“…the waterways of Grand County have become the poster child for aquatic death by a thousand cuts” — Allen Best #ColoradoRiver

Denver Water's collection system via the USACE EIS
Denver Water’s collection system via the USACE EIS

Another independent journalist covering water issues is Allen Best purveyor of The Mountain Town News. Here’s an analysis of the recent agreement between Denver Water, Trout Unlimited, and Grand County for operating the Colorado River Cooperative agreement. Here’s an excerpt:

Located at the headwaters of the Colorado River, the waterways of Grand County have become the poster child for aquatic death by a thousand cuts…

Called the Mitigation and Enhancement Coordination Plan, the agreement between Denver Water, Grand County, and Trout Unlimited proposes to govern Denver’s incremental diversions through the Continental Divide known as the Moffat firming project. However, according to the architects of the deal, it should also serve as a model in the ongoing dialogue as Colorado’s growing metropolitan areas look to squeeze out the final drops of the state’s entitlements to the Colorado River, as defined by the Colorado River compact of 1922 and other compacts.

“It is a demonstration of a new way of doing business that should be a model as Colorado talks about meeting its water gaps (between demands and supplies),” says Jim Lochhead, chief executive of Denver Water.

“Instead of platitudes or politics or parochialism, you need to do it by sitting down and working together and dealing with the issues,” he adds…

There are skeptics, unable to explain this strange alchemy in which a river can in any way benefit from having less water, as the agreement insists can be the case.

Among those withholding enthusiasm is Matt Rice, the Colorado coordinator for American Rivers. He points out that the agreement covers just 4 of the 32 creeks and streams trapped by Denver Water in the Fraser Valley and the adjoining Williams Fork. Too, like too many other similar programs, the data collection begins after permits are awarded, not before, which he thinks is backward.

In short, while Denver is careful to talk about “enhancements,” he thinks it falls short of addressing full, cumulative impacts.

Cumulative impacts are likely to be a focal point of federal permitting. While the Environmental Protection Agency is likely to have a voice, the vital 404 permit must come from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The parties to the new agreement have asked that their agreement be incorporated into the permit…

A far greater financial cost to Denver specified by the agreement is the agency’s commitment to forfeit up to 2,500 acre-feet annually of the city’s added 18,700 acre-foot take.

Based on the firm yield of the water and Denver’s rate for outside-city raw water to customers, this commitment is valued at $55 million.

Denver will make this water available for release into the creeks and rivers, to keep water temperatures colder and hence more hospitable to insects and fish. The water can also be used for flushing, to mimic what happens naturally during spring runoff, scouring river bottoms, to clear out the silt that clogs the spaces between rocks where mayflies and other insects live – and upon which fish feed…

A final environmental impact statement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected in late April. The federal agency can also impose conditions of its own making. They would be included in a record-of-decision, which is expected to be issued in late 2015.

A permit from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment is also needed. Boulder County insists it also has say-so over enlargement of Gross Reservoir, an assertion contested by Denver Water.

In addition, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must award a permit for revised hydroelectric generation at Gross.

At earliest, expansion of Gross could start in 2018 and be ready to capture spring runoff in 2022…

The agreement represents a new wave of thinking about impacts of water diversions. The older way of thinking was demonstrated in the Colorado Big-Thompson project. Financed by the federal government, it gave the Western Slope a one-time package, Green Mountain Reservoir, between Kremmling and Silverthorne, to serve Western Slope needs, particularly the farmers near Grand Junction who need water for late-summer fruits and produce. The agreement did not cover a more recent problem seemingly caused by the diversion, algae that obscure the clarity of Grand Lake.

The most recent of of the new agreements since the 1990s provides more living, breathing elasticity. The foundation for the new agreement was announced in 2011 but not finalized until recently. Called the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, it sharply restricts Denver’s ability to develop new water sources on the Western Slope and also calls for Denver to provide both water and money to address problems in the Vail, Breckenridge and Winter Park areas.

Then, in 2012, came agreements addressing the ambitions by five cities along the northern Front Range to increase the take of spring flows at Windy Gap, similar to what Denver wants to do at the Moffat Tunnel.

The Windy Gap settlement introduced adaptive management, an idea gaining favor in management of rivers of the West for several decades. The essential idea of Learning by Doing, the program embraced for both Windy Gap and the Moffat projects, is that it’s impossible to know exactly what to do in advance…

“In the past, you’d build a project, do the required mitigation and move on. That’s no longer the case. Denver Water is committed to a new way of doing business – one that approaches water management in a way that is collaborative and as beneficial to West Slope interests as possible. The partnership we’ve created through Learning by Doing is permanent. Our commitment is t o work with Grand County, Trout Unlimited and all the partners in Learning by Doing in an ongoing manner permanently into the future.”

More Denver Water coverage here.

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