After more than four hours of impassioned pleas from members of the public Thursday night, Boulder County commissioners voted unanimously that Denver Water’s planned expansion of Gross Reservoir must go through the county’s review process.
That vote, affirming an earlier finding by Boulder County Land Use Director Dale Case, now poses a significant challenge for the utility, which serves 1.4 million water users in the Denver metro area — none of them in Boulder County — and claims the project is needed to meet the needs of metro population that’s just going to keep growing.
“I think it’s just critical that local people have their say on this project that affects them the most,” said Boulder County Commissioner Matt Jones, just before the vote was taken…
Denver Water’s plan had been to start construction this year on a project to raise the Gross Reservoir Dam in southwestern Boulder County by 131 feet to a height of 471 feet and to expand the reservoir’s capacity by 77,000 acre-feet.
The cost of the endeavor, said to be the biggest construction project ever contemplated in Boulder County, is now estimated at $464 million (in 2025 dollars) and could take at least six years to complete.
Boulder County Land Use Director Dale Case issued a finding on Oct. 22 that Denver Water’s plans, formally known as the Moffat Collection System Project,were subject to the county’s so-called “1041” review process — that number references the state House bill passed in 1974 allowing local governments to regulate matters of statewide interest through a local permitting process.
Denver Water however, has argued to the contrary.
“We contend that state law exempts the expansion from the 1041 process because it was permitted under local land use codes at the time that the state enacted the law authorizing the 1041 review process,” said Denver Water spokesman Travis Thompson.
Thursday looms as an important day for both proponents and opponents of an expansion at Gross Reservoir, as Boulder County commissioners meet to hear Denver Water officials make the case that the massive project should not be subject to the county review process.
Denver Water, which serves about 1.4 million customers in the Denver metro area, but none in Boulder County, had hoped to start construction this year on a project to raise the Gross Reservoir Dam in southwestern Boulder County by 131 feet to a height of 471 feet and expend the reservoir’s capacity by 77,000 acre-feet.
The project is subject of a federal lawsuit filed by a half-dozen environmental groups, and still must also obtain a licensing amendment at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in order to go forward.
Boulder County Land Use Director Dale Case on Oct. 22 issued a finding that Denver Water’s plans were subject to the county’s so-called “1041” review process, a decision Denver Water asked without success for Case to reconsider, before finally appealing the question to the commissioners.
Commissioners will hear Denver Water’s appeal starting 4:30 p.m. Thursday in a public hearing expected to last at least four hours. It will take place in the commissioners’ third-floor hearing room at 1325 Pearl St. in Boulder.
In-person sign-ups to speak will be taken beginning an hour in advance of the hearing, and commissioners are expected to issue a decision that night.
It’s important to pick metaphors carefully. Writers try to explain complex subjects in few words and in ways everyone can understand. Metaphors — words or phrases that imply that one thing can symbolically represent another — become one way to accomplish that task. This thought crossed my mind when I attended the 6th Annual Poudre River Forum on Feb. 1. (See http://prti.colostate.edu/forum_2019.shtml)
Trying to sort out what allows a river to serve human needs while still providing the ecological services that keeps the world over which it flows alive is about as complex a problem as one can imagine. So, I picked my article title carefully. Rivers do not deliver water like a concrete ditch. Instead, like the arteries and veins of a living organism, they convey not only water, but also oxygen, nutrients and host of microbial servants to needed destinations in the biosphere. As we use a river’s resources for human needs, we should take her pulse regularly to ensure the health of the greater body she nourishes.
After attending the forum last year, I wrote a four-month series in the “North Forty News” that ran from March to June 2018. Please refer to that for background information on some of the basic issues of Poudre River ecology and management. This year I would like to focus on some of the people who make the forum work, and the process of talking TO each other rather than AT each other. That process was largely established under the leadership of MaryLou Smith, policy and collaboration specialist with the Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University. Since she will retire after this year, someone else must replace her leadership — and her optimism.
John Stokes, head of the Natural Areas Department of the city of Fort Collins, made a special point of highlighting Smith’s optimism. It’s easy to get pessimistic about complex problems with no simple solutions, but Smith manages to stay upbeat. She says she has “devoted her career to encouraging an open dialogue between people.” That was exemplified in 2011 when the concept for the Forum first developed.
In 2011, Ray Caraway, chief executive officer of Community Foundations of Northern Colorado, invited Smith to host a community forum discussing issues relating to NISP — the Northern Integrated Supply Project (https://www.northernwater.org/sf/nisp/home) — a collection of communities along the Front Range intending to build Glade Reservoir northwest of Fort Collins. Opposed by Friends of the Poudre and other conservation groups, Smith felt that a conference built solely around NISP would tend to create more polarization. She proposed the Poudre River Forum instead, with the intent of bringing together a wide swath of people from agriculture, urban planning, recreation, conservation and business — all with a stake in maintaining “a healthy working river.”
This year, approximately 360 people met to have that discussion — roughly, a 17 percent increase over last year. Smith said she was gratified that discussions at the various tables seemed earnest and forthright. They listened to water commissioners, city managers, water lawyers, engineers, ecologists, farmers, conservationists, land developers, and others. The keynote speaker, Professor Edward B. Barbier, from the Department of Economics at Colorado State University, tackled the growing problem of water scarcity. (Yale University Press will release his new book about this problem, “Water Paradox,” in February.)
Another Colorado State researcher, Brad Udall (not in attendance at this conference), highlighted this problem in a 2017 study published in “Water Resources Research.” Colorado River flows in the 21st century are 19 percent lower than those in the 20th. Predicted flows could drop by up to 55 percent by 2100 as a consequence of global warming. (See “Re-engineering the Colorado River” in the February issue of Scientific American.) We can expect similar reduced flows in the Poudre River.
Ecologist Dr. LeRoy Poff from Colorado State said, “We need to face up to the ecological damage our pioneering spirit has caused to the Poudre River.” To do that requires gathering the data necessary to understand just what makes a river healthy. In an online report (https://natsci.source.colostate.edu/sustainable-dams-possible-csu-expert-weighs/) he said, “As a researcher, I am concerned about biodiversity conservation, and about sustaining rivers at a level of functional integrity that enables them to provide both biodiversity support as well as ecosystem goods and services.”
Two lawsuits making their way through the federal court system are challenging two significant water projects in Colorado designed to divert more water from the Colorado, Fraser and Williams Fork river basins in Grand County.
The projects — Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s Windy Gap Firming project and Denver Water’s Moffat Collection System Project — would provide a combined firm yield of 48,000 acre-feet of water for the sprawling Front Range.
But environmental groups say government agencies violated the law in the environmental permitting processes of both projects.
“Our biggest claim is that [the agencies] claim they looked at reasonable alternatives [to the projects],” said Gary Wockner, the director of Save the Colorado, the lead plaintiff on both cases. “But they didn’t look at conservation or efficiency. Water providers are trying to go to big water projects first and not the cheaper option of conservation.”
Both Northern and Denver Water say they factored in conservation efforts when they calculated water demand and that even aggressive conservation efforts won´t be enough to meet water demand in the future.
“There are only a few answers for water supply in the future and Windy Gap Firming is one of those options,” said Brad Wind, the general manager of Northern Water. “Without that project, I can’t fathom where we will end up.”
But some water experts say that the state’s use of population growth as one of the major drivers of water demand was flawed.
“As population goes up, water demand continues to go down and it’s been that way for decades,” said Mark Squillace, a water law expert at the University of Colorado Law School.
The phenomenon of increasing populations with declining water use is known as “decoupling,” and it has been happening in nearly every part of Colorado since the 1990s.
Higher efficiency appliances, utility-driven conservation programs and greater citizen awareness of water shortages have all driven the change.
But water managers say the state’s growing urban areas are reaching the point of “demand hardening,” where the additional water that can be conserved will not outweigh the amount needed in the future.
“We have been hearing those kind of stories for a long time and it never happens,” Squillace said. “There are a lot of things that we could still do on the conservation end that would be a lot cheaper [than new infrastructure] and a lot more consistent with the environment that we live in.”
While they differ, the pair of lawsuits being spearheaded by Save the Colorado could both hinge on demand and conservation estimates, and the assumption that additional conservation won’t be sufficient in the future.
Both lawsuits were filed in federal district court and are now awaiting action by a judge to move forward.
The Windy Gap Firming case was filed in October of 2017 against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Moffat Collection System case was filed in December against the Army Corps, the U.S. Interior Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Both the Windy Gap and Moffat projects were conceived decades ago to address projected water shortages on Colorado’s Front Range and to add resilience to both Northern and Denver Water’s supplies.
Now estimated to cost about $600 million, the Windy Gap project will include a new 90,000 acre-foot reservoir in western Larimer county called Chimney Hollow Reservoir.
The reservoir is designed to store water from the Colorado and Fraser rivers transported from the Western Slope through the existing infrastructure of the Colorado-Big Thompson project.
Windy Gap Reservoir, built in 1985, is created by a low river-wide dam across the main stem of the Colorado River, just downstream from where the Fraser River flows in.
The reservoir is relatively small, holding 445-acre feet, but it’s well situated to gather water from the Fraser, pump it up to Lake Granby and Grand Lake, and then send it through the Adams Tunnel under the Continental Divide.
With the Moffat project, Denver Water plans to spend an estimated $464 million in order to expand Gross Reservoir in Boulder County, by raising the height of the dam by 131 feet, in order to store an additional 77,000 acre-feet of water.
Gross Reservoir is a part of the utility’s existing northern collection system and is filled with water from the headwaters of the Fraser and Williams Fork river basins. The water is moved through a pipeline in the Moffat Tunnel, which runs east through the mountains from the base of the Winter Park ski area.
The fork not taken
The plans to expand Gross Reservoir started in 1990 after the EPA rejected Denver Water’s plan to build Two Forks Reservoir on the South Platte River.
The EPA’s rejection of Two Forks signaled the end of an era of large dams and forced groups planning large water infrastructure projects to give more consideration to the environmental impacts of their plans.
Following this rebuke, Denver Water turned to the environmental groups that had opposed their project and solicited advice.
Throughout the 1990s, the utility implemented water conservation and recycling programs and started making plans to expand an existing reservoir instead of building a new dam.
“We embarked on the path that the environmental groups suggested. We implemented a conservation program and reduced our demands,” said Jim Lochhead, the CEO and manager of Denver Water. “But you can’t get to zero. We continue to be committed to conservation, but at the end of the day we still need more water.”
In partnership with environmental groups like Western Resource Advocates and Trout Unlimited, Denver Water has agreed to spend $20 million on environmental improvements in watersheds on the Western Slope as part of the Gross Reservoir expansion.
Denver Water has also agreed to a monitoring program that will require them to mitigate any unforeseen environmental problems caused by the project, a compromise between environmental groups and the largest water utility in the state.
“In some sense this project was the development of an alternative from a number of groups,” said Bart Miller, the director of the Healthy Rivers Program at Western Resource Advocates. “In some respect you are putting this in context next to what could happen or could have happened.”
Concerned with having their own projects fail, as Two Forks did, other water managers emulated Denver Water’s strategy.
When Northern Water started planning for the Windy Gap Firming project it also reached out to environmental groups, and ended up committing $23 million to mitigate problems caused by past projects and to make other improvements in the upper Colorado River watershed.
Even though there will be impacts from taking more water from the river, Northern Water says that these “environmental enhancements” will leave the river better off than it would be without the project.
And environmental groups working on the project agree.
“There is a lot of damage on the river that will continue to go on without an intervention,” said Mely Whiting, legal counsel for Trout Unlimited. “This is probably the best shot.”
While some environmental groups have seen compromise as the best step forward, Save the Colorado and the other plaintiffs in the two lawsuits take a harder stance.
Save the Colorado, in particular, is against any new dams or diversions.
“The river has already been drained enough,” Wockner said. “The mitigation, in our mind, is not consequential.”
Colorado and the six other states that use Colorado River water are now negotiating a plan to better manage Lake Powell and Lake Mead in response to drought and acidification.
Last week, an engineer from Northern Water told the city council of Loveland that it may have to take a ten percent cut in the water it draws from the headwaters of the Colorado River, sending the water instead to Lake Powell, where water is held before being moved through the Grand Canyon and into Lake Mead for use in California, Arizona and Nevada.
And Northern’s statement did not go unnoticed by the plaintiffs in the Windy Gap and Moffat lawsuits.
“The old guard in water have the default setting that we need to build more reservoirs and we need to find more ways to bring water from the western slope,” said Kevin Lynch, the lawyer representing the environmental groups in the Windy Gap Firming case. “The argument my clients are hoping to make with this case is that that may have made sense in the past but it doesn’t now. We are definitely trying to buck the status quo and change the historical way of doing things.”
Lynch and his team are arguing that the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corp of Engineers — the two government agencies being sued in the Windy Gap Firming case — failed to update and independently verify the water demand data used to justify the project.
To back up this allegation, the plaintiffs petitioned the court to include a statistics report in the administrative record.
The report, which looks at water use statistics in communities with stakes in Windy Gap Firming water, showed that their demand projections made back when the agencies conducted their environmental assessments were between 9 and 97 percent higher than the actual water use rates in those areas.
The lawyers in the Moffat Project lawsuit also found that Denver Water used old data from 2002 to project their demands future demands.
The complaint filed by the plaintiffs says that the Army Corps and the Department of the Interior — which are the two agencies being sued in the Moffat case along with the Fish and Wildlife Service — ignored more recent data that was available when they conducted their assessments.
“If they were to use today’s data they would no way be able to justify that they need the water,” said Bill Eubanks, the lawyer for the plaintiffs in the Moffat Project case. “Here we are talking about almost two decades. Two decades where we have seen the most transformative uses of water in a century.”
Both legal teams say that even if the data did reveal a demand for more water, the agencies failed to analyze the alternatives to two large infrastructure projects, including conservation.
Specifically, Wockner and Eubanks both spoke about how a “cash for grass” program — where the government pays people to dry up their lawns — was never analyzed as an alternative. Looking at similar programs in California, they say the same amount of water could be saved, but for less money than either of the two infrastructure projects.
To this claim both Northern Water and Denver Water say that additional conservation measures are already planned for the future, but that they are not enough.
“The state has done a lot of studies for need for water on the Front Range,” said Jeff Drager, Northern Water’s director of engineering and the project manager for the WIndy Gap firming project. “We agree that there can be more conservation, but it won’t be enough to meet our participants needs.”
Due to a long backlog in the court, both lawsuits are unlikely to see their day in court any time soon. According to both lawyers, it could be months or years until the cases are decided. The court’s slow pace could impact the construction of both projects.
Citing the lawsuit, Northern Water delayed bonds to build the project back in August.
Executives at Northern say they are using the time to hammer out the last of the details of the project’s design, but that if the project is delayed it may cause costs to rise or endanger the water supplies of the project’s participants.
Denver Water is still waiting on several permits before they can begin planning construction and is less concerned about a delay. Both Lochhead and Wind say they believe that the projects will go forward once the lawsuits are resolved.
“We feel confident that our permitting processes are on solid ground,” Wind said. “I don’t think there is anyone in this organization at all that has thought this lawsuit would be effective.”
While both Northern Water and Denver Water are confident that their projects will move forward, the plaintiffs in the cases are hoping for an upset that could topple the entire water system in Colorado.
“If we win this case, using this particularly egregious example of inaccurate water demand projections, we think we can set a precedent that would force the state to look at more recent data for different types of projects,” Eubanks said.
After the third 10-year voter approval of the county one-percent sales tax was passed, Park County commissioners voted Jan. 24 to eliminate any person on the Land and Water Trust Fund board who owns or administers water rights.
The specific language in Section 3(e) of the 2019 resolution reads “No member of the board shall be a member of the governing body, employee, agent or representative of any public or private entity engaged in acquiring, operating or maintaining water rights, water systems, water structures or water augmentation plans, or shall otherwise have a conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest in relation to his or her service on the board.”
Two current members, Dan Drucker and County Manager Tom Eisenman, work for entities that own and administer water rights and associated augmentation plan.
The resolution did not address when the two would be removed, immediately or when their terms expire.
One exception to the new rule is that a member of family-owned ranches and farms with water rights may still be appointed to the LWTF board…
The 2019 change was made “to prohibit people from serving on the board that may not have the best interest of Park County in mind, but are serving other water organizations with their own water interests,” Commissioner Dick Elsner told The Flume…
The 2019 resolution added that all members must be registered to vote in Park County.
Elsner said the requirement was to make sure Park County people are making the decision on how to spend Park County money.
Reilly, now 79, is the former Environmental Protection Agency administrator who vetoed the Two Forks project that in 1990 sought to dam the South Platte upstream from the one stop sign in the mountain town of Deckers.
“It was all systems go,” Reilly said last week, and the 20 miles of irreplaceable trout habitat where hundreds of kids like me learned to fly fish would be nothing more than a sad bedtime story.
This fragile, world-class trout fishery would have been flooded below the 615-foot Two Forks dam, a structure roughly the size of Hoover Dam. Twenty-five miles southwest of Denver and 42 miles northwest from Colorado Springs, six towns and a priceless outdoor recreation area would have been washed away.
So thank you.
“How’s the river doing, anyway?” Reilly asked before his keynote speech for Colorado Trout Unlimited’s annual River Stewardship Gala here Thursday.
Really well, considering. The Hayman fire was rough on everybody, and the trout populations are gradually returning. But here’s the real catch: At least this stretch of river still exists.
Thanks to Reilly.
As Reilly told it from his home in San Francisco, the Two Forks dam was “a foregone conclusion from every angle” when the late George H.W. Bush hired him as head of the EPA in 1989.
“You don’t bring the World Wildlife president into the EPA to just sit there. You want drive, action,” Reilly said. “I was determined in my authority to make him the environmental president.”
Damming the confluence of the north and south forks of the South Platte was long viewed as a solution to the water demands of the Denver suburbs that grew another neighborhood in the time you read this…
Reilly is not a fisherman. That’s the funny part. But he saw the water battles here in a different light. He observed a metro area that “had no real water metering at the time,” where the tradition of Western water waste ran wild, where sprinklers flipped on while it was raining…
One, “Nothing in our field is ever final. This could return, or something like it. There will be a future generation that believes the time is right and a project like this is worth it,” he said.
Two, “Lobbying, communication, data, analysis with details, honesty and integrity, it all works in our system. It really does. I know a lot of activists despair that it doesn’t, but it does.
“I don’t think we knew there were so many fishermen in the country. It seemed like half of them wrote to us,” Reilly said. “The government, they were a little bit taken aback. They had some negative blow-back, but then there was a cascade of positive mail from fishermen that came in.”
The upper South Platte River, above the confluence with the North Fork of the South Platte. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The South Platte Hotel building that sits at the Two Forks site, where the North and South forks of the South Platte River come together. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The South Platte Hotel was a popular stop for people traveling on the #railroad along the #SouthPlatteRiver. #TBT photo from 1925.
Bipartisan bill would designate PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under our environmental protection laws
U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Cory Gardner (R-CO), with a bipartisan group of colleagues, today introduced legislation that would mandate the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), within one year of enactment, declare per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as hazardous substances eligible for cleanup funds under the EPA Superfund law, and also enable a requirement that polluters undertake or pay for remediation.
“It is inexcusable that the Trump administration continues to delay action to address PFAS contamination across the country,” Bennet said. “This bipartisan bill will ensure contaminated sites are cleaned up and resources are available to communities in Colorado so they have access to safe drinking water. Passing this measure is one of many steps we must take to address this public health threat with the urgency it requires.”
“This bipartisan legislation will allow EPA to pursue polluters responsible for PFAS contamination and provide the communities remediation options through Superfund,” Gardner said. “PFAS contamination is a serious issue facing our communities and we need to act quickly to address this challenge. I will continue working to make sure Coloradans have access to clean and safe drinking water.”
In May 2018, former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that EPA would propose designating PFOA and PFOS, two specific PFAS chemicals, as “hazardous substances” through one of the available statutory mechanisms, including CERCLA Section 102. Nearly a year later, on February 14, 2019, EPA released its long-anticipated PFAS Action Plan. The plan included another commitment by EPA to make that designation for PFOA and PFOS, but did not identify the available statutory mechanism it would use, nor how long the designation process would take to complete.
Clear and swift action from Congress to list PFAS as hazardous substances under CERCLA would advance the action already proposed by EPA, enabling the agency to protect human health and the environment in an expeditious manner.
Bennet’s reaction to the EPA’s plan, and his record of two years of work to address PFAS in Colorado and across the country, is available HERE.
In addition to Bennet and Gardner, original cosponsors include U.S. Senators Tom Carper (D-DE), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Gary Peters (D-MI), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Jack Reed (D-RI), Lisa Murkowski (R-AL), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Richard Burr (R-NC), and Joe Manchin (D-WV). U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) led the introduction of companion legislation in the House of Representatives earlier this Congress.
The senators’ PFAS Action Plan for 2019 comes after the Environmental Protection Agency was criticized by environmental groups and affected residents for not going further in its plan for addressing the chemicals.
The bipartisan legislation — Bennet is a Democrat, Gardner a Republican — mandates the EPA declare all perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, man-made compounds also known as PFAS, as “hazardous substances” within one year of the bill’s passage. The designation would clear the way for the EPA to use Superfund money to clean up contaminated sites, while opening the door for the government to sue polluters for cleanup costs.
“It seems like a positive step,” said Meghan Hughes, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “It really could be a driver for PFAS groundwater investigations and contaminations (cleanups) across the state.”
The legislation does not address any other aspect of the EPA’s oversight of those chemicals, such as whether the agency should regulate the chemicals in a similar fashion as lead, cyanide and mercury.
Should it pass, it’s impact on southern El Paso County — where the drinking water of tens of thousands of Security, Widefield and Fountain residents was tainted — remained unclear Friday.
The Air Force is in the midst of a yearslong process to address the chemicals that is similar to the federal Superfund program, due to the decadeslong use of a firefighting foam containing the toxic chemicals at Peterson Air Force Base that was detected in groundwater.
The Air Force is still investigating the contamination — a process that was expected to take years. And any cleanup steps — such as removing the chemicals from the Widefield aquifer — have not been announced, nor has money been allocated for such cleanup efforts.
In the meantime, water districts serving Security, Widefield and Fountain have spent millions of dollars installing treatment systems and piping in water from elsewhere to remove the chemicals from residents’ tap water to nondetectable levels.
Two other communities in Colorado — in Boulder and Adams counties — also have discovered the chemicals in their drinking water. Both contamination sites were near fire departments that used the same toxic firefighting foam that was a mainstay at Peterson Air Force Base, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.