Major #SouthPlatteRiver basin project would maximize #reuse of Western Slope water, report says — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The South Platte River runs by a utility plant near I-25 in Denver. The South Platte River runs by an electricity plant near I-25 in Denver. A project proposed by the South Platte Regional Opportunities Water Group would allow Front Range water managers to maximize the reuse of Colorado River water. Photo credit: Lindsay Fendt/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Lindsay Fendt):

A multibillion-dollar reservoir and pipeline project may one day pull more than 50,000 acre-feet of water per year from the South Platte River before it reaches Nebraska. That’s more than 16 billion gallons of water, enough to fill 25,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The possible project is laid out in a new report from the South Platte Regional Opportunities Water Group, or SPROWG, a group of water managers from the Front Range. If built, the project would enable Front Range water managers to repeatedly reuse water diverted from the Colorado River, something Western Slope water managers have long encouraged and see as a welcome shift.

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

“There is a lot of fully reusable water that makes its way down the South Platte,” said Eric Kuhn, a retired manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District who now writes about Colorado River issues. “This is something that people on the Western Slope have been trying to encourage for probably 70 years.”

The group used a $350,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the South Platte Basin and Metro Basin roundtables to complete the year-long study, which was released in March. The group members hope the project could help close a water-supply gap of as much as 540,000 acre-feet that the state is projecting for the South Platte River basin by 2050.

Since the 1930s, Front Range water planners have looked west to bolster their water supplies. An elaborate series of reservoirs, underground tunnels and pipelines now conveys about 400,000 acre-feet of water annually from the Colorado River headwaters to the South Platte basin.

Water is diverted from the Colorado, Fraser, Blue, Eagle, Fryingpan and Roaring Fork rivers in Grand, Summit, Eagle and Pitkin counties and sent under the Continental Divide to the South Platte basin.

Large projects on the South Platte were previously written off due to the high costs of water treatment, but as the cost and controversy surrounding transmountain diversions have grown, a project such as SPROWG — which would have seemed expensive decades ago — is now on par with most other supplies of water. Depending on which concept configuration is used and whether the water will need to be treated, building the project would cost between $1.2 billion and $3.4 billion to build.

The South Platte River runs near a farm in Henderson, Colorado, northeast of Denver. Henderson is the site of one of the possible reservoirs for the regional water project proposed by SPROWG. Photo credit: Lindsay Fendt/Aspen Journalism

Use to extinction

Each of SPROWG’s storage concepts would capture stormwater and native South Platte water during wet years. While the project would not be used to store water from existing or future transmountain diversions, it would capture water from the Colorado River that made its way back to the river as a return flow after being used elsewhere within the basin.

“SPROWG is not intended to store supplies from an existing or new transmountain diversion project (though it will provide a means to utilize unused reusable return flows from transmountain diversions),” the report said.

Once water is transferred over the mountains to the Front Range, it can legally be used to extinction, meaning that it can return to the river as runoff, be recaptured and be used again perpetually. By decree, certain volumes of Colorado River water can only be reused within a certain area, something the SPROWG project would need to ensure.

“If they are going to take the water in the first place, they should make sure they are reusing that water to the full extent possible,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which was formed in 1937 to protect Western Slope water.

Although the SPROWG project does not require more water from the Western Slope, it is not considered a replacement supply for any of the existing water that the region takes from the Colorado River system. Despite the continued need of existing transmountain diversions, Mueller sees the project as an acknowledgement by at least some on the Front Range that the Colorado River is no longer a feasible option for future water supplies.

“I think there are a number of operators of Front Range systems that recognize that the Colorado River system has hit its limit,” he said.

While Western Slope water managers interviewed for this story were all generally supportive of the project, the Colorado Basin Roundtable, which represents different water districts and users within the basin, has not yet taken a formal opinion on it.

Conceptual projects outlined by SPROWG will allow water managers to reuse Colorado River water. Three of the four project alternatives include an approximately 80-mile pump-and-pipeline system that would move water from a reservoir in Balzac, northeast of Denver, uphill to the metro area. Graphic credit: SPROWG

Conceptual project

The concepts outlined in the report are still far from a fully formed project, as no steps have been taken toward permitting, acquiring land or even identifying a user for the water. But SPROWG members hope that the analysis could be the first step toward a basinwide water project, a cooperative effort not typical of other large water projects.

“It just seems like something that we need to do, organizing the basin and helping the basin function as efficiently as possible,” said Matt Lindburg, SPROWG’s senior engineering consultant. “It will definitely be a project and concept that folks want to pursue.”

The report analyzed four possible storage and pipeline configurations that would collect agricultural water returned to the lower South Platte as runoff from the region’s farms, and then pump it back to the Denver metro area.

Three of the four project alternatives include an approximately 80-mile pump-and-pipeline system that would move water from a reservoir in Balzac, northeast of Denver, uphill to the metro area. The pipeline would allow the metro area to reuse some water that it already returned to the river as runoff or through water-treatment plants. The conceptual reservoirs could store between 220,000 and 409,000 acre-feet of water.

The idea to design a basinwide water project came from conclusions in the South Platte Storage Study, a 2018 analysis of basin-water supplies that was funded by the Colorado legislature.

That study found that the state was sending an average of 293,000 acre-feet more water down the South Platte and into Nebraska than what is required by the South Platte River Compact, an agreement between the two states that governs how much water Colorado is able to take from the river.

The SPROWG project would be designed to capture some of this water while remaining within the confines of the compact. The report suggested that water could be reused rather than the basin continuing to rely on either Western Slope or agricultural water.

In recent decades, agriculture along the South Platte has been the other main source of water for growing municipalities. Municipal governments buy out farms with senior water rights and dry up the fields, sending the water to the cities.

“This is probably the only other option on the table,” said Joe Frank, general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District. “We want to do as much as we can to minimize the pressure on those other sources of water.”

The report also shows that the cost of the water from the projects would be consistent with other projects in the region — between $18,400 and $22,600 per acre-foot for untreated water and between $33,600 and $43,200 for treated water.

Whether cities will need additional South Platte water in the future, some of it is already spoken for. In March, 600,000 cranes — 80% of the world population — will visit an 80-mile stretch of the mainstem of the Platte River in Nebraska, where the birds fatten up on grain before a long migration north. Water flowing in the river makes this spectacle possible.

Even if the SPROWG concept were built, it would need to work within the confines of the Platte River Recovery Program, which was created to help protect these cranes and other endangered species on the river.

The recovery program, which secured additional water and land for habitat, has led to a dramatic increase in the population of endangered birds during migration season in Nebraska. SPROWG’s designers say they would work within the program, timing reservoir releases and saving water for specific ecological needs, but the report does not include a full environmental analysis.

Aspen Journalism is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the April 25 edition of The Aspen Times.

Study: $3.2B-plus collaborative water system on #SouthPlatteRiver could work, may signal new era of cooperation — @WaterEdCO

Ducks patrol the South Platte River as construction workers shore up bank. Oct. 8, 2019. Credit: Jerd Smith

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

As COVID-19 continues to roil Colorado and the world, experts are suggesting that the pandemic may teach all of us to work together better. If that’s the case, then a collaborative water system for the Front Range may be a harbinger of things to come, according to a new study.

Released March 10, just days after Colorado reported its first cases of COVID-19, the study indicates that if Front Range cities band together to build a large-scale water reuse and delivery system, water sufficient to serve 100,000 homes could be developed.

It would rely on moving water between cities and farms, building new pipelines, as well as storing water underground and in off-channel reservoirs, and could be done without tapping new sources on the West Slope.

Such a project, if built, would cost $3.2 billion to $4.4 billion, according to the study, a price that is in line with other water delivery systems now being developed.

That cost includes 50 years of operations and maintenance and assumes the water would likely need to be heavily treated.

The study comes as the Front Range faces the most acute water shortages in the state, with a gap between water supply and demand for municipal and industrial users of as much as 540,000 acre-feet projected by 2050, according to a recent analysis by the state. Farmers could face a gap nearly twice that large, particularly in dry years.

Lisa Darling, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority, helped oversee the study. She said once Colorado recovers from COVID-19, she hopes communities will be able to use it as a roadmap toward future water supplies. (Editor’s note: Darling is president of Water Education Colorado, the non-partisan nonprofit that sponsors Fresh Water News.)

“It shows that it’s feasible, and it will allow people to see exactly what it might look like,” she said.

The South Platte Regional Opportunities Water Group (SPROWG), a group that includes dozens of Front Range water districts, sponsored the work. The study analyzed different alternatives for capturing water in the South Platte River as it approaches the Nebraska border, an area where flows are typically more abundant than they are closer to metro Denver, where the river is heavily used and its waters largely claimed by existing users.

Because the river’s supplies in average years are already spoken for, any new water would be developed by capturing some during flood years and, in other years, reusing water already diverted from other basins via new water treatment plants and pipelines, making that water supply go farther.

Funded by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) and several cities, including Denver and Aurora, the study was geared to help taxpayers from metro Denver to Brighton to Greeley and beyond determine whether they want such a project, how it would be configured, and who would benefit and shoulder the cost.

A group called the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group, or SPROWG, is proposing to store 175,000 acre-feet of water in a series of reservoirs on the South Platte River, from north of Denver to the Morgan County line. The project also includes a long pipeline to pump water from the river back to the metro area to be cleaned and re-used. Graphic credit: CWCB via Aspen Journalism

“The price tag sounds like a lot, but it is comparable to other projects in the South Platte Basin,” said Mary Presecan, a consultant with Leonard Rice Engineers and one of the study’s authors.

Water sold through the Loveland-based Colorado-Big Thompson Project is selling for $78,000 to $92,000 an acre-foot, Presecan said, while the SPROWG study analysis shows water developed through this new partnership would cost from $44,000 to $58,000 an acre-foot. An acre-foot equals nearly 326,000 gallons, enough water to serve on average two urban homes for one year.

In addition to water for fast-growing small communities, the study examined providing water to farmers on the Eastern Plains. These farmers control some of the oldest, most senior water rights in the region, but the water is increasingly being sold to thirsty cities, threatening local economies and the livelihoods of farmers left behind, and ultimately reducing the state’s ability to grow food.

A collaborative reuse project could provide additional water to water-short farms, as much as 35,000 acre-feet a year, allowing them to maintain their agricultural production.

“If there is an opportunity to be part of a regional partnership and address the ag gaps, we are all for it,” said Joe Frank, general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, a sponsor of the study.

“SPROWG is a concept where we are starting at a high level and drilling down. Can we bring the whole [South Platte River] Basin together to figure out if this can work,” Frank said.

Early on, the study drew fire from West Slope interests and environmental groups, who feared it would inevitably lead to bigger efforts to tap the drought-stressed Colorado River and could harm the South Platte River.

But feedback from dozens of meetings with citizens, environmentalists, taxpayers and water officials during the past year led the study’s authors to conclude that the project can be structured in such a way to provide environmental benefits, as well as water for cities and farms.

“This is a collaborative way, and an innovative way to conjunctively manage and use a variety of water sources for multiple beneficiaries,” said Matt Lindburg, a consultant with Brown and Caldwell and one of the study’s authors.

State water officials, such as Gail Schwartz, who represents the Colorado River Basin on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said she believed the regional, collaborative premise underlying the early work could be utilized elsewhere.

“It’s a great model for collaborative thinking,” she said, at the CWCB’s March board meeting in Lakewood. “I think it could work for other parts of the state too.”

Whether the pandemic will bench the work on this new South Platte water delivery planning isn’t clear yet.

But Frank is optimistic work will continue. “The pandemic could slow us down, but it definitely won’t stop us. Now the next step will be determining [which communities] are really serious about coming together and taking this to the next level,” he said.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Editorial: #Nebraska should be vigilant to protect its #SouthPlatteRiver water allocation — Omaha World-Herald

The Platte River is formed in western Nebraska east of the city of North Platte, Nebraska by the confluence of the North Platte and the South Platte Rivers, which both arise from snowmelt in the eastern Rockies east of the Continental Divide. Map via Wikimedia.

From The Omaha World-Herald editorial board:

Momentum is building in Colorado to create new reservoirs to draw more water from the South Platte River, reducing the flow into Nebraska. Nebraska officials should monitor this situation closely, now and in coming years, to make sure the water volume continues to meet the requirements under a 1923 South Platte River agreement between the two states.

Maintaining a proper flow in the Platte River — formed by the confluence of the South Platte and North Platte Rivers in western Nebraska — is crucial to our state’s agriculture, hydropower and long-term metropolitan water sources for Omaha and Lincoln.

Colorado apparently has considerable room at present to make further diversions and still remain in compliance. “In many years, more water is passing that gauging station at the state line than needs to” under the agreement, Colorado State Engineer Kevin Rein says.

A group called the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group, or SPROWG, is proposing to store 175,000 acre-feet of water in a series of reservoirs on the South Platte River, from north of Denver to the Morgan County line. The project also includes a long pipeline to pump water from the river back to the metro area to be cleaned and re-used. Graphic credit: CWCB via Aspen Journalism

The proposed reservoirs, to serve Front Range urban residents, would keep about 150,000 acre-feet of water in Colorado, the Denver Post reports. That’s about half of the estimated amount that Colorado lawmakers claim their state can legally divert on average each year under the 1923 agreement. For comparison: When full, Nebraska’s Lake McConaughy has a capacity of 1.74 million acre-feet.

A 1993 study of Nebraska water history by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln stated, “Some Nebraskans may still bemoan that the state gave away too much water to Colorado in the South Platte Compact of 1923, but it was a voluntary agreement.”

The tremendous metro growth in Colorado’s Front Range is spurring the call for new reservoirs. Urban groundwater levels are declining in the face of dramatically increased demand. Meanwhile, agricultural producers in Colorado’s South Platte River basin support reservoir creation as a way to safeguard their own groundwater from urban diversion. Officials in western Colorado are in favor, saying the South Platte water could reduce the current allocation of western Colorado water to the Front Range via tunnels. Supportive, too, are Colorado water-policy officials, who included the South Platte reservoir concept in their 2015 State Water Plan.

In short, a wide-ranging set of powerful urban and rural interests in Colorado have come together to press for more South Platte water. “We owe it to our state, to our water users and our farmers to capture as much water as we can” out of the South Platte, said Joe Frank, manager of Colorado’s Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District.

Nebraskans can take heart that strong legal protections are in place to safeguard the significant water volume the state receives via the North Platte River, a vital irrigation source. The river supplies Lake McConaughy, for example, with its wide-ranging irrigation and groundwater recharge role for more than half a million acres in the Platte River valley, plus hydropower generation and recreation.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a decree in 1945 setting out a legal framework for interstate water allocation along the North Platte. In 2001, Nebraska and Wyoming reached a settlement on sharing North Platte water after 15 years of legal wrangling. The agreement essentially froze Wyoming’s water use at the 2001 level and stipulated that groundwater hydrologically connected to the North Platte be included. The settlement created a committee — of federal, Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado officials — to work out future disagreements.

“In contrast to the meager and seasonal administrative execution of provisions contained in the South Platte Compact,” a 2006 UNL analysis stated, “administrative actions in the North Platte River watershed are extensive and occur year-round.”

Whooping crane standing in shallow water. Credit: Randolph Femmer, USGS (public domain)

Nebraska may have future legal leverage regarding the South Platte if any Colorado diversions raise environmental concerns, such as negative effects on protected animal species. Two examples: sandhill cranes and whooping cranes, which congregate in great numbers annually in central Nebraska.

The proposed South Platte reservoirs are “one of those rare solutions that really is good for both rural Colorado and folks who live in the Denver metro area,” a Colorado state senator stated. Evidently so, but on this side of the border, Nebraskans need to remain watchful and assertive to ensure our state’s rights are recognized and safeguarded to the full extent of applicable law.

Platte River photo credit US Bureau of Reclamation.

#SouthPlatteRive Regional Water Development Study update

A group called the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group, or SPROWG, is proposing to store 175,000 acre-feet of water in a series of reservoirs on the South Platte River, from north of Denver to the Morgan County line. The project also includes a long pipeline to pump water from the river back to the metro area to be cleaned and re-used. Graphic credit: CWCB via Aspen Journalism

From Brown and Caldwell via Water World:

Brown and Caldwell, a leading environmental engineering and construction firm, today announced its selection by the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District and other stakeholders to lead the South Platte Regional Water Development Study.

The seventh fastest-growing state in 2018 per the U.S. Census Bureau, Colorado is expected to add three million new residents by 2050. In the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains, the South Platte River Basin (basin), home to most of the state’s population, is challenged with the greatest projected water supply gap of any of Colorado’s river basins.

The study will advance the South Platte Regional Water Development Concept, an initiative to bring municipal, environmental, and agricultural stakeholders together in new ways to manage and utilize water supply more effectively. It is potentially a pivotal step toward achieving the goals of the South Platte Basin Implementation Plan and Colorado’s Water Plan.

The analysis will focus on partner outreach and the identification of supply alternatives that consider timing, amount, and location of stakeholder water needs, possible organizational structures, water treatment strategies, and other drivers deemed critical to the potential success of the project. The final report will equip water providers with the information required to advance the concept in a collaborative and transparent way.

Initial concepts to be studied include multiple, operationally-linked storage facilities capable of storing more than 150,000 acre-feet of water and additional conveyance capacity strategically positioned throughout the basin. This infrastructure network will allow storage, reuse, and exchange of several water types including unappropriated native flow, reusable supplies, and agricultural water derived from alternative transfer methods. Water will be delivered to meet diverse municipal, agricultural, environmental, and recreational needs.

“The study is a key driver to conserving, protecting, and enhancing water supplies as the basin continues to experience unprecedented growth and subsequent supply challenges,” said Joe Frank, Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District general manager.

Directing a multi-disciplinary team, Brown and Caldwell will provide project oversight, coordinate a 60-strong stakeholder task force, evaluate agricultural requirements, and lead modeling. Stantec will integrate results of the South Platte Storage Study, a 2017 report detailing multi-purpose water storage possibilities in the Lower South Platte River basin. Cost estimating, organization structuring, and water treatment will also be part of Stantec’s remit. Leonard Rice Engineers will refine municipal, industrial, environmental, and recreational demands and support modeling. Sigler Communications has been engaged for stakeholder outreach. The team will be advised by Doug Robotham and attorneys from Holland & Hart.

“This project is an opportunity for diverse stakeholder collaboration and to develop implementable solutions to secure Colorado’s future water supply,” said Matt Lindburg, Brown and Caldwell project manager. “Our talented team is excited to leverage our collective expertise and move this important project forward for the betterment of Colorado’s residents and businesses.”

Project kickoff commenced in March with a draft of the final study scheduled for delivery within a year.

A closer look at the high-priced plan to store water along the #SouthPlatte River — @AspenJournalism

Irrigation sprinklers run over a farm in Longmont in the South Platte River basin. One goal of an emerging storage project on the South Platte is make it easier to temporarily use water from agriculture to meet the growing needs of the Front Range metro area. Photo credit: Lindsay Fendt/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Lindsay Fendt):

Every year, an average of 142 billion gallons (436,000 acre-feet) of water slips down the South Platte River out of Colorado and into Nebraska. Right now, that water feeds into habitats of endangered fish and birds, but most of it could legally be diverted and used in Colorado instead.

For decades, these escaping river flows — sometimes millions of acre feet of water more than Colorado is required to deliver to Nebraska — have been seen as a loss by Front Range water managers, but the hefty price tag of infrastructure to divert, store and move water has kept new projects from getting off the ground. Now, with communities struggling to bolster their supplies to feed the Denver metro area’s exploding population, a group in the South Platte basin thinks it can develop a regional plan to tap the river’s potential.

The infrastructure concept could provide a large chunk of the Front Range’s projected future water needs, and the concept’s designers say, if executed properly, the project would keep agricultural communities intact and create environmental benefits. Skeptics say it’s a costly plan that would further drain an already beleaguered river system.

Constructing it would require billions of dollars and an unprecedented amount of cooperation among water users, but in today’s era of scarcity, Some water managers say it may be the simplest path forward.

A group called the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group, or SPROWG, is proposing to store 175,000 acre-feet of water in a series of reservoirs on the South Platte River, from north of Denver to the Morgan County line. The project also includes a long pipeline to pump water from the river back to the metro area to be cleaned and re-used. Graphic credit: CWCB via Aspen Journalism

Birth of the South Platte Regional Water Development Concept

Despite the amount of Colorado water headed into Nebraska, water from the South Platte is still used on a huge scale. Diversion ditches from the river feed cities, agriculture and industry along the Front Range, including farms in Weld County east of Greeley, but not all the water applied to the land is consumed — about 50 percent of the water from flood irrigation seeps back into the river.

Legally, these return flows can be reused downstream, but they aren’t always released back to the river in areas where they can be captured. And because much of the water is wastewater, its quality is often too low to be used as drinking water.

These complications have made South Platte water an undesirable option for many municipalities, and growing cities have, instead, turned to water from the other side of the Continental Divide. This water is cleaner, less expensive due to existing infrastructure and can legally be used for any type of use without going through water court. But the use of Western Slope water on the Front Range has long drawn criticism from water officials on the other side of the mountains: They see such use as overuse of their resources.

The under appreciation for South Platte water started to change in 2010, after the state released the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, a data analysis of Colorado’s water supplies and projected future demand. The study estimated that by 2050 Colorado would need between 310,000 and 560,000 more acre-feet of water than it can currently supply. About 50 to 60 percent of this water would be needed within the South Platte Basin, the fastest-growing part of the state. This anticipated supply gap forced Front Range water providers to consider new options.

“We knew there was a looming problem out there. The South Platte has a big issue coming for it with this huge-growing population,” said Joe Frank, the general manager for the Sterling-based Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District. “The two biggest sources being looked at were the dry-up of South Platte irrigated agriculture or to use more (Western) Slope water — and we knew that both of those had issues.”

Around that time, Frank and six other water experts started holding informal meetings to discuss South Platte water supplies. The group became known as the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group. About the same time that group was meeting, the Colorado legislature also grew interested in the river.

In 2016, the General Assembly ordered a study to determine how much Colorado water was entering Nebraska and to analyze possible water-storage projects to capture that flow. This South Platte Storage Study found that over a 20-year period, Colorado delivered nearly 8 million acre-feet of excess water to Nebraska. But while there was plenty of water available in the river, accessing it would be costly or environmentally damaging.

The group took that information and — using funds from water providers such as Denver Water, Northern Water and Aurora Water — commissioned its own consultants. The group’s findings became known as the South Platte Regional Water Development Concept, and outlined a possible plan for a water system on the river. The current proposal includes three new storage facilities — near Henderson, Kersey and Balzac — and a pipeline from the Balzac facility to the metro Denver area. The concept’s designers say it could consistently provide 50,000 acre-feet of water every year.

With a concept in hand, the group expanded into a task force, drawing about 40 volunteer members with varying interests in water. The task force is now using $390,000 in grant funding from the Colorado Conservation Board and the South Platte and Metro basin roundtables to hire consultants to analyze the project idea.

Water for cities with no ‘buy and dry’

Although much of the water that could fill the concept plan would be unappropriated return flows, some of it would probably need to come from agriculture. In the past, this was done by cities that purchased farms with senior water rights and fallowed the lands. If done on a large scale, the practice, known as “buy and dry,” can eliminate agricultural communities.

Rather than promote buy-and-dry, the creators of the concept plan want to use alternative transfer methods to buy temporary water leases from farmers on an annual or seasonal basis. These agreements allow farmers to get money for their water without permanently drying up their farm. While alternative transfer methods are considered better for farmers, executing the agreements on a large scale requires infrastructure to move the water around.

“With ATMs, you are going to need to move that water from the farm to the city,” said Todd Doherty, the founder of Western Water Partnerships, a group that facilitates alternative transfers. “The geography is such on the South Platte that the farms are downstream from the city, so infrastructure is almost absolutely necessary to move ATM water back upstream.”

With three storage facilities near farmlands and a pipeline running to the Denver area, the South Platte concept could be used to facilitate alternative transfer methods.

“I think farmers should have options and municipalities should have options,” said Jim Yahn, the manager of the North Sterling Irrigation District and an original member of SPROWG. “This project has infrastructure to get seasonal water from agriculture and turn it into a year-round supply for a municipality.”

The South Platte River runs by a utility plant near I-25 in Denver. A group of Front Range water providers are working on a plan that includes up to 175,000 acre-feet of new water storage along the river.

Environmental concerns

Because the concept plan is still in its early phases of development, most environmental groups have yet to release an opinion on the project. Still, there are concerns about depleting the flows of the South Platte or further degrading its waters.

In hopes of reducing impacts, some environmental representatives have joined the concept plan task force to provide feedback. Frank said the promise of mitigation and environmental enhancements – improvements on the river made by water providers – have gotten several environmental groups “on board” with the project’s idea.

Still, other groups say the projected supply-demand gap is overblown and any new infrastructure is an unnecessary drain on the state’s rivers…

Hefty price tag

As projected in the South Platte Storage Study, the costs to build the project would be huge. Although the project doesn’t yet carry a final price tag, initial estimates put the infrastructure costs at nearly $2.5 billion.

This cost is undeniably high, but with water becoming a more expensive commodity, water providers say it’s an increasingly reasonable one to consider. The cost estimates show that water from the concept plan would cost about the same as building any other water project or buying into an existing one.

For these reasons, many water providers in the Front Range are already exploring how they fit into the regional project.

“Scarcity is essential in driving the municipal world towards more expensive solutions,” said Sean Chambers, the director of water and sewers for the city of Greeley. “We haven’t coalesced around an idea about how exactly we fit into the long-range vision, but we know we belong at the table.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Greeley Tribune and other Swift Communications newspapers. The Tribune published this story on Saturday, Nov. 26,2018.