CNHP Wetland Ecologists Joanna Lemly and Sarah Marshall hold a wetland soil core taken from Todd Gulch Fen at 10,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies. The dark, carbon-rich core is about 3 feet long. Living plants at its top provide thermal insulation, keeping the soil cold enough that decomposition by microbes is very slow. William Moomaw, Tufts University, CC BY-ND
San Creek in Aurora
Map of the Roaring Fork River watershed via the Roaring Fork Conservancy
Here’s the release from the Environmental Protection Agency (Lisa McClain-Vanderpool):
Colorado Natural Heritage Society and Colorado State University-Natural Heritage Program will provide invaluable resources to Roaring Fork and Aurora watershed stakeholders
EPA has awarded $575,333 in wetlands grants to two programs in Colorado to survey, assess, map and provide technological tools such as smart phone applications.
“The data these projects generate are important to understanding, protecting and restoring wetlands in the state of Colorado,” said Darcy O’Connor, Assistant Regional Administrator of the Office of Water Protection. “Supporting decision making with solid scientific data is the wise approach to wetlands protection.”
Colorado Natural Heritage Society was awarded $221,250 to survey and assess critical wetlands in the Roaring Fork watershed in western Colorado. This project proposes to conduct a prioritized survey and assessment for critical wetlands within the Roaring Fork Watershed. The primary goal is to provide stakeholders, including private landowners with scientifically valid data on the condition, rarity, location, acres, and types of wetlands within the watershed.
Colorado State University’s Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP) was awarded $221,250 for the 5th phase of CNHP’s wetlands database including vegetation classification, floristic quality assessment, a wetland restoration database and updates to the Colorado Wetlands Mobile App. The CNHP will revise Colorado’s wetland and riparian vegetation classification and floristic quality assessment, and create a Colorado wetland and stream restoration database.
The CNHP was also awarded $132,833 to assess critical urban wetlands in the city of Aurora, Colorado. CNHP will update the National Wetland Inventory mapping and conduct field-based wetland assessments in the greater Aurora area. Water quality data will also be collected at these sites. The goal is to create useful products for local land managers, land owners and community members.
EPA has awarded over $2.5 million in wetlands grant funding for 11 projects across EPA’s mountains and plains region of the West (Region 8). Healthy wetlands perform important ecological functions, such as feeding downstream waters, trapping floodwaters, recharging groundwater supplies, removing pollution, and providing habitat for fish and wildlife.
Wetlands Program Development Grants assist state, tribal, local government agencies, and interstate/intertribal entities in building programs that protect, manage, and restore wetlands and aquatic resources. States, tribes, and local wetlands programs are encouraged to develop wetlands program plans, which help create a roadmap for building capacity and achieving long-term environmental goals.
The $9 million project will replace an intake and diversion structure and install a fish passage and boat chute on what is considered the last non-navigable stretch of the river between Leadville and Cañon City, according to a Thursday news release from the local utility provider.
Once the project is completed, skilled whitewater boaters, including rafters and kayakers, will be able to traverse the span of river near Clear Creek Reservoir without portaging…
Aurora Water, [Colorado Springs Utilities] is also financing construction on the project, and grants from Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Colorado Water Conservation Board are providing about $1.2 million.
The stone diversion, south of Granite, was constructed in 1964 as the original intake for the Otero Pump Station a few miles north of Buena Vista. At the time, river recreation was not considered during the design process, said Brian McCormick, a senior project engineer for Colorado Springs Utilities.
“This project will bring this diversion and this site up to modern design standards, including the addition of facilities for recreational boating,” McCormick said.
“This is a real nice example of really balancing both the demands we place on the river for water supply and for recreation.”
The structure is now a backup intake for the pump station, which is served by water from nearby Twin Lakes, he said. It is part of the Homestake Project, a partnership between Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities to move water from west of the Continental Divide eastward to the two Front Range cities.
The project, slated for completion in November 2019, will affect about 400 feet of the river. Construction in the river is expected to begin after Labor Day weekend, McCormick said.
The fish passage, also known as a fish ladder, will allow brown and rainbow trout to swim upstream past the diversion when they spawn, he said.
The boat chute will be a channel on one side of the river made up of a series of drops and pools to get the boats safely past the structure, McCormick said.
Commercial outfitters raft the stretch now, but they must portage to get around the diversion, with its jagged concrete and exposed steel, said Rob White, park manager of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area.
The project will add “a nice stretch of whitewater possibilities” for adventure-seekers ready for rapids ranked Class III and above, White said.
Utilities and Aurora Water staff members have spent more than a decade developing the project. The Pueblo Board of Water Works is donating easements needed to build and maintain the diversion, according to the news release.
The AHRA Clear Creek North Recreation Site will be closed during the project, but the Clear Creek South Recreation Site will remain open, the release says.
Aurora’s futuristic recycled water project — Prairie Waters— is running at full-tilt for the first time in its eight-year history, a move designed to make the city’s water supplies last longer in the face of severe drought conditions.
“We’re pushing it as hard as we can,” said Greg Baker, a spokesman for Aurora Water.
In February, as mountain snows failed to accumulate, Baker said the city began mobilizing to ramp up plant operations, knowing its reservoirs would likely not fill this summer. “We were very worried.”
By April, Prairie Waters was running at full speed, generating 9.7 million gallons a day (MGD), up from 5.1 MGD last summer, a 90 percent increase in production.
“We could possibly push it to 10 MGD,” said Ann Malinaro, a chemist and treatment specialist with Prairie Waters, “but we consider 9.7 MGD full capacity.”
“Prairie Waters was huge, not just in terms of volume, but also because it’s really helped us advance as a state in accepting potable [drinkable] reused water,” Belanger said. “Historically, there has been a yuck factor. But Prairie Waters has helped folks understand how systems can be designed so they are safe and effective.” [Laura Belanger]
Twenty-five Colorado cities, including Denver, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins and Louisville, operate recycled water facilities, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, but that water is used primarily to water parks, golf courses and to help cool power plants, among other nonpotable, or non-drinkable, uses.
But Aurora, faced with fast-growth and a shortage of water, realized more than a decade ago that reusing its existing supplies and treating them to drinking water standards was the only way to ensure it could provide enough water for its citizens.
Completed in 2010, the Prairie Waters Project recaptures treated wastewater from the South Platte River and transports it back to Aurora through a series of underground wells and pipelines. As the water makes its 34-mile journey from a point near Brighton back to the metro area through subsurface sand and gravel formations, it undergoes several rounds of natural cleansing.
Once it reaches the Prairie Waters treatment facility near Aurora Reservoir, it runs through a series of high-tech purification processes using carbon filters, UV light and chlorine, among other chemicals. Then, before it is delivered to homes, the reused water is mixed with the city’s other supplies, which derive from relatively clean mountain snowmelt that is carried down from the mountains.
As a way to settle a 2009 state water court case led by Pitkin County and the Colorado River District, the Front Range city of Aurora has agreed to let as much as 1,000 acre-feet of water run down the upper Roaring Fork River each year instead of diverting the water under Independence Pass.
The pending settlement could mean that about 10 to 30 cubic feet per second of additional water could flow down the river through Aspen in summer and fall.
It’s an amount of water that Pitkin County Attorney John Ely said would be “visibly noticeable” and would help bolster flows in the often water-short stretch of the Roaring Fork between Difficult and Maroon creeks.
“It’s exciting,” Ely said. “It’s not very often you get to put water into the upper Roaring Fork. These opportunities are pretty limited, and I’m not sure if we’ll ever see another one.”
A June 13 memo from Ely on the agreement states that “the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board has long recognized this reach of the Roaring Fork as one of the most stressed reaches of the Roaring Fork” and that “the Roaring Fork Conservancy’s State of the Watershed report identifies the upper Roaring Fork just above Aspen and heading into town as being severely degraded.”
The Pitkin Board of County Commissioners is expected to approve the settlement in the form of an intergovernmental agreement with Aurora on Wednesday.
Aurora’s city council also is expected to approve the agreement, as is the Colorado River District board of directors at its July meeting. A Water Court judge has set a July 20 deadline for the parties to file the settlement.
Officials with Pitkin County and the Colorado River District see the deal with Aurora as a victory, especially as some estimates, according to Ely, place the value of water in Aurora at $50,000 an acre-foot, which makes the 1,000 acre-feet of water potentially worth $50 million.
The settlement is also of high value to officials at the Colorado River District, who led the efforts of the West Slope entities in the case.
“I think it’s a big deal,” said Peter Fleming, the general counsel for the Colorado River District, which represents 15 counties on the Western Slope. “I think it’s going to be a good deal for Pitkin County, the Roaring Fork River, and the West Slope as a whole. And frankly, I think it’s a pretty good deal for Aurora, as well.”
But Tom Simpson, a water resource supervisor with Aurora, said it’s a “bittersweet” deal for the growing Front Range city.
“We’ve worked hard on this agreement over the last year,” Simpson said. “It is bittersweet, but we are happy that we are finally there.”
The deal lets Aurora retain its current use of 2,416 acre-feet of water it diverts on average each year from the top of the Fryingpan River Basin, but Aurora also is giving up 1,000 acre-feet of water it now diverts from the top of the Roaring Fork River Basin.
Aurora also is agreeing to abide by operating protocols and future potential use of the senior water rights on the Colorado River now tied to the Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon. That agreement could limit the amount of additional water Aurora can divert in the future from the Colorado River Basin.
The provisions of the agreement relating to the Shoshone water right also include an acknowledgement that the senior water right might someday be changed to include an instream flow right rather than the water being diverted out of the river and sent to the hydropower plant.
“Aurora will not oppose an agreement between a West Slope entity or entities, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and any other entity entered for the purpose of adding instream flow as an additional use of the senior hydropower right,” the agreement states.
Simpson agreed the overall deal represented a “haircut” for Aurora’s water rights in the Colorado River Basin.
“Yes, we’re going to get the 2,416 acre-feet out of Busk, but we’re going to make these other deliveries on the Roaring Fork, and we might lose just a little bit of water on the Shoshone protocol,” he said. “It’s a haircut, absolutely.”
On the other hand, Simpson said “while this agreement is not perfect, we feel like it is a good agreement, and preserves some of our Busk-Ivanhoe water and lets us all move forward.”
Started in 2009
In December 2009, Aurora filed a water rights application in Division 2 Water Court in Pueblo to change the use of its water rights in the Busk-Ivanhoe transmountain diversion system in the Fryingpan River headwaters.
The system, built in the 1920s, gathers water from Ivanhoe, Pan, Lyle, and Hidden Lake creeks and diverts the water through the Ivanhoe Tunnel to Turquoise Reservoir near Leadville before it is sent to East Slope cities. The system was built to deliver water to irrigators in the lower Arkansas River basin.
The water rights to the system carry appropriation dates from 1921 to 1927, which makes them junior to the senior water rights on the Colorado River near Grand Junction known as the “Cameo call.”
The Pueblo Board of Water Works bought half of the Busk-Ivanhoe system in 1972, and Aurora gradually secured its half-ownership in the system between 1986 and 2001.
In its 2009 application, Aurora told the water court it wanted to change the use of its water in the Busk-Ivanhoe system from irrigation to municipal use.
However, it also conceded it had already been using the Busk-Ivanhoe water for municipal purposes in Aurora, even though its water-right decree limited the use of the water to irrigation in the lower Arkansas River valley. It also came to light that Aurora was first storing the water in Turquoise Reservoir without an explicit decreed right to do so.
That caught the attention of Pitkin County, the Colorado River District, a host of other Western Slope water interests, and the state engineer’s office, which administers water rights.
As Ely put it in a June 13 memo to the Pitkin County commissioners, “In 1987, Aurora began using Busk-Ivanhoe water for undecreed municipal and residential purposes in an undecreed area, the South Platte Valley, after storing the water in an undecreed manner in Aurora system reservoirs.”
Aurora’s stance was that since the water had been diverted under the Continental Divide, it didn’t matter how it used or stored the water, as it should make no difference to the West Slope. But an array of West Slope entities, including the Colorado River District, disagreed with Aurora’s position.
In July 2013 the Western Slope entities and the state took Aurora to a five-day trial in Div. 2 Water Court in Pueblo, arguing that Aurora should not get credit for its 22 years of undecreed water use and storage.
“It was always an issue of fact at trial as to how much water was in play because it depends on how you calculate the yield of the project,” Ely said.
In 2014, thought, the district court judge in Division 2 ruled in Aurora’s favor, and the West Slope interests then appealed to the state Supreme Court.
The appeal process prompted a host of entities on both sides of the Continental Divide to come forward and argue aspects of the case before the court. It also prompted a scolding of Aurora by former Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs over the use of undecreed water rights.
In 2016, the Colorado Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision, ruled in favor of the Western Slope, and remanded Aurora’s original change application back to the lower court.
“The Supreme Court wrote that notwithstanding the fact that the change application and original decree concerned developed transmountain water, water used for undecreed purposes cannot be included in a calculation for historic consumptive use and is therefore excluded from water available for change of use,” Ely wrote in his June 13 memo.
So, rather than going back to Water Court and continuing to fight over the potential size of the Busk-Ivanhoe rights, which the West Slope now saw as being between zero and well-less than 2,416 acre-feet, Aurora began negotiating in January 2017 with the Western Slope entities still in the case, which included Pitkin County, Eagle County, the Colorado River District, the Grand Valley Water Users Association, the Basalt Water Conservancy District, Eagle County, Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, and Ute Water Conservancy District.
Today, each of those entities is also a party to the intergovernmental agreement expected to be submitted to the water court in July, along with a proposed decree for Aurora’s Busk-Ivanhoe rights.
Ely said Pitkin County didn’t start out in the case with an eye on securing 1,000 acre-feet for the Roaring Fork, but did have a local interest in the operation of the Busk-Ivanhoe project.
“We weren’t doing it to obtain an end result, we were doing it because the [Busk-Ivanhoe] project is in our backyard and we felt it was the right thing to do,” Ely said. “And all the other dialogue developed after the trial and the Supreme Court decision.”
At the time of the 2016 Colorado Supreme Court decision, Pitkin County had spent $353,000 in legal and other fees in the case, using money brought in by a tax to fund the county’s Healthy River and Streams program, which includes litigation in water court.
Since then, Ely said the county had spent an additional $27,300 for hydrology and engineering work, but had not spent more on additional outside legal help, as he and Assistant County Attorney Laura Makar handled the settlement negotiations for the county.
Pan, or Fork?
For Pitkin County and other Western Slope entities, it made more sense to negotiate with Aurora for some of the water it owns in the Independence Pass-Twin Lakes system rather than the Busk-Ivanhoe system, as any water bypassed by the Busk-Ivanhoe system would be scooped up by the Fry-Ark Project, which sits below the Busk-Ivanhoe system in the upper Fryingpan valley and also diverts water to the East Slope.
Aurora owns 5 percent of the shares in the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., which operates the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System. Its share of the water diverted each year from the top of the Roaring Fork equals about 2,100 acre-feet a year, so the 1,000 acre-feet of water equals about half of Aurora’s water in the Twin Lakes company.
In the 10 years from 2007 through 2016, Twin Lakes Co. diverted a total of 485,762 acre-feet of water from the upper Roaring Fork River Basin through its diversion system, putting the 10-year average for that period at 48,567 acre feet. 2011 was the biggest year of diversions since 2007, with 67,463 acre-feet diverted, and 2015 was the lowest year since 2007, with 18,374 acre-feet diverted.
Colorado Springs owns 55 percent of the shares in Twin Lakes Co., Pueblo 23 percent, Pueblo West 12 percent, and Aurora 5 percent. There are also other minority shareholders, holding 5 percent of the shares, still using the water from the system for agriculture.
Twin Lakes is not a party to the intergovernmental agreement between Aurora and the West Slope entities, but it is willing to work with all involved to make the water deliveries as beneficial as possible for the Roaring Fork River.
Ely said Pitkin Country was grateful for the willingness of the Twin Lakes Co. to work with the county and the Colorado River District to release the water in a way that benefits the river, even if it means more work for the operators of the Independence Pass-Twin Lakes system.
According to Kevin Lusk, the president of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. and a senior engineer at Colorado Springs Utilities, the company is simply responding to the desires of a shareholder in the company, Aurora.
He also said it’s legal under a 1976 water-rights decree held by Twin Lakes to bypass water for use on the West Slope instead of diverting it under the Continental Divide.
“The decree allows for this type of operation and so really all we’re doing as a company is accommodating the request of one of our shareholders to do something that was contemplated and provided for in the decree,” Lusk said.
And as part of the agreement, representatives from Pitkin County, the Colorado River District, Aurora, and Twin Lakes will meet each year to agree on a delivery schedule for the water that describes the “desired rate, timing, amount, location and ultimate use of the water, as well as the operational needs and constraints” of the Independence Pass-Twin Lakes diversion system.
In a letter attached to the agreement laying out how Aurora and the Twin Lakes Co. plan to manage the releases, Aurora said it “would prefer the water to be delivered at times of the year and at locations that will provide the most benefit to the Roaring Fork River stream flow. Typically this will be in the second half of the summer, beginning July 15, through the fall season.”
And Pitkin County feels the same way, according to Ely.
“We would like it delivered later in the year when the flows of the river start to go down,” he said.
However, Lusk at Twin Lakes said if the West Slope entities wait too long in the season to bypass the water, it may not be there to bypass.
“I know that there is a great interest in saving a lot of this water and bypassing it at the end of the season,” Lusk said. “But it’s going to be a bit of a balancing act. You’ve got to take the water when it’s there, because if you don’t take advantage of it there won’t be any to release later.”
Lusk also said that if the West Slope really wanted to take full advantage of the water, it might consider building a reservoir above Aspen to store the water at peak runoff and then release it later in the season.
Flows on the Fork
According to a draft resolution to be voted on by the Pitkin County commissioners Wednesday, there were several factors that went into the county’s goal of acquiring 1,000 acre-feet per year of water for the upper Fork, including “the expected amount of yield for Aurora in the Busk-Ivanhoe system; existing in-basin and out-of-basin diversions from the Roaring Fork River between Independence Pass through the City of Aspen; potential future demand on the river; extent of existing conditional water rights; and the results of a stream analysis and channel measurement study.”
If the deal is approved, as soon as next year 700 acre-feet of Aurora’s water is expected to be captured briefly in the Independence Pass system, which includes dams on Lost Man Creek, the main stem of the Roaring Fork River, and on Grizzly Creek, and then released down either the Fork or Lincoln Creek toward Aspen.
Another 200 acre-feet of Aurora’s Twin Lakes water will be held in Grizzly Reservoir on Lincoln Creek, which holds 570 acre-feet of water. That water will then be released late in the year, after most transmountain diversions have stopped, to bolster late-season flows in the river.
“So it’s actually reservoir release of previously stored water, while the [700 acre-feet] is a true bypass of water that would have gone through the tunnel that day to the other side,” Lusk said. “It’s new for us. We typically don’t operate the reservoir that way. Typically we would run that reservoir quite a bit lower, just for safety-of-dam reasons. But this change in operation is going to be holding the reservoir up much fuller for a lot longer, and we just need to watch the behavior of the dam.”
Another 100 acre-feet of water could also eventually be left in the Roaring Fork each year after a complicated exchange-of-water arrangement is worked out with Aurora and other parties on the Fryingpan River, which brings the potential total water left in the Fork to 1,000 acre-feet.
There is also a drought contingency provision which will allow Aurora to bypass 100 acre-feet less than they would have under the deal if the water level in their system of reservoirs falls below 60 percent on April 1 in a given year. So in a dry year, that could bring additional flows in the Roaring Fork back to 900 acre feet.
The pending Busk-Ivanhoe settlement also includes a provision that allows the Basalt Water Conservancy District to store 50 acre-feet of water in Ivanhoe Reservoir, which holds 1,200 acre-feet of water and serves more as a forebay for the Ivanhoe Tunnel diversions than a storage reservoir.
And, in a provision to Aurora’s benefit, the West Slope entities, including Pitkin County, have agreed not to fight, at least on a wholesale basis, the permitting of two potential reservoirs that Aurora is working on, Wild Horse Reservoir in South Park and Box Creek Reservoir, which could hold between 20,000 and 60,000 acre-feet on private land on the south flank of Mt. Elbert.
“Any participation in the permitting processes by the West Slope Parties will not seek to prevent the project in its entirety and comments or requests may be raised only for the purpose of addressing water related impacts caused directly by either of the two above specified projects on the West Slope,” the draft agreement between Aurora and the West Slope says.
The concession from the West Slope is significant as Box Creek Reservoir will be able to store water from the West Slope.
The West Slope entities also agree not to oppose changes in diversion points tied to the Homestake transmountain diversion system in the Eagle River Basin, not to oppose Aurora’s efforts to repair the Ivanhoe Tunnel, which is also called the Carlton Tunnel. The tunnel was originally built as a railroad tunnel, and then used as a highway tunnel.
Finally, the parties to the deal have agreed, in what’s called a “diligence detente,” not to challenge in water court for 15 years a list of conditional water rights, held by both East Slope and West Slope entities, that are required to periodically file due-diligence applications with the state.
The list of conditional water rights includes rights held by Aurora tied to the Homestake project and rights by the Southeastern Water Conservancy District tied to the Fry-Ark Project. They also include rights held by the Colorado River District on a number of West Slope water projects, including the potential Iron Mountain Reservoir near Redcliff and the Wolcott Reservoir near Wolcott.
Notably, the agreement does not include provisions to legally shepherd the water from the Independence Pass-Twin Lakes system all the way to the confluence of Maroon Creek, so it’s possible that diverters on the river near Aspen, such as the Salvation Ditch, could pick up the water left in the river.
However, Ely said the county will seek cooperation from diverters on the river near Aspen.
“We’ve had some conversations with water users on this side of the hill, and we’ve had conversations with the Division 5 engineer’s office, and we’re hopeful that when the water is being bypassed and put in the river and there is an increase of flow, folks won’t take advantage of that and we’ll be able to get it down through Aspen,” Ely said. “And eventually, you know things will change, and we hope to have that water associated with its own water right, so we can call it further down, but that won’t be the case right away.”
An additional benefit to the deal, according to Ely, is that the management of the 1,000 acre-foot pool of water from Aurora may also lead to better management of a 3,000 acre-foot pool of water also available in the Independence Pass-Twin Lakes system.
That pool was created to mitigate the impacts to the Roaring Fork River from diversions by the Fry-Ark Project on Hunter, Midway, and No Name creeks, which drain into the Fork in central Aspen. And while Twin Lakes releases the water down the Roaring Fork, releases from the Fry-Ark Project replace the water in Twin Lakes Reservoir, where both transbasin diversion systems can send water.
For years, the water from the 3,000 acre-foot pool has been released at a rate of 3 cfs on a year-round basis and has not been timed to help bolster low-season flows. Now, given the greater cooperation over the management of the 1,000 acre-foot pool from Aurora, how the 3,000 acre-foot pool from Fry-Ark is managed may also change, to the benefit of the river.
Aspen Journalism is collaborating on the coverage of rivers and water with The Aspen Times. The Times ran a shorter version of this story on Tuesday, June 12, 2018.
For years, Castle Rock Water has made providing long term, renewable water a priority. Now, a major milestone has been reached and the first drops of WISE water are headed to Town. Join the celebration to help commemorate this accomplishment and take a look at what’s coming up next for water in Castle Rock.
The fun-filled family celebration will be from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Friday, June 8. Bring the kids, sunscreen and a great attitude to Gemstone Park, 6148 Sapphire Pointe Blvd., to join the festivities and celebrate the WISE water partnership.
After stakeholders officially cut the ribbon, the community is invited for a festival full of games, food trucks, bump soccer, bounce houses, a foam party, giant bubbles, water colors and more. Plus, get a chance to meet the Most Hydrated Man in Castle Rock.
The celebration will help mark more than 9 years of planning and $50 million in infrastructure to help ensure the community’s strong water future. When the WISE partnership was created, many communities in Colorado were faced with a drought. With limited, non-renewable resources, communities knew they needed to come up with a plan. Regional water providers saw the opportunity to partner in a solution and share in the expense to buy, transport and treat renewable water.
The WISE partnership is an arrangement between Denver Water, Aurora Water and 10 other south metro water providers to import renewable water. Castle Rock is the southernmost community partner.
Castle Rock Water finished the last piece of infrastructure – connecting a pipeline from Outter Marker Road to Ray Waterman Treatment Plant – in late 2017. The first drops of imported WISE water came to Town in late April.
One recent morning I boarded a bus headed for downtown Denver, sure I would miss the first session of the Colorado Communities Symposium: Advancing Clean Energy & Climate Preparedness but confident of soon seeing familiar faces at a familiar destination: the Hyatt Regency. I’ve been to conferences at the hotel across the street from the Colorado Convention Center a dozen times.
I was wrong. There were no familiar faces. An old e-mail explained why. The meeting was at the Hyatt Regency Denver Conference Center, which is in Aurora. I need to read my e-mails more carefully.
Several bus rides and hours later, I got to the hotel near the Anschutz Medical Campus in time to hear Gov. John Hickenlooper make some jokes.
I tell this story partly so you can laugh at my ineptitude. But it’s instructive in this way. It gave me cause to wonder why the familiar had been forsaken. One reason, I learned later, was that the environmental practices at the Aurora location were considered better than the downtown hotel. The parking garage, for example, had charging stations for electric cars.
But I got two of the three right on my own. One was that the suburban location came cheaper. Also, it was in the suburbs, not in Denver—and certainly not in Boulder.
This was a symbolic calculation. As one former state official told me, all of Colorado’s political battles are won or lost in the suburbs. Earlier in the weekend, I had attended an event in Lakewood at which Leslie Glustrom prepped people in how to submit testify before the Colorado Public Utiltiies Commission in line with her thinking. Her precise argument before the PUC here is less important than her observation that “one letter from (Denver suburb of) Westminster is worth 3,000 from Boulder).
This e-magazine from which this website posting was extracted, Mountain Town News, is for mountain towns, not Denver suburbs, but the story about this conference began in a mountain town about this time last year. Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron had been to Paris in late 2015, and he returned home with an idea and a zeal. He wanted to move the needle on climate change action in Colorado.
Aspen is already a member of a group called Colorado Communities for Climate Action, an advocacy group with many of the familiar suspects: Boulder, Fort Collins and Telluride, but also Vail and several other mountain towns and counties along with several Boulder suburbs. The group takes positions at the State Capitol. It is administered by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization.
The new group that came out of the meeting one snowy day last May in Aspen is called the Compact of Colorado Communities.
Broadening the tent
There were familiar suspects, but it was not strictly a meeting of mountain town people. There were a couple of Denver suburbs, even a city manager from a farm town. That farm town from a deeply red part of Colorado never has joined, I don’t think, but there was at least interest.
Aspen organized the conference but Daniel Kreeger, the Miami-based director of the Association of Climate Change Officers, was immediately the administrator.
Then, in July, Hickenlooper announced an executive order that put at least some meat on the bones of his soft-pedaled declarations about the need to address climate change. It provided some specific goals, even if many activists I talked to then seemed to think that Hickenlooper has failed to show true leadership relative to the risk of climate change.
It’s relevant to this story to note that when Hickenlooper made his announcement at Red Rocks Amphitheater, among those in attendance was Steve Hogan, the mayor of Aurora, Colorado’s third most populous city (Colorado Springs is second).
The new Colorado Compact got together with the state government to create the conference, which is to be an annual thing, as per the charter of the Colorado Compact. But the state has more resources than does the Colorado Compact.
As for Aurora as the site of the first conference, Taryn Finnessey, the lead person in the Hickenlooper administration on climate change, confirmed that Aurora’s suburban location was a careful calculation. Cost was the primary motivation, but there was also a message: this was just not a Denver-focused event.
Finnessey said that the state recognizes that action cannot solely be driven by gubernatorial executive orders. Towns, cities and counties under Colorado law have reserved authority, such as over building codes. There has to be conversation, Finnessey said.
The conference lineup of speakers and panelists was impressive: Hickenlooper and Jim Lochhead from Denver Water and many others. More impressive yet were those in-the-trenches people, such as the panel that talked about how to integrate carbon reduction into agriculture.
Did this event broaden the tent? Yes, it seems, if only modestly. Many of the faces were familiar, those people from places deeply concerned about climate change. Mountain towns were amply represented, suburbs somewhat less so. But I hear that the city manager of Craig, a coal town, was there, as was somebody from Grand Junction.
Nobody from Colorado Springs showed up, according to what I heard, and there were no cowboy hats that I noticed, no confusion with a American Farm Bureau gathering. (Not to be confused with the Farmers Union, which is much more accepting of climate science, I think).
Talk about other reasons
I asked one assistant city manager of a suburb between Denver and Boulder what it would take to get some of his purplish neighboring jurisdictions to such a conference.
“Don’t talk about climate change,” he said. “Talk about why doing this stuff makes sense for other reasons.”
In one of the sessions, I heard the same thing: get rid of the words “clean energy” and instead talk about resilience.
One individual, a county commissioner from Saguache County, in the San Luis Valley, one of the state’s poorest regions, said that economic vitality trumped concern about climate change. Understandably so.
But for Vail, as town manager Greg Clifton pointed out, the changing climate that already seems to be shortening winters and replacing snow with rain, is an economic threat, too.
It’s a conundrum that continues to perplex me: How do you address climate change while not talking about it? But yes, it’s true—for some people, climate change sours any potentially constructive conversation. The protocol for this conversation is complicated.
Has this tent in Colorado broadened? Yes, that was apparent at the conference. But it’s still a relatively small tent. And, as one county commissioner from the I-70 Corridor said to me, when do we get beyond talking to action?
That’s always the question coming out of call-to-action conferences. Will good come out of the hallway conversations, the bullet points of to-do actions for energy, transportation and other subject areas taped to the walls?
Chris Menges, a climate and sustainability analyst/planner for the city of Aspen, says the Compact of Colorado Communities offers members resources.
“The Compact is about giving member communities in Colorado the resources and capacity they need to do this beneficial work without being prescriptive about what the motivations should be and without being prescriptive about what exactly implementation should look like.”
In other words, he adds, the Compact provides the tools and resources to leverage the opportunities of the clean energy economy in each community in the way that makes most sense for them.
The curriculum offered by the Compact was developed by experts over several years to increase the core competencies of staff members of organizations belonging to the Compact. One of the next steps for the Compact will to begin rolling out this capacity-building approach to member communities.
Aspen, he added, helped launch the Compact, “but we never administered it. The members do, and we are one of more than 20 members.”
Finnessey says the action items are being assembled, with a report expected during the week or two. That summary should help identify the actions around energy, rural development, and economic vitality that state officials will prioritize for action during Hickenlooper’s final months in office. He is term-limited, a new governor to take office in January.
What has come out of this talking that Steve Skadron instituted a year ago except for more talking?
It’s hard for me to say, except to offer my hunch that yes, the needle is moving. Menges had the same intuitive sense about this conference devoted to the intersection of state and local government, private-sector utilities and NGOs.
Fast enough? I’m an optimist who reads all the pessimistic reports about climate change. What I heard encourages me.
As for the Aspen-Aurora link mentioned earlier, I am reminded of John Denver. He was and still is strongly associated with Aspen, his adopted home. But his funeral in 1997? It was in Aurora, where his mother was living.
Essentially, the facility would operate like an underground reservoir, and the city says it has its benefits. Permitting an underground storage facility isn’t as expensive as an above ground reservoir and capital costs are lower, according to city water officials. There are also fewer environmental impacts, and because the storage is underground the water supply doesn’t evaporate like it would aboveground.
The big challenge of underground facilities, such as the one Aurora and Castle Rock are looking into, called the Lost Creek Underground Storage Pilot Project, is engineering, said State Engineer Kevin Rein.
In the case of Lost Creek, there is already groundwater in the area. It’s in an “almost transient state,” Rein said. That means the water would eventually make its way to a river. Keeping stored water from also escaping to a river requires careful planning.
“It takes a lot of engineering and calculation,” Rein said.
But the project is completely doable, officials said. There is one underground storage facility that benefits the metro area, Centennial Water uses a system similar to what Aurora and Castle Rock are considering. That project serves Highland Ranch. For Denver, the city recharges aquifers. Rein said the rules that apply to those sites may look similar to the rules his agency is being charged with writing for underground storage facilities.
Aurora has ventured into similar storage projects before, but those facilities are used less for storage and more as a natural filter. The three underground facilities Aurora currently operates are part of the Prairie Waters project. Each is around 50-feet deep and as large as a football field.
Aurora City Council has approved an agreement to pay $50,000 to partially fund the Lost Creek Underground Storage Pilot Project, located northeast of the city in the Lost Creek basin. Castle Rock will pay $50,000 for the study too — which will survey the area, drilling bore holes to reaffirm the area is suitable for an underground storage facility.
The first phase of the Lost Creek project will look at data gathering. If all is successful in establishing a location for the facility, phase II will encompass feasibility, according to Alex Davis, Deputy Director for Water Resources in Aurora.
The feasibility side of project would address how obtainable the land is, what other data might be needed and who to collaborate on the project with.
This year the Colorado Legislature granted $200,000 for underground storage pilot studies. The joint effort between Aurora and Castle Rock is expected to cost $150,000, with the Colorado Water Conservation Board picking up a portion of the tab.
The pilot project’s first phase is expected to start this fall and take no longer than one year to complete. Aurora is working alongside Castle Rock, as the two have partnered on other water projects. Davis said the two have proven to be successful partners on water issues in the past, making this venture a no-brainer.
The 2016 State Water Plan identified 400,000 acre feet of water that needs storage by 2050. So it’s possible that underground storage facilities may become even more popular, Rein said.