GREELEY — A funding request for a West Slope water study to figure out how to keep enough water in Lake Powell became a hot potato last week and was tossed back and forth across Colorado’s Continental Divide.
Officials from four West Slope basin roundtables and two water conservation districts had asked the Colorado Water Conservation Board to contribute $40,000 toward the $100,000 cost of the second phase of a study looking into potential changes to regional water use during a severe drought.
But the chairs of three East Slope roundtables told the directors of the CWCB they didn’t feel comfortable with the first phase of the study or how the second phase was shaping up.
They recommended to the CWCB directors that they deny state money for the second phase. And if they did fund the study, to include a disclaimer saying it did not represent the views of the state.
The CWCB directors, meeting in Greeley last week, were suddenly caught between fractious basin roundtables, which have been praised in the past for their collaborative work on the 2015 Colorado Water Plan.
“There was a fuss,” Russ George, who represents the Colorado River basin on the CWCB, told the members of the Colorado basin roundtable in Glenwood Springs on Monday. “We’re of course sitting in periods of, probably, continuous shortages, continuous draw downs of the big reservoirs. I think everyone is as edgy as ever.
“It bothered us all to see that controversy just erupt,” George also said of the study request. “The touchiness still exists, even though we’ve made enormous progress in the last 10 and 12 years, as we all know, in working together and making decisions.”
After a flurry of last-minute negotiating, the CWCB directors voted March 24 to approve the requested $40,000 in state funding, but also agreed to the East Slope’s request to include a disclaimer in the study’s scope of work: “This work product is solely that of the applicants and the applicants do not claim that it represents the views or interests of the state of Colorado.”
Patricia Wells, a CWCB director representing the city and county of Denver, and who is general counsel for Denver Water, said of the study, “This isn’t the state’s position on anything. And it really belongs to the West Slope roundtables to help them make some decisions.”
The Colorado, Gunnison, Southwest, and Yampa/White/Green basin roundtables had recently all approved spending $10,000 from their allotments of state funds on what’s known as the risk study, and then sent a joint funding application for $40,000 to the CWCB directors, who must approve all roundtable grants.
And four western roundtables were being supported by another $30,000 each from the Colorado River Water Conservation District in Glenwood Springs and the Southwestern Water Conservation District in Durango.
Meanwhile, on the East Slope, the chairs of the South Platte, Metro, and Arkansas roundtables were united in their call for the CWCB to distance the state from the study.
“The East Slope roundtables strongly recommend that CWCB only be involved if it is part of an equal management partnership between all affected regions and the state,” a March 20 letter to the CWCB said.
The letter said the study should not be “biased toward any particular regional interests,” noting that “the discretion to define the modeling runs and their assumptions is retained by the Colorado River Water Conservation District,” which represents 15 West Slope counties.
The East Slope also said that the myriad assumptions used in the study’s hydraulic modeling would “afford great latitude to reflect certain desires and points of view that in turn implicate state water policy and East Slope interests.”
After the vote, Barbara Biggs, the chair of the Metro roundtable, which includes Denver and neighboring cities, told the CWCB directors that the decision to fund the study, even with the disclaimer, may not satisfy everybody.
“I’ll be very honest,” Biggs said. “I suspect I will not be welcomed with hugs and kisses by all of the members of my roundtable. I think they were hoping for more.”
Of chief concern to both east and west interests is the potential for a new transmountain diversion that would move more water to the East Slope.
“This is not a water availability study, but there are real limits on how much Colorado River water Colorado can consume without causing an unacceptable risk to existing users,” said a March 23 letter to the CWCB signed by the four West Slope roundtable chairs and the directors of the two conservation districts.
Underlying the tension over the second phase of the study are the results of the first phase, which cost $52,000 and included $32,000 in state money from the CWCB.
“Droughts similar to those in the recent past could cause Lake Powell to, within a few years, drop to levels that jeopardize Glen Canyon Dam’s ability to generate electricity, and create a risk that the Upper Colorado River Basin would be unable to meet its delivery obligations under the 2007 Interim Guidelines and potentially the Colorado River Compact,” the grant application to the CWCB said, summarizing the study’s phase one findings.
It also said “the higher the consumptive use in the Upper Basin going forward, the greater the risk to all water users.”
One option being studied in the face of a severe-but-short drought is to send water to Lake Powell from large upstream reservoirs on the Green, Gunnison, and San Juan rivers.
But in a prolonged drought, “demand management” is also going to be necessary, the study indicated. Which means someone is going to have to divert less water and let if flow to Lake Powell.
“The intent of phase two is to further quantify the risks to water users in Colorado, by evaluating a number of scenarios with a variety of assumptions regarding the timing, location, volume and administrative requirements that could be imposed in order to make up a (Lake) Powell deficit,” the grant application stated.
The use of the word “imposed” did not likely escape notice on the Front Range.
After last week’s CWCB vote on the study, Wells from Denver said the second phase of the study did not need to be collaborative, and that the West Slope could explore water management scenarios on its own.
But she cautioned about wielding the results of the study as a weapon.
“If the modeling is used externally as a weapon in negotiations, as proof of something to the other states in the Colorado basin, then it’s a problem,” Wells said. But if it is not used that way, she said, then “the East Slope won’t have to be worried, and they won’t have to try to tear it down.”
Eric Kuhn, the director of the Colorado River District and the primary mover behind the risk study, described the outcome of the grant process as “good news,” as least in regard to the funding being approved and the study progressing to a second phase.
“The thought this time was that this one really does need to be focused with the West Slope,” Kuhn said. “The East Slope wanted to sort of participate at a higher level, at a management level. Our concern was we didn’t want the East Slope to interfere with the questions that the roundtables might have, in doing that.”
Kuhn also said the study, which is expected to be complete in the fall, would be done in “an open and transparent way.”
“If the East Slope is participating in it, if they are observing, we’re going to address them like we do everyone else, which is all input and all bodies are welcome to this open process,” he said.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Aspen Times, Vail Daily and Summit Daily News on coverage of rivers and water in the upper Colorado River basin. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.
From the Walton Family Foundation via The Villager:
The Walton Family Foundation has provided $400,000 in support of The Greenway Foundation and Denver Water pledge drive for the environmental pool at Chatfield Reservoir. If the pledge drive is successful, the foundation’s funding will purchase of 45 acre-feet of storage in the reservoir.
The pledge drive, announced last August, will add 500 acre-feet of environmental storage at Chatfield Reservoir through a community coalition. Denver Water has committed nearly $2 million to fund the purchase of 250 acre-feet of storage space in Chatfield — if The Greenway Foundation can raise the funds necessary to match that amount.
Ted Kowalski, who leads the Colorado River Initiative for the Walton Family Foundation, stated: “The foundation focuses on developing sustainable water management practices for the Colorado River basin. This innovative project pairs agricultural water users located downstream on the South Platte River with holders of existing storage located upstream at Chatfield Reservoir, to benefit both parties and the intervening riparian environment of the South Platte River. This could be a model for use throughout the Colorado River basin, and other basins.”
The 500 acre-feet of water would be added to the 1,600 acre-feet for an environmental pool being developed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Colorado Water Conservation Board through the Chatfield Reallocation Project, for a total of 2,100 feet of storage.
The environmental pool will be set aside for releases of water that will provide environmental and water quality benefits to the South Platte River below Chatfield during low-flow periods of the year when additional stream flow levels are critically needed.
In addition to the commitment from the Walton Family Foundation for the 45 acre-feet of storage, the grant to The Greenway Foundation also provides funding for the creation of a management plan to maximize the effectiveness of the water releases to the South Platte River.
“The Greenway Foundation is grateful for the very generous grant from the Walton Family Foundation as well as Denver Water’s commitment for support through the fundraising challenge” said Jeff Shoemaker, The Greenway Foundation’s executive director. “Contributions to the environmental pool are a one-time only cost for environmental, water quality, and recreational benefits that will last for generations.”
The Greenway Foundation has secured the following additional commitments toward meeting the challenge grant from Denver Water:
City and County of Denver – 50 acre-feet
The Greenway Foundation – 10 acre-feet
The Colorado Parks Foundation – 10 acre-feet
Shoemaker Family – 10 acre-feet
Rinehart Family – 1 acre-foot
Capitol Representatives – 1 acre-foot
Total to date (to match Denver Water challenge): 82 acre-feet
Arapahoe County Open Spaces Program and the cities along the South Platte River within Arapahoe County are also actively working to make a contribution to purchase 50 acre-feet to the environmental pool. The jurisdictions collaborate as members of the South Platte Working Group, which is seeking to make funding commitments by the end of this year.
“Our goal is to enhance efforts to improve the urban reach of the South Platte River, helping to ultimately create a fishable river right in the heart of Denver,” said Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead. “We believe that with the commitment of the community, this river that has been ignored can be healthy and beautiful to help ensure Denver remains a vibrant, exciting city.”
Outreach and engagement efforts are also underway with numerous additional public and private entities and individuals to secure the remaining support needed to meet the Denver Water challenge. The goal is to have commitments for the full 250 acre-feet by the end of August 2017.
The environmental pool storage will be filled by a water right owned by the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District, a major agricultural district downstream from Denver. Releases from the environmental pool will flow through the Denver metro area, providing environmental, recreational and water quality benefits, and then be used by Central for agriculture. Every drop of water in the environmental pool will provide multiple benefits.
The environmental pool is part of the overall Chatfield Reservoir Reallocation Project which, when completed in 2019, will allow for an additional 20,600 acre-feet to be stored in the reservoir.
Denver Water is teaming up with federal and state forest services to take care of water sheds and keep drinking water clean.
That means logging dead trees in some of the areas around Denver Water reservoirs.
The company says it’s about health forests and clean water.
“The purpose of these treatments is not simply to plant trees and create a more forested area, but it is to create a more resilient ecosystem so that when fires do occur, they’re not occurring at the catastrophic level that will significantly impact our facilities,” said Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead.
The agencies started working together in 2010 after some wildfires broke out including the Hayman Fire.
The “Forests to Faucets” deal signed by Denver Water, the Colorado State Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service and U.S. Forest Service builds on a $33 million 2010 initiative that led to thinning on 48,000 acres of public land, utility officials said.
“We’ve seen tremendous results during the first five years of this partnership and we are excited to now expand the program to include private lands,” Denver Water manager Jim Lochhead said.
Logging contractors enlisted in the effort clear trees from beetle-ravaged forests where large wildfires and erosion threaten water supplies. Denver Water officials have said investing in forest health helps avoid having to un-clog reservoirs and water delivery systems later at far greater cost.
Water providers increasingly get involved in forest health because, with bug-infested trees dead and dying on millions of acres, weakened soils can erode, especially after fire and heavy rain. This means more sediment slumping into streams, rivers and reservoirs.
The idea is to reduce risks of large wildfires by creating spaces between trees in forests.
Federal forest service regional director Brian Ferebee called the partnership with Denver Water “trend-setting.”
“Together we will proactively work to conserve, maintain and restore watersheds, ecosystems and the services they provide Americans,” Ferebee said in a prepared statement.
The agreement renews partnership work Denver Water initiated in 2010 aimed at reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires.
New restoration and “wildfire fuels reduction” projects will be done on more than 40,000 acres of watershed deemed critical, according to a U.S. Forest Service announcement.
Denver Water manager Jim Lochhead, U.S. Forest Service regional director Brian Ferebee, Colorado State Forest Service director Mike Lester and Natural Resources Conservation Service director Clint Evan were to sign the latest deal Monday in Denver at the History Colorado Center.
The forest health work has involved clearing trees from beetle-ravaged forests where fire and erosion increasingly threaten water supplies. Lochhead has said investing in forest health helps avoid having to deal with the problem later at a much greater cost.
Water providers have ventured into forest management work because, with bug-infested trees dead and dying on millions of acres of Western forests, weakened soils can erode, especially after fire and heavy rain, releasing sediment into streams, rivers and reservoirs.
After the Buffalo Creek Fire, Denver Water had to spend $30 million dredging and unclogging the city’s Strontia Springs reservoir. An estimated 625,000 cubic yards of sediment from surrounding mountainsides, enough to cover a football field 200 feet high, slumped into the reservoir.
Federal officials have warned repeatedly in recent years that the nation’s forests are threatened like never before. The previous forest health work plan called for thinning 6,000 acres of dense forest near Denver Water’s Dillon reservoir. Denver Water and the Forest Service each contributed about $16.5 million for the work. The forest health deals create work for logging contractors.