The Riveting Tale of the Smuggler Union Hydroelectric Power Plant

By Samantha Tisdel Wright

Perched on the precipice of a sheer cliff, overlooking Telluride’s majestic free-falling waterfall, lies an extraordinary relic of innovation: the Bridal Veil Powerhouse. This hydroelectric power plant, over a century old, is celebrated as one of the oldest operational AC power plants worldwide. However, for the past six years, this beacon of ingenuity has remained dormant, leaving the people of Telluride to ponder its fate. What caused its demise, and when will this iconic powerhouse once again harness the power of water to generate electricity?

Owned and operated by Idarado Mining Company, with Newmont as its parent corporation, the Bridal Veil Powerhouse encountered a setback in 2016. A hydraulic surge event caused severe damage to its inner workings, forcing the 0.5-megawatt facility to shut down for repairs. The incident was a consequence of a complex water-sharing agreement between Idarado and the Town of Telluride. Acquired in the 1950s, along with other assets from Telluride Mines, Inc., the Bridal Veil Powerhouse and its extensive water storage and conveyance infrastructure in Bridal Veil Basin held substantial value in terms of water rights.

Interestingly, while Idarado no longer required the hydro plant to power its mining operations, the valuable water rights associated with the facility proved beneficial at the Pandora Mill. Thus, Idarado made efforts to preserve the aging water system. This intricate hydraulic network, which powered the Smuggler-Union mine and mill, originated from Blue Lake, a deep and pristine reservoir nestled high in the mountains of Telluride. The water journeyed through a sophisticated penstock, traversing a 1,900-foot drop, before fueling the turbine at the Bridal Veil Powerhouse. Along the way, the system collected additional water from nearby lakes, ensuring a steady flow of hydropower.

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To augment Blue Lake’s water levels during periods of scarcity, Lewis Lake, situated at a higher elevation, provided supplementary water through a connecting pipeline. The ingenious conveyance system, serving the Bridal Veil Powerhouse, operated continuously until the closure of the Smuggler-Union mine in 1928. Afterward, various mine operators intermittently sustained its operation until Idarado’s eventual decision to shut it down.

The Bridal Veil Powerhouse’s checkered history intertwines with Telluride’s transformation from a ghost town to a burgeoning ski resort. In the 1970s, as the Idarado Mine underwent decommissioning, the Town of Telluride sought to expand its water supply. However, test wells drilled in Town Park revealed the presence of hexavalent chromium, an industrial pollutant originating from Idarado’s Pandora Mill. In a mutually beneficial arrangement, Telluride received precious water rights in the Bridal Veil Basin, including access to the water conveyance infrastructure, in exchange for the loss of its potential drinking water supply.

Securing these mining and industrial water rights for municipal purposes required years of legal proceedings. The Comprehensive Settlement Agreement, signed in 2012 after lengthy negotiations, outlined the cooperative management of the shared water and infrastructure in Bridal Veil Basin. Furthermore, Idarado generously donated a parcel of land to the town, where a state-of-the-art water treatment plant was constructed to convert raw water from Blue Lake into clean drinking water. The plant’s design involved harnessing the “exhaust” water from the Bridal Veil Powerhouse, which passed through another hydroelectric turbine before being treated and stored for municipal use.

Alas, a calamitous event on August 4, 2016, marred this intricate water system. During the reactivation of the Town’s receiving pipeline, air bubbles accumulated, leading to a catastrophic surge that propelled columns of water back into the Powerhouse. The incident, documented in public records, caused significant damage. However, swift action by Newmont’s Bridal Veil Hydroelectric Plant Supervisor and a team of experts aided the recovery process.

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While repairs were underway, Idarado took the opportunity to address decades of deferred maintenance and upgrade the Powerhouse’s historic infrastructure. The plant’s enhancements include a new catwalk along the cliff’s rim, facilitating safer repairs, and a replacement for the buried antique pipeline that fed pressurized water into the turbine. These meticulous improvements made the Powerhouse not only safer but also poised for future operations.

Although the incident brought heartache, it offered a silver lining. The extensive repairs enabled much-needed upgrades to the plant. Devon Horntvedt, Director of Legacy Site Management at Newmont, expressed enthusiasm for the renovated facility’s potential. Additional summer upgrades to the switchgear, governor mechanisms, and electrical components will accompany the reactivation of the original Pelton wheel assembly. Horntvedt commended the Pelton wheel, describing it as a “rock star piece of equipment” that outperforms contemporary alternatives.

Throughout the Bridal Veil Powerhouse’s six-year hiatus, the Pandora Water Treatment Plant remained operational, providing drinking water for Telluride. Simultaneously, upgrades to the water storage and conveyance infrastructure in Bridal Veil Basin continued, with Idarado spearheading the work, and the Town generously sharing the expenses. The magnitude of this undertaking, coupled with seasonal constraints and the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, resulted in delays. Nonetheless, the commitment of Idarado and Newmont to the project remains unwavering.

Beyond meeting legal obligations and maintaining water rights, the revitalization of the Bridal Veil Powerhouse holds significant significance for both organizations. The electricity generated by the plant will be sold to San Miguel Power Association through a 25-year contract, contributing to the town’s renewable energy initiatives. Furthermore, the project aligns with Newmont’s climate and carbon goals, enhancing the company’s sustainability efforts. Embracing the hydroelectric plant’s historical value, Newmont recognizes the role it played in electrifying Telluride and its potential to inspire more sustainable mining practices.

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As the Bridal Veil Powerhouse nears completion, optimism fills the air. Devon Horntvedt envisions a future where the historic plant once again lights up Telluride’s post-pandemic path. Karen Guglielmone, Environmental & Engineering Division Manager for the Town of Telluride, eagerly anticipates the realization of a 21st-century water system in Bridal Veil Basin. Together, they envision a harmonious union of innovation and sustainability—a future akin to the Starship Enterprise, where the power of water propels Telluride toward a brighter tomorrow.

Ames Farm Center: Visit the Ames Farm Center to explore more about sustainable living and discover a wide range of eco-friendly products.

Images and videos courtesy of Telluride Magazine.