Colorado Department of Natural Resources: Solving Colorado’s future water supply needs

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Update: I misrepresented Melinda Kassen’s position with regard to Aaron Million’s project and the environmental impacts of his proposed pipeline. I’ve corrected the post below. I received email today (April 6) from the Western Water Project making it clear to me that they do not want to give the impression that Melinda is endorsing the project from an environmental perspective. Quite the contrary.

I caught up with Trout Unlimited’s Western Water Project Director, Melinda Kassen, via telephone last week to discuss the March 16th Interbasin Compact Commitee Meeting and the presentation (pdf) detailing progress on the visioning process for Colorado’s water needs that is being spearheaded by DNR Director Harris Sherman.

During the presentation, Kassen — the only committee member representing the environmental community and recreation — became alarmed by the Department of Natural Resources’ emphasis on transmountain diversions and four pipeline projects as the solution to the Front Range water supply gap.

How did the plan presented mesh with Governor Ritter’s, Colorado Promise, she asked herself? Where is conservation and reuse in the plan? What about the idea of smaller, incremental projects to satisfy future needs?

Historical perspective

On the eastern plains of Colorado cities grew out from irrigation ditch systems. Moving water from agriculture to municipal use has a long tradition.

Coloradans also have a history of looking to the rainy side of Colorado to water its needs for agriculture and to serve an ever-growing population. One of the earliest projects is the Grand Ditch (formerly the Grand River Ditch), up in Rocky Mountain Park that brings water from the Upper Colorado River Basin over to the South Platte Basin via the Poudre River.

More recently transbasin diversions were seen as a way to protect the agricultural economy on the plains by avoiding the dryup of farms when thirsty cities came calling. The Fryingpan-Arkansas Project is one where project water was primarily aimed at the cities in the Arkansas Basin.

During the 2006 gubernatorial election Governor Ritter hung 2003’s failed Referendum A around Republican Bob Beauprez’s neck — helping the Democrat to carry enough of the west slope, rural areas and water savvy voters — to cruise to an easy victory. Coincidentally Representative John Salazar and his brother, former U.S. Senator (now Secretary of the Interior) Ken Salazar also ran away from the amendment as they rode the blue wave across Colorado.

Referendum A would have set aside a few billion dollars for “unspecified” water projects. In effect the Owens’ administration was saying, “Trust us with the dough, we have Colorado’s best interests in mind.”

The referendum incurred opposition everywhere you turned in Colorado. I was buying a retirement place in Montezuma County at the time and the reaction down there was, “Water grab!”

Many in the environmental community thought that the referendum was a thinly disguised funding source for the “Big Straw,” a pipeline from a new reservoir on the Colorado/Utah border back to Eagle County where water would be shipped over the Great Divide to the Front Range.

Ritter won his election and those that wanted west slope water to stay in the streams, or in the ditches there, breathed a sigh of relief. Big bang water projects seemed relegated to Colorado’s past. It looked like the west slope water would stay there and the Front Range would look to its own water for future growth.

Here’s the pertinent passage from Governor Ritter’s Colordo Promise (pdf), the publication outling his administration’s policy:

WATER. How we use water is one of the most important issues facing Colorado today. We must end Colorado’s divisive water wars by:

– Adopting a responsible mix of conservation, reuse, efficiency, cooperation, farm-to-city water agreements and new water storage.

– Supporting the roundtable discussions now underway through the Colorado Interbasin Compact Committee process.

Readers will note that there is no mention of transbasin diversions to help end, “Colorado’s divisive water wars.”

During the 2005 legislative session the legislature passed H.B. 05-1177, the “Colorado Water for the 21st Century” act. The legislation set up the basin roundtable process to help find solutions to Colorado’s future water needs. It also set up a central committee — the Interbasin Compact Committee — to oversee solutions and govern agreements between basins.

From the start it was hoped that the process would lead to new thinking along with heightened communication between basins, water providers, irrigators, sportsmen, industry and environmentalists. There have been fits and starts. Some of the basin roundtables have been effective with respect to smaller projects incrementally increasing the supply a bit. Studies of groundwater recharge and storage have been funded and are ongoing.

The roundtables were also charged with developing a non-consumptive needs assessment by basin. Last Friday they learned that funding for the studies is being cut.

The roundtables and the IBCC have not come up with sustainable solutions to water the unbridled growth along the Front Range and in the Colorado Springs area. The projections of over 7 million Coloradans over the next couple of decades still looms large. The gap between municipal supplies and projected growth is on everyone’s mind.

A couple of years ago Aaron Million got everyone’s attention across the state with a plan to move water from the Green River in Wyoming (Flaming Gorge) to the Front Range. Shortly after that the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy funded a study that evaluated the potential to move water from the Yampa Valley to the Front Range. The Bureau of Reclamation kept reminding people of the possibility of a “Green Mountain Pumpback” that would move water from Green Mountain Reservoir back to Dillon Reservoir and then to the Front Range.

DNR presentation to the IBCC

In a move that surprised Kassen last Monday, the “Big Straw” showed up again on the planning horizon at the March IBCC meeting in Longmont. It’s now known as the “Colorado River Return Reconnaissance Study Concept” but it’s largely the same plan that was pushed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board under Rod Kuharich’s direction.

According to Kassen the DNR focus now is on building one of the four transmountain diversions mentioned above.

Moving 150,000 to 250,000 acre feet by pipeline out of basin would be, “Armageddon to agriculture in the Arkansas Valley,” she said. The “Lower Arkansas Concept” combined with the “Lower South Platte Concept” would satisfy municipal needs by drying up agriculture, she says.

That’s hardly a new approach.

According to Kassen the portion of the presentation detailing the prospective benefits of water conservation failed to connect with the committee despite the relatively low cost of a conserved acre foot ($5,000 – $10,000) as opposed to a transbasin acre foot ($60,000 – $100,000). According to DNR’s own numbers water savings from conservation could potentially solve the Front Range needs, including future growth, while keeping much of the current ag water in place, she said.

To her chagrin the focus of the DNR staff seemed to be primarily on the four transmountain pipeline projects. The conservation information didn’t seem to resonate with the committee. In fact, she said, the conservation information was dropped the next day when the presentation was given to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The presentation went from, “Stunning numbers for conservation to the Big Straw,” she said.

Citing the governor’s statement in the Colorado promise Kassen asked, “Where is conservation, reuse, efficiency and cooperation in the DNR plan? How is a plan that is totally predicated on more transmountain diversions acceptable?”


What are some of the potential impacts?

– Snowfall and runoff in the Colorado River Basin and the Southwestern U.S. are expected to decrease as global climate change accelerates in the 21st century. A dryer Nevada, Arizona and California will need their allotments from the Colorado River Compact more than ever and Colorado and the other upper basin states are contractually obligated to deliver a running 10 year average of 75 million acre feet at Lees Ferry in Arizona. Lake Powell and Lake Mead have still not recovered from the recent drought and some experts doubt that the reservoirs will ever fill again.

– Oil shale (the “Next Big Thing” in Colorado for over 100 years now) will require water to develop including massive amounts of water for new power plants. Current estimates from Shell show 3 barrels of water required for each barrel of liquid hydrocarbon fuel. Shell, Exxon and other oil companies have water rights in the neighborhood of 7.5 million acre feet, mostly conditional, but some are rights from the 19th century and are therefore senior to many of the existing transbasin diversions and the Colorado River Compact. The industry will start requiring the water in 10-15 years.

– What will happen to headwaters areas if pipelines dump water taken out of the streams after agricultural and municipal runoff are added? Aaron Million’s plan would terminate on the eastern plains of Colorado close to treatment facilities, not at a headwaters location, sparing the headwaters streams.

– Low flows could negatively impact the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.

– Capturing more runoff during the spring and summer could impact the cleansing effects of high water on riparian environments.

– The carbon footprint of the pipeline options is huge compared to that of conservation and reuse.

– It would be hard to administer a system to allocate conserved water under Colorado’s system of prior appropriation. I find it hard to envision Denver selling conserved water for example. They do lease water annually. Would they be willing to enter into long-term leases?

– Other Front Range cities also lease water. For example, the Pueblo Board of Water Works and Colorado Spring Utilities annually lease water to others in times of plenty. Those leases are usually predicated on drought status so when water is needed the most the supply might not be there.

– The pipeline options would save some agricultural dry ups helping Colorado’s farm economy and the local governments and businesses that depend on ag.

– The pipeline options would bring more water to the Front Range and the Denver Metro area. It’s not too hard to see that Colorado’s economic engine is primarily based there. That’s where the population is. City and county governments along the Front Range depend on growth to fuel their revenues which provide education, public safety, etc.

There are no inexpensive and easy to implement options. The easy stuff has been done. What is alarming to Kassen is the fact that the DNR seems trapped by 20th century solutions to 21st century problems while ignoring climate science and the ethical issues around development. They also seem to be turning away from taking responsibility for the environment, fisheries and recreation.

2 thoughts on “Colorado Department of Natural Resources: Solving Colorado’s future water supply needs

  1. Wow. It sounds like Mr. Millions project IS a respected solution. I had only ever seen the hyped up and inflamatory editorials in the past. Thank you for the balanced education.

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