Like Water for Power
Building Bridges (and Pipelines) at Bridal Veil Falls
Part 9 in The Mine Next Door series
by Samantha Tisdel Wright
“This isn’t the helmet the marmot peed in, is it?” asks David Swanson – Mayor of Pandora, Master and Commander of the Bridal Veil Hydroelectric Plant, Admiral of the Blue Lake Yacht Club.
Swanson sniffs the helmet, shrugs, stuffs it over his floppy sunhat, and fires up the ATV.
“Buckle up,” he says, and we’re off to investigate the mysteries of an ancient network of pipelines, diversions and conveyance structures that channel high country waters to Idarado’s Bridal Veil Hydroelectric Plant and the Town of Telluride’s Pandora Water Treatment Plant.
We leave Idarado’s ramshackle Pandora mill and peacock-blue settling ponds in the dust. Soon, we’re cruising beneath the misty tail feathers of Bridal Veil Falls and zigzagging our way up the hardscrabble mountainside toward the headwaters of the San Miguel River.
After a couple of bone-jarring miles, we reach a flat bench overlooking the Telluride Valley Floor. To the left, the road continues climbing up into the wilds of Ingram Basin toward Black Bear Pass. To the right, the fabled Bridal Veil Powerhouse beckons, standing sentry to the valley from its perch atop the state’s tallest waterfall.
The second oldest operating AC generator in the country is a busy place on this late July day. The Town of Telluride and Idarado have recently banded together to make the powerhouse and its antiquated water conveyance system more efficient for both hydroelectric generation and municipal water supply, and these improvements are now – quite literally – in full swing.
Like a scene from Mission Impossible, elite squadrons of mountaineers from the local company Access in Motion dangle from ropes below the powerhouse, welding together a bewildering maze of new pipelines and catwalks across the cliff face, while high-altitude construction crews from EarthTech of Norwood wrangle a new section of penstock into the back end the building.
The collaborative upgrade is helping to heal decades of wear and tear on the powerhouse following years of court battles between the Town of Telluride and Idarado over the water rights and easement agreements associated with this sprawling hydroelectric system.
Water’s for Fightin’
The troubles began with the Toxic Twinkie – Idarado’s biggest tailings pile beside Town Park – the same tailings pile that helped trigger the CERCLA litigation between Idarado and the State of Colorado.
In the mid-1980s, Telluride was looking for potable water to augment its main municipal water supply at Mill Creek, and drilled a couple of wells in Town Park.
“It turns out there were metals in the water – hexavalent chromium,” recounted Telluride Public Works Director Paul Ruud.
The Town sued Idarado, alleging that metals had leached out of Tailings Pile #6, aka the Toxic Twinkie, and contaminated the water table. In a Comprehensive Settlement Agreement in 1992, Idarado gave the Town significant water rights in Bridal Veil Basin as an alternative municipal water supply.
After a decade’s worth of legal wrangling in water court, the Town won approval to convert these historic and senior industrial water rights to municipal use. The rights included a portion of the tremendous water storage capacity of Blue Lake, a remote glacial lake perched high in a cirque near Bridal Veil Basin.
The Town got busy preparing to develop its new water rights, drawing up plans for a new 2-million gallon-per-day water treatment plant at the base of Black Bear Pass in Pandora, complete with its own micro-hydro unit generating 400 kilowatt hours of electricity. Telluride voters passed a $10 million bond to pay for it. “It was some incredible water master planning – a legal and an engineering exercise,” Ruud said.
But the project was held up by further legal tussles involving the Town, Idarado and other parties that continued to unfold for years.
The last of these disputes had to do with Idarado’s concern that if the Town diverted too much water out of pristine Bridal Veil Creek for its new Pandora Water Treatment Plant during the low-flow winter months, Idarado wouldn’t be able to meet the zinc performance objective in the San Miguel River, as spelled out in Idarado’s Remedial Action Plan.
A 2012 settlement agreement between the Town and Idarado resolved this concern. The Town agreed to draw less water from the Bridal Veil system in the winter, keeping more creek water in the river. In exchange, Idarado offered the Town a million dollars’ worth of infrastructure improvements to maximize the efficiency of the historic water system, and gave the town a two-acre shelf of land above the Pandora Mill on which to build the new water treatment facility.
Hardly anyone was present at the Telluride Town Council meeting on that bleak, snowless Tuesday afternoon in November 2012 when the settlement agreement was first unveiled. But Councilor Chris Myers, channeling Mark Twain, waxed eloquent on the watershed moment.
“When we turn that faucet and clear, clean water comes out of the tap, it comes at a price,” he said. “Whisky’s for drinkin’ and water’s for fightin’. Hopefully in a couple of weeks, some of those fights will be put to rest for a while.”
Once the settlement agreement was adopted, it paved the way for a new era of cooperation between the old adversaries.
“At times, our relationship with Idarado was very strained,” Ruud acknowledged. “But over about the last seven years, we have had an incredibly improved relationship. And we cherish that. We really try to nurture that relationship because Idarado’s not going anywhere. We’re not going anywhere. We are both going to have to coexist in the valley. And that is going to be easier if we get along with each other.”
Back in the ATV, we leave the powerhouse behind and make tracks into the wildflower-festooned high country.
Our route takes us into the upper reaches of East Basin, one of many exquisite glacial cirques perched along Bridal Veil Basin’s more massive lobe. We pass a couple dilapidated cabins and rusted old half-buried pipes – reminders of the workers who once labored in this high country. Then we chug up over a final rise.
And there’s Blue Lake, a liquid sapphire set in a ring of 13,000-ft. peaks, glistening peacefully as if to say “What’s all the fuss?”
Last summer, Telluride and Idarado workers conducted a bathymetric survey of the lake with a submersible vessel to measure its depth and volume. The study confirmed that the lake is uncommonly deep, plunging at least 200 feet to its bedrock bottom, and holding up to 6,000 acre feet of pure mountain water, well upstream of any historic mine-influence.
The setting here may be pristine, but the antique debris and modern pipeline infrastructure strewn around the shoreline hint at the vital role this lake has played over the years as a water source for human endeavors in the Telluride valley far below.
It all started when the Ames and Ilium power plants – the first commercial alternating-current electrical plants in the world – started zinging hydroelectricity around the San Juan high country in the early 1890s, powering mines and mills and lighting up the Town of Telluride.
Bulkeley Wells rode into Telluride as a National Guard officer in 1901 during the first wave of labor unrest at the Smuggler-Union Mine. He had a hydroelectric engineering degree from Harvard in his back pocket, and had already worked on several hydroelectric projects around the country.
When labor activists assassinated the mine’s manager Alfred Collins in 1902, Wells was appointed manager by his father-in-law, Colonel Thomas L. Livermore, who had a controlling interest in the Smuggler-Union.
Wells set his sights on building a grand new hydroelectric plant for the mine atop Bridal Veil Falls. But his plans went on hold in 1903 when Telluride miners struck for a reduced work day. The National Guard marched in again under Wells’ command. He put the town under martial law, savagely quelling the labor uprising.
By 1906, Telluride’s labor wars had settled down, and the powerhouse that we know and love was taking shape, with a mechanical plant on the lower level, and a fanciful residence for Wells on top.
Wells hired the brilliant builder W. T. Glenn to construct an intricate pipeline and penstock system to feed pressurized water down to the power plant from Blue Lake and a number of other high-country lakes feeding into Bridal Veil Basin.
Finally, with the water supply in place, Smuggler-Union electrician Frank Thomas installed a 350-kW generator powered by an Allis-Chalmers water wheel in the hydro plant’s guts. The plant spun to life in late October 1907, and began churning out a steady stream of AC power to the Smuggler-Union Mine.
It ran for the next five decades.
The water conveyance system worked, but it was as high-maintenance and complicated as Wells himself.
Its central artery was the Blue Lake penstock, a 2-mile-long steel pipeline connecting Blue Lake (elevation 12,202 feet) to the powerhouse 2,000 vertical feet down below. The 2.5-mile Lewis pipeline channeled water from Lewis Lake – perched at 12,704 feet in the upper reaches of neighboring Bridal Veil Basin – around a ridge and into Blue Lake, to recharge the natural reservoir as it drained. Two more pipelines diverted additional water into the system from other nearby lakes.
When Blue Lake topped out, water could be easily siphoned into the penstock. But when the lake level dropped, water had to be pumped out of the basin.
In spite of these quirks, the Bridal Veil Hydroelectric Plant outlived the demise of the Smuggler-Union Mining Company and Bulkeley Wells himself, and it went on to have a rich and useful existence independent of its creator.
A new owner, Veta Mines, updated the power plant in the lead-up to WWII, blasting a tunnel from lower East Basin into Blue Lake’s depths about 150 feet below the surface. Veta’s crew installed a concrete bulkhead in the tunnel, fitted with a valve to drain water out of the bottom of the lake like a big bathtub, rather than pumping lake water up and over the rim of the basin.
A couple of decades later, the power plant wound up in the hands of the Idarado Mining Company, along with the other assets of the recently liquidated Telluride Mines, Inc. Idarado was not then interested in running the antiquated power plant, and shut ‘er down, but continued using the sluice-and-pipe system that transported water from Blue Lake to the Pandora Mill.
The powerhouse sat listlessly above Telluride, a playground for vandals. Old-school Idarado legends such as Jerry Albin tended to its cliffside waterworks, dangling in rudimentary bosun’s chairs 365 feet above the valley floor, and did what they could to keep the whole thing from falling off the cliff.
The structure landed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, and was later famously invaded by a swarm of Dead Heads when the Grateful Dead came to town.
A New Lease on Life
At about the time the powerhouse won its historic designation, federal legislation in the wake of the Arab oil embargo called for reopening abandoned hydroelectric plants across the country.
Eric Jacobson took note. The young Grand Junction engineer had seen the idle Bridal Veil Powerhouse as a kid and dreamed of living there someday. He put in a permit application for the plant in 1981. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rubber-stamped his application, taking Idarado by surprise and triggering years of litigation as the mining company tried to prevent Jacobson’s takeover of its hydroelectric plant.
In the end, Jacobson emerged with a 99-year lease from Idarado to restore and operate the picturesque ruin. On New Year’s Eve 1990, hours before his contract for completing the project would have gone into default, Jacobson threw a switch that brought the revamped power generator on line for the first time in 35 years.
Albin and fellow Idarado old-timers cheered to see it come back from the dead.
Jacobson ran the Bridal Veil Hydroelectric Plant for two decades, even living there full-time with his family for a while, while generating an average of 350 kilowatt hours of electricity that he sold into the grid. But things were never easy between Jacobson and the mining company. In a sealed settlement agreement in 2010, his 99-year lease terminated early, and operation of the power plant reverted to Idarado and its parent company Newmont Mining Corp.
The corporate mining giant takes its role as operator of the antique hydroelectric plant seriously – and not just to protect its water rights and stave off other potential permit-seekers.
“As we fine-tune our legacy operations, it’s really a point of pride that we are able to keep the mining history of Telluride going, keep it shining, and remind everyone where the town really came from,” says Devon Horntvedt, Newmont’s senior engineer for legacy sites closure and reclamation.
The plant is currently offline for repairs, but when it’s up and running its annual output is roughly 1,700 megawatt-hours – enough to power a few hundred average houses for a year. The San Miguel Power Association buys this power 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, purchases these credits from SMPA. Thus, the old hydroelectric plant is lighting the path toward a more sustainable future for Telluride.
David Swanson knows the Bridal Veil Hydroelectric Plant better than just about anyone these days; he’s been helping to maintain it since the 1990s, when he worked for Jacobson and moonlighted as a snow maker at the ski area. “You could say I have a thing for pressurized water,” he says.
Today, Swanson lives in the old mill manager’s house in Pandora and operates the hydro plant for Newmont/Idarado. Horntvedt serves as Swanson’s wing man, fielding many of the engineering and permitting aspects of the project.
“It’s one of the most multi-jurisdictional projects you can imagine,” Horntvedt says, rattling off the various entities that have a stake in what’s going on up here. There’s the U.S. Forest Service. San Miguel County. The State Historic Preservation Office. Town of Telluride. Department of Public Health and Environment. Division of Mine Reclamation and Safety. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Not to mention Newmont Mining Corporation.
“They are all players – it’s complicated,” Horntvedt laughs. Nevertheless, he still shakes his head in wonder every time he comes up here.
“This was absolutely a state-of-the-art operation,” he says, squinting out at Blue Lake. “The fact that we have multiple lakes at various elevations that are all above 11,000 feet is a really unique and special situation. The way that they were able to deal with the elements and use systems such as the underground tunnel and the deep intakes to be able to supply water year-round in such a high-elevation system is absolutely remarkable. Their ingenuity was just off the charts.”
A Current of Geniuses
Stand on the apron of tundra that fans out below Blue Lake, and you can see the newly replaced Lewis pipeline winding its way around the ridge from neighboring Bridal Veil Basin toward Blue Lake. The larger, 14-inch Blue Lake penstock snakes through the willows down toward the powerhouse.
At its upper end, the penstock disappears into a pointy steel snowshed providing year-round access to the underground tunnel that pierces the lake bed.
Swanson unlocks the snowshed door. “Did you sign the waiver?”
We stoop to go inside. It’s super low, super tight. We literally have to hug the pressurized pipe to scoot under the timbers in some places, as we make our way back into the 80-year-old tunnel to check on the updated bulkhead and valve system that controls the flow of water from the lake.
Swanson has been in here so many times he has his moves down pat, and knows exactly when to lean this way, swing his legs over the pipe that way, in a slow-motion dance through the awkward space.
The icy-cold lake water slides beneath us through the pipeline, on its way to make a clean green stream of hydroelectricity and slake the thirst of Telluride.
Back outside, we head over to a pair of shabby cabins settling into the nearby willows. This is the line camp, where the crew and foreman used to stay when they were working on the Blue Lake diversion system.
Jacobson used the smaller, snugger of the two cabins during the years he ran the hydro plant. He and his crew (including Swanson) used to keep track of the flows and the lake level by penning notes on the wall – a growth chart of sorts for a changeling child whose height and volume varied from year to year with the snowpack and weather conditions.
On Feb. 20, 1999, for example, someone named “B.L.” came up via helicopter for a walk-around and found there was not much snow. On July 30, 2001, it was cold and raining. The lake was down 17 feet and contained 1,327.8 acre feet of water.
Squeezed in amongst the notes and colorful graffiti are a couple posters of Albert Einstein, his hair a whipped white mop, his dark eyes crinkling cantankerously. “Takes one to know one,” he seems to be saying, to all the ingenious souls who have passed this way.
On the way back down to Telluride, we stop by the powerhouse again to see how things are coming along.
It’s a happening place, for sure. Not like it used to be, back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with LSD-dropping hippies, and acid-eyeballs painted on the walls. There will be no more hot tub parties now. No beer cooling in the flume or people shooting clay pigeons off the deck.
Instead, a quiet sense of purpose and professionalism fills the air. Fall is just around the corner, and there’s still a lot of work to be done up here before the road gets snowed in.
Tailraces and diversion pipelines traverse the cliff face beneath the front side of the powerhouse. Some belong to Idarado, and some to Telluride. It’s impossible to disentangle one from the other.
Across the valley, the new Pandora Water Treatment Plant blends into the hillside above Idarado’s Mill Level Tunnel. The tunnel’s old portal is an open mouth, asking “What’s next?”
Old Mine, New Tricks
Prospecting for Innovation at the Idarado Mine