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June 19, 2014 03:20 PM UTC

Holcomb, Holly, H20 and the Upstream Challenges of the Lower Arkansas

  • by: MichaelBowman

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

It's impossible to miss the irony: Lamar, the host community of Colorado's first commercial wind farm. A wind turbine blade exhibited proudly on Main Street, a testament to the coming 'New Energy Economy'.  Colorado Green represented all that was good about an economy in the midst of an energy transition. A revitalized downtown, emerging from the depths of the last agricultural recession.  Welcomed new jobs and tax base.

Today, Lamar faces a stormy and uncertain financial future.  A region drowning in Class 5 wind resources. Rich soils and river water. A community of souls who have endured, and to date prospered from nearly every Biblical plague one could imagine. Now with a $160 million coal -anchor around their neck – just blocks from the old Amtrak station that sports a wind turbine blade.  A city obligation that is a literal noose around the neck of Lamar residents. 

I wish I could share that this is the only challenge facing the residents of the Lower Arkansas River Valley.  It's not.  A short, 95-mile drive to the east will put you in Holcomb, Kansas, home to the proposed, multi-billion dollar coal plant that would be built to predominantly serve Tri-State Generation and Transmission.  A proposal that to date has reportedly cost the member coops of Tri-State in excess of $50 million dollars to date.  A project that has taken approximately 20,000 acres out of agricultural use, its associated water rights destined for the cooling towers of either the Holcomb plant, or the theoretically-still-in-play Holly nuclear plant.  If that wasn't enough, the regions multi-generational farmers and ranchers have been faced with a rogue state bureaucracy that had turned the admirable idea of agricultural conservation easements in to a virtual nightmare

Tensions between rural and urban Colorado remain high (I would argue unnecessarily so) and are only a microcosm of what is happening nationally.  The recent failed secession movement  only fueled this false narrative. The 51st-state initiative group is now proposing a ballot initiative to change the way rural Colorado is represented, Restoring Colorado.  While the idea is interesting in concept, it would hand over permanent control of the Colorado House to members who think more CO2 in our atmosphere is a good thing and summarily dismiss (and actively fight against) the idea of mandates that will move our economy away from fossil fuels and towards a 21st-century economy – powered by 21st-century energy resources which bring with them jobs and a local tax base.

The United States Department of Agriculture recently released a study, "The Case for Rural Wealth Creation"  – it would be hard to find an area more abundant in the necessary natural resources  – land, water and renewable energy resources –  than the Arkansas River Valley from Pueblo to Holly.  Given those resources and the plethora of federal programs to support a 'wealth creation agenda' – the local economies should be drowning in abundance.  Yet, the opposite, scarcity, has become the regional norm.  So much so that every one of the counties from Pueblo to Holly are one of 700 across the nation that have been designated "Strike Force" communities: places where poverty persists.


State-controlled assets like Ft. Lyons could play a central role in re-establishing a new economy; Colorado's leadership on industrial hemp development is well-suited for the area.  The region has both a Junior College in La Junta and a Community College in Lamar; airports, a proximity to urban markets and nothing but opportunity.  But as Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, "we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."   The very second we rural Coloradans drop the premise that we're independent, and embrace the fact we are interdependent, life for us will change for the better.  Embrace Einstein's challenge.  Form uncommon (or unthinkable) alliances. Stop believing that our urban counterparts don't like us. Our challenges are immense – trumped only by our opportunities. This will take leadership – from the Governor's chair to the coffee shop in downtown Lamar.  Over 100 years ago my relatives first homesteaded in Lamar on their journey to a new life in the west.  A few years later Mother Nature drove my great-grandfather north in search of water, leaving his brother behind. A century later some of those same challenges present themselves again for those who stayed. This time we're armed with technology and programs that make an exodus unnecessary.  Let's get it right – and be all that we can be.



25 thoughts on “Holcomb, Holly, H20 and the Upstream Challenges of the Lower Arkansas

  1. As usual, tons of new (to me) information and a big-picture challenge to move beyond the urban-rural energy dichotomies. That polarization keeps area youth emigrating to cities for jobs, believing that the little towns are dead or dying, and and keeps older folks complaining that the city slickers just don't understand their problems. We don't, but as you pointed out, all problems are everyone's problems.

    • I didn't know that there was a nuclear plant planned for Holly. I can't find anything recent on it – there does appear to be construction on a hydro generating dam and power plant. I guess that's progress.
    • I didn't know that poor Lamar has a gigantic non-functioning power plant which they'll never be able to use to capacity, and can either decomission or just limp along paying out the nose for dirty power.
    •  But hey, Coal Cares! They're giving out free inhalers with colorful cartoon characters for kids living within 200 miles of a power plant. (that link was from some other comment you made)

    So there could be jobs here for the youth and everyone else – the Southwest Chief would help connect these little towns to markets, and clean power generation could provide jobs here and surplus power to the cities that don't have big tracts of land for wind or solar plants. You would think that people could venture out from behind their partisan barricades to come together for that. 


    1. I think the Holly nuclear dream is dead.  They spent an enormous amount of money buying land, water and providing technical support for the Town of Holly to be prepared for the construction phase if it ever was to happen.  Sometime during the middle of that process the Sunflower opportunity popped up and they commtted reportedly in excess of $50 million trying to keep that idea alive for nearly a decade. 

      Tri-State actual has the best of all worlds right now.  The Kansas Department of Health has granted the permit.  It's unclear whether the construction would be considerd 'grandfathered' or not.  There was an attempt in the Farm Bill just passed to insert legislation that would have effectively given them a green light (it would have waived a necessary reveiw by USDA-Rural Utilities Services).  That amendment failed.  What is clear is this: 1) Kansas would be unable to acheive their new green house gas reduction goals under the proposed EPA rules if this plant came on line.  2) there will be a lawsuit filed by Sierra Club, etal over the permit, so that's going to buy Tri-State some time on having to make the multi-billion dollar commitment.  They have negative load growth right now and there is no economic case for them to support the construction.  They can wail and gnash their teeth publicly over the lawsuit, while privately breathing a sigh of relief.  3) why the Colorado PUC hasn't stepped in is a mystery.  Not only the ongoing saga of this plant (which couldn't see the light of day without the support of Tri-State), but if you look at their annual reports over the past decade and add up their revenue under 'unanticpated energy sale to non-members', they would be financially unviable without those dollars.  A case could be made they are effectively an Independent Power Producer, not a closed cooperative – which would put them under the jurisdiction of the PUC.  (giving its members a whole new level of transparency and accountability).

      An enhanced Southwestern Chief line could play a major role in that regions developments, as could have the Towner Railroad line/easements that were sold off to a private developer by the state a couple of years ago.

    2. The hydro dam project in Holly was FOR the nuke plant. I went to a farm auction near Holly a few years ago and the auctioneer was cheerfully telling the crowd that where we were standing at the moment would be under 30 or so feet of water in a few years….

      The power plant thing in Lamar is a giant mess we are starting to get a little transparency on (or ARE we???), years too late. Because of job loss, we've dropped from 9K+ in population to barely 7K since the 2010 census. New businesses are NOT going to relocate to a distant town where a person with an average apartment or small house pays $300 a month for electricity, and a medium sized truck stop pays $15K a month!

      Keeping the Southwest Chief will be a plus, if it can be managed. Expanding light rail to reach throughout the state would be even better, because Lamar is a GREAT town to raise kids and enjoy a simpler, safer, lifestyle. Easy train commuting and/or telecommuting would be a big plus, as would getting on board with locally produced wind and solar power.  We'll see, I guess.

    3. An update—if you will, Mama, Amtrak is looking to reroute the Southwest Chief from Newton, Kansas via Amarillo to Clovis to Belen. Dropping Dodge City, La Junta, Trinidad, over Raton Pass to Lamy and Albaquerque (sp?) in the process.   

      When the BNSF gouged the State of New Mexico for the Raton Pass Route–so the Rail Runner service between Albaquerque could have some trackage—the BNSF made sure the tracks were not to be kept up to the needed standards to run passengers trains.

      If that does happen—what happens to the transportation systems in those towns now served by Amtrak.


      1. Harley – I believe I read that it was going to take a $22 million investment to the present rail line to keep it passenger-capable.  This issue, once again, goes back to the issue of things like our state's severance tax (more importantly, its need for reform) and what we as a state could be doing for our economy with our due resources, we could make sure assets like the Southwestern Chief remained viable. If one looks at the SWC line in its entirety, it would be a fantastic corridor for a high-voltage, dc-based cable to deliver wind power from the midwest, through our SE Colorado plains to the load centers in California.  That easement could play a dual role of an energy and passenger corridor.  But that would take an act of Congress – the place where good ideas go to die.

      2. Hick signed Rep. Garcia's bill to move forward with the SW Chief plan. It can't proceed until all states and parties are contributing to fund the required maintenance, but some funds have already been appropriated in Colorado. I think that they're trying to get federal grants. There is a facebook page for updates – it seems heavily weighted on the New Mexico side for keeping the SW Chief route as it is. (no Pueblo stop)

        I don't know about La Junta, but certainly the plan of the legislation was to keep Lamar, and add Pueblo, as stops on the Amtrak route. Harley, are you saying that the Colorado effort is being outlobbied by the New Mexico folks? or what? I don't have a map of the current and proposed routes, so it's hard to visualize what you are talking about.

        1. MamaJ – it looks like Garcia's bill accomplished two things, 1) sets up the commission, and 2) sets up a fund for people to donate to the cause.  It looks like the state has not committed any funds to the project?  Did I read that wrong? 

          1. Garcia and Crowder's HB1161 set up a commission to study the problem, bring stakeholders to the table, and collect funds for the maintenance costs.

            So far, the only funds appropriated from the State are for the costs of the commission and studies. Track maintenance funds can be collected, but can't be spent until all stakeholders (states, Feds, rail companies, businesses, individuals) have contributed and there is a formal agreement on how to fund the entire line.

            In terms of numbers, 200 million is needed, and so far the states, rail companies, and Feds have come up with 24 million.

            So I still think it's a hopeful sign- it recognizes that cooperation is necessary and beneficial, that private/ public partnerships are likewise a good thing, that the public goods of increased commerce and tourism can be supported by this cooperation.

            Thanks to your linked map, I now get that New Mexico is cooperating, not competing with Colorado & Kansas,  but Texas and Oklahoma may be lobbying pretty hard for the new route. I would think that it would be cheaper for Amtrak and BNSF to upgrade the existing route than to lay an all-new track, but I'm no transportation expert.

            1. Only guessing here, mama, but it could be much cheaper to build a new line, depending on such things as right-of ways, new technologies versus out-moded ones, build up of adjacent development and subsequent property considerations.

              In my line of work, new construction is often more cost effective than remodeling.

              1. Duke – this would take Congressional action but if you look at the present route, it transects oceans of Class 4 and 5 wind – from Chicago to LA.  If we had a genuine interest in developing these resources (ala Prowers County) for export, the new dc-high voltage products from ABB are killer technologies.  Anschutz made a fortune on reserving his BNSF easements for broadband deployment years ago.  Congress could make the same play with an 'energy highway' on that easement. 

            2. I agree it's a good start.  But to my earlier point, Kansas has committed $4m to the project (presumably state funds), while we're seeking donations.  If we don't fix TABOR and the severance tax structure we'll be perenially holding out our hands for donations for any kind of infrastructure project while we're returning to our former greatness via BWB's vision for energy. 

              1. Right, as usual. Pueblo and Otero counties have ponied up $250,000, but Colorado State is only funding the commission and the studies.

                Do you think that Amtrak is looking into selling its easements for broadband and electrical transmission as a deal sweetener? Aren't they already doing that?

                Every railroad or highway I've seen around here has major electrical and phone transmission lines along it.

                1. The ABB technology can be both buried and above ground.  With the present Adminstration's goals of deploying green energy, and with this mornings 7-2 SCOUTUS decision upholding about 95% of the EPA's authority to regulate green house gases (HOT DAMN) this easement should be in play.  An energy highway – a contemporary version of the Eisenhower Interstate System for energy. 

                  If our rural electrics from Chicago to LA had two firing neurons amongst them they'd be on this like flies on a pile of Carnegie.  THAT would lead these rural communities back to real greatness (sorry, BWB) and give Amtrak an income stream for upgrades, etc.  But hey, let's just pretend their's an actual war on coal and things while our infrastructure and rural communities crumble….

        2. As I remember–New Mexico does want to keep the present route—BNSF does not–as the BNSF goes–so does Amtrak. Simply because if the BNSF does not keep up the trackage for even freight—passenger service would be a total mess. A passenger train that now travels at 89 MPH over most of the route would be slowed to less than 55 MPH. Not good.

          The route that I mentioned is the freight only route between Newton Kansas, and Amarillo, Texas to Clovis to Belen and onward. 

          I certainly would hate to see the move to a Texas route when the passenger train is sorely needed in the southeast part of Colorado.

          By the way, La Junta is the engine crew change point AND refueling point for the SWC.

          1. Harley, I'm really confused now, but I think that we may be talking about another route than the SW chief. On the Amtrak route page for the SW chief, it doesn't go through Clovis and Amarillo. That appears to be a different route that follows Rte 66. (you know, the one you get your kicks on).

            But that is also the route which the SW Chief would take, if this commission doesn't work and the states and businesses don't come up with the $200 million.

            Then Pueblo, Lamar, SECO would be literally "out of the loop". New Mexico would lose the service to Raton and the northern parts of the state, but would trade off by keeping service from Texas westward.

            Tell me if this is your understanding of this. I don't get passenger vs. freight ratios, but you apparently do, so tell me how these considerations impact the chances of these states and companies cooperating to keep the SW Chief on a loop through CO.

            1. Admittedly, this changes with whom one is discussing the subject, but here is an older Amarillo based article which I remembered:

    …2010-10-08 BNSF…line-run-through-amarillo

              Texas does wish to make the SWC run completely on a Texas route–via one route or another.


    Sea changes in public policy seem to require a leader(s) that people rally behind and find their way forward together. Your clarity of thought and expression, Michael, coupled with your willingness to state boldly your vision is refreshing, encouraging, and seems to engender a great deal of respect and admiration for you among the progressive community.

    I live on the other side of the state, in a rural area, and have, for 40 years, been witness to much of the same stagnation of thought you decry with such passion. Thanks for continuing to be a voice for change.

    As an aside, it occured to me that this…


    "we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

    is something that should have been considered by the TV program directors who allowed Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Paul Bremer air time to opine about Iraq.

    Until the voices that chain us to the past are drowned out by the peoples' demand for a better future, there is little hope for towns like Lamar. Fossil fuel addiction and those who profit thereby keep us from that future and chains us to the past.

  3. The very second we rural Coloradans drop the premise that we're independent, and embrace the fact we are interdependent, life for us will change for the better.

    We desperately neeed more people like you, Michael, with the credibility that can only come from a person of your background and family history, to deliver that message to the broadest possible rural audience, here in Colorado and beyond.  Here's hoping that you'll find like minded allies with the same kind of background and history and ways to exponentially amplify your collective voice.

  4. News in the southeastern corner of our state seems to go in only one direction: from bad to worser; we aren’t gettin’ more smarterA Plea for the Future 

    We also call on Gov. John Hickenlooper to take a proactive, critical look at the state water plan and act in the best interests of his agrarian constituents. It will take strong and fearless leadership to demand that the plan halts these water-grabbing tactics, which is the only thing that will prevent the future decimation of our precious agricultural land.

    My great-grandfather homesteaded in Prowers County so I give a shit about this region.  It doesn’t/didn’t have to be like this.

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