Citing the success of Denver Water’s conservation efforts since it first issued its “purpose and need” statement for the project, and the fact that no service shortfall has yet materialized for its 1.4 million customers in the metro area, Boulder County Attorney Ben Pearlman said that based on prior environmental reviews, “Boulder County does not believe Denver Water has shown that the project’s purpose and need have been met and the FERC must deny Denver Water’s application to amend its permit.”
“We don’t think they have undertaken the duty they have (under federal environmental law) to analyze this problem thoroughly,” [Conrad] Lattes said…
Denver Water officials on Friday answered back by reasserting the project’s merits.
“The Gross Reservoir Expansion project represents an enormous amount of work, input and collaboration to ensure it is done in the most responsible way possible,” Jim Lochhead, Denver Water CEO/manager said in a statement. “And Denver Water will continue to develop noise, transportation and tree removal plans with input from stakeholders to minimize the impacts to Boulder County and its residents.”
At least seven major new reservoirs and water diversion projects are being planned in Colorado, which had a population of 5.6 million in 2017. Many would continue the controversial practice of diverting water across the Rocky Mountains from the state’s Western Slope, where the majority of Colorado’s precipitation falls, to its more arid Front Range, where people are flocking to Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, Longmont and increasingly sprawling suburbs.
The water projects have been inspired partly by the Colorado Water Plan, an effort by Governor John Hickenlooper to solve a projected water deficit of 560,000 acre-feet by 2050, or enough to serve more than 1 million households. The plan calls for 400,000 acre-feet of new water storage and an equal amount of water conservation.
The plan is only two years old. But critics say it has prioritized gray infrastructure – new dams, pipelines and pumps – over green projects like water conservation and sustainable land use…
The state water plan does not recommend any specific water development projects. But Hickenlooper has personally endorsed several of them. He also appointed all the voting members of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the entity that oversees the Water Plan and awards grants for water projects.
Greg Johnson, chief of water supply planning at the Water Conservation Board, said the state’s plan emphasizes conservation just as much as new water supply projects. But he said the latter may be more more pressing in some cases.
“Some of the bigger projects that are in permitting right now are helping meet really critical supply needs that a lot of those faster-growing northern Front Range suburbs have, where they’ve got new developments going up all over the place,” Johnson said. “They have maybe a 10- or 15-year horizon to get some of those things done.”
One of the water developments endorsed by the governor won a $90 million loan in 2017 from the Water Conservation Board – the largest loan in the board’s history. Known as the Windy Gap Firming Project, it proposes a new reservoir called the Chimney Hollow Reservoir near Longmont to store Colorado River water diverted through an existing tunnel under the Continental Divide.
The loan covers nearly one-fourth of total costs for the project, which is proposed by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
As its name implies, the project is intended to “firm up” existing Colorado River water rights held by a dozen Front Range cities. The cities already draw on these water rights, but can’t fully tap them in some years because of storage limitations. The new 90,000 acre-foot reservoir will solve this problem and allow them to divert the river almost every year.
The project would result in diverting 30,000 acre-feet more water out of the Colorado River every year than is currently diverted…
Other major projects in the works include the Moffat Collection System, a plan by Denver Water to expand Gross Reservoir to hold 77,000 acre-feet of additional diversions from Colorado River headwaters streams; and the White River Storage Project, a proposal for a new reservoir of up to 90,000 acre-feet in the northwest corner of the state, near the town of Rangely…
Greg Silkensen, a spokesman for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, said the Windy Gap project is vital to many fast-growing Front Range communities that have lower-priority water rights.
“The Colorado economy is just crazy. Everybody and their brother is moving here,” Silkensen said. “There is a great deal of environmental mitigation that will go forward if the project is built. There’s going to be a lot of benefit to the Upper Colorado River if it does go through.”
Those projects include stream habitat restoration in the Colorado River and water quality improvements in Grand Lake, part of the existing Western Slope diversion system.
A winter wonderland in Winter Park, Colorado, near the west portal of the Moffat Tunnel, which delivers water from the Fraser and Williams Fork River basins, under the Continental Divide and on to the Moffat Treatment Plant in Lakewood, Colorado. Photo credit: Denver Water. (Photo taken in winter of 2016-2017.)
The stretch of the Fraser River will be reconfigured to have a narrower, deeper stream channel to improve aquatic life.
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.
The meadow along the Fraser River, about 70 miles northwest of Denver, with Byers Peak in the background. 2007photo/Allen Best –
The plan includes environmental enhancements and protections to ensure the Fraser River will be better off with the Moffat Project than without it.
Fishing the Fraser River
Denver Water’s collection system via the USACE EIS
The Fraser Flats Habitat Project is a cooperative venture conducted by Learning By Doing, an amalgamation of local water stakeholders who several years ago formed a committee in an effort to increase cooperation and decrease litigation between Front Range water diverters, local governments and High Country conservation groups. The Fraser Flats Project is the group’s pilot project, restoring a roughly one-mile section of the Fraser River.
Work on the project, which was conducted on a section of the Fraser River between Fraser and Tabernash, wrapped up in late September and the members of Learning By Doing are, to put it mildly, thrilled with the success of the project.
“We are elated,” said Mely Whiting, legal counsel for Trout Unlimited. “This is amazing. The biomass [in the river] has more than tripled, just from last year, and only in the matter of a couple of weeks since the project was completed.”
Denver Water Environmental Scientist Jessica Alexander explained the intention of the project.
“To start, we wanted to improve the habitat of the river for fish and aquatic insects,” Alexander said. “We saw problems with the way the river channel looked and behaved before the project and we wanted to improve those things, to provide more habitat.”
Alexander went on to explain that the Fraser River channel was too wide and shallow to provide good habitat and resulted in high sedimentation in the river rocks that are essential to development of bug life, which in turn serves as base of the food web within the river. Additionally there was little large vegetation on the river banks at the project site, resulting in river bank erosion and higher stream temperatures due to lack of a shade canopy.
To fix these problems work on the project centered on a few key areas. Project organizers wanted to deepen and narrow the river’s main channel, allowing the water that does flow down the Fraser to flow deeper and faster, helping clear sediment out of river rocks. Additionally they planted roughly 2,500 willows and cottonwoods on the river’s banks, to address erosion and shade concerns.
The project got underway last fall as Learning By Doing secured permits for the project and conducted design work. In May this year about 150 local local and regional volunteers spent two days harvesting and planting willows and cottonwoods along the banks of the Fraser in the project area.
Over the summer and fall contracting firm Freestone Aquatics, specializing in aquatic habitat restoration, conducted the physical work of narrowing and deepening the river channel…
The total cost of the project was roughly $200,000. The cost was broken down between several stakeholders including the Colorado River District, Northern Water, Trout Unlimited, and more. Denver Water pitched in roughly $50,000 and the project received a Fishing is Fun grant from Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Moving forward Learning By Doing is looking at a few different projects in Grand County and is trying to decide which project it will tackle next.
For decades, the Fraser River in Colorado’s Grand County has turned into a trickle every fall as the snowmelt that powers the river dissipates. The low flows have led to warmer water temperatures and less wildlife.
That changed this year, at least along a short stretch of the Fraser. And it’s due to an unusual partnership that includes Denver Water, which diverts most of the river to the Front Range, and Trout Unlimited, which has fought for decades to protect it. The group, dubbed Learning by Doing, focused its efforts on nearly a mile of the river near Tabernash. Work wrapped up on the $200,000 project earlier this fall.
“I had man tears when I saw this for the first time,” said Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited. “It was very emotional to see the river look healthier than it has in the 47 years I’ve lived there.”
Now, instead of a wide shallow creek, the low-flow Fraser River drops into a narrow channel that allows to run deeper, faster and colder. That led to a nearly immediate rebound in the fish population, according to a preliminary assessment by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“We found about a four-fold increase in trout population,” said Jon Ewert, an aquatic biologist at CPW who surveyed the river both before and after the project was finished. “It was pretty exciting to see that.”
Ewert was cautious not to get too far ahead of his data. He plans to survey the fish population again next year to see if they reproduce like he hopes they will. But he says he’s very encouraged by what he’s seen so far.
Klancke credits cooperation by Denver Water, Trout Unlimited, Grand County and others for this initial success. Before his Trout Unlimited days, Klancke said he was “radical” in his opposition to the diversion of water to the Front Range. He even used to urinate in diversion ditches, he told me last year. He’s since changed his tactics.
“Working with the people who have impacts on your river is far more effective than trying to fight them, or just trying to stop them,” he said.
Here’s a guest column from Kirk Klancke that’s running in the Boulder Daily Camera:
As a long-time resident of Grand County, I’ve been disappointed by recent articles in the Camera about the Moffat Firming Project permit and especially about the west slope implications of the project. Coverage has been misleading in highlighting potential negative environmental impacts while ignoring the stream habitat improvements and flow benefits in the permit that will actually improve the health of the Upper Colorado River system.
It’s important for readers to get the total picture in weighing the environmental impacts of the project.
Trout Unlimited is also a group “dedicated to protecting and restoring the Colorado River” — and we’ve spent more than a decade closely following the proposed Moffat project and working to protect the Upper Colorado. Then, a couple years ago, TU helped negotiate a settlement with Denver Water and local stakeholders in Grand County that included tough permit requirements that we believe will best protect the Upper Colorado and Fraser Rivers.
It’s true that the Moffat project will increase total diversions from the Colorado headwaters. But the project will also provide significant help to rivers and streams currently impacted by transmountain diversions, including streams diverted to meet Boulder’s water supply (through the Windy Gap project). Under terms of their permit, Denver Water must undertake mitigation and enhancement measures that will actually improve the health of streams.
For instance, as part of its commitments, Denver Water will manage diversions to help provide needed flushing flows on the Fraser and its tributaries, complete habitat and native trout restoration work in the Williams Fork basin, and contribute funds toward projects like the Fraser Flats restoration project that is already underway to improve stream and riparian habitat.
Most significantly, Denver Water will participate in an ongoing adaptive management program called “Learning by Doing” through which Denver, Grand County, Trout Unlimited and other local stakeholders are cooperating to apply mitigation and enhancement resources, monitor river and watershed conditions and make adjustments to achieve the best results over time. These efforts were launched even before Denver received their federal approvals.
While my efforts have focused on Grand County, I know that Denver Water has looked for partnerships on the east slope as well. For example, as part of the project, they will provide 5,000 acre-feet of storage in the enlarged reservoir for Boulder and Lafayette to use in providing in-stream flows at critical times, to keep downstream stretches of South Boulder Creek healthy and flowing.
Denver Water’s plans to enlarge Gross Reservoir certainly will have significant impacts on Boulder County, including disruption to lives and property around the reservoir area during construction — but these are mostly temporary impacts. It’s important to look at the project’s long-term benefits to our rivers and streams as well as to our water security.
For years I saw Denver Water as my community’s public enemy number one. But in recent times Denver Water has demonstrated a willingness to work as a partner to keep the Upper Colorado River healthy. This collaboration among stakeholders represents the best opportunity to protect and preserve the Upper Colorado River into the future.
Here’s the release from Denver Water (Stacy Chesney):
Army Corps of Engineers issues record of decision and 404 Permit
Following 14 years of careful study, evaluation and deliberation, the Army Corps of Engineers has approved Denver Water’s request to raise Gross Dam in Boulder County. The additional water stored in Gross Reservoir will help prevent future shortfalls during droughts and helps offset an imbalance in Denver Water’s collection system.
The approval comes in the form of a record of decision and 404 Permit — two documents required by the federal government as part of the National Environmental Policy Act.
“Denver Water appreciates the Corps’ dedication and commitment to careful study of the anticipated impacts of this project,” said Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead. “We will complete this project responsibly, as evidenced by our actions during the public process and the resulting robust environmental protections we’ve agreed to along the way. We’re proud to be doing the right thing.”
The existing dam was built in the early 1950s and was designed to be expanded in the future to increase water storage capacity. The Gross Reservoir Expansion Project approval completes this original vision.
The project has earned key endorsements from Gov. Hickenlooper, state and federal lawmakers, major environmental groups, local mayors and city councils, chambers of commerce and economic development corporations, county elected officials and water interests on both sides of the divide.
“The next milestone we anticipate is approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission of Denver Water’s hydropower license amendment application at some point next year,” said Jeff Martin, Gross Reservoir Expansion program manager. “In the meantime, Denver Water continues to make significant investments in setting a firm foundation for the project’s overall success by recently hiring Black and Veatch as the owner’s representative. We are also in the process of procuring a design engineer.”
Preconstruction activities, including dam design and geotechnical work, are expected to begin in 2018. The entire project is expected to be completed in 2025.
Here’s the release from Colorado Trout Unlimited (Drew Peternell, Matt Rice, Paul Bruchez):
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) today announced $7.75 million in funding for an ambitious slate of projects to address the impacts on the Colorado River of trans-mountain diversions of water from the West Slope to the Front Range. Fisheries conservation group Trout Unlimited is the lead partner on the grant application.
The Colorado River Headwaters Project received $7,758,830 from the NRCS’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) to improve irrigation systems and reverse the decline in water quality and fish habitat in the headwaters of the Colorado River.
Led by an array of partners representing conservation interests, agriculture, local government, water providers, state agencies, and landowners, the Headwaters Project will create a bypass channel to reconnect the Colorado River at Windy Gap Reservoir, make channel and habitat improvements downstream of the bypass near Kremmling, Colorado, and improve irrigation systems as well as soil and water quality.
When fully implemented, the Headwaters Project will directly benefit more than 30 miles of the Colorado River and 4,500 acres of irrigated lands that provide sage grouse habitat and make available up to 11,000 acre-feet of water to improve the river during low-flow conditions.
“This is a huge win for the Colorado River,” said Drew Peternell, director of Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project. “We’re seeing an exciting and ambitious conservation vision for the upper Colorado become reality. With this funding, we’ll be able to put the ecosystem pieces of the upper Colorado River back together and restore the river and its trout fishery to health.”
“The Colorado River Headwaters Project is a great example of how municipal water providers, ranchers, conservation organizations and others can work together to restore an important reach the Colorado River for both the environment and agricultural operations with benefits downstream,” said Matt Rice, director of American River’s Colorado River Basin Program. “A collaboration like this would have been unheard of 10 years ago. It’s a win for everyone in Colorado.”
At present, transmountain diversions divert over 60 percent of the upper Colorado River’s native flows across the Continental Divide for use in the Front Range and northern Colorado. The resulting low flows in the river have seriously undermined the operations of irrigation systems and the health of the Colorado River in the project area. Low flows make it difficult for irrigators to divert water, especially during drought, and also raise water temperatures and hamper the river’s ability to transport sediment, leading to sediment buildup on the riverbed that degrades aquatic habitat.
Local ranchers wanted to address these irrigation problems as well as river health, said Paul Bruchez, a Kremmling-area rancher who organized his neighboring landowners into the Irrigators of Land in Vicinity of Kremmling (ILVK) group, a key project partner. The project will install several innovative instream structures designed to provide adequate water levels for irrigation while also improving critical fish habitat. This will be the first project in the country to demonstrate these stream engineering practices on a significant scale.
“This news is life-changing for the headwaters of the Colorado River and those who rely on it,” said Bruchez. “Years ago, water stakeholders in this region were at battle. Now, it is a collaboration that will create resiliency and sustainability for the health of the river and its agricultural producers. Healthy ranches need healthy rivers, and the RCPP funding will help sustain both.”
The Windy Gap Reservoir bypass and the Kremmling area river improvements address several pieces of the puzzle in a long-term, regional effort to restore the upper Colorado River. Other pieces include agreements that TU helped negotiate with Denver Water and the Northern Colorado Water District that contained significant river protections as well as an innovative, long-term monitoring and adaptive management process (called “Learning by Doing”) that requires stakeholders to work together to ensure the future health of the river.
That progress and collaboration is all the more remarkable coming after years of conflict between West Slope interests and conservation groups concerned about the health of the river, and Front Range water providers seeking to divert more water across the Divide.
“What’s happening on the upper Colorado shows that water users can work together to ensure river health while meeting diverse uses,” said TU’s Peternell. “This project is a model of what cooperation and collaboration can achieve in meeting our water challenges in Colorado and the Colorado River Basin.”
Other Headwaters Project partners who will provide assistance include the ILVK, Northern Water Conservation District, Denver Water, Colorado River Conservation District, Middle Park Soil Conservation District, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Grand County, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
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.
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
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
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.