A trip inside the Taylor Dam

What’s in store for potential hydropower

Two hundred feet beneath a wall of solid rock and concrete, the sound of water funneling through the Taylor Dam is so loud it is almost hard to shout over. The air is humid and smells of dirt and hydraulic fluid. It’s mid-winter and ice has formed on the metal grating that serves as a walkway from dry land to the bottom of a lake.

 

 

Several officials from Gunnison County Electric Association (GCEA) recently got their first look at the inner workings of the Taylor Dam since the announcement of a potential hydropower project at the dam.
Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) manager Frank Kugel invited GCEA chief executive officer Mike Wells, GCEA energy use and communications specialist Vicki Spencer and the Crested Butte News out for a tour of the facility last Thursday, February 19.
“Taylor has been one of those resources people in the valley have been talking about for as long as I can remember,” Wells says. “It seems like a waste of a resources not to tap in to hydropower there.”
However, after the tour Wells admitted he was somewhat concerned by the small space to work with inside the dam and the potential risk of damaging the structure. “If we were to put something in that discharge conduit and if there was ever a problem or something broke, for a small company that liability makes me a little bit nervous,” he says.
Last fall the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority announced they would offer $15,000 in matching grants for entities willing to study potential small-scale hydropower projects across the state.
Hearing this, the UGRWCD invited several members of a hydropower-engineering firm from the Front Range out for a tour of the Gunnison Valley to see if the local waterways had any potential. The engineers from TCB Aecomm said the Taylor Park Dam could be easily outfitted with a hydroelectric generator capable of generating one megawatt of electricity. With a little more work, the engineers estimated, the dam could generate even more electricity, but how much more was hard to say without further study.
Following the tour, the UGRWCD met with representatives from GCEA and the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (which holds rights to the water in Taylor Park Reservoir) and the three entities agreed to become partners in a hydropower feasibility study of the dam and split the necessary matching grant funds, which totaled $15,000.
The Water Resources and Power Development Authority ended up approving 11 grant requests across the state, including the UGRWCD’s. The district will be sending out a request for proposals soon to engineering firms interested in completing the feasibility study, which should commence sometime this spring. “We’re going to make it an open process by sending out an RFP. We hope to have a contractor selected by the end of March,” Kugel says.
If a hydropower project is determined to be feasible, the UGRWCD will step back and GCEA will oversee the construction, generation and sale of power from Taylor Dam. “Our main goal was to have a hand in the feasibility study,” Kugel says.
A lease for power production would also need to be obtained from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the dam itself. Kugel says the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association would be the most logical entity to apply for that lease.
 “With this feasibility study we’ll really be able to quantify the value [of a hydropower project] and hopefully move ahead,” Wells says.
Taylor Park Reservoir sits about nine miles northeast of Almont, at the end of a winding narrow canyon that is well known for its incredible fishing.
The reservoir is held back by a 200-foot-high earthen dam that stretches more than 600 feet across the narrowest section of Taylor Canyon before it opens up into the high plains of Union Park.
Two giant pipes, or penstocks, carry water from the bottom of Taylor Reservoir to a gatehouse on the other side of the dam. The penstocks lie in a tunnel carved through solid rock on the north side of the canyon.
The dam’s caretaker and our tour guide, Bill Gallenbeck, was kind enough to pack out a trail from the road to the gatehouse with his snowmobile several days earlier, so we left our snowshoes by the car.
As we approached the gatehouse, the roar of water leaving the dam was as loud as a jet engine. The penstocks are only four feet in diameter, and are constantly pressurized even when the gates are partially open. Only one penstock was in use that day, and even with the gates only 20 percent open, the penstock still shot water like a cannon 30 feet out into the riverbed. An odd-looking wall of ribbed ice had formed from mist and splashing water at the outlet.
When we arrived at the gatehouse, Gallenbeck entered a code on a panel to deactivate the dam’s security system—a new addition to this federal structure sine the September 11 terror attacks. We waited in the gatehouse for a few minutes while a large fan circulated the dead air out of the dam’s inner workings.
 Beyond the gatehouse, the two penstocks stretch more than 200 feet down a narrow tunnel. One of the penstocks is slightly larger than the other, and is the primary target for installing a hydroelectric generator.
There were years and years worth of dust on the penstocks, and one could see “graffiti” left over from previous tours of the dam— in this case, a high school field trip in 1999.
At the end of the tunnel there is a circular room with a domed ceiling that’s about 20 feet high. Taking up most of the space in this room were a pair of large hydraulic pistons that control the intake gates. Most of the work to install a hydropower turbine would take place back in the tunnel.
There, workers would have to remove a section of the larger penstock and install a turbine. The penstock was divided into eight-foot sections that were held together by no fewer than 25 large bolts. Since the penstocks themselves are four feet in diameter, and the tunnel they are situated in is a little more than 10 feet in diameter, there would be very little room for error, which gave Wells cause for concern.
“It left me with a feeling of complicity as far as putting a generator in place, at least in the small space that they have to work in,” he says.
“I picture something that would consume all that space. But that’s why we’re going into this feasibility study. There are going to be people on board who do understand how it will work. I’m looking forward to seeing what their view of the world is,” Wells says.
From the turbine’s installation point, electric cable would be wired to a transformer that sits just outside the gatehouse. Wells says there is an electric line in place between the transformer and the main line on County Road 742. Wells says the existing line has a carrying capacity of one and a half to two megawatts. “There would be some fairly sophisticated metering that would go on. That transformer would more than likely be the point, but it is an old service point. We might want to upgrade that line out to the road. It’s a new chunk of line going forward after that. We want to plug into the most reliable source,” Wells says.
Kugel says the power that could potentially be generated by the dam could satisfy all the homes between Almont and Tincup.
“We think it’s an excellent opportunity to have grant funding to help determine the feasibility of this project. We’re excited to pursue a project that will generate green power for the Gunnison Valley,” Kugel says. 

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