Roaring Fork River basin: ‘Front Range Water Supply Planning Update’ authors seek to inform on transmountain diversions

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Here’s a look at the report prepared for the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, from Scott Condon writing for the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. From the article:

The study was commissioned by the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, which represents local governments on watershed issues. The study was conducted by G. Moss Driscoll, a Colorado attorney with experience in water law, environmental law and natural resource management. Mark Fuller, director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, said the study was designed to educate Roaring Fork Valley government officials and residents about how water issues could affect them in the future. It wasn’t intended to drive a wedge deeper in the relationship between the valley and Front Range water rights owners. To the contrary, he said, the study, “opened lines of communication.” “There are people in Colorado Springs who know what’s on our minds. That wasn’t the case a year ago,” Fuller said.

The study provides a thorough inventory of who owns what when it comes to the Roaring Fork watershed’s liquid gold and it describes the infrastructure associated with each of the three major diversion projects. For example, the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion system diverts water from numerous creeks east of Aspen into Grizzly Reservoir, then sends the water east via two tunnels. The major shareholders and recipients of the water in that system are Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Pueblo West and Aurora. The system yields an annual average of 40,589 acre feet, the study said. Fuller said he learned from the study that the Front Range cities that own the system have conditional water rights that could be converted into regular rights, meaning more water gets diverted. One example would be getting court approval to extend their diversion season. “They basically don’t have to ask our permission” to exercise those conditional rights, Fuller said.

In other cases, greater diversions would be difficult, in practical terms, Fuller said. The Fryingpan-Arkansas Project is approved for additional diversion structures, but constructing them would require local government approvals. The Front Range cities understand the political and public relations challenges they face from adding diversions or developing new water resources, Fuller said. He is of the opinion that water supply and demand issues will be negotiated on a broad scale in an amicable way but he acknowledged that other observers believe the historically contentious issue of West Slope water supply and Front Range use will lead to a sort of “World War III” before settled.

He hopes that the Front Range Water Supply Planning Update will be used by officials in governments and entities in the Roaring Fork Valley to inform themselves on the big issues coming in the future. The more officials know, the better they can represent the valley and protect water resources, he said.

From the executive summary:

Three major transmountain diversions currently operate in the Roaring Fork Watershed – the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project (“Fry-Ark Project” or “Fry-Ark”), the Busk-Ivanhoe System, and the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System (“Twin Lakes System”) (see inset). At present, these three systems collectively divert over forty percent of the flow in the headwaters of the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers for use in the Arkansas and South Platte basins. Although these diversions have been in operation for decades, each of the projects are still incomplete, with undeveloped conditional water rights, excess diversion capacity, and even major structural components that could yet be built.

According to the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s most recent estimates, the Arkansas and South Platte basins are facing a combined shortfall in water supply of at least 130,000 acre- feet of water (and potentially as great as 470,000 acre-feet) by 2050, due to the influx of another 3.2 to 4.5 million new residents by that time.3 To meet this projected gap, Front Range water providers are scrambling to secure additional sources of water. For many of them, the options for new water supplies are limited: most of the rivers on the East Slope are already over-appropriated; groundwater supplies are declining in some areas due to excessive well pumping; and in recent decades, the costs and uncertainty surrounding new transmountain diversions have prevented many such projects from being built.

For many Front Range water providers, firming up existing transmountain water rights and maximizing the diversion capacity of existing infrastructure is likely to represent one of the most cost-effective, publicly acceptable means of developing additional water supplies. Local interests in the Roaring Fork Watershed should therefore expect Front Range water providers to eventually attempt to firm up undeveloped water rights and excess diversion capacity associated with the Fry-Ark Project, Busk-Ivanhoe System, and Twin Lakes System. In fact, such efforts may already be underway on the East Slope.

More Roaring Fork River watershed coverage here and here.

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