Reservoir would destroy habitat of 2 rare plants

Two species thought to exist only in Lone Mesa State Park

Lone Mesa snakeweed (Gutierrezia elegans), a globally rare plant discovered by local naturalist Al Schneider, is being threatened by a proposed reservoir north of McPhee Reservoir. Enlargephoto

Al Schneider/Courtesy photo

Lone Mesa snakeweed (Gutierrezia elegans), a globally rare plant discovered by local naturalist Al Schneider, is being threatened by a proposed reservoir north of McPhee Reservoir.

Two rare plants discovered in Lone Mesa State Park are in the way of a proposed $1.3 billion hydro-electric power plant in the Plateau Creek drainage, a tributary of McPhee Reservoir.

Unique shale barrens in the south portion of Lone Mesa State Park are home to the rare Lone Mesa snake weed and Mancos shale packera. But Re-regulation reservoir, one of three man-made lakes included in the hydro project, would inundate their habitat.

“The reservoir site is part of the Mancos shale habitat in the park where these rare plant species do well,” said Scott Elder, Lone Mesa superintendent. “But what impact they could have on the reservoir project, I’m not sure.”

The plants were discovered by local naturalist Al Schneider in 2008 and have been recognized by prominent botanists as unique species that are globally rare. The park is the only place the species are known to exist.

“They are quite beautiful, and the shale barrens where they grow is very unusual,” Schneider said. “I’m devastated and horrified that they could be flooded by a shallow reservoir.”

A third rare plant, the cushion bladder pod, is also in the area of the reservoir, but it’s found elsewhere, including Miromonte Lake.

Re-regulation reservoir is one of three man-made lakes proposed for a hydro-electric power plant that’s in a preliminary investor scoping process.

Known as pump-back storage, the hydroelectric plant would operate using two reservoirs in a steep canyon of Plateau Creek to generate electricity. Water is pumped to an upper reservoir, then released to the lower reservoir, passing through turbines that deliver electricity onto the grid.

The upper Re-regulation reservoir would augment evaporative losses to the two reservoirs used for the pump-back hydropower. It’s also designed to store water for delivery to the Lower Dolores River below McPhee to improve native fish habitat.

The Dolores Water Conservancy District holds the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission preliminary permit on the hydro project, but if ever built, it would be constructed and financed by private industry.

Mike Preston, DWCD general manager, said the Re-regulaltion reservoir is not an integral part of the pump-back hydro project, but would be beneficial for the Lower Dolores native fishery.

“There’s no evidence the rare plants could make or break the hydro project,” he said. “It might get built without the upper reservoir if the flower is a concern.”

The rare plants thrive in soils most plants don’t take root in, Schneider said, making they are ripe for research that could yield usable information for agriculture.

The plants are not listed as endangered or threatened by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, or by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Schneider isn’t holding out much hope they can be saved if the project goes forward.

“The environmental reviews would have to consider them so that would be when the public and environmental groups can speak up,” he said. “The park was originally supposed to be kept wild, and it’s incredibly ironic that there is a planned reservoir there now. The fluctuating levels will create huge mud flats and destroy these plants that are nowhere else in the world.”

jmimiaga@cortezjournal.com

Enlargephoto

Al Schneider/Courtesy photo