When Salida Hydro first went into operation more than a century ago, it was a model of environmental excellence. Built in Colorado on the banks of the South Arkansas River, it generated electricity using the flowing water as its source of power. It generated no waste, nor did it pollute the air around it. The Colorado Power Company originally developed the site with two buildings, or powerhouses named Salida 1 and Salida 2. In the late 1920s the Colorado Public Service Company replaced them with a single, more efficient powerhouse. In those days Salida provided power to local miners.
Today the facility is part of Xcel Energy, and in the center of an environmental controversy. The powerhouse, which is one of the oldest in the country, diverts water from the river and runs it through a channel in order to propel its turbines. This diversion is only one of several on the sixteen mile river, and several environmental groups, such as Trout Unlimited, complain that utility companies are taking too much water from the river. They claim that the South Arkansas has been reduced to too low of a level to properly support its population of fish and wildlife.
Company spokesmen counter that the plant uses a low volume of water under high pressure. They also argue that, although the plant does make some environmental changes to the river, it does less damage than a coal-fired plant which would most likely replace it. Salida Hydro produces between 1.3 to 1.5 megawatts of electricity by diverting river water. Each megawatt of electricity produced is enough to power 6,000 homes.
Another positive environmental consideration for Xcel Energy is that Salida Hydro has never been named as a company whose current or former employees have become sick due to asbestos exposure. While it is hard to trace asbestos injuries to one work site because diseases like mesothelioma and asbestosis take decades to develop, many other energy companies in Colorado have been listed as culprits in asbestos exposure.
However, this is not to say that there was no asbestos present in Salida’s facilities. The mineral was a common ingredient in construction materials through much of the 20th century, and when those materials degrade, asbestos fibers can be released into the air.