed to purchasing these credits from SMPA. Thus, the old hydroelectric plant is lighting the path toward a more sustainable future for Telluride.

The project will also help Newmont, in a small way, to meet its own ambitious climate and carbon goals, while making the Idarado Mine itself a power-positive site. Granted, the decommissioned mine has very minimal power requirements these days. “But every little bit helps,” Horntvedt said.

Newmont also values the project’s profound historical significance. “Telluride was one of the first electrified Towns on the planet, and while Ames may have been the standard bearer in that effort, Bridal Veil towers high as a conspicuous reminder of the spirit of innovation driven by the region’s (historic) mining culture,” Horntvedt said. 

As the world tilts once more toward a more electrified future, that same spirit of innovation could lead to more sustainable and environmentally responsible mining practices, he said. “What better symbol of that exists than ‘reuse’ of a legacy system that powered one of the first electrified mines in the world?”

It’s just one more chapter in the complex, ever-evolving story of the Bridal Veil Hydroelectric Plant—a story with many moving parts.

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