Donations usually move ahead without much dispute or controversy. But Black Hills Energy is finding things aren’t always that simple.
BHE, based in Rapid City, is “the business name under which we operate our natural gas and electric utilities, serves 1.2 million customers in eight states: Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming. Our utilities are subsidiaries of Black Hills Corp.”
One of those areas has been around Pueblo, Colorado, where the company has operated power stations for which it no longer needs the water. The decision to off-load the water doesn’t seem to be in dispute.
So BHE offered to give the city, and relevant divisions, those water rights and conveyances they had used.
In its brief to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, the utility said “Our donation of the water rights … will provide an immediate benefit to the Pueblo Board of Water Works, the city of Pueblo and the community at large, because it will be a significant contribution towards the continued viability of the hub of Pueblo’s Downtown and a key tourist attraction — the HARP.”
(The HARP, the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk of Pueblo) is a much-touted local riverfront event and development area, which needs solid flows through the Arkansas River to prosper.)
One of the three PUC commissioners, a native of Pueblo, was all in favor of the donation. The other two were not. They asked why the utility didn’t try to sell the rights instead. The front range of Colorado is a hotbed of water transfer activity, and so is the Arkansas River specifically.
There is some basis for that point, because electric power rates in Pueblo have been the subject of some protest. The Colorado Springs Gazette said in an editorial last summer, “Colorado’s Public Utilities Commission should hesitate before granting Black Hills Energy another rate hike in Pueblo. … Black Hills serves about 94,000 customers in Pueblo and other parts of Southern Colorado, having acquired Aquila in 2008. Since coming to town, Black Hills has imposed one rate hike after the next.”
The two majority commissioners blocked the donation – for a time at least, suspending the action pending further consideration. The consideration will come largely from others. The majority commissioners are in the process of departing the commission, to be replaced by new members. How their replacements will view the matter is unknown.
But obviously, water rights have their price. Pueblo may be in the process of deciding, in a larger sense, what they’re worth.