Governor Hickenlooper’s proposed budget include $30 million for implementation of the #COWaterPlan

Gov. John Hickenlooper touts his water plan as pioneering. (Photo by Rachel Lorenz for The Colorado Independent)

from The Summit Daily (Deepan Dutta):

On Thursday, several Colorado conservation and river advocacy groups praised Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposal to add a record $30 million to implement Colorado’s Water Plan and help the state prevent water shortages as the state continues to experience an extended drought.

In his budget request for fiscal year 2019-2020, the governor proposes to invest $30 million over the next three years from the general fund, on top of funds already earmarked for water projects that benefit river health and our communities across the state.

The groups – Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Environmental Defense Fund, Western Resource Advocates, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation Colorado, American Rivers and Audubon ­­— called the proposal a “smart investment in healthy rivers that will have ripple effects across Colorado.”

“This budget request is a recognition of the importance of water to Colorado families, of water challenges that Colorado could face, and the imperative that Colorado secures its water future,” the groups said. “This is a tremendous step forward, and a sustainable water future for Colorado families will require continued investments. We look forward to working with the next governor and the legislature on longer-term commitments that will ensure the state has the resources to fully implement the Colorado Water Plan.”

South Platte and Metro basin roundtables release new basin data tools — @AspenJournalism

An interactive graphic from one of the new storyboards shows the instream flow rights of rivers and streams throughout the South Platte Basin.

From Aspen Journalism (Lindsay Fendt):

For anyone in Colorado wondering how water reaches their pipes, there is plenty of public information out there. But a cursory internet search will quickly turn up incomprehensible acronyms — SWSI, TBD, BIP and CWP, just to name a few — along with hydrology charts, infrastructure designs and a complicated set of laws that traces back all the way to the 19th Century.

In an effort to simplify the deluge of data out there, the water community in the South Platte Basin teamed up with a local non-profit to develop a new set of tools to explore data about water management in the basin.

“I thought that rather than referring to big documents and PDF reports that people could look at these live interactive resources and have more engaging discussions on the issues,” said Steve Malers, chief technology officer at the Open Water Foundation and the project’s creator.

With a year and $100,000 in combined funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the South Platte and Metro basin roundtables, Malers was able to sift through reams of water data to create three interactive storyboards.

“There are lots and lots of things out there already, but they aren’t all easy to understand,” said Lacey Williams, public education and outreach coordinator for both the South Platte and Metro roundtables. “We liked the idea of putting together maps and data into a story.”

The storyboards are designed to explain the more dense aspects of water management to the public (and to shed light on some of those acronyms).

Malers also incorporated information specifically for people who work in water.

By crunching numbers and reformatting data to fit into one readable page, Malers hopes that roundtable members and others working in water can use the storyboards to make more informed decisions.

“If they find those things useful, perhaps that can change the paradigm a bit and we can have more data-driven discussions,” he said.

For now, these storyboards are tucked away on the South Platte Basin Roundtable’s website, but Malers and Williams are working to spread the link across the web.

According to Williams, the education committees are already considering expanding the storyboards to other parts of the state.

South Platte River Basin via Wikipedia

“News You Can Use from the Gunnison Basin” is hot off the presses from @GunnisonRiver

Confluence of the Cimmaron and Gunnison rivers. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

The Lower Gunnison Project (LGP)

The LGP is making progress and construction bids have come in for one of four projects (Needle Rock Head gate Improvement) slated to go to construction this fall. Initial permitting and planning has been completed with the publication of the Environmental Assessment (EA). This detailed EA can be reviewed here. Information on the next steps is being uploaded to the LGP page. This will include news for both on- and off-farm activities.

Western Slope to keep studying water without state funds, Front Range support — @AspenJournalism

Lake Powell April 12, 2017. Photo credit Patti Weeks via Earth Science picture of the day.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith) via The Aspen Times:

Two Western Slope water conservation districts are moving forward with the third phase of a “risk study” exploring at how much water might be available to bolster water levels in Lake Powell, and they are doing so without state funding to avoid Front Range opposition to the study.

Lake Powell today is half-full and dropping and water managers say several more years like 2018 could drain the reservoir, which today contains 12.3 million acre-feet of water. And the looming water shortage is revealing lingering east-west tensions among Colorado’s water interests.

Officials at the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the Southwestern Water Conservation District, whose boundaries include the Yampa, Colorado, Gunnison, and San Juan river basins on the Western Slope, are eager to answer some forward-looking questions.

How much water in a hotter and drier world might still be available from Western Slope rivers to divert and put to beneficial use, for example.

And how much water might be made available from current water users to send downriver from each of the major Western Slope river basins to help fill Lake Powell?

Those are sensitive questions in Colorado, on both sides of the Continental Divide.

And powerful Front Range water interests think the state should be answering them, not the two Western Slope conservation districts.

A state agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, approved a $32,000 grant in March 2015 to help pay for the first phase for the Western Slope’s “risk study.”

Then the CWCB kicked in $40,000 in March 2017 for the second phase of the Western Slope’s risk study.

But that second grant-review process brought opposition from the Front Range Water Council, which unsuccessfully sought to block the requested funding from the Western Slope.

“The opposition to Phase II of the risk study was focused on concerns related to the direction and management of the study coming solely from the West Slope without East Slope involvement, and being funded by the state,” said Jim Lochhead, the president of the Front Range Water Council and the CEO of Denver Water, in a statement released July 20. “Risks on the Colorado River are of statewide concern and any such studies are better conducted by the state, through its Colorado Water Conservation Board.”

The Front Range Water Council is an ad-hoc group that includes Denver Water, Northern Water, Aurora Water, the Pueblo Board of Water Works, Colorado Springs Utilities, the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, and the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company.

The first two phases of the Western Slope’s risk study showed that 1 million to 2 million acre-feet of water from current water users may be needed to bolster levels in Lake Powell, especially if more water is also diverted to the Front Range.

Today, irrigators on the Western Slope use about 1.3 million acre-feet of water a year, while the Front Range uses about 541,000 acre-feet from the Western Slope to meet municipal and agricultural demand.

As such, officials at the Western Slope conservation districts are now asking if, say, 10 percent of that water use was cut back over time, in a voluntary and compensated demand management program, and the saved water was banked somewhere — ideally Lake Powell itself — would that be enough to keep the big reservoir full enough to still produce power at Glen Canyon Dam and deliver enough water downstream to the meet the terms of the Colorado River Compact?

And if it was enough, how much should come from each Western Slope basin?

On Monday in Glenwood Springs, Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, acknowledged that the 2017 funding request from the Western Slope “ran into a lot of political opposition from the Front Range, basically saying, ‘You guys are asking questions that may harm our state.’ And the questions that were posed in Phase II were essentially dumbed down in order to comply with that request so that we could get the [state funding]. So our board and the Southwestern board voted unanimously to proceed to fund [Phase III of the study] on their own.”

Mueller was addressing the members of the Colorado Basin Roundtable when he described the 2017 process. The roundtable, which reviews grants for the CWCB, had twice voted to fund the risk study, along with three other Western Slope roundtables.

And even without state funding, it’s still important to the two Western Slope conservation districts that the four Western Slope basin roundtables now conceptually support the third phase of the risk study.

On Monday, the members of the Colorado roundtable unanimously passed a resolution to that effect.

Mueller assured the roundtable members that the two districts will work to make the mechanics, and the results, of the evolving water-modeling tool available.

“We really want to make sure that what we’re doing is an open and transparent modeling process,” Mueller said. “Because we think that data that everybody can agree on is data that can then elevate the conversation with respect to the risk in the Colorado River.”

Mueller also told the roundtable that interest from the Front Range is welcomed during the third phase of the study, up to a point.

“We have reached out to the Front Range,” he said. “I went over to their joint roundtable in May and explained to them what we were doing and welcomed their participation, input, their views. Didn’t welcome their censorship, but welcomed their thoughts.”

Heather Sackett of Aspen Journalism contributed to this story. Aspen Journalism is reporting on water and rivers in the Roaring Fork and Colorado river basins in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other news organizations.

The latest E-Newsletter is hot off the presses from the Hutchins Water Center

Rodeo Rapid on the upper Colorado River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Colorado Basin Roundtable Integrated Water Management Planning Framework Project

The Colorado Basin Roundtable’s Integrated Water Management Planning Framework Project created guidance and on-line data tools to build a foundation for conducting comprehensive integrated water management plans in the mainstem Colorado River Basin in Colorado. The purpose of these plans is to identify ways to provide water for environmental needs in conjunction with the needs of agricultural, domestic and industrial water users. The Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University coordinated the project, and most of the technical work was conducted by Lotic Hydrological.

The Final Report for this project is available for review here.

The website that houses the on-line tools referred to in the report is here.

“If I was to look at the one thing that changed the most in my public life, it’s the collaborative approach” — Gov. John Hickenlooper

Here’s an in-depth look at Gov. Hickenlooper’s legacy from Marianne Goodland writing for The Colorado Springs Gazette. Here’s an excerpt:

In a fast-growing state that places greater demands on its water supply each day, a state that regularly faces withering droughts, Hickenlooper has spent his eight years in office navigating water issues and leading the development of a state water plan that Denver’s chief water official calls a “real act of political courage.”

But not everyone believes the governor has made all the right choices on water. Colorado still faces daunting water-supply challenges. Some say Hickenlooper should have done more to promote dams and reservoirs and there’s no clear way to pay for the ambitious state water plan he fostered.

Still, many give Hickenlooper credit for reshaping how Colorado deals with water.

“He was the first governor to put water at the forefront,” said veteran northern Colorado water manager Eric Wilkinson.

Hickenlooper’s legacy may depend on what is done with the water plan that he is leaving for his successor. Colorado Politics talked to members of Colorado’s water community to see what they think his legacy in water looks like – and the governor weighed in on that, too.

US Drought Monitor June 25, 2002.

The beginnings

When Hickenlooper became mayor of Denver in July 2003, the state was already entering the second year of a record-setting drought. Gov. Bill Owens, in his 2003 State of the State address six months earlier, claimed the 2002 drought was the worst in 350 years, with most of Colorado in what the U.S. Drought Monitor called “exceptional drought,” the worst stage in their rankings.

So water got into the future governor’s mind early on, although as mayor, his control was limited primarily to appointing commissioners to Denver Water, the state’s largest water utility.

But as he saw it, he wasn’t dealing with just Denver’s water. It was water that belonged to the entire state, he said.

At the time, state officials were also trying to figure out how to solve the water problem. In the midst of devastating drought, the General Assembly and Owens began working on several ideas that still hold water today, including a new assessment of Colorado’s water supply, known as the Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI)…

In the 2005 session, the General Assembly approved a law setting up groups known as basin roundtables, which divided Colorado into nine regions, each representing a major river, plus one for Denver.

But the groups weren’t required to work with each other. There were differences among the regions, including claims from the Western Slope that the Denver area was seeking more “transmountain diversions” to channel water from the Colorado River and other western waters through the mountains to the Front Range. That claim still sticks today.

And there were long-standing hard feelings over what happened about 15 years earlier, when ski towns joined forces with environmentalists to help defeat a major Denver reservoir project…

Two Forks was a proposed dam on the South Platte River that would have created a million acre-feet reservoir, flooding 30 miles of canyon from Deckers south to the river’s confluence with its north fork.

Advocates said the project was vital to supplying growing metro Denver. But environmentalists sounded the trumpets, complaining of the potential drowning of much of Cheesman Canyon with its prime fishing, hiking and kayaking areas, and the Environmental Protection Agency vetoed a permit for the project in 1990.

Denver Water, which exhausted its appeals of the rejection in 1996, was forced to shift to conservation rather than looking for major new water supplies from storage.

That’s the environment that Hickenlooper walked into as mayor. And that’s when his water legacy started, says Eric Kuhn, who has spent 40 years working on the Colorado River, including as general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

It was then, he said, that the groundwork was laid with Denver Water board members to build cooperation with Western Slope water providers.

Knowing that Denver Water controlled a quarter of the state’s water supply, it meant new conversations with the Western Slope water community. Those discussions started in 2006 between Denver Water and 42 Western Slope partners, ranging from water providers to local governments to ski resorts.

That eventually became the groundbreaking Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, first reached in 2011 and signed by all parties by 2013. The agreement resolved at least some of the historic fights over the Colorado River. It focused on efforts to improve the river’s health and looked for ways to provide additional water supplies to Denver Water…

Hickenlooper got one other big advantage during his time as mayor: The Denver Water board selected a new general manager, Jim Lochhead, who would continue the agenda set forth by the board and with Hickenlooper’s vision in hand. That took place in 2010.

Hickenlooper “made very thoughtful appointments” to the Denver Water board, including people like Tom Gougeon, John Lucero and George Beardsley, Lochhead told Colorado Politics. They were “really strong leaders with the ethics for moving Denver Water forward but with having us take a far-sighted approach with the Western Slope,” he said.

Part of a strategic plan

Hickenlooper says he tackled water issues again shortly after being elected governor in November 2010. The state found itself in another multi-year drought starting in 2011, and that’s when Hickenlooper asked if drought would be the new normal and how Colorado would deal with it.

He talked to other governors to research the best practices they employed, and found that what Colorado lacked was a comprehensive water plan, which he called a “serious vacuum” in the state’s framework. It was a risky proposition, given that Coloradans were historically polarized around the issue of water, he said.

There were things – like boosting water conservation – that he knew would be difficult. He knew rural Colorado’s farmers and ranchers did not want to be told what to do. “We couldn’t deny people the right to sell their property,” he said, referring to water rights. But the plan would look at how to incentivize farmers to at least temporarily lease their water rather than sell.

With the traditional east-west divide over water evolving with the completion of the Colorado River agreement, the time to strike came early on in Hickenlooper’s first term. He began asking his cabinet about a water plan.

According to James Eklund, who first served as Hickenlooper’s senior deputy legal counsel and then as director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the governor was asked if he was willing to spend his political capital by wading into the water wars.

“Some governors only touch (the issue) on a superficial level,” Eklund told Colorado Politics. Previous governors would go to the Colorado Water Congress (the state’s leading water advocacy organization), pound the table, say that water is the lifeblood of the West and then get out.”

After the discussions with the other governors, that wasn’t going to be Hickenlooper’s way. “We have no choice but to treat this as a serious discussion” and to engage in strategic planning, according to Eklund.

Hickenlooper – a former restaurateur – looks at everything through a business lens, Eklund said. That meant that if water is so important to Colorado’s bottom line and there isn’t a strategic plan, that’s not acceptable.

In May 2013, Hickenlooper announced he would task Eklund and the CWCB to come up with a state water plan…

In November 2015, the water plan was unveiled after more than 30,000 public comments from all over the state. “We wanted to make sure all the interests were represented, not just conservation,” Hickenlooper said. “We also put in water storage,” meaning reservoirs, but that also ruffled the feathers of environmentalists, he said.

Hickenlooper said he was most pleased with the ability of the basin roundtables – set up in that 2005 legislation – to take the long view, especially for groups historically polarized over water.

According to many in the water community, it’s the statewide water plan that most defines Hickenlooper’s water legacy…

‘Water at the forefront’

The water plan attempts to address what is now expected to be a 1 million acre-feet shortage of water in Colorado by 2050, based in part on projected population growth of another 3 to 5 million people on top of the state’s current population of 5.6 million.

It focuses on a number of strategic goals: 400,000 acre-feet of water to be gained through conservation, another 400,000 to be gained through new or enhanced storage (dams and reservoirs), and the rest from other steps, such as agricultural water sharing.

The plan has its detractors who have criticized it for lack of specific objectives in how to achieve those goals. And some lawmakers believe the General Assembly has been shut out of the process and that storage gets short shrift.

Senate President Pro Tem Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling told Colorado Politics that he’s been frustrated with the plan’s lack of attention to storage and that there hasn’t been enough emphasis on how to avoid “buy and dry” – the practice of buying up agricultural land for its water rights and then draining the land dry…

Sonnenberg disagrees that the water plan is a positive legacy for Hickenlooper.

“He tried to put the plan together and it didn’t get a lot of attention other than from the environmental community that wants to make sure we leave more water in the rivers. If you want to be a water leader with a water legacy, you must support water storage that is paid for by the communities planning for growth,” Sonnenberg said, citing the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP), which plans two reservoirs – Glade, near Fort Collins and Galeton, east of Greeley.

Sonnenberg complained that the governor has not yet endorsed those projects, although Hickenlooper did endorse two other reservoir projects two years ago: Chimney Hollow, near Loveland, and expansion of Gross Reservoir, near Boulder.

But Eric Wilkinson, who recently retired as general manager of Northern Water, which runs NISP, does believe in Hickenlooper’s water legacy.

“He was the first governor to put water at the forefront,” Wilkinson told Colorado Politics. He was pleased with Hickenlooper’s endorsement of Chimney Hollow, a Denver Water reservoir project, which he said tells federal agencies that the project has cleared Colorado’s permitting and is ready to go forward. That was part of the state water plan, too, Wilkinson noted.

ilkinson also pointed to the people Hickenlooper put in charge of water issues as part of the legacy: Stulp, Eklund and Becky Mitchell, the current head of the CWCB; and both of his heads of the Department of Natural Resources, first Mike King and now Bob Randall.

In the water plan, the balance between conservation and new storage is a pragmatic solution for the state’s future, Wilkinson said. “We need to have a greater ability to manage the water resources, and to do that, conservation is first, but infrastructure is very much needed. The water plan calls that out.”

The timing was right and the leadership was right, Stulp told Colorado Politics.

Hickenlooper saw what had been taking place for the past seven to eight years, after the formation of the basin roundtables, which came up with projects for their own regions. The time was right to pull all that together, Stulp said.

Eklund, now with the law firm Squire Patton Boggs, is still involved in water issues, partly as Colorado’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. He said Hickenlooper’s legacy isn’t only about the water plan; it’s also where he positioned Colorado internationally on water issues.

Colorado’s position as a headwater state that provides water to 18 downstream states and Mexico means “we punch above our weight on water policy,” Eklund said. The eyes of the water-stressed world are on the Southwest United States.

Colorado finally has a platform in that discussion by coming up with the water plan, which he called a “gold standard” for water planning. Other states and nations can look at what Colorado is doing and judge for themselves, he said.

Colorado now speaks with one voice on water, said Mitchell, who was in charge of water planning prior to becoming the CWCB’s latest director.

“The default starting point now on water talk is cooperation, not confrontation,” she told Colorado Politics.

The water plan shows what’s possible, she added, when people with polarized perspectives and faulty assumptions sit down together, listen and speak with civility and respect…

Hickenlooper told Colorado Politics he hopes the next governor recognizes the funding gap for implementing the plan. The General Assembly has so far devoted about $17 million over the past two budget cycles to funding projects in the water plan, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the need, which is estimated at around $20 billion.

Water providers are expected to shoulder most of that, but the state’s obligation is expected to be around $3 billion, at $100 million per year for 30 years, starting in 2020.

No one, including Hickenlooper, has come up with a solid plan for where that money is coming from. Lots of ideas have been floated, such as changes to the state’s severance tax structure on oil and gas operations – a no-go with Senate Republicans – bottle taxes, water tap fees and the like.

Hickenlooper said he believes funding for the water plan is sufficient for the next few years, but there is a gap, and at some point, the state will need to spend more money on water infrastructure…

That political courage, and part of the legacy, as Lochhead sees it, is that Hickenlooper opened the door for the next governor to come in and pick up where Hickenlooper ended and made it a little safer for a governor to jump into water issues.

So how does Hickenlooper view his legacy in water?

“If I was to look at the one thing that changed the most in my public life, it’s the collaborative approach,” the governor said. “This is everyone’s issue.”

Wringing what’s left out of the booming South Platte river basin

Development along the I-25 corridor north of Denver is booming, according to water providers in the South Platte basin. A new proposed storage and re-use plan will help meet demands they say.

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

KEYSTONE – Representatives of various water providers in the South Platte River basin said Wednesday they intend to develop a new water-storage project that includes 175,000 acre-feet of storage at three locations on the South Platte River system.

The potential project would store 50,000 acre-feet of water in Henderson, just north of Denver, 100,000 acre-feet in Kersey, downstream of Greeley, and 25,000-acre-feet further downriver on the Morgan County line at the Balzac Gage, east of Snyder.

By comparison, Ruedi Reservoir above Basalt holds about 100,000 acre-feet of water and Dillon Reservoir in Summit County holds about 257,000 acre-feet.

“We think we have something that could help the Front Range and the South Platte, and the state as a whole,” said Jim Yahn, who represents the South Platte basin on the Colorado Water Conservation Board and is manager of the North Sterling Irrigation District.

The proposal, which does not include a new transmountain diversion, is coming from an informal and collaborative working group that included officials from Denver Water, Aurora Water, and Northern Water, along with officials from other water providers and users, such as Yahn.

The group called itself the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group, or SPROWG, which rhymes with frog.

Now a new regional water organization is expected to be formed to guide the proposal toward permitting and funding, said Lisa Darling, the executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority.

Darling was on the working group and she was presenting the project to the members of the Interbasin Compact Committee, or IBCC, in Keystone on May 2.

She said the various water providers in the South Platte realized that “not unifying was not an option” and that the group developed “a series of projects that could be linked together to benefit everybody as a whole.”

Darling also said, “We have to be able to maintain control of the supply, and not have it leave the state unnecessarily.”

The South Platte River rises in the mountains west of Denver, runs through the city north to Greeley, and then turns east toward the Nebraska line.

According to slides presented to the IBCC, the reasons to do the big project because it would “maximize use and effectiveness of available water on South Platte” and “minimize traditional agricultural ‘buy and dry.’”

“There is no choice,” Darling told the IBCC. “We have to work together to do this, and we really don’t have a choice.”

The project, which would provide 50,000 acre-feet of “firm yield,” is based on capturing water in the river at times when it is physically and legally available, such as in wet years, and then storing it for release as needed in a regional water re-use system.

New facilities would include off-channel reservoirs, reclaimed gravel pits, and underground storage facilities, at the three strategic locations along the river to give providers more flexibility. There might also be some storage at Julesburg, near the Nebraska state line.

A key component of the project is a long pipeline and pump system from the lower river back to the metro area north of Denver, in order to re-use the water released earlier from the upstream storage facilities. Each time the water went through the system, up to 40 percent could be re-used, Yahn said.

“It’s a big one,” said Yahn, of the project. “It doesn’t fulfill all the needs, especially on the other basins, but on the South Platte it could be a pretty big deal.”

He also said the storage and re-use project would be in addition to all the other planned water projects in the South Platte basin, as listed in the “basin implementation plan” developed by the Metro and South Platte basin roundtables.

“It’s not in place of anything,” Yahn said. “It’s not in place of NISP (Northern Integrated Supply Project). It’s not in place of Gross (Reservoir) enlargement. It’s not in place of any of those other things that all of our entities are trying to do on the South Platte to meet some of our water demand.”

The project also builds upon a recently completed study of available storage sites in the lower South Platte basin. That study found there was available water to store, and a “long list of possible storage sites,” as well as a wide range of types of facilities, and costs.

A map shown by representatives of the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group to the members of the Interbasin Compact Committee on May 2, 2017, Keystone. The map shows three large water-storage facilities and a re-use pipeline back to the north metro area.

Help ag, and cities?

Yahn said that storage on the river upstream of irrigators on the lower South Platte would allow farmers to sell their water to cities in a more flexible way. They could, for example, fallow a portion of their fields instead of selling the whole farm.

He also said that would spread the potentially negative economic impact of “buy and dry,” which can change the economies of agricultural communities, across a bigger area in the South Platte basin.

“You’re not hurting, economically, any one area,” Yahn said. “You’re spreading it out and farmers are getting a little bit of extra money for their water, using it a little differently, treating it as a commodity, getting some interest out of it. But really, to do that, you need storage.”

Yahn also told the IBCC, “Basically, we’re trying to give farmer’s options. But you’ve got to have a place to put the water.”

Sean Cronin, the executive director of the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District in Longmont, also served on the working group, which was formed after the 2015 Colorado Water Plan was completed.

“I want to emphasize how significant this analysis and this effort has been, because it’s really a fundamental shift in how the South Platte was thinking of things at that time,” Cronin told the IBCC members. “It was told ‘you need to get your house in order.’ And this is very much in that vein, of getting the South Platte’s house in order.”

He also said “there is a sense of urgency for this. If you’ve traveled on I-25 between, say, north of Thornton to Ft. Collins, there is an absolute crazy boom going on right now in that corridor.”

A new home, complete with lush lawn, not far from I-25 in Thornton. The northern metro area is booming and water providers are willing to use 'buy-and-dry' as a way to move water from the ag sector to the municipal sector.

Price tag?

The project proponents did not provide a cost estimate during their presentation on Wednesday.

“As for costs, the number is, gazillions,” Darling told the IBCC members. “It is a very, very large number.”

But not large enough that the working group thought state funding would be needed.

“That was never really talked about at SPROWG, as to where the funding was coming from, or whether there was going to be state funding,” Cronin said. “In fact, it was sort of a presumption that the individual water providers would find enough value in this on a cost per acre foot that they could collectively get there and pull off a project. But we didn’t get there. There was no cost-benefit analysis.”

He said water from the Colorado-Big Thompson project, which serves the northern Front Range, was now “going for $38,000 an acre-foot, and developers aren’t even batting an eye, because houses are now going for $400,000. So, it is on in the South Platte.”

He said the storage and re-use project might actually take pressure off of water supplies from the Western Slope.

“The urgency for what we’re trying to do I think helps, ultimately, the West Slope because these guys are going to be scrambling for buy-and-dry, and when that’s all done they’re going to be looking elsewhere,” he said.

The Moffat Tunnel and water pipe, at Winter Park, is an example of existing transmountain diversion that brings water to the South Platte River basin. While the South Platte working group's project does include new transmountain water, there are concerns it could lead to more such water being shipped under the Continental Divide.

Interbasin view

The Interbasin Compact Committee, or IBCC, operates under the auspices of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and is charged with sorting out potential conflicts between basins, especially those brought up by transmountain diversions under the Continental Divide.

It includes two representatives from each of the state’s nine basin roundtables, six governor’s appointees and two members of the state legislature.

The South Platte project does not include new sources of West Slope water, but concerns were still raised by West Slope interests on the IBCCC last week that the South Platte project could eventually draw more water through existing transmountain diversions.

Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District who remains a governor’s appointee to the IBCC, suggested that the West Slope might want to see “some protections that these reservoirs don’t end up sitting there empty for a long time and that it doesn’t just drag additional transmountain water over the hill.”

T. Wright Dickinson, a rancher along the Green River, also serves as a governor’s appointee on the IBCC.

“I think the South Platte is clearly demonstrating what many around this table has asked, in the context of fully utilizing your own resources,” Dickinson said. “But I have a concern that the project could in fact pull water through existing projects – more water across the divide.”

Bruce Whitehead, the executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District in Durango, commented on the South Platte basin’s apparent stance that the project was happening regardless of what the West Slope thought.

“I’m a little concerned about ‘we’re moving forward, with or without you,’” Whitehead said. “I’m not sure that’s the way we’re going to get cooperation.”

He also suggested the West Slope might embrace the project if it also included “an acknowledgement there won’t be any more development of water from the West Slope.”

That drew a chuckle from some IBCC members, as Front Range water interests have said they do not intend to walk away from the Western Slope as a source of water.

There are two “water development concept workshops” set up for the public to learn more about the South Platte project, one on May 10 at 1:30 p.m. at Denver Water’s headquarters in Denver and one on May 15 at 3 p.m. at Northern Water’s headquarters in Berthoud.

Yahn said the two meeting locations does not mean the project is coming from Denver Water and Northern Water.

“Denver and Aurora were part of it, and Northern, but it wasn’t them,” Yahn said. “It was all of us just thinking outside the box together. And taking off our agency hats.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating on the coverage of rivers and waters with The Aspen Times. The Times published a shorter version of this story on Monday, May 7, 2018.