DENVER - Rep. Scott Tipton had one of his greatest successes in his two years in Congress last month when the House overwhelmingly passed his bill to promote small hydroelectric projects on canals and pipelines.
But it turns out the bill will not help one of the dams in the Cortez Republican's own district.
Gary Kennedy, superintendent of the Mancos Water Conservancy District, will go to Washington on Thursday to testify for a new bill that's intended to allow his district to build a 500-kilowatt-per-hour power plant on one of its canals.
It's exactly the type of project that Tipton had in mind for his Hydropower and Rural Jobs Act. The bill waives environmental reviews on small power plants placed on man-made canals, because the canals already went through environmental reviews when they were built.
"There has been a lot of discussion on both sides of the aisle about the need to pursue an all-of-the-above domestic energy strategy, and hydropower, as the cleanest and most abundant renewable energy source, should be at the forefront of any comprehensive national energy policy," Tipton said on the House floor before his bill passed April 10.
The bill cruised through the House on a 416-7 margin, and its companion bill is making headway in the Senate. If the Senate bill passes, it would hand Tipton his most significant legislative accomplishment to date.
But because of a bureaucratic tangle that dates to the 1930s, it will not help Mancos.
Most big reservoirs in the Western United States were built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and that's the agency that Tipton's bill addresses. But the Mancos water district's Jackson Gulch Reservoir is one of 11 water projects nationwide that were authorized by a completely different law, the Water Conservation and Utilization Act of 1939. No other water project in Colorado falls into the same trap.
The 11 projects came from cooperation between the Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the law permits only the federal government to operate power plants connected to the reservoirs.
Earlier this year, it became clear to Kennedy and others that Tipton's bill would not apply to the 11 projects. They considered an amendment to Tipton's bill, but they worried that amending a completely separate federal law would complicate Tipton's fairly simple bill and bog it down in Congress.
"We're back to the drawing board in trying to get this figured out," Kennedy said.
The Mancos district got special permission from Congress in 1995 to add a small power plant at the Jackson Gulch dam, Kennedy said.
Now, it wants to add another plant on a 256-foot drop on a diversion of water back to the Mancos River. Kennedy figures that the district could make at least $50,000 a year by selling the power to Empire Electric Association or Tri-State Generation and Transmission. He would use the revenue to lower water rates or for the rehabilitation of Jackson Gulch Reservoir.
But times have changed in Congress since 1995, when Mancos got a special exemption. It's much harder to pass a bill, and congressional leaders have banned special-purpose bills for single entities like the Mancos district, labeling them "earmarks."
So Kennedy is backing a new bill by Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., that would help all 11 projects. It was introduced last Tuesday and already has a hearing scheduled for Thursday.
A second bill is necessary because it amends a separate law from the bill Tipton sponsored, said his spokesman, Josh Green.
"Congressman Tipton believes these are both important common sense pieces of legislation," Green said in an email.