Water Education Colorado 2017 President’s Award Reception

The Denver Art Museum was the location for The Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s President’s Award Reception yesterday evening.

Eric Kuhn received the Dianne Hoppe Leadership Award and Drew Beckwith was honored as an Emerging Leader.

Each year when I attend this event I am struck by the camaraderie shown by the water folks here in Colorado. Water really does bring us together to find solutions, and at the end of the day we have so much to agree on. Water for Ag, water to drive the economy, water for the fish and bugs. It takes a great number of people to meet the water needs of the Headwaters State, collaboration is key, and this event helps us to connect.

Jim Lochhead introduced Eric Kuhn and detailed his accomplishments while leading the Colorado River District. The Colorado River Cooperative Agreement and the Windy Gap Firming agreement were at the top of the list. Lochhead also praised Mr. Kuhn as one of the two most influential persons in the Colorado River Basin along with Pat Mulroy.

Drew Beckwith

Eric Hecox told us about Drew Beckwith’s influence on the Statewide Water Supply Initiative. Eric credited Mr. Beckwith for poring over the workbooks, questioning assumptions, and advocating for conservation.

Drew is an accomplished water educator himself choosing video in the Drew in a Canoe series. He helped get the public on board with legislation passed in 2016 to legalize rain barrels.

People that install rain barrels are, “More connected to water,” he said.

This is always a great event to attend. Thanks Jayla, Caitlin, Jenny, and Stephanie.

“We’re kind of at the cliff right now in the Colorado River Basin” — Matt Rice

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

From Colorado Public Radio (Nathaniel Minor):

Colorado’s economy depends on water: where it is, where the people who need it live and work, who has rights to it. Fights over those needs are a core part of the state’s history, and they tend to follow a pattern. So in some ways, the fight over the Fraser River in Colorado’s Grand County is familiar.

Denver Water holds unused water rights on the river, which starts in the shadow of Berthoud Pass and courses down the western side of the Continental Divide past Winter Park, Fraser and Tabernash to join the Colorado River outside of Granby.

Workers pose for a photo in the Moffat Water Tunnel in this 1930 photo.
Workers pose for a photo in the Moffat Water Tunnel in this 1930 photo.

The agency, looking at the booming population and economy in Denver, now wants to exercise those rights. That means taking more water from the river, piping it under the Indian Peaks and sending it into Gross Reservoir near Boulder.

Some conservationists and environmental groups are crying foul, saying that the river has already been overtaxed (about 60 percent of its existing flow is already diverted to slake Denver’s growing thirst) and it’s time to let the river alone.

But the fight’s pattern is taking some unfamiliar twists and turns. Influential groups like Trout Unlimited and American Rivers, who’ve historically fought diversion projects, support this one. In exchange, Denver Water says it will will help protect and enhance what’s left of the Fraser River.

That compromise has fractured traditional lines in Colorado’s conservation and environmental advocacy community, and fostered new alliances. While these organizations more or less agree on their ultimate goal — to protect and restore the environment — the strategies they use are very different. The big question that divides them: When to compromise?

Denver Water Extends An Olive Branch

stoptwoforksdampostcardfrontcirca1988

Decades ago, environmentalists were not at the top of list of Denver Water’s concerns when it would try to build dams and add capacity. In the 1980s, environmental groups pushed back on a huge proposed dam called Two Forks.

“[Denver Water] told us in so many words: ‘We’re the experts. You’re little environmentalists. Get out of the way,’ ” Dan Luecke, then head of Environmental Defense Fund’s Rocky Mountain office, told High Country News in 2000.

Then, in 1990, an EPA veto torpedoed the project at the last minute.

“That was really a turning point for our organization,” said Kevin Urie, a scientist who’s worked for Denver Water for nearly 30 years. “I think we realized with the veto of Two Forks that we needed to think about things differently.”

He believes that while Denver Water has long taken environmental impacts into consideration with its plans, it didn’t engage with local stakeholders — like conservation and environmental groups and Western Slope governments — until after the Two Forks project died.

There’s a demographic change underway as well: Many of the Denver metro area’s new residents also want to play in Western Slope rivers on the weekends. That has pushed Denver Water leadership to put a larger emphasis on environmental stewardship, Urie said.

But all those new residents still need water. Denver Water delivers water to about 1.4 million people across the metro, about double what it did some 60 years ago. Conservation efforts have kept overall demand relatively low in recent years. But with more people moving to Denver every day, Denver Water expects its demand to rise 37 percent by 2032 from 2002 levels.

The Fraser River is key to Denver Water’s plan to head off a shortfall in the relatively near future. The agency wants to divert half of the remaining flows from the Fraser and its tributaries through the Moffat Tunnel to Gross Reservoir near Boulder. (The proposed expansion of Gross has started its own fight, which CPR News’ Grace Hood chronicled last month.) It would be treated at the agency’s plant in Lakewood, and eventually delivered to customers across the metro.

The agency expects to have all of its necessary permits by 2018 and construction could begin in 2019 or 2020. But to get those permits, Denver Water has agreed to be part of a group that includes Grand County officials and environmentalists called “Learning by Doing.” These different players are often at odds when it comes to water issues.

Urie said Denver Water’s participation shows its desire to do right by the environment and local stakeholders. They’ve helped fund an ambitious project that will engineer the Fraser River’s flow on a nearly mile-long stretch between Fraser and Tabernash, squeezing it to make it narrower, deeper and colder — and thus healthier.

But is that what’s best for the river?

Urie thought about that question for a minute, and then chose his words carefully:

“Clearly the system would be better if we weren’t using the water resources for other uses. But that’s not the scenario we are dealing with,” Urie said.

Trout Unlimited Sees Opportunity

The Fraser River project’s biggest booster is Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited. For him personally, it’s a way to help a river that he’s lived near and played in for 45 years.
“I can’t talk about it without getting all emotional. My life’s been spent on this river,” he said.

He sees it as a chance to restore a part of the river popular with anglers called the Fraser Flats. Here, the brush-lined river levels out after tumbling through the pine forests of Berthoud Pass.

His playground is popular with others, too. Grand County is a short one- to two-hour drive from Denver. From fly fishing to alpine and nordic skiing to snowmobiling, it’s a tourist-based economy. And in Klancke’s eyes, all of that rests on the health of its water.

He’s watched the river dwindle and get warmer as more water has been pulled out of it. And that’s changed how his family has used it. When his children were young, they could stay in the river for only a minute or two.

“They’d come out and their lips would be purple and they’d be squealing,” Klancke said. “Now I throw my grandchildren in the river and they’re not in a hurry to get out. We spend up to an hour in a pool in the river.”

He’s watched this river that means so much to him get sicker and sicker; warm, shallow channels aren’t suitable for native fish and bugs. For years, he blamed the deteriorating environment on the Front Range and its water managers.

“I was a little radical because I urinated in diversion ditches. It’s about all I knew to do. I’ve matured quite a bit since then,” he said.

His turning point came when he got involved with Trout Unlimited.

“I loved their approach,” he said. “They were able to look at it in someone else’s shoes, which is what all mature people do. And then, move forward with opening up conversation.”

Such conversations are what led to the Fraser Flats project, Klancke said. When flows are low, like they were this fall, the river is shallow as it stretches across its native bed. The new channel will allow the river to recede and stay deeper — and cooler.

Essentially, that stretch of river will be turned into a creek. On its face, downsizing a river doesn’t sound like a big victory for environmentalists. But that’s not how Klancke looks at it. During peak flows in the spring, Klancke points out, the river will be nearly just as wild as it is now.

And moreover, Denver Water has to stay involved in the Learning by Doing group. So if environmental issues arise down the road, Klancke said the agency will be there to help solve them.

Is it a compromise? Yes, Klancke admits. But water managers own water rights in the upper Colorado Basin that they’ll use — with or without his blessing. The right to divert water for “beneficial uses” is enshrined in the Colorado Constitution.

“We have to face reality here,” Klancke said. “There is no more mighty Upper Colorado. There’s only keeping what’s left healthy.” [ed. emphasis mine]

WildEarth Guardians Stakes Out Moral High Ground

Like Klancke, Jen Pelz, wild river program director for WildEarth Guardians, has had her own evolution in thought toward environmental causes. Earlier in her career, she was a water lawyer in Denver who represented clients like the city of Pueblo that were taking water from Western Slope rivers.

But eventually she felt a pull toward environmental advocacy. Pelz credits that with childhood days spent on the banks of a tributary to the Rio Grande in New Mexico.

“It was kind of the place that I could go just be myself,” she said. “I developed a really strong connection to the river there.”

She was drawn to the confrontational, no-holds-barred approach used by WildEarth Guardians. The group is known for its headline-grabbing lawsuits. Most recently they sued the federal government over haze in Western Colorado and leases to coal mines.

The approach seems to be working, at least by WildEarth Guardian’s measure. The haze lawsuit ended in an agreement where a coal mine and coal-fired power plant in Nucla, south of Grand Junction, will shut down in the next six years. A power plant in Craig, Colorado will shut down one of its units too.

“We’re willing to not be liked by the general public, or by particular industries,” Pelz said. “And I think it takes that kind of moral integrity and just knowing where you stand on the issues, to really push the envelope.” [ed. emphasis mine]

Pelz is not interested in compromise on the Fraser River. She faults Trout Unlimited for starting negotiations at the wrong place. In her view, the baseline shouldn’t be where the river is now with about 60 percent of it being diverted. The conversation needs to start with the river at its natural flows, she said.

“The harm has already been done,” Pelz said.

If the Fraser River is going to be saved, she says, it’ll happen by letting more water back into the river — not by taking more out. As the climate warms, she says the river will need all the help it can get.

“Let’s start dealing with it now. Let’s have that hard conversation now, not 50 years from now when there’s no water left to have a conversation about,” she says.

Pelz says her organization, and another group called Save the Colorado, are considering litigation once final permits are approved. That could happen in 2018.

Such tactics doesn’t make Pelz a lot of friends. She said she’s been ostracized from her former clique of water lawyers. It’s hard for her to get meetings with government regulators.

WildEarth Guardians’ relationship with the greater environmental community is similarly strained. She said Denver Water is more willing to meet with environmentalists now because they’ve softened. And she’s upset with what Trout Unlimited has become in the eyes of regulators.

“Trout Unlimited has been deemed by Denver Water and the state of Colorado as being the environmental voice,” Pelz said. “They get invited to the table because they have this role in communities, which I don’t think is a bad thing, but they don’t necessarily represent all of the different interests in the environmental community.”

As a result, she said, groups like hers are being left out of the conversation.

“They don’t talk to us. They don’t ask us what we think. And I’ve called them. And I’ve had meetings with them. I’ve asked them what they think. And they’ve told me they don’t like our approach. And I understand that. But I think that it works both ways.”

Pelz said it can be hard to be out “towing the left line.” Everybody likes to be liked, she said. But she’s decided that over the long run, her methods are what will make a difference. To do anything else would be surrender.

“I don’t want to have to explain to my kids that I gave up the fight for this river that is the namesake of our state, the state they were born in, because I was willing to compromise,” she said. “We may not win, but damn we are going to try.”

American Rivers Finds Room To Maneuver

When Matt Rice, Colorado River basin director for American Rivers took the job a few years ago, he made the decision to put aside his dreams for what he really wanted. Instead, he focuses on what he thinks he can actually pull off.

“In a perfect world, I’d like to see all the wild rivers in this country and in this state flowing freely and filled with fish, doing what rivers should do,” Rice said. “It’s not realistic.”

But he acknowledges that groups like WildEarth Guardians can make his job easier at times. When Guardians files a lawsuit and makes a bunch of people mad, a group like his can step in and talk with state regulators and businesses. Guardians essentially provides cover for groups closer to the political center, he said.

“Their advocacy pushes everybody, not just conservation organizations, kind of further to the left. And I think that’s good,” Rice said.

But there’s a downside. Lawsuits and sharply worded press releases can sting, and are not easily forgotten. And Rice worries that aggressive tactics from far-left groups lead to skeptical parties like ranchers or Front Range water managers lumping all environmentalists together.

“That has the potential to undermine the progress we’re making,” he said.

Looking To The Future

A screenshot from the website for Colorado's Water Plan.
A screenshot from the website for Colorado’s Water Plan.

With the publication of last year’s Colorado Water Plan, a first for the state, officials are trying to turn the page on Colorado’s long fight over water. The plan, which officials describe as a roadmap to sustainability, stresses collaboration between competing interests and conservation of the increasingly precious resource.

“Now is the time to rethink how we can be more efficient,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said at the water plan’s introduction in November 2015.

Diverting more water should be the last-possible solution, Hickenlooper said. That’s welcome news to environmentalists like Matt Rice of American Rivers.

Rice said they are supportive of the Fraser River diversion plan for the same reasons Trout Unlimited is, though they aren’t part of the Learning by Doing group. But he hopes the Fraser diversion, and another major project in the works called Windy Gap, are the last trans-mountain diversion projects.

There just isn’t enough water on the Western Slope, he said. And if another one comes up, Rice said they’ll fight it with everything they have.

“We’re kind of at the cliff right now in the Colorado River Basin,” he said.

Collaboration and compromise will certainly be part of environmentalism’s future in Colorado. But as groups like WildEarth Guardians continue to find success in the courts, the advocacy ecosystem has room for other strategies too.

CWCB and city of Aspen oppose Maroon Creek Club water rights application

A map showing the location of four ponds on the Maroon Creek Club's golf course for which the club is seeking refill rights. The ponds are located between Maroon Creek and Buttermilk Mountain.
A map showing the location of four ponds on the Maroon Creek Club’s golf course for which the club is seeking refill rights. The ponds are located between Maroon Creek and Buttermilk Mountain.

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

ASPEN – The Colorado Water Conservation Board and the city of Aspen are objecting to an effort by the Maroon Creek Club to broaden a 1989 water right so it can refill four ponds on its private golf course as it sees fit.

Both the CWCB and the city have filed statements of opposition in the water court case, which was filed in Division 5 Water Court on Aug. 10.

Maroon Creek LLC has told the court it is not asking to expand the 1989 water right, but is instead seeking “determination of surface water rights” regarding potential refill rights for four ponds, arguing that the 1989 right includes a refill option.

The ponds are usually filled once a year with water diverted from Maroon and Willow creeks, via the Willow Creek Ditch and the Herrick Ditch under the club’s 1989 water right.

But both the state and the city are concerned that in seeking such a determination, the club will actually expand its water right, and do so despite an earlier settlement agreement that sets a cap on the amount of water that the ponds can store in a year.

The four ponds can hold between 4.7 acre-feet to 13.6 acre-feet of water and altogether can store 35.1 acre-feet.

Two of the ponds are on the Buttermilk Mountain side of Highway 82 and two are on the clubhouse, or north, side of the highway. The ponds were built in the 1990s when the club’s golf course was shaped by a fleet of earthmovers.

Overall flow into the ponds, per the club’s 1989 water right decree, is not to exceed 4 cubic feet per second at any one time from the two irrigation ditches that feed them.

The Willow Creek Ditch can divert 10 cfs from Willow Creek, a tributary of Maroon Creek that enters at T-Lazy-7 Ranch. And the Herrick Ditch can divert 60.86 cfs from Maroon Creek, which is a tributary of the Roaring Fork River.

Maroon Creek LLC concedes the original decree is silent as to refill rights, but points to an amended 
application from the 1989 case that says “the reservoirs will be filled and refilled, in priority, as needed.”

“The explicit reference to reservoir refill indicates the original applicant’s intent to alter the presumptive one-fill rule with respect to the reservoirs,” states the “application for a determination” from Maroon Creek LLC. “Further, the reservoirs are on-ditch structures and are part of the greater Maroon Creek Club golf course. Keeping the reservoirs full through refill is ‘consistent with and implicit in the normal operation’ of key golf course ponds, which provides further evidence that reservoir refill was intended to be a part of the final decree in the original case.”

Attorneys with Garfield and Hecht in Glenwood Springs prepared the water court filing. And Andrew Hecht, a founder of and a partner in Garfield and Hecht in Aspen, is the manager of Maroon Creek LLC.

Looking over the Maroon Creek Club golf course from Tiehack on Dec. 5, 2016. One of four ponds on the course is visible, barely, in the foreground.
Looking over the Maroon Creek Club golf course from Tiehack on Dec. 5, 2016. One of four ponds on the course is visible, barely, in the foreground.

City and state file statements

The Colorado Water Conservation Board, which owns instream flow rights in Maroon Creek and the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers, filed a detailed statement of opposition in the case on Oct. 27.

“The principle that reservoirs are limited to one fill per year is well-established in Colorado water law,” states a filing from the CWCB, prepared by attorneys general for the state of Colorado. “Therefore, absent specific language in a decree to the contrary, a decreed right to fill a reservoir is limited to a single filing per year.”

The CWCB argues that the 1989 water rights held by the Maroon Creek Club were the result of a stipulated agreement in the water court case that created the rights, and as such are explicitly limited to a single fill of each of the four reservoirs.

“The decree unambiguously awards a single fill,” the CWCB says.

And addressing any potential decision to the contrary, the CWCB told the court it “should reject an interpretation which is contrary to the long-accepted single-fill rule.”

The CWCB holds instream flow rights on Maroon Creek and on the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers.

Water attorneys for the city of Aspen also filed a statement of opposition in the case.

“Aspen owns numerous water rights decreed for diversion from Maroon Creek and the Roaring Fork River and its tributaries, including certain water rights that Applicant [Maroon Creek LLC] has contracted for use on the property that is the subject of this application, which may be injured by the requested determination of surface water rights,” the city told the court.

As such the city says Maroon Creek LLC “must prove that the request for determination of surface water rights does not create a new water right or expand the decreed amount of use of the water rights” from the 1989 decree.

A status conference in the case is set for Dec. 22.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News, and Coyote Gulch are collaborating on coverage of water and rivers. The Daily News published this story on Monday, Dec. 6, 2016.

#ColoradoRiver: Moffat Collection System Project update #COriver

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

From The Wall Street Journal (Jim Carlton):

Next year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to decide whether to issue a permit to triple the capacity of Gross Reservoir in the Rocky Mountain foothills, with additional shipments of about 18,000 acre feet of water a year from the Colorado River watershed. An acre foot is enough water to meet the annual needs of an average family of five.

That is one of the last regulatory barriers for utility Denver Water’s $380 million project, for which district officials say they hope to break ground in 2019 to help ensure local water supplies.

“We have an obligation to supply water,” said Jeff Martin, Denver Water’s manager of the project, as he stood recently atop a 340-foot concrete dam that is to be raised by 131 feet under the plan. “It’s not an option to not have water.”

[…]

The Corps of Engineers is expected to decide next year on a proposed new “Windy Gap” project in Colorado, which would divert up to another 30,000 acre feet a year to the Front Range, the heavily populated area where the Rocky Mountains rise up from the plains.

In addition, more than 200,000 acre feet would be diverted for proposed projects in Utah and Wyoming…

Water officials in California and other lower basin states say they aren’t overly concerned about more diversions upstream, because a 1922 compact requires the upper basin states to deliver them about 7.5 million acre feet a year, or one half the river flow set aside for human use north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Much of that water is stockpiled in Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border.

With the Colorado running much lower than when the compact was signed, water experts say there is less water to divert.

“So long as their development doesn’t impinge on their release to us, that is their business,” said Chuck Cullom, a program manager at the Central Arizona Project in Phoenix, which pulls from the river and stands to lose a fifth of its deliveries if a shortage is declared on the Colorado. “If it falls below that, then they would have to figure out how to manage their demand.”

Don Ostler, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, which oversees use of the river in the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, agreed that new diversions increase the risk of shortages.

“The more you develop, the more a severe drought can affect you,” said Mr. Ostler. “But we are able to live with a certain amount of shortage.”

In Denver, water officials don’t feel they have much choice but to seek more Colorado water.

In 2002, tons of sediment from a forest fire clogged one of Denver Water’s reservoirs during a drought. “We came close to running out of water in the northern end of our system,” said Jim Lochhead, chief executive officer of Denver Water, a utility that serves 1.4 million people.

That crisis helped prompt the district in 2003 to undertake the Gross Reservoir expansion, which would store more water from an existing tunnel that transfers Colorado River water from the west side of the Continental Divide.

Denver officials pledged to only take the water in wet years and release more into streams when it is dry—measures that drew praise from some conservationists…

Gov. John Hickenlooper in July gave the state’s approval, calling the dam’s expansion vital. “The state’s responsibility is to ensure we do the right thing for Colorado’s future,” the Democratic governor said at the time, “and this project is vital infrastructure for our economy and the environment.”

The dam that forms Gross Reservoir, located in the mountains west of Boulder. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The dam that forms Gross Reservoir, located in the mountains west of Boulder. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

#ColoradoRiver: Doing more with less water — Allen Best #COriver

From Aspen Journalism (Allen Best) via The Aspen Daily News:

Denver Water implements ‘Learning By Doing’ program in the high country

A decade ago, Kirk Klancke had hard, cold feelings about Denver Water. A stonemason for 35 years who moved to the Fraser Valley in 1971, he was passionate about the outdoors, particularly fly-fishing, and was outraged by depleted flows of the Fraser River and tributary creeks below a network of transmountain diversions.

Listening to Denver Water’s plans to step up diversions from these Colorado River tributaries, Klancke would seethe.

Today, Klancke almost gushes with compliments.

“Denver has been a treat to work with,” Klancke said one day in August at his home near Tabernash, located eight miles from the Winter Park ski area.

Denver Water still intends to divert more spring runoff. But what has won Klancke’s support is the utility’s commitment to an adaptive management program called Learning By Doing.

Part of the program includes about 30 people conferring weekly to address water issues in the upper Colorado River basin upstream from Kremmling, where up to 80 percent of the water may soon be diverted to the arid side of Colorado along the Front Range.

The conference call is modeled on a similar weekly call used to coordinate water deliveries, including from Ruedi Reservoir, to protect endangered fish in the Colorado River in the Grand Junction area.

During those calls, information is exchanged by water managers, and sufficient deliveries are usually ascertained. And decisions are made by consensus.

So far in the Learning By Doing effort, Denver Water has shown a willingness to juggle its diversions in response to conditions on the once-pristine streams in Grand County.

For example, in late July, Klancke noted warm water and dying fish in Ranch Creek, a tributary of the Fraser River. He told Denver Water about the low flows, but he didn’t really expect a response. To his surprise, utility officials offered to rejigger its diversions to make the flows in Ranch Creek last longer.

“It really helped Ranch Creek a lot,” says Klancke, the president of the Colorado River headwaters chapter of Trout Unlimited.

Learning By Doing is partly about manipulating diversions in the most environmentally friendly way possible, Klancke says. In the past, that wasn’t a concern “because they have just been operated like plumbing.”

The program is now gaining some notice in other headwater valleys, including the Roaring Fork, which is also substantially dewatered by transmountain diversions built in the 1930s and 1960s.

Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards, who has focused for years on water issues, says Learning By Doing “clearly is a sound concept, modifying approaches based on science and data feedback. But we’re not sure we’ve seen enough actual implementation to judge whether it’s a valid tool.”

As you go

Learning By Doing is like a river trip without a precise itinerary. It acknowledges broad impacts to water-dependent ecosystems from Denver Water’s existing transmountain diversions and those of others. However, it doesn’t presume to know exactly how to lessen the impacts of existing diversions, let alone impacts of new ones.

The Moffat Firming project, which sparked the Learning by Doing effort, is being proposed by Denver Water. The nearby Windy Gap Firming project, on the main stem of the Colorado River below Granby, is a proposal from Northern Water. Both projects are part of Learning By Doing, although Northern is not a signatory to the underlying agreement for the program, the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement.

Both firming, or expansion, projects were conceived many years ago, but they were pushed forward after the 2002 drought. The drought crystalized Denver Water’s worries that it couldn’t supply enough water to its northern service area.

As such, Denver Water has proposed to divert more water from tributaries of the Colorado River and send it through its existing Moffat Tunnel system to an expanded Gross Reservoir, which is in the mountains southwest of Boulder.

The two big transmountain diversion systems in Grand County managed by Denver Water and Northern Water, plus several smaller ones, have annually removed an average of 67 percent of the water in the Colorado River below Windy Gap, according to the final environmental impact statement on the Windy Gap firming project.

The two proposed expanded diversions would bump that up to a combined 80 percent. By comparison, about 40 percent of water in the upper Roaring Fork and Fryingpan headwaters goes east, not west. That’s significant, but the upper Colorado River has been hit even harder.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the final decision-maker on both the expanded Moffat and Windy Gap diversions, now expects to issue decisions on the proposals in 2017.

The political landscape

The agreement that yielded Learning By Doing is grounded in political realities.
Denver Water needed Western Slope support to get more water. But to get it, the utility had to acknowledge a moral responsibility to address the impacts of existing diversions. That responsibility is now reflected in a legal agreement.

Denver Water initially submitted models about the effects of its proposed increased diversions. Trout Unlimited and other environmental groups were skeptical.

“A lot of water has been taken out of these rivers,” says Mely Whiting, an attorney for Trout Unlimited. “We were not convinced any model was going to be able to predict what would happen [with increased diversions] or what will happen with climate change.”

The message to Denver Water, she says, was “if you want more water, you have to fix problems we already have, and you have to make sure we don’t have more problems. That’s what we believe Learning By Doing is all about.”

Will the Colorado River actually end up being better off after the diversions?

“I think so,” Whiting says. “That’s the goal. That’s what we’re shooting for.”

But the upper Colorado River basin may never be as pristine as it once was.

“The goal is not to make it natural,” says Whiting. Instead, Learning By Doing aims to “make it better.”

Other environmental advocates reject this reasoning.

“Grand County got bad legal advice,” says Gary Wockner, executive director of Fort Collins-based Save the Colorado. “The river is already drained and depleted, and climate change is just going to make it worse. When you’re heading for a cliff in your car, the first thing to do is take your foot off the accelerator.”

Water conservation, Wockner contends, “is always cheaper, easier and faster than trying to build a massive new dam, as is buying and sharing water with farmers.”

Trout Unlimited sees things differently.

“We have said ‘yes, let’s conserve,’ and we do everything we can to really engage in pushing forward conservation,” Whiting said. “But we also need to figure out how to best protect the river with its projects moving forward.”

Might the parties that divert water from the Roaring Fork River watershed, which include Colorado Springs, Aurora and Pueblo, as well as irrigators in the Arkansas River Valley, ever feel a moral obligation to address the impacts of their diversions?

Chris Woodka, a former water reporter and the new issues management coordinator for the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District in Pueblo,
was at least willing to consider the question last week.

Southeastern manages the Fry-Ark project, which diverts water from Hunter Creek and a string of tributaries in the upper Fryingpan River basin.

“We’re probably not going to suggest anything that would take less water,” Woodka says. “But if we are asked to do something, we would certainly look at it. But our primary obligation is to bring supplemental water to the Arkansas basin.”

And an important factor for the Roaring Fork watershed to consider may be this: Learning By Doing is the result of a proposal to increase transmountain diversions and is not simply born of a desire to better manage the streams already depleted by them.

Improving relations

Denver Water, the Western Slope, and environmental groups have long had an adversarial relationship.

And when the utility initiated the federal review process in 2003 for expansion of its transmountain diversions through the Moffat Tunnel, Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District in Glenwood Springs, sent a proposed “global settlement” to Denver Water.

Denver Water rejected the specific proposal, but not the idea and submitted a counter-proposal in what then became an extended negotiation.

Soon, headwaters counties — especially Grand, Summit, and Eagle — came to agree that there had to be a global agreement among the affected counties in response to Denver Water’s proposal. Mediated negotiations began in 2007 involving 43 parties, most of them located on the Western Slope.

A key figure representing Grand County in the process was Lurline Underbrink Curran, a county native who became a planner and then the Grand County manager, a position she recently stepped down from.

Working with Denver Water, Curran decided, could yield more benefits than a courtroom brawl. But developing trusting relationships took time.

Curran, known for being plain-spoken and direct, credits the directors that Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed to the Denver Water board when he was mayor of Denver. She said they were able to acknowledge an important truth.

They were “willing to step back and go, ‘Well, we have had a huge impact and if at all possible we need to improve the area that we take the water from,’” she said.

Denver Water, in turn, shared modeling studies with Grand County after securing a promise that the models wouldn’t be used against it legally.

‘A really big deal’

Grand County also commissioned its own expensive stream management plan that brought science to the argument.
Paul Daukas, environmental planning manager for Denver Water, was impressed by that plan.

“It givers them the science, so they can frame their needs and wants in a scientific way,” he said. “That plan became the foundation for Learning By Doing.”

Learning By Doing is included in the 2013 Colorado River Water Cooperative
Agreement, the result of the long negotiating process with Denver Water.
And Curran says Learning By Doing puts Grand County, with its multiple tasks, on par with Denver Water, an agency with a singular focus.

“That is a really big deal,” Curran says.

Denver Water and the Windy Gap sponsors aren’t legally required to participate in Learning By Doing until they get all their federal permits.

Nonetheless, in 2011, they joined the state, Grand County and other partners to begin to explore how to do more for rivers with less water.

Diminished flows distress the web of life found in rivers. Macroinvertebrates — bugs — live in the gaps between rocks in rivers. Reduced flow means less velocity, and sediments are not swept from between the rocks. Less room for bugs means fewer of them, and fewer bugs means fewer fish.

Klancke, the avid fly-fisherman, can point to reaches of river in Grand County where President Dwight Eisenhower snagged big trout during summer vacations in the 1950s.

But now he can also point to segments of the Fraser River where summer flows, depleted by diversions, are too shallow for the width of the channel, resulting in water dangerously warm for fish and the bugs they depend upon.

“They heat up in ways they never did before,” says Klancke of the tributaries in Grand County. “Seventy degrees is the limit trout can withstand.”

One recent response has been to narrow a section of the Fraser River’s channel for nine-tenths of a mile and add riffles and pools. The ongoing Fraser Flats project will cost $201,000, with various parties, including a private landowner, chipping in.

Denver Water’s portion of the Fraser Flats project is only $50,000, part of $2 million earmarked for aquatic habitat improvements under the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement. The agreement says that Denver Water will provide $11 million to Grand County in all.

That agreement also obligates the utility to bypass 1,000 acre-feet that it could divert. The water is to be used for environmental purposes in the Fraser Valley.
After the work is done at Fraser Flats next year, stream temperatures and other indicators will be monitored for several years.

The procedure, explains Denver Water’s Daukus, is to see what benefit has occurred, “so that when we go to the next project, we can see what has worked and what won’t work.”

But Wockner of Save the Colorado thinks Grand County settled for a “terrible deal.”

“The two dam and diversion projects would take over a billion dollars of water over to the Front Range,” he says, referring to the Moffat and Windy Gap firming projects.

“Grand County settled for about one percent of that in mitigation costs, which is a fleecing of money as well as water.”

As for the “channel enhancement” at Fraser Flats, he sees only a narrowed irrigation ditch.

“The Fraser and Colorado rivers need more water, not less,” Wockner says.

Still, proponents say Learning By Doing provides a model. They say it requires commitment by people to be stewards of rivers in their backyards. It requires mechanisms for addressing problems. It requires cooperation among diverse partners. And it requires compromise.

Denver Water’s most important change, says Klancke, may be a new focus. Instead of a singular focus on delivering water to customers it may now have a broader focus that includes maintaining the health of the basin of origin, he says.

“That’s the culture they’re changing,” he said. “I won’t say it’s successful until the scientists say it’s healthier than it used to be. But we’re headed in the right direction.”
Richards, of Pitkin County, is still not sure Learning By Doing has sufficient teeth to compel change.

“It will depend,” Richards said, “on whether what is learned actually ends up changing what the water diverters do.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

#Colorado, #Wyoming Move Forward with #ColoradoRiver Diversions — Public News Service #COriver

Fontenelle Reservoir and Dam, at Green River. Kemmerer, WY - USA March 12, 2016. Photo credit ruimc77 via Flickr.
Fontenelle Reservoir and Dam, at Green River. Kemmerer, WY – USA March 12, 2016. Photo credit ruimc77 via Flickr.

From The Public News Service:

Wyoming has moved one step closer to getting more water for ranching, agriculture and industrial development.

The U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources has advanced a bill that would allow the state to take an additional 125,000 acre-feet of water from the Green River at the Fontenelle Dam…

State officials say expanding the Fontenelle is necessary for farmers and ranchers who need a reliable water supply to keep crops and livestock healthy.

They feel the measure would also be an economic incentive for new businesses to grow and create jobs in southwestern Wyoming…

[Gary Wockner] notes Wyoming isn’t the only state trying to get more water from a shrinking source.

He points to a proposal by Denver Water to expand the Gross Dam that would remove an additional 5 billion gallons annually from the Colorado.

While upper-basin states may technically have rights to the water, Wockner says the challenges of a changing climate and 16 years of drought can’t be ignored.

The dam that forms Gross Reservoir, located in the mountains west of Boulder. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The dam that forms Gross Reservoir, located in the mountains west of Boulder. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

#ColoradoRiver: “Killing the #Colorado” spotlights new solutions — American Rivers #COriver

killingthecoloradotrailerscreenshot

From American Rivers (Sinjin Eberle):

I have noticed a lot of chatter lately about the situation at Lake Mead. Dramatic overuse, prolonged drought, and the effects of increased temperatures have led to a historically low volume of water stored in the largest reservoir on the Colorado River. One of the most critical components of water in the west is less than 40% full. Yet while some people scramble for a quick fix or point fingers, others see the long game and note the optimism that working together for smart, sustainable solutions can bring. There is hope, there is a roadmap, and together we have the knowledge, skill, and foresight to make it happen.

Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam December 2015 via Greg Hobbs.
Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam December 2015 via Greg Hobbs.

The Discovery Channel recently produced a new documentary, Killing the Colorado, a made-for-TV version of the lengthy ProPublica series of the same name. The show is excellent, comprehensive, and features a number of voices that you may not expect to be featured in a film about the environment. Imperial valley agricultural producers, water managers, a red-state Senator and a blue-state Governor – all identifying problems facing the basin, and most putting forth an optimistic view that a human-caused predicament can be solved with human-inspired ingenuity.

One quote in particular is poignant – there is a scene with Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper in his office flipping through a binder full of historic water compacts. Upon his observance of the generations of water agreements, he remarks “The thing you realize when you go through these [water] compacts, is that everyone is in this together.” Given the situation facing Lake Mead, a growing chorus of voices around Lake Powell, the birth of the Colorado Water Plan, and a recognition that heathy rivers support healthy agriculture and sustainable economies, we truly are all rowing the same boat together in the Colorado Basin.

Lake Powell via Aspen Journalism
Lake Powell via Aspen Journalism

But, how can Lake Mead affect Colorado from a thousand miles downstream? Well, due to the Colorado River Compact of 1922, headwaters states like Colorado must send a certain amount of water to the Southwestern states of Arizona, Nevada, and California – it’s the law of the river, and the law of the land. And since when the Compact was developed, California was a fast growing destination, it has priority and can “call” for water if needed. For years, California has had the luxury to get much of the surplus of water that Colorado and Wyoming have sent downstream to be stored in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. But now with prolonged drought, a fast-growing population across the entire Southwest, and a substantial agricultural economy (especially in the Imperial Valley), the era of surplus water is over. As such, Lake Mead is directly connected to Colorado, whether we like it or not, and that connection is the Colorado River.

Killing the Colorado does a fantastic job over nearly an hour-and-a-half of highlighting a variety of colorful characters who have recognized that shortage and a lack of water will change everything in the future – that future is now. But while both the show and the written article are excellent at highlighting the situation, they don’t delve deeply into what I think is most important – that real solutions do exist, and we know how to implement them, it simply takes our collective will to get them moving. Solutions like urban and agricultural conservation and efficiency, like reuse and recycling, like innovative water banking and flexible management practices, like continuing the shift towards renewable energy (solar and wind don’t devour cooling water like natural gas and coal plants require). But while these efforts all seem daunting and out of an individual’s control, there are actions that each of us can take every day that together, make a huge difference. Like buying and installing your own rain barrel for your outside plants and flowers, like supporting your local farmer at the farmer’s market – small things that have a great impact, especially when we all do them together.

Solutions do exist, and as Arizona Senator Jeff Flake said “The drought over the past couple of years has awakened all of us to the future we have if we don’t do better planning. There are many things that are out of our control…Planning is so important. Conserving. Recharging. Water banking. Water markets. These are all important things that have to take place.

Let’s get started!

The Yampa River flows through the Carpenter Ranch. Photo courtesy of John Fielder from his new book, “Colorado’s Yampa River: Free Flowing & Wild from the Flat Tops to the Green.” -- via The Mountain Town News
The Yampa River flows through the Carpenter Ranch. Photo courtesy of John Fielder from his new book, “Colorado’s Yampa River: Free Flowing & Wild from the Flat Tops to the Green.” — via The Mountain Town News