FromThe Loveland Reporter-Herald (Sam Lounsberry) via The Denver Post:
An environmental group’s motion to intervene in a dispute between Denver Water and Boulder County over the proposed expansion of Gross Reservoir was granted by a judge on Tuesday.
Court documents show Boulder District Judge Andrew Ross Macdonald will allow the group, Save the Colorado, to enter the case as a party on behalf of Boulder County, the defendant in the suit.
Denver Water filed the complaint against the county after it decided the utility would have to subject its controversial proposed dam expansion — which would be the largest construction project in the county’s history — through the county development approval process.
The case is still moving through court, with Denver Water trying to avoid subjecting its project to county [1041 regulations].
The Colorado River is short on water. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at a slate of proposed water projects in the river’s Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
The river and its tributaries provide water for 40 million people in the Southwest. For about the last 20 years, demand for water has outstripped the supply, causing its largest reservoirs to decline.
In the Bureau of Reclamation’s 2012 Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, you can pinpoint when the lines crossed somewhere around the year 2002. It’s a well-documented and widely accepted imbalance.
That harsh reality — of the river’s water promised to too many people — has prompted all sorts of activity and agreements within the seven Western states that rely on it. That activity includes controversial efforts in some states in the Colorado River’s Upper Basin to tap every available drop before things get worse.
The utility that owns [Gross Reservoir], Denver Water, wants to increase the size of the dam by 131 feet, and fill the human-made lake with more water from the headwaters of the Colorado River via a tunnel that traverses the Continental Divide.
Imagine a tractor trailer hauling dam-building materials making this turn, Long says.
“If they truck all of this material up our canyon, people in our community are gonna get killed by those trucks. Period,” Long said. “There’s a lot of other issues here but the safety thing should really be a serious priority.”
Long and his wife, April Lewandowski, live near the reservoir in a community called Coal Creek Canyon. Like many of her neighbors, Lewandowski commutes from the sparsely populated canyon to her job on the state’s dense Front Range. Her daily commute on the canyon’s two-lane highway is the same as a haul route for trucks needed to build the dam addition.
Long pulls up to a small parking area that overlooks the dam. It’s a deep wall of concrete, stretched between the tree-lined canyon walls of South Boulder Creek.
“I mean you look at how the land splays out, you can see why they want to (build it),” Long said. “It’s so much wider all the way around.”
If the expansion goes through, the place where we’re standing will be submerged in water. The addition to Gross Dam will raise it to 471 feet in height, making it the tallest dam in Colorado…
Denver Water first started taking an expansion of Gross Reservoir seriously after the dry winter of 2002. Exceptional drought conditions took hold across the Mountain West. The utility’s CEO, Jim Lochhead, said in the midst of those historic dry conditions, a portion of its service area nearly ran out of water.
“This is a project that’s needed today to deal with that imbalance and that vulnerability and to give us more drought resiliency,” Lochhead said.
Since then, Denver Water has filed federal permits to start construction, and negotiated an agreement with local governments and environmental groups on the state’s Western Slope to mitigate some effects of the additional water being taken from the headwaters.
Before leaving office, former Colorado Democratic governor and current presidential hopeful John Hickenlooper threw his weight behind the project, giving it an endorsement and suggesting other water agencies in the West take notice how Denver Water approached the process.
But despite the political heft behind the project, it faces considerable headwinds.
Environmentalists are suing, arguing the expansion will harm endangered fish. A group of local activists say the additional water will spur unsustainable population growth along the state’s Front Range. In recent months, the utility began sparring with Boulder County officials over whether they were exempt from a certain land use permit.
Building a 131-foot dam addition does come with baggage, Lochhead said. But he argued his agency has done its part to address some of the concerns, like reducing the number of daily tractor trailer trips up Coal Creek Canyon and planning upgrades to the intersection where trucks will turn onto Gross Dam Road.
“It is a major construction project. I don’t want to gloss over that. It will have impacts to the local community,” Lochhead said.
Denver Water staff are doing more outreach in the canyon as well, Lochhead said.
“We are committed to the project and seeing it through. We’re also committed despite the opposition to working with the local community in doing this the right way,” he said…
The latest scuffle with Boulder County has brought the Gross Dam expansion squarely back into public view. At a county commissioner’s meeting in March, residents criticized Denver Water on all fronts, from specific concerns about the construction itself, to broader concerns about water scarcity in the Colorado River basin…
“This project represents an effort by Denver Water … to actually grab water while they can, before federal legislation and management of the Colorado River Basin is imposed,” McDermott said.
What McDermott is referring to is a stark disconnect in the Colorado River watershed. States downstream on the river — Arizona, Nevada and California — signed a new agreement in May called the Drought Contingency Plan that keeps them from becoming more reliant on the Colorado River. It requires cutbacks to water deliveries should levels in Lake Mead, the river’s largest reservoir, continue to drop.
Meanwhile, upstream in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, no such agreement was made. Those states wound up agreeing to study the feasibility of a program that would compensate farmers to stop irrigating their cropland if reservoirs dropped, with no solid way to pay for it. They agreed too to better coordinate releases from their biggest reservoirs to aid an ailing Lake Powell. While they figure out how to develop those two concepts, the Upper Basin states keep inching along on their development projects to divert more from the river.
The 1922 Colorado River Compact, the river’s foundational governing document, gives Upper Basin states the legal cover to continue developing projects like the Gross Reservoir expansion. In the compact, each basin is allocated 7.5 million acre-feet of the river’s water. Over the decades the rapidly growing and intensely farmed Lower Basin has used much more than that. The less populated Upper Basin has never reached its full allotment. Those state have been using roughly 4.5 million acre-feet for the last 13 years, with the rest flowing downstream for the Lower Basin to use as it sees fit…
Conservation programs tend to be less expensive than massive new projects, [Doug] Kenney said. But additional water supplies stored in reservoirs give more security and reliability. It’s why water leaders push for them, even when the economics don’t make sense.
This year, instead of supplying helicopters with water to dump on fires, Denver Water is draining water from Dillon Reservoir in anticipation of runoff, which is expected to really begin coming down in the next few weeks.
“This year being a high snowpack year, we know there’s going to be a lot of water getting into the reservoir,” Denver Water supply manager Nathan Elder said. “We’re trying to have enough space to catch that runoff while providing for safe outflows to the Blue River below the reservoir.”
At the moment, the reservoir — which is the main drinking water supply for 1.4 million people in the Denver metro area — is 75% full with 192,554 acre-feet of water. When full, the reservoir holds 257,304 acre-feet. An acre-foot of water would cover an area the size of an acre 1-foot deep. Given the current estimate for runoff volume, there will be more than enough water to fill it.
“The forecasting for the rest of June and July project a volume of anywhere from 169,000 acre-feet to 211,000 acre-feet coming into the reservoir,” Elder said. “That’ll fill it, but we’re probably not going to fill it until the Fourth of July to make sure we’re past that peak-inflow time.”
Elder said peak inflow to the reservoir is expected to start about a week later this year than usual, which also means Summit’s two marinas in Dillon and Frisco will have to wait before the reservoir is full enough for boating. However, boaters should have a lot more time for play this year compared with last, when boat ramps were retracted weeks before they normally would be due to low water.
“Typically, every year we target June 18 to be at 9,012-foot elevation needed for both marinas to be completely operational, but it’s going to be a little delayed this year,” Elder said. “But while the boating season might be shortened by a week on the front end, on the tail end, it should last quite a bit longer.”
The delay also means local emergency officials will be watching streamflows longer into the month, looking to spring into action if Tenmile Creek, Straight Creek or the Blue River approach the verge of flooding.
Current two-week projections show all three waterways approaching “action stage,” the threshold at which the towns and county are called to start flood mitigation preparations, by June 15.
Summit County’s director of emergency management Brian Bovaird said he closely has been watching the forecasts for flooding. That is opposed to last June when Bovaird, who recently had gotten the job as emergency director, was given a literal trial by fire.
“It’s like picking your poison,” Bovaird said. “Last year, it was wildfire. This year, it’s flooding. We’re expecting heavy runoff moisture, which is good for wildfire but makes us uneasy about the flooding risk.”
Barker Dam’s scheduled spill is expected to begin over the next few days, officials said. Each spring as temperatures warm, runoff from melting mountain snow increases stream flows. Before peak stream flows occur at lower elevations, like in the City of Boulder, mountain reservoirs must first fill and start spilling, officials said.
“This is a normal and expected event that will increase flows in Boulder Creek throughout the city,” The City of Boulder said in a statement.
The Barker Dam spill normally occurs between mid May to late June, but is dependent on weather, snowpack and early spring reservoir levels. This spring, cool temperatures and continued snow accumulation have delayed snowmelt runoff, the city said.
The waters of the Gunnison River are currently at 10.7 feet. It has passed the bankfull stage. This means some water is beginning to spill out into the floodplain. The floodplain is the low-lying area next to the river. The Gunnison’s Flood stage is at 13 feet. It’s expected to rise near 10.8 feet by Saturday.
Orchard Mesa and Whitewater are under the current advisory.
Parts of the Colorado River are rising, but it’s not under an advisory. The Colorado River near Loma is nearing bankfull. According to data from a National Weather Service gauge near the state line, water levels are at about 10.5 feet and are expected to rise to 12.5 by Saturday afternoon.
The south arm of the Great Salt Lake is up by 2.5 feet since December and its north arm is 2 feet deeper thanks to the wet water year, and the Western Hemisphere’s largest saltwater lake will take on even more water in the weeks to come.
“It’s a pretty good jump so far, but we’re not done yet,” said Todd Adams, deputy director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.
The highest elevation snowpack has yet to melt, and with most reservoirs brimming, that water will bypass those storage infrastructures and help quench the thirsty saltwater body…
Water managers along the Wasatch Front will be keeping their eye on stream flows and reservoir levels to keep enough storage going into the summer and time releases into rivers to hopefully avoid flooding.
While most reservoirs are already full, Echo above East Canyon sits at just 49 percent of capacity and Rockport sits at 78 percent, ready to take on snowmelt.
“We could have filled it (Echo) twice this year,” said Tage Flint, general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District. “The peak flows have not occurred yet coming out of the Uinta Mountains coming down the Weber River, so we are purposefully leaving Rockport down some and Echo down more to use them as shock absorbers to take those big flows.”
Much of that extra water will be sent on downstream to the Great Salt Lake…
The lake is critical to wildlife, multiple industries, recreation interests and more, contributing $1.3 billion into Utah’s economy and drawing tourists from all over the globe.
It serves as the Pacific “flyway” for thousands of migratory birds and supports a $57 million brine shrimp industry…
Mike Styler, who recently retired as executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said maintaining the viability of the Great Salt Lake will be one of the critical challenges the state faces going into the future.
He stressed that as agricultural water gets converted for urban use in Weber and Davis counties and reuse of waste water becomes more popular, that threatens to dry up marshes and wetlands that support the lake.
The Great Salt Lake has an average depth of 16 feet, covers 1,700 square miles during an average year and is two to seven times saltier than the ocean.
Fish kills in the North Fork of the South Platte River are occurring during low water flow periods that fail to dilute the toxicity of heavy metals such as iron, copper and aluminum. Contaminants in the form of heavy metals move downstream, originating primarily from Hall Valley and Geneva Creek mining operations.
When water flow is adequate, there is enough oxygen to negate the impact of the toxins. When water levels are inadequate, fish develop coatings on their gills as a natural self-defense mechanism to the toxins. That protective coating ultimately renders their gills inoperable.
When and why do water levels get too low?
Water flow in the river is dependent upon how much water is released from Dillon Reservoir through Roberts Tunnel, and those decisions are made almost exclusively by Denver Water.
When more water is needed within Denver Water service areas, the rate of the water passing through Roberts Tunnel is set to flow more freely. When water is not needed to serve the Denver Water service area, the flow from Roberts Tunnel is restricted, much to the detriment of the people, and the fish, in Park County.
Water flows can be naturally low in the river during certain seasons. This year, in mid-March, for example, snowmelt had not yet occurred and the river was in its customary state of low flow prior to the fast-approaching late-spring thaw.
An abundance of area-wide spring moisture, however, created a situation where Denver Water service areas enjoyed a surplus of water. Therefore, the flow from Roberts Tunnel and Dillon Reservoir was ceased on March 11 and remained so at least until this writing.
The predictable result was the most recent fish kill, which occurred March 11-15, because flows were simply not sufficient to combat ever-present toxic heavy metals related to mining. No information has been provided by Denver Water as to when the tunnel will be reopened.
Denver Water states its position
When The Flume recently requested a statement from Denver Water regarding flows in the river and operations of Roberts Tunnel, a response was received in timely fashion.
In direct response to whether or not Denver Water felt a moral obligation to residents in Park County related to ecological systems they have long controlled, and whether Denver Water should accept responsibility for maintaining minimal flow in the South Platte River for the environmental and economical benefit of the entire North Fork region, the following statement was submitted:
“We (Denver Water) understand the potential for impacts to the fishery when flows from the Roberts Tunnel are shut down, and certainly recognize and appreciate the effect on the angling community and local businesses and outfitters. Unfortunately, operation of the Roberts Tunnel is directed by legal obligations and decrees tied to Colorado water law and binding agreements with West Slope communities where the water from the tunnel originates.
“As you know, the flows from the Roberts Tunnel originate in water diverted from West Slope rivers and streams into Dillon Reservoir. Denver Water depends on this supply when snow pack within the Upper South Platte watershed is insufficient. However, since early March, portions of the Upper South Platte watershed have received more than four feet of snow and spring precipitation continues to be strong.
“Legally, water supplied through the Roberts Tunnel can only be accessed when water is needed in Denver Water’s service area. Further, any other uses for the water, including augmenting stream flows for aquatic life or recreation uses, are not allowed as a primary purpose for operating the tunnel.
“While we provide projections about how long Denver Water will deliver water through the tunnel, those are only estimates based on snow pack, reservoir storage and other system elements. Those projections can change as conditions change; as they did in late winter and early spring this year.”
FromThe Boulder Daily Camera (Charlie Brennan) via The Denver Post:
Boulder County has notified Denver Water it will not process the utility’s land use review application for a Gross Reservoir expansion at the same time it is defending itself in a lawsuit by Denver Water challenging the need to even submit to that procedure.
Denver Water on April 18 filed a lawsuit in Boulder District Court claiming a zoned-land exemption should excuse Denver Water from having to submit to the land use review process for the expansion, which — should it go through — would be the largest construction project in county history.
However, at the same time, Denver Water CEO/manager Jim Lochhead had said the utility was taking the steps to satisfy that county requirement, even while the lawsuit was pending.
“We remain committed to finding a path forward with the county that respects the community’s needs and concerns while allowing the project to proceed, which is why we have initiated the 1041 application process,” Lochhead said at the time…
Denver Water’s bid to participate in that process and simultaneously challenge it legally, however, is not going to work, according to Boulder County.
In a letter to Denver Water dated April 18, Boulder County Land Use Director Dale Case said, “While the County believes it will prevail in litigation, it would not be appropriate for the Land Use Department to proceed with an application under these circumstances.”
It is Case who initially made the determination that Denver Water, although holding a permit for the expansion project from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, still needed to submit to the county’s permitting process — a judgment Denver Water already unsuccessfully appealed before the county commissioners on March 14.
“It would be an imprudent expenditure of taxpayer dollars for the County to process an application when the process itself is the subject of a lawsuit,” Case added in his letter. “Accordingly, the Land Use Department will not accept an application for processing until the lawsuit is resolved.”
Denver Water public documents once showed a 2019 start date on construction, but that is no longer the case, and the lawsuit against Boulder County is not the only legal hurdle to launching the project. In separate courtroom action, a coalition of six environmental groups has sued at U.S. District Court in Denver, challenging the Corps of Engineers’ July 2017 decision to issue its permit for the $464 million (in 2025 dollars) project…
The current Denver Water project timeline now shows 2020 to 2026 for the project’s start to completion.
Denver Water Program Manager Jeff Martin answered Case’s recent letter with an April 29 letter, stating that Denver Water nevertheless intends to submit an application to initiate a land review process, citing the “significant resources” it has already expended in preparing its application in “a good faith effort” to comply with county requirements.
Denver Water also argues that processing the utility’s application should not put a financial strain on the county, because “Denver Water will reimburse Boulder County for its time in considering the application.”
From the Engineering News Record (Thomas F. Armistead):
“In the water-scarce West, there is little to no new water,” says Laura Belanger, water resources and environmental engineer with Western Resource Advocates. “What we’re seeing is a shift to a suite of solutions that make the most of our region’s water resources. So the first line is and always should be conservation, because that’s the most cost-effective thing utilities can do, and it’s also fast.”
In Colorado’s Front Range, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District is accepting qualification statements for construction of Colorado’s tallest new dam in a half-century, with selection of a contractor and notice to proceed by December, says Joe Donnelly, spokesman. The main dam will be a rockfill structure with a hydraulic asphalt core, 360 ft tall and 3,500 ft long at the crest. The dam will impound the 90,000 acre-ft Chimney Hollow Reservoir for the Windy Gap Firming Project. A contract for design was awarded to Stantec in 2016.
The reservoir would store water for 12 municipalities and other water suppliers. The project has support from both public authorities and some environmental advocates. But six environmental groups are contesting the project in federal court because it will divert 30,000 acre-ft annually from the Colorado River, taxing the already challenged flow of that body.
Denver Water is proceeding with the expansion of Gross Reservoir, built in the 1950s with a 1,050-ft-long, 340-ft-tall concrete gravity arch dam impounding 42,000 acre-ft of water. Following 14 years of planning, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a 404 permit in July 2017, allowing Denver Water to raise the reservoir’s dam 131 ft and expand the reservoir’s capacity to 77,000 acre-ft.
The utility is expanding the reservoir to address a known imbalance in the city’s water system, said Jeff Martin, program manager for the project, in a video on the project’s website. The North System, where Gross Reservoir is located, stores about 30% of the water, and the South System the rest. The imbalance results from differential snowpack runoff on the system’s north and south sides. “This will provide extra insurance and extra reservoir capacity to make sure that we can weather those times when we do have issues in our system,” Martin said…
Some existing storage facilities are being expanded or are having their water reallocated, and regional water sharing also is beginning to grow, Belanger says. She cites the Chatfield Reservoir, built in 1965 on the South Platte River south of Denver for flood control, as an example. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that up to 20,600 acre-ft of the water can be reallocated to drinking water and industrial supply, agriculture, environmental restoration and other purposes without compromising its flood-control function. Environmental mitigation and modifications are expected to cost about $134 million.
Gross Reservoir, west of Boulder. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Map from Northern Water via the Fort Collins Coloradan.
Full disclosure, I have written articles for the magazine in the past.
Here’s a look at Denver Water’s Moffat Collection System Project and the Boulder County Commissioner’s hearing on 1041 jurisdiction from George Sibley that’s running in Colorado Central Magazine. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
An interesting thing happened mid-March in Boulder which the media seem to have mostly missed. Commissioners from Grand County showed up at a noisy Boulder County commissioners’ hearing on a West Slope-to-East Slope transmountain water diversion project – to testify on behalf of the project. It is probably the first time ever, in the generally contentious history of Colorado water development, that the people in a basin of origin have supported a transmountain diversion project that people in the basin of destination oppose.
Although this is a story from just beyond our Central Colorado boundaries, it is a story of interest to anyone in the West who is wondering how, or even if, we are going to finally leave the 20th century and venture into the 21st and the Anthropocene Epoch we keep trying to pretend we haven’t brought on ourselves.
The report on the Boulder County hearing sounded like your usual 20th century public hearing on the kind of issue that seems almost structured to pit environmentalists against the developers of something or other – a hearing in which no one has to listen because everyone already knows what everyone else is going to say.
The issue in this case pits the usual Front Range environmental organizations against a public utility that everyone loved to hate through the 20th century, Denver Water (DW). DW wants to enlarge the Gross Dam and Reservoir it built in the 1950s in the foothills near Boulder, to hold some additional water it wants to import from the West Slope – its “Moffat Firming Project” which would bring a third more water on average through its Moffat Tunnel Project from the Fraser and Williams Fork Rivers in the Upper Colorado River watersheds…
For the West Slope and Grand County, DW is both funding and actively participating in planning and executing a Learning by Doing process – essentially, an adaptive management process of active experimentation in learning how to live with less water. Some of it is more conventional work providing funding and expertise to water treatment districts and irrigation districts needing to use less water more efficiently.
But some of it will actually be what strikes me as “creative environmentalism”: Actually reconstructing some streams to function ecologically with a permanent reduction of water – call it “downsizing” the stream to fit the unignorable realities of the future. Channels are narrowed and deepened to cool the waters, helping both the aquatic ecosystem and the human economy of floaters and fishermen; riparian vegetation is planted to shade the stream and stabilize banks; meanders are induced to give a healthy stability and resilience for the foreseeable diminished future. Half a mile of the Fraser near U.S. 40 has been so ‘remodeled’ and is open to public inspection (and fishing). DW has committed millions to this work. (The CRCA can be found online by browsing for the name in full.)