“We have had major power outages recently,” Rico resident Barbara Betts said in an interview Wednesday. “They have not been an hour or two long. There have been at least seven outages over the past few weeks that have lasted four hours and longer. Unfortunately, it is a problem that might not be resolved any time soon.”
According to a Dec. 11 letter sent to Betts from SMPA Manager of Public Relations Bill Green, Mother Nature has decided to play a game of “topple the trees” with SMPA lineman and Rico residents.
“Live spruce trees have uprooted and fallen into SMPA’s line servicing the Rico area as the weight of recent wet snows have accumulated on the branches,” the letter stated. “The lack of a hard freeze before the snows fell may be adding to the problem of those trees uprooting. In past winters, the ground has frozen, helping to keep the roots anchored in the ground.”
The area that is being affected by the falling trees is a one-mile stretch just north of Rico that can be accessed only by snowshoe.
“SMPA line personnel are having to snowshoe into the forest, carrying a chainsaw to cut the trees out of the line,” Green’s letter stated. “If there is damage done to the line, they must snowshoe back out to get materials before snowshoeing back in to repair the damage.”
Green told Rico residents in his letter that while SMPA crews can only fix problems when they occur during the next winter months, SMPA will try to mitigate the future outages by working with the U.S. Forest Service on a plan to provide a more “secure right-of-way” in this particularly troublesome stretch.
“It is not going to be anything that can be resolved any time soon,” Betts said. “This is probably something we are going to have to deal with this winter. The interesting thing is, there are a lot of people in Rico who are working from home and this is their busiest time of the year. When they lose power, they are out of business.”
For Eamonn O’Hara, owner and operator of the Rico Hotel Mountain Lodge and Argentine Grill, the power outages have made for some interesting and memorable stays for his customers.
“My staff knows that if there is no light, we still have heat and we have a flame,” O’Hara said. “We will carry on. We are in the service business. One of the first issues we had was when the power was out for 18 hours and we had people in the restaurant. We had the customers throwing logs on the fire. The staff and the guests turned into one big family and our guests thought that was great.”
O’Hara went on to say that something needs to be done to fix the problem though. When the town loses power in snowstorms and there are no streetlights, the situation can become dangerous.
“I am hopeful that this colder weather that we have had will alleviate the problems that we have had,” O’Hara said. “I am just hopeful.”
The outages in Rico come as a reminder jus how susceptible the region is to lengthy power outages. Damage to the region’s main 115 kV line, which runs over Ophir Pass, could cause the Telluride region to endure lengthy power outages. The backup line, a 69 kV line that runs from the Nucla power plant, is not large enough to carry the region’s power load if the mainline goes down.
Indeed, in March 2004, an avalanche near Ophir took out the Hesperus line and there was considerable doubt whether or not it could be repaired promptly due to the risk of further slides. As it happened, the avalanche site was relatively accessible to repair crews and power was out for only a few days.
The Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, the region’s wholesale supplier of power, in 1998 proposed upgrading the 69 kV line to a modern 115 kV line, but that application has been stalled due to a long controversy over whether Tri-State must underground portions of it.
Over the past 10 years, the San Miguel County Commissioners, Tri-State officials, various land owners, and the Colorado Public Utilities Commission have disputed the various aspects of the proposed transmission line upgrade that would meet the Telluride region’s need for backup source of power when the main line is out.