AZTEC — Commissioners approved moving toward harnessing energy from water flow on the Animas River.

During a work session before the regular meeting Tuesday, commissioners heard from Ken George, director of the city's electric department, on whether to approve spending more than $25,000 for a feasibility study to evaluate the possibility of generating power with water flowing in irrigation ditches along the Animas River.

The commission unanimously approved spending the money.

The study would be a necessary first step to certify whether the river generates enough flow velocity to make hydro-power infrastructure built at irrigation ditches located throughout the city possible.

Aztec has four main irrigation ditches -- Aztec, Lower Animas, Farmers and Elledge-Mill -- within its city limits.

The study, to be conducted by ESC, a Fort Collins, Colo., engineering firm, will also address how water rights would be affected, where a hydro-power generator would best work and what permits would be needed.

And most important to the commission, based on questions raised at Tuesday's work session, would be whether investing in hydro power would prove cost effective.

"Without numbers before us, we just won't know," George told the commission. "We need a study like this to do it. If they (ESC) tell us, 'No, you can't do it,' at least we'll know."

While commissioners expressed concern over the study's price tag, especially the inherent possibility its findings could show little or no likelihood of profitability, they seemed to cautiously agree producing electric power at a lower cost was a desirable end result.

"I want us to make sure we get what we are asking for," Mayor Pro-tem Jim Crowley said."I don't want unclear findings. I want specifics -- I want to know the payback at this site (versus another)."

According to a letter to the city by the engineering firm, the study will total $23,200 for "evaluation, analysis and study development" costs. An additional, but optional, $2,600 plus travel expenses would be required to send two representatives from Fort Collins to make an official presentation to commissioners.

"I have thought about it for awhile," Commissioner Roberta Clover said at the work session. "But I think we should do it. I hate to spend the money, but $25,000 is not a lot, given the potential benefits."

According to the National Hydropower Association, hydropower is a climate-friendly energy source, generating power without producing smog or polluting ground or water systems.

Using hydropower avoids nearly 200 million metric tons of carbon pollution in the United States each year, equal to the output of over 38 million passenger cars, according to the NHA's website.

Though it accounts for a tiny fraction of the overall power generated, hydropower projects can, if suitable for the water system in which it is installed, prove efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

They can also be a boon to municipalities by producing electricity from existing water flows, taking advantage of existing infrastructure and often being an affordable alternative to building a whole new system altogether.

According to the Energy Information Administration, the statistical body of the U.S. Department of Energy, hydropower accounted for seven percent of U.S. electric generation in 2009, representing 65.9 percent of renewable generation that year.

As electric rates have risen nationally and across the state, commissioners said they hope to find further means of keeping rates steady and affordable for the city's customers.

After the feasibility study is wrapped up, a second study will be required to determine what kind of hydro-power system is a good fit for the city, George said.

"(Hydro power) has been talked about for years," George told the commission. "In the early 1900s, the city was powered by hydro and a lot of people have asked us, 'Why couldn't we have it again?' Well, let's find out."

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4631 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.