#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

Fraser River: Union Pacific Railroad violating discharge permit?

westportalmoffattunnel

From the Sky-Hi Daily News (Lance Maggart):

The discharge is occurring at a location very near the Moffat Tunnel and is derived from a culvert located beneath a set of metal stairs that descend right to the banks of the Fraser.

The UPRR has a permit from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) officially allowing the discharge of the water, but correspondence between Grand County officials and representatives from the CDPHE indicates the current level of pollutants being released are not allowed under the existing permit.

In correspondence with state officials Grand County has stated the organic compounds found in the discharge are toxic and some are carcinogenic. Emails written by Grand County Water Quality Specialist Katherine Morris to officials from the CDPHE states, “the Railroad has classically discharged these organics, without disclosure to the state, in high concentration pulses which escape routine sampling. The existing and proposed permits do not currently include any organics, let alone include limitations for these.”

Emails sent by Morris to officials from the CDPHE on Wednesday Sept. 28 state, “I hope the CDPHE will have the opportunity to investigate this case further and address this specific source of contamination.” Officials have also sent photographs to the CDPHE of the point of discharge that show dark, black, almost opaque water flowing from the discharge culvert into the Fraser. The photos appear to have been taken on Sept. 14, 2016.

Notably, a letter sent on Sept. 19 by Morris to the State’s Clean Water Enforcement Unit, a division within the CDPHE, states, “The Railroad curtailed the polluted discharge by 5:00 pm on the same day that that we were notified of the pollution.”

Correspondence between Morris and CDPHE officials indicates the permit allowing the discharge of water into the Fraser by the UPRR has been in existence since 2007. Additional email correspondence between Morris and State water officials states, “UPRR has stated that this discharge is associated with annual maintenance activities, and the Railroad has declined to report the discharge as a spill. However, nothing in the permit indicates that pollution of this level is permitted, and it would seem to be a violation of their permit.”

A water treatment plant, to treat the water discharged into the Fraser by the UPRR, is currently under construction, according to a letter sent to the CDPHE by Grand County in late June regarding a draft permit for the UPRR’s Moffat Tunnel West Portal.

The letter goes on to state, “To the best of Grand County’s knowledge, there is and has been no treatment of this discharge prior to release to the Fraser River.” The letter also points out that state regulations state, “state water shall be free from substances attributable to human-caused point source or nonpoint source discharge in amounts, concentrations or combinations which are harmful to beneficial uses or toxic to humans, animals, plants or aquatic life.”

The letter goes on to state that the County, East Grand Water Quality Board and the Town of Winter Park conducted sediment and aqueous testing in Oct. 2015 but that such testing occurred too late after the August cleaning operations to, “indicate the presence of more than one volatile organic carbon (toluene) or significant concentrations of suspended or dissolved contaminants in the aqueous samples.” Samples were collected at sites 287 feet upstream from the discharge point and 2,138 feet downstream.

The letter does state the downstream samples, “indicate the presence of several semi-volatile organic carbons (SVOCs) and diesel range organics (DROs) that are either not present in the upstream samples (SVOCs), or are present at significantly higher concentrations downstream compared to upstream (DROs) indicating that their presence is a direct result of the tunnel discharge.” The letter noted the lab that tested the samples indicated the existing sediment matrix downstream from the discharge point was, “complex and likely to have a number of interferences.”

Fish in the Fraser River have struggled because there was too little water for the riparian area that had been created by natural flows. Segments have now been mechanically manipulated to be more narrow. Photo/Allen Best.
Fish in the Fraser River have struggled because there was too little water for the riparian area that had been created by natural flows. Segments have now been mechanically manipulated to be more narrow. Photo/Allen Best.

#ColoradoRiver: The Plan to Strengthen Denver’s Water Supply — 5280.com #COriver

Gross Dam enlargement concept graphic via Denver Water
Gross Dam enlargement concept graphic via Denver Water

From 5280.cm (Amy Thomson):

Considering the Denver region is growing by an average of 4,500 new residents per month, a large sector of the population likely doesn’t remember the catastrophic 2002 drought. The most severe water shortage since the Dust Bowl, snowpack and soil moisture were at all-time lows, and we remained in a dry period until 2006. Luckily, with water restrictions in place, we never actually ran out of water—we just got really close.

“We realized that we had an immediate need to correct a vulnerability in our system,” Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead says. That’s when Denver Water started planning the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project, and after more than a decade of negotiations, the project (which was recently endorsed by Gov. John Hickenlooper) is underway.

But will it be enough? The short answer is yes—as long as Denverites work on strengthening their water conservation practices. Lochhead was pleased to note that when a storm comes through the Mile High City, there is a noticeable drop in outdoor water use, because well-informed residents are turning off their sprinkler systems. Denver residents have managed to reduce water consumption by more than 20 percent in the last 15 years, even with a 15 percent increase in population, according to Lochhead.

The decrease is not enough to mitigate the risk of drought, however. As Colorado’s largest water utility, the Denver Water system is made up of two collection systems—the Northern and the South Platte—and they are incredibly imbalanced. About 80 percent of the water comes from the south system, leaving the north very vulnerable to low rainfall or wildfires. During the notable dry years of 2002 and 2013, clients in the north end were lucky their taps continued to flow.

“We were literally only one drought away from a major problem in our system,” Lochhead says, noting that as recently as 2013, the system was virtually out of water in the north-end.

Denver Water digs into Vasquez Canal Project — The Sky-Hi Daily News

The south portal of the Vasquez Tunnel is shown in this 1957 photo. Via Denver Water.
The south portal of the Vasquez Tunnel is shown in this 1957 photo. Via Denver Water.

From the Sky-Hi Daily News (Lance Maggart):

The Vasquez Canal Project is a multi-year multi-million dollar project that continues efforts by Denver Water to improve existing water diversion infrastructure. Work on the Vasquez Canal Project focuses on removing sections of the existing Vasquez Canal and replacing removed sections with a 114-inch diameter concrete reinforced pipe.

Work on the project has occurred in previous year with Denver Water replacing between 5,000 and 6,000 feet of the Vasquez Canal over the past two decades. Officials from Denver Water say they plan to replace about 2,000 feet of the Vasquez Canal in 2016, leaving roughly 15,000 feet to be replaced in the future.

Officials from Denver Water did not provide an overall projected cost on the project pointing out that, “funding allocation for this project is reassessed annually”. In previous year the project averaged around $750,000 per year in costs. Future projected cost estimates on the Vasquez Canal Project total between two to three million dollars annually.

Monies used for the project come directly from Denver Water which is funding operation, as it does all operational and capital projects, through water rate fees, bond sales, cash reserves, hydropower sales and system development charges for new services.

Work on the Vasquez Canal Project consists primarily of excavation and earth moving to facilitate the canal upgrade. “Crews will demolish the old concrete liner and covers, excavate the area and install the new 114-inch pipe, piece by piece,” stated Denver Water Communication Specialist Jimmy Luthye. Luthye explained Denver Water plans to, “work aggressively to complete this project in the next few years in an effort to replace aging infrastructure and improve the safety and strength of the entire water system.”

Ames Construction is the contractor of record for the project. For the past 20 years though, as previous sections of the Vasquez Canal have been replaced, employees of Denver Water performed the upgrade work. According to Denver Water this is the first year work on the project has been contracted out.

The Arapaho National Forest prepared an environmental assessment of the Vasquez Canal Project. All construction work on the project is being conducted entirely on National Forest System Lands. According to Denver Water that environmental assessment determined, “there would be no significant environmental impacts.” Officials from Denver Water went on to state, “They approved the project along with required best management practices, design criteria and monitoring designed to protect the area during construction.”

The Vasquez Canal is part of Denver Water’s historic water diversion network that brings mountain runoff to the Front Range and Denver Metro area. The original canal was completed in the late 1930s. According to Denver Water, information on the original construction of the canal is fairly limited but officials from the municipal water supplier stated, “we suspect that some of it (Vasquez Canal) was originally dug by hand because the canal had to be cut into the side of a steep mountain… making it difficult for machines to access.”

In the late 1950s Denver Water covered the originally open Vasquez Canal, effectively creating a tunnel. A drought during the early 1950s prompted the action, which was intended to mitigate evaporation as water traveled through the diversion system.

Water utilized by the Denver Water’s diversion system follows a zigzagging path of infrastructure as it descends from snowmelt in the high Rockies to homes along the Front Range.

Diversion structures in the Upper Williams Fork River send water through the Gumlick Tunnel, formerly known as the Jones Pass Tunnel, where the water passes under the Continental Divide. From there water travels through the Vasquez Tunnel, which brings the water back through to the other side of the Continental Divide, where it enters into Grand County and Vasquez Creek. The water is then diverted through the Moffat Tunnel back under the Continental Divide for a final time and into South Boulder Creek, feeding into Gross Reservoir, a major water storage reservoir for Denver Water.

Colorado transmountain diversions via the University of Colorado
Colorado transmountain diversions via the University of Colorado

#ColoradoRiver: “..in the Colorado Constitution, the Continental Divide doesn’t exist” — Jim Pokrandt

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

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

A proposal to divert Colorado River water to Denver recently has won the endorsement of Gov. John Hickenlooper and the approval of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

But Denver Water’s Gross Reservoir expansion project may be just as notable for its general lack of opposition west of the Continental Divide. That’s thanks to a wide-ranging agreement, effective in 2013, in which Denver Water obtained concessions including a promise that numerous Western Slope parties to the agreement wouldn’t oppose the expansion project. In return, Denver Water made a number of commitments to the Western Slope.

Now Western Slope interests are working on a similar agreement with Northern Water and others on what’s called the Windy Gap Firming Project, which would store Colorado River water in a proposed Boulder County reservoir.

These approaches represent a far cry from how the Western Slope used to respond to transmountain diversion proposals.

“This is the new paradigm. It’s not the old school. In the old school it was like … we’ll see you in court,” said Jim Pokrandt of the Colorado River District, a party to the 2013 Denver Water deal.

For Denver Water, what’s called the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement provided greater certainty for its customers through means such as resolving longtime disputes regarding West Slope water. For the Western Slope, the deal meant dozens of obligations by Denver Water, such as millions of dollars in monetary payments to various entities, protections of Colorado River flows and water quality, a commitment to further water conservation and reuse efforts by Denver Water customers, and a provision aimed at helping assure maintenance of historic flows in the Colorado River even when the Shoshone Power Plant in Glenwood Canyon is not operating. That hydroelectric plant has a senior right helping control flows in the river.

Another key point in that deal is a promise that Denver Water and its customers won’t try to further develop Colorado River water without agreement from the river district and affected counties.

The cooperative agreement has 18 signatories but more than 40 partners, primarily West Slope governments, water conservation and irrigation districts, and utilities. Among them are the Ute Water Conservancy District and multiple irrigation districts in Mesa County.

Pokrandt said the 2013 deal is a win-win for both sides of the Continental Divide.

“That said, yes, more water would be moving east” if the Gross Reservoir project proceeds, he said.

The project, also sometimes called the Moffat Collection System Project, would nearly triple the capacity of the Boulder County reservoir. Denver Water is targeting water in the Fraser River, a tributary of the Colorado.

“Right now there are some periods of time when Gross Reservoir is full at its current size and their water rights are in priority but they can’t take any more water,” Pokrandt said.

The project has an estimated cost of $380 million, and Denver Water hopes to obtain the remaining major permits by the end of next year. CDPHE in June certified that the project complied with state water quality standards, and Hickenlooper endorsed it last week.

“The state’s responsibility is to ensure we do the right thing for Colorado’s future, and this project is vital infrastructure for our economy and the environment,” Hickenlooper said in a news release. “The partnerships and collaboration between Denver Water, the West Slope and conservation organizations associated with this project are just what the Colorado Water Plan is all about.”

That recently adopted plan in some respects took its lead from the Denver Water/Western Slope deal in seeking to address the state’s future water needs in a cooperative rather than confrontational manner statewide.

Pokrandt conceded that not everyone loves the Gross Reservoir proposal…

Trout Unlimited takes a more positive view of the Gross Reservoir project, pointing to its inclusion of a “Learning by Doing” program requiring monitoring of the health of the Fraser River and adjusting operations as needed. The Gross Reservoir proposal envisions drawing water from the Western Slope in wetter years and seasons, but providing the Colorado River watershed with extra water during low flow periods and investing in restoration projects.

“Moreover, Denver Water has entered into partnerships on the Front Range to ensure that the project alleviates chronic low-flow problems in South Boulder Creek. Both sides of the Divide benefit,” David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited, said in a news release…

Denver Water Chief Executive Officer Jim Lochhead said in a news release, “The Denver metropolitan area is tied to the economic and environmental health of the rest of the state, and Denver Water is committed to undertake this project in a way that enhances Colorado’s values.”

Pokrandt said Western Slope water interests face the reality that under the state Constitution the right to appropriate water shall not be denied if the water can be put to beneficial use and a party can obtain the necessary financing and permitting.

“There’s not a legal stance to say no, so that’s why the river district was even formed in 1937, was to negotiate these things, because no is not an answer in the legal arena because of the Colorado Constitution,” he said.

When it comes to water rights, Pokrandt said, “in the Colorado Constitution, the Continental Divide doesn’t exist.”