‘It’s amazing, really, how it worked out,” says Roy Heald.
Heald, general manager of the Security Water and Sanitation District (SWSD), is referring to perhaps the only piece of good news in the ongoing story of water contamination in communities south of Colorado Springs.
“We got into planning [the Southern Delivery System] two decades ago for redundancy, thinking we’d use it if anything happened, and then it comes online not three weeks before we really needed it,” he says.
In May, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory lowering what’s considered a safe amount of perfluorinated chemicals — a highly prevalent but unregulated toxin that’s been linked to low birth weights, heart disease and cancer. Wells drawing from the Widefield aquifer, which supplies around 80,000 people’s drinking water, then tested at nearly 20 times the EPA’s recommended threshold in some cases.
Right away, SWSD took mitigating steps by instigating watering restrictions, fast-tracking an infrastructure project to boost connectivity between service areas and negotiating more access to surface water through the newly operational SDS pipeline. By September, all groundwater wells were shut off. But all that came at a price.
“The exact cost is hard to pin down at this point because we’ve still got bills coming in,” Heald says, “but yeah, this was a huge unanticipated expense.” To get an idea, consider groundwater typically accounts for half the district’s total water supply. Forgoing cheap groundwater in favor of more expensive surface water, even if just for the last four months of the year, cost SWSD around $1 million in 2016, when it expected to spend $100,000. The district has deferred other capital projects, prioritized new ones and diminished its cash reserve, meaning it needs money.
But from whom?
At the very least, the Security, Widefield and Fountain water districts are all expecting some portion of the $4.3 million the Air Force pledged over the summer after Peterson Air Force Base admitted a chemical-laden fire retardant used for decades on base could be the source of contamination.
Air Force spokesman Steve Brady gave the Indy a rundown of how the money’s being spent: Homes on private well water will get reverse osmosis systems installed; NORAD and Security Mobile Home Parks will get granular activated carbon systems, as will Stratmoor Hills, Fountain and Widefield public water systems; First United Pentecostal Church will tap into Security water; SWSD will construct new piping to hook into Colorado Springs Utilities; the Fountain Valley Shopping Center, private homes that don’t agree to take ownership of a filtration system once installed and the Venetucci farmhouse will continue getting bottled water.
The Air Force’s pledge has been messaged as a “good neighbor” gesture and not a signal of responsibility, meaning that for now, available funds are finite. The Air Force Civil Engineer Center is working to confirm or deny the possibility that contaminants came from Peterson Air Force Base while public health officials (and private litigants) continue to investigate other possible polluters.
A damning outcome of those inquiries could warrant additional compensation, but until then, affected parties will have to just deal on their own.
“I know we’ll get some share of that $4.3 million, but whatever it is won’t be enough to cover our costs,” says Heald, whose district hasn’t received a check from the Air Force yet. “There could be grants available at the state level, but those are in the thousands or tens of thousands range. We’re looking at millions. I’ve talked to our congressional representatives but I don’t know about federal sources. Maybe folks will have other ideas, because whatever the source, our ratepayers didn’t cause this so they shouldn’t have to pay for it.”
Security residents will start seeing higher water bills immediately. Rates were already scheduled to rise in 2017 before this situation arose, but now the hike could be steeper. Unless some new windfall comes through before the next rate study gets underway in the fall, you can guess what direction rates will continue to go. Still, a typical water bill in Security during 2016 was $36 —about half of a typical Colorado Springs bill.
Fountain is in a similar, though not identical, position. “We don’t need to use groundwater in the wintertime — that’s been the standard for years,” Utilities Director Curtis Mitchell tells the Indy, explaining that groundwater only ever flowed through taps during peak demand over the summer. Ahead of that time this year, Mitchell has negotiated extra surface water through a capacity swap with Colorado Springs Utilities. Groundwater will only enter the equation once filtration systems are installed and working reliably.
Widefield has been off well water since November, according to department manager Brandon Bernard, who says four pilot projects are underway to find the best technology for filtering out PFCs. He’s aiming to get a small treatment facility built by May and another, bigger one “in the near future.” (Because Widefield isn’t an SDS partner, it has limited surface water, hence the primary focus is on treating well water.)
“All of the capital costs to pilot and build the treatment will be taken from cash reserves,” Bernard wrote by email. “The only costs the customers will incur through rates will be to cover operation and maintenance of these facilities. … We aren’t sure how much of the $4.3 million is portioned for WWSD and have not heard when we will receive it.”
Fountain and Security’s increased reliance on SDS may cost their customers, but it provides some relief to Colorado Springs — primary investor, owner and operator of the $825 million pipeline. As partners, Fountain and Security already contributed their share of construction costs, but moving more water through it offsets operational costs.
“We’re running at really low levels right now, so there’s plenty of room in the pipe for our partners,” says Colorado Springs Utilities spokesman Steve Berry. “The bottom line is we’re one big community here in El Paso County, so we’re happy to be flexible for them, but it also takes some of the financial burden [of running SDS] off our customers.”
The costs of getting SDS up and running have been factored into CSU’s rates over the past five years, Berry says, so Phase 1 is pretty much paid for. Phase 2, including new storage construction and reservoir resurfacing, has yet to be reflected in customers’ water bills. Other capital improvement projects like maintaining aging pipes elsewhere in CSU’s raw water system, replacing main lines under downtown and modernizing storage tanks and treatment facilities are coming later.
So whatever reprieve Colorado Springs water users get will be overshadowed by other expenses. “Unfortunately, base rates typically don’t go down — they either stay constant or they increase,” says Berry, who emphasizes that partners’ usage won’t compromise CSU’s access to water. CSU still has precious “first-use” water rights and plenty of redundancy built into its overall system. “But to have a high-quality, reliable water source requires a hefty investment,” Berry adds.
Reliable is the key word there, as demonstrated by the crises playing out in Security, Widefield and Fountain, and communities across the country where drinking water is compromised. Part of the trend is having better detection instruments and part is better science showing potential harm, Heald observes. But, he says, what remains constant is America’s “leap before you look” approach to regulating toxins in our environment — chemicals get introduced to the market before anyone really knows what risk they pose.
Heald offers this summation: “You don’t know what you don’t know, but when you do know, you know it’s going to cost more.”
Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Jim Beers):
The Cache la Poudre River, which flows from the mountains through Fort Collins, Timnath and Windsor to the plains east of Greeley, is at the heart of countless activities: from irrigating crops and lawns to providing drinking water for more than 365,000 people and hosting numerous recreational activities.
Those with connections to and concerns for the Poudre River will gather on Friday, Feb. 3 for the fourth annual Poudre River Forum. After its first three years at Larimer County Fairgrounds, the forum is moving down the river to Greeley as a reminder that the Poudre River is important to all who benefit from it — from its headwaters to its confluence with the South Platte. This year’s forum — the theme is “As the Poudre Flows — Forest to Plains” — will be held from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. at the Island Grove Events Center, 501 N. 14th Ave., Greeley. Pre-registration is required for all participants.
Understanding the river, each other
Sponsored by the Poudre Runs Through It Study/Action Work Group, the forum serves as a community-wide gathering of people from agricultural, municipal, business, recreational and environmental backgrounds to learn about and discuss issues related to the Poudre River.
“The Poudre River Forum brings together those who use the river for agricultural and urban diversions and those who work to improve its ecological health. In the past those groups have not necessarily seen eye to eye,” said MaryLou Smith, PRTI facilitator. “Increasingly our participants are open to the idea that it takes collective vision and action to make the Poudre the world’s best example of a healthy, working river.”
Once again, this year’s event will be facilitated by the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University. “The Forum is a great opportunity for the communities connected by the Poudre River to come together to better understand the entire watershed, and each other,” said Reagan Waskom, director of CWI.
Forests and water quality/quantity
Laurie Huckaby with the U.S. Forest Service, will present “The last 1,000 years in the Poudre according to the trees,” to kick off the topic of how important the upper watershed is to water quantity and quality.
“Water quality and forests are inextricably linked,” said Joe Duda of the Colorado State Forest Service, who will join Huckaby as one of the presenters. “Forest conditions and insects, disease and fire all can have profound impacts on water flow and quality. Only healthy, resilient forests can continuously supply clean water.”
Global lessons for local success
“Finding the Balance: Managing Water for People and Nature” is the message of keynote speaker Brian Richter. Richter has been a global leader in water science and conservation for more than 25 years, and currently serves as chief scientist for the Global Water Program of The Nature Conservancy in Washington D.C. Richter’s ideas about the importance of recognizing the balance of working river/healthy river are the basis for which PRTI was initially formed. He has consulted on more than 120 water projects worldwide, and has served as a water advisor to some of the world’s largest corporations, investment banks, the United Nations, and has testified before Congress on multiple occasions. Richter co-authored,with Sandra Postel, the 2003 book Rivers for Life: Managing Water for People and Nature and in 2014 wrote Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability.
Change affects all sectors
An afternoon panel session will probe the impacts of change — positive and negative — along the Poudre River and how they have been similarly and differently addressed by agriculture, urban, and environmental sectors. They will discuss what anticipated future changes might these three sectors see as opportunities or incentives for mutually beneficial collaboration that could result in a healthier, working river?
“It has been said that the only thing that is constant is change,” said John Bartholow, retired ecologist from U.S. Geological Survey, and panel coordinator/moderator. “The question is, can we learn to adapt to those changes sure to come on the Poudre in ways that benefit agriculture, municipalities, and the environment?”
The panel will include Eric Reckentine, deputy director, City of Greeley Water and Sewer; John Sanderson, director of science, Nature Conservancy of Colorado; and Dale Trowbridge, general manager, New Cache la Poudre Irrigating Company.
Videos, displays and music too
The day-long forum also includes “River Snapshots” highlighting more than 15 projects undertaken by a variety of groups on the Poudre last year; “My How the Poudre Has Changed,” featuring historical 1970’s footage of the Poudre; updates from both the cities of Greeley and Fort Collins on current water programs; and over two dozen river-focused displays from community organizations and agencies. The day concludes with a social hour including food, beer and other beverages, and river-themed door prizes.
Relocating Dillon to build a reservoir looks better now than in 1961, says town local turned Denver Water employee.
By Kristi Delynko
It’s said that everything you need to know you learn in kindergarten. But what if you had to skip kindergarten because your school was underwater?
Joel Zdechlik in 1961, the year he was supposed to start kindergarten in the Town of Dillon.
While it may sound like one of those unlikely “dog ate my homework” scenarios, Joel Zdechlik spent exactly three days in kindergarten before his school in the Town of Dillon was closed and torn down to make way for Denver Water’s Dillon Reservoir.
Building the reservoir was not a popular decision among the residents of Dillon, including his parents, Zdechlik recalled.
Fast forward 50-plus years. Relations between Denver Water and the Dillon community have turned around. And Zdechlik? He’s been a water distribution manager for the…
Officials in charge of the Windy Gap Firming Project are checking to make sure that a Dec. 7 Colorado Supreme Court decision won’t adversely affect the $387.36 million transmountain water diversion project that will benefit the Front Range…
…in December, the Colorado Supreme Court sided with western slope interests against Aurora in case that had to deal with pumping western slope water across the continental divide and storing it on the eastern slope. Aurora had a one-half interest in the Busk-Ivanhoe Diversion Project in western Colorado.
Jim Pokrandt, spokesman for the Colorado River District, said the case relied on storage rights for the water.
“The big crux of the Aurora case is that they didn’t have the storage rights for the transmountain water that they took,” Pokrandt said. “So I’m sure what a lot of folks are doing is looking at their water decrees and seeing if they actually have decreed storage rights for transmountain water. That’s the question for the Windy Gap Firming Project.”
Pokrandt said that in the Colorado River District’s view, the court made the right decision.
“Our position is that water law is water law and under ordinary water law, you need a water right to store water. And Aurora argued that transmountain water didn’t need an exact water right to store it,” Pokrandt said. “But, no you do need that because water law is water law and there’s nothing special about transmountain water.”
The municipal subdistrict of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District is leading the Windy Gap Firming Project.
Eric Wilkinson, general manager of the municipal subdistrict, said they have staff researching to make sure the Aurora decision is unique to the case and to verify that the Windy Gap Firming Project is on legally stable ground moving forward.
“The Busk-Ivanhoe decision has a very significant application statewide … what the (Colorado) Supreme Court decision did is apply, in essence, 2016 water rights administration and laws to a decree that is dated 1928,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson added that staff are verifying that they have the water decrees to store Windy Gap water on the within the basin of use, which would be on the western slope.
Northern Spokesman Brian Werner said they are fairly certain the Colorado Supreme Court decision shouldn’t have major impacts on the Windy Gap Firming Project, which has been in the works since 2004.
“I want to emphasize that intent to store, we’ve had that all along with the Windy Gap Firming Project,” Werner said. “So if you’re asking what the impact (of the decision) is on the Windy Gap Firming Project, I can tell you there shouldn’t be any.”
Wilkinson added that with Colorado water law, nothing is certain forever.
“That’s the intent of our research to get to that point (of certainty),” Wilkinson said.
“But in Colorado water law and some of the interpretations that come out, there is not such a thing as absolute certainty. This Busk-Ivanhoe decision introduced some change in thought that didn’t exist before so say ‘here’s how it will be always and forever in absolute certainty’ is probably unreasonable, but we’re trying to get to a reasonable amount of certainty.”
Coyote Gulch contributor Brent Gardner-Smith took a deep dive into the decision to extract a summary of the water court process for a change of use. Below is his email:
You might appreciate this. In the midst of the Busk opinion is summary of the factors that go into changing a water right. I’ve stripped it of the legal references, but otherwise, it’s the court’s words. Thought you might appreciate it. Not sure what else to do with it yet.
Under Colorado’s doctrine of prior appropriation, a water right is a usufructuary right that affords its owner the right to use and enjoy a portion of the waters of the state.
One does not “own” water, but owns the right to use water within the limitations of this doctrine.
The touchstone of Colorado’s prior appropriation doctrine is beneficial use. That is, an appropriator perfects a right to use water by applying a specified quantity of unappropriated water to a beneficial use.
“Beneficial use” is “that amount of water that is reasonable and appropriate under reasonably efficient practices to accomplish without waste the purpose for which the appropriation is lawfully made.”
Colorado water law has long recognized the right of water users to make changes to the terms of their decrees—including changes to the type, place, or time of beneficial use; changes to the points of diversion; changes to storage; and changes from direct flow to storage and subsequent application and vice versa.
Permanent changes to a water right must be decreed through the adjudication process established by the legislature … and … parties wishing to change the use of a water right must obtain a water court decree allowing the change in use.
It is inherent in the notion of a ‘change’ of water right that the right itself can only be changed and not enlarged.
This is a basic predicate of water law dating to the nineteenth century; a change application merely continues the rights decreed in the original appropriation in a new form and may not expand the amount of water actually used under the original decree.
In other words, “the right to change a water right is limited to that amount of water actually used beneficially pursuant to the decree at the appropriator’s place of use.”
Thus, in order to determine that a requested change of a water right is merely a change, and will not amount to an enlargement of the original appropriation, the court must quantify the historic use of the right to some degree of precision.
Quantification of the amount of water beneficially consumed pursuant to the decree guards against rewarding wasteful practices or recognizing water claims that are not justified by the nature or extent of the appropriator’s actual need.
An absolute decree confirms that a right of appropriation has vested; the decree entitles the appropriator to use that right through its decreed point of diversion in a specified amount, usually expressed as a flow rate (for a diversion right) or in acre-feet of water (for a storage right).
The term “historic use” refers to the “historic consumptive use” or “historic beneficial consumptive use,” attributable to the appropriation of that quantity of water historically consumed by applying the water to its decreed beneficial use.
However, because “the period and pattern of use are not known with certainty at the time a water right is adjudicated,” the decreed flow rate at the decreed point of diversion is not the same as the matured measure of the water right.
Rather, over an extended period of time, “a pattern of historic diversions and use under the decreed right for its decreed use at its place of use” will become the true measure of the mature water right for change purposes, typically quantified in acre-feet of water consumed.
Crucially, proper analysis of the historic consumptive use of a water right measures the amount of water both actually and lawfully used in accordance with the decree.
Because beneficial use defines the genesis and maturation of every appropriative water right in this state, every decree includes an implied limitation that diversions are limited to those sufficient for the purposes for which the appropriation was made.
Importantly, the actual historic diversion for beneficial use may be less than the decreed rate because, for example, “that amount has simply not been historically needed or applied for the decreed purpose.”
Indeed, we have often observed that when an appropriator exercises the right to change a decreed water right, he runs the real risk that the right will be requantified at an amount less than his original decree, based on the actual historic consumptive use of the right.
In short, an initial change application reopens the original decree for determination of the true measure of the appropriative right’s consumptive use draw on the river system.
In sum, “the fundamental purpose of a change proceeding is to ensure that the true right — that which has ripened by beneficial use over time — is the one that will prevail in its changed form.”
The decision is actually a page-turner for water wonks.
This graphic shows the transmountain diversions in Colorado. The Bousted Tunnel, at 53,871 AF, the Twin Lakes Tunnel, at 46,930 AF, and the Busk-Ivanhoe Tunnel, at 4,123 AF, have taken (in this data set) a combined average of 105,024 AF a year from the top of the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers headwaters.
A map of the Busk-Ivanhoe system, with Ivanhoe Reservoir on the left side of the map and Turquoise Reservoir on the right.
For decades, the [Colorado River] has fed growing cities from Denver to Los Angeles. A lot of the produce in supermarkets across the country was grown with Colorado River water. But with climate change, and severe drought, the river is reaching a crisis point, and communities at each end of it are reacting very differently…
The problem is that Colorado’s population will nearly double by 2050. Future residents will need more water. Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead says more storage is part of the solution. It’s also an insurance policy against future drought.
“From Denver Water’s perspective, if we can’t provide clean, reliable, sustainable water 100 years from now to our customers, we’re not doing our job,” Lochhead says.
Demand for Colorado River water is already stretched thin. So it may sound crazy that places like Colorado and Wyoming want to develop more water projects. Legally, that’s something they are entitled to do.
Wyoming is studying whether to store more water from a Colorado River tributary. “We feel we have some room to grow, but we understand that growth comes with risk,” says Pat Tyrrell, who oversees Wyoming’s water rights.
Risk because in 10 or 20 years there may not be enough water to fill up expanded reservoirs. A 16-year drought has dramatically decreased water supply even as demand keeps growing. And climate change could make this picture worse.
It makes Tyrrell’s job feel impossible.
“You understand the reality today of a low water supply,” he says. “You also know that you’re going to have permit applications coming in to develop more water. What do you do?”
Tyrrell says that as long as water is available, Wyoming will very likely keep finding new ways to store it. But a future with less water is coming.
In California, that future of cutbacks has already arrived. The water that started in Colorado flows more than 1,000 miles to greater Los Angeles.
So even in the sixth year of California’s drought, some lawns are still green.
“Slowly but surely, the entire supply on Colorado River has become less reliable,” says Jeffrey Kightlinger, who manages the Metropolitan Water District in Southern California. He notes that the water level in Lake Mead, the biggest reservoir on the river, has been plummeting.
An official shortage could be declared next winter. “And that’ll be a historic moment,” Kightlinger says.
It’s never happened before. Arizona and Nevada would be forced to cut back on how much water they draw from the river. California would be spared that fate, because it has senior water rights. So you wouldn’t expect to hear what Kightlinger says next.
“We are having voluntary discussions with Arizona and Nevada about what we would do proactively to help,” he says.
California could help by giving up water before it has to, between 5 percent and 8 percent of its supply. Kightlinger isn’t offering this out of the goodness of his heart; if Lake Mead drops too low, the federal government could step in and reallocate all the water, including California’s.
“We all realize if we model the future and we build in climate change, we could be in a world of hurt if we do nothing,” Kightlinger says.
This idea of cooperation is somewhat revolutionary after years of lawsuits and bad blood.
Recently, farmer Steve Benson was checking on one of his alfalfa fields near the Mexican border. “We know there’s a target on our back in the Imperial Valley for the amount of water we use,” he says.
This valley produces two-thirds of the country’s vegetables in the winter — with water from the Colorado River.
In fact, for decades, California used more than its legal share of the river and had to cut back in 2003. This area, the Imperial Irrigation District, took the painful step of transferring some of its water to cities like San Diego.
Bruce Kuhn voted on that water transfer as a board member of the district. “It was the single hardest decision I have ever made in my life,” he says.
Kuhn ended up casting the deciding vote to share water, which meant some farmers have had to fallow their land.
“It cost me some friends,” he says. “I mean, we still talk but it isn’t the same.”
Soon, Kuhn may have to make another painful decision about whether California should give up water to Arizona and Nevada. With an emergency shortage looming, Kuhn may have no choice.
Editor’s note: The following is the fourth and final part in a series exploring the city of Aspen’s historic intent in filing for and maintaining conditional water rights for storage reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks.
ASPEN – The city of Aspen has said for decades that legislation approving the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project gives a certain status to the potential Castle Creek and Maroon Creek reservoirs.
However, it’s hard to discern just what that status is, and federal and regional water officials are dismissive of the city’s claims.
Built in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Fry-Ark Project is one of the larger transmountain diversion systems in Colorado. It diverts water from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, including Hunter, Midway, and No Name creeks, along with large amounts of water from the many tributaries in the headwaters of the Fryingpan River.
In all, the project includes 16 diversion structures that direct an average of 57,000 acre-feet of water a year to the Boustead Tunnel, which runs under the Continental Divide. The gathered water then flows to Turquoise Reservoir near Leadville and into the Arkansas River basin, serving both Front Range cities and agriculture on the eastern plains.
A key component of the Fry-Ark Project is Ruedi Reservoir above Basalt, which was built in the early 1960s as “compensatory storage” for Western Slope water users. Water collected in Ruedi does not flow to the East Slope.
Plans to divert water from the Fryingpan River date back to the 1930s, but the Fry-Ark Project as largely configured today was the result of intensive planning efforts and discussions that took place throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.
Aspenites in the 1950s were well aware of the looming Fry-Ark Project, especially as the Twin Lakes-Independence Pass project, built in the 1930s, was already diverting large amounts of water off the top of the Roaring Fork River.
For example, in the 1954 Winterskol parade, local musician, letter-to-the-editor writer and junkyard operator Freddie Fisher created a witty float about the looming “rape of the Roaring Fork” that featured himself sitting in a bathtub-boat on skis while pondering the question, “Who pulled the plug?”
In the legislation
As the city is often quick to point out, the federal Fry-Ark legislation does in fact state that a feasibility report on a reservoir on a “tributary of the Roaring Fork River” should be prepared by the Department of the Interior; and if such a reservoir made economic sense, then the feasibility report should be submitted to Congress for review.
“The secretary [of Interior] shall investigate and prepare a report on the feasibility of a replacement reservoir at or near the Ashcroft site on Castle Creek, a tributary of the Roaring Fork River above its confluence with the Fryingpan River with a capacity of approximately 5,000 acre-feet,” the authorizing legislation states, “but construction thereof shall not be commenced unless said report, which shall be submitted to the president and the Congress, demonstrates the feasibility of said reservoir and is approved by Congress.”
The city maintains that the language, “at or near the Ashcroft site on Castle Creek,” still pertains to the potential Castle Creek Reservoir two miles below Ashcroft.
The operating principles for the Fry-Ark Project, which were hashed out by both entities on both sides of the Continental Divide, also address Ashcroft Reservoir.
“The Ruedi Reservoir shall be constructed and maintained on the Fryingpan River above the town of Basalt with an active capacity of not less than 100,00 acre-feet,” the principles state. “In addition thereto and in order to offset adverse streamflow conditions on the Roaring Fork River above the town of Aspen which might occur as a result of the project enlargement of the Twin Lakes Reservoir, the Ashcroft Reservoir on Castle Creek, or some reservoir in lieu thereof, shall be constructed on the Roaring Fork drainage above Aspen to a capacity of approximately 5,000 acre-feet: Providing, however, That the Ashcroft Reservoir shall be constructed only if the Secretary of the Interior after appropriate study shall determine that its benefits exceed the costs … ”
It also further defines Ashcroft Reservoir by stating that “‘Ashcroft Reservoir’ means not only the reservoir contemplated for construction on Castle Creek, a tributary of the Roaring Fork River, but also, unless the context requires otherwise, any other reservoir that may be constructed in the Roaring Fork Basin above the town of Aspen in lieu of that reservoir.”
To better understand the city’s claim, it’s instructive to view the potential Castle Creek Reservoir as “son-of” Ashcroft Reservoir, which in turn is “son-of” Aspen Reservoir.
For much of the long planning stage of the Fry-Ark Project, it included an “Aspen Reservoir,” which would have stored 28,000 acre-feet of water behind a tall dam at the bottom of the North Star-Stillwater section of the Roaring Fork River, just east of Aspen.
However, opposition to the Aspen Reservoir, primarily from James H. Smith Jr., owner of the North Star Ranch in Aspen, eventually caused Ruedi Reservoir above Basalt to be built instead of Aspen Reservoir.
One of the reasons Aspen Reservoir was attractive to water planners at the time was that it could be used to fill in low flows in the Roaring Fork River below the Salvation Ditch, a large irrigation ditch that diverts water at Stillwater Drive, near the entrance to Mountain Valley.
The combination of the Salvation Ditch, the Independence Pass diversions from the 1930s, and the coming Fry-Ark diversions meant the Fork through Aspen would be often dropped to exceedingly low levels, which is often the case today. And so it was felt that a compensatory reservoir east of Aspen, above the Salvation Ditch, would help keep more water, and fish, in the river.
But opposition by Smith, who was well connected in Washington, D.C., having served as assistant secretary of the Navy for aviation, helped kill the idea of Aspen Reservoir.
In the wake of the decision to abandon Aspen Reservoir, local, state, and federal water officials agreed to include a mention of another potential reservoir, Ashcroft Reservoir, or an alternate nearby reservoir, in the authorizing legislation for the Fry-Ark Project, as something of a consolation prize for Aspen.
Ashcroft Reservoir was once envisioned to be formed by a 140-foot-tall dam near the Elk Mountain Lodge property that would back up 9,056.7 acre-feet of water behind it.
The water right tied to Ashcroft Reservoir was eventually cancelled for lack of adequate due diligence in the 1970s, but today the city of Aspen still considers Castle Creek Reservoir, which is designed to hold 9,062 acre feet, to be the legitimate offspring, at least in the context of the Fry-Ark Project, of Ashcroft Reservoir.
But officials at the Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, and the Southeastern Water Conservancy District all say that the language in the Fry-Ark approvals has no direct bearing today on either of the two potential reservoirs that Aspen says it still intends to build someday when necessary.
An ‘unmet obligation’
Officials at the city of Aspen, speaking on background, have characterized the tie to Fry-Ark Project as an “unmet obligation” to the city. The obligation, as the city sees it, is to at least prepare a feasibility study of a reservoir on a tributary of the Roaring Fork River.
That “obligation” has been referenced a number of different ways over the years by the city, including most recently on Oct. 10, 2016, when Aspen City Council unanimously approved a resolution declaring their intent to file a diligence application this year for the conditional water rights it holds tied to potential reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks.
“Whereas, when these water rights were appropriated, this reservoir storage was an important component of Aspen’s long term water supply plan, particularly since the Fryingpan-Arkansas project was proceeding without the originally planned compensatory storage reservoir on the upper Roaring Fork River,” the council’s 2016 resolution stated.
The city filed two diligence applications on Oct. 31, one for Castle Creek Reservoir and one for Maroon Creek Reservoir. As of Wednesday afternoon, three environmental groups and three private landowners had filed statements of opposition in the cases, and Pitkin County, the U.S. Forest Service, and Trout Unlimited are expected to file statements by the end of the week.
American Rivers, Wilderness Workshop, and Western Resource Advocates have filed statements in both cases. In the Maroon Creek case, Roaring Fork Land and Cattle Co., which is controlled by billionaires Tom and Margot Pritzker, filed a statement. And in the Castle Creek case, Double R Creek Ltd and Asp Properties LLC filed statements. Double R Creek is controlled by Robert Y.C. Ho of Hong Kong and Asp Properties is controlled by Charles Somers, the CEO of SBM, a building services company located in McClellan, Calif.
Here’s how the city described the Fry-Ark relationship to the Division 5 Water Court in 2010, during the most recent diligence review of the water rights for the potential Castle Creek and Maroon Creek reservoirs:
“The Frying Pan-Arkansas Project, authorized by legislation dated August 16, 1962, authorized construction, operation and maintenance of a replacement reservoir on Castle Creek to furnish water required for protection of western Colorado water users,” states a proposed decree from the city’s water attorneys. “This reservoir was contemplated to have a capacity of 5,000 acre-feet, but this reservoir was never built.”
But not everyone agrees that the Fry-Ark legislation “authorized construction, operation and maintenance” of a reservoir on Castle Creek.
The city in 2010 also told the state there was a direct link between the Fry-Ark Project and its potential Castle Creek and Maroon Creek reservoirs.
“In 1965, taking precautions to ensure that its water rights were protected in the event the Frying Pan-Arkansas Project reservoir was in fact never built on Castle Creek, the city of Aspen filed applications seeking its own conditional water rights for storage on Castle Creek and Maroon Creek, i.e., the Castle Creek Reservoir and Maroon Creek Reservoir water rights for which diligence is sought herein,” the city’s 2010 diligence filing stated.
And in a 1990 water management plan, the city stated that “the authorizing act and operating principles of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project require the Bureau of Reclamation to prepare a feasibility study on a reservoir of up to 5,000 acre feet, in order to offset adverse streamflow conditions in the Roaring Fork River above Aspen.”
But while a feasibility study may be called for in the Fry-Ark legislation, it is difficult to find anyone outside of the city of Aspen who thinks the call is still relevant.
Sterling Rech, a public affairs manager with the Bureau of Reclamation, recently said, in response to questions about the city’s claim, that the Fry-Ark legislation “requested an investigation but explicitly did not authorize Ashcroft Reservoir unless the report demonstrated feasibility and subsequently, Congress approved it. There is no record of that approval in Reclamation law.”
Rech was asked to double-check with senior Reclamation officials on the point, and after doing so, stood by his statement that the Fry-Ark Project “did not authorize” a reservoir in the Castle Creek valley.
Given that officials at Reclamation would be the ones within the Interior Department to prepare a feasibility study on Castle Creek Reservoir, this would seem to be relevant to the city’s position.
Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the Colorado River District, said the mention of the Ashcroft Reservoir in the Fry-Ark legislation, or a nearby reservoir in lieu of it, “is ancient history versus current events.”
The River District played a key role in developing the operating principles that still guide the Fry-Ark Project. And it’s the entity that originally filed for the conditional water rights on Ashcroft Reservoir in 1959.
“Being mentioned and studied in the context of the Fry-Ark does not bestow anything special at this point in time,” Pokrandt said of the city’s claim.
Chris Woodka, the issues manager for the Southeastern Water Conservancy District, had a similar take. Southeastern was created explicitly to manage the water diverted by the Fry-Ark Project and was instrumental in shaping its authorizing documents.
But Woodka also dismissed any link between the potential Castle Creek Reservoir and the Fry-Ark Project.
“It really doesn’t have a direct connection anymore to the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project,” Woodka said.
However, city officials still beg to differ.
Feds still obligated?
Officials at the city say, on background, that it is clear that a reservoir on a tributary of the Roaring Fork — somewhere above Aspen — was included in the Fry-Ark authorizing legislation, and it was done so by none other than legendary West Slope Congressman Wayne Aspinall, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1949-1973.
And the city says that the obligation still remains for the Department of the Interior to conduct a feasibility study on such a reservoir.
City officials also point to a 2007 letter in regard to potential federal approval of new reservoirs in the Arkansas River basin to hold water diverted from the Fry-Ark project.
In that letter, the city and Pitkin County told the federal government that if it was going to study new reservoirs on the East Slope, it should also study reservoirs on the Western Slope, and by implication, the Ashcroft Reservoir or its successor, Castle Creek Reservoir.
“It is important that the Western Slope’s present and future water supply and storage requirements (for both consumptive and non-consumptive uses) be placed on a par with those of the Eastern Slope and included in all discussions on H.R. 1833,” the city and Pitkin County wrote in a letter to Congressman John Salazar in 2007 regarding pending legislation for the PSOP project, or Preferred Storage Options Plan. “Any feasibility study resulting from H.R. 1833 must address Western Colorado’s present and future regional water needs, not just investigate ways to mitigate impacts from an increase in trans-mountain diversions.”
According to city officials, the city felt it had leverage to ask for such a study because of the language regarding Ashcroft Reservoir in the Fry-Ark legislation. And that a study of Western Slope storage would have had to look at reservoirs such as Castle Creek Reservoir.
Be that as it may, the city’s claim of a lingering obligation in the Fry-Ark project is still out there, but with no clear resolution of how much standing it gives, or might someday give, the Castle and Maroon creek reservoirs.
One reason it is uncertain is that the city has never directly asked the Department of the Interior to produce a feasibility study on the Ashcroft Reservoir, or a successor, based on the obligation claimed by the city in the Fry-Ark legislation.
As such, the “unmet obligation,” if it exists, is still outstanding. And city officials say they’ll see what value it has at some point in the future.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News, and Coyote Gulch are collaborating on the coverage of water and rivers. The Daily News published this story on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016.
A long-awaited ruling issued Monday by the Colorado Supreme Court sends Aurora back to court to discern exactly how much water the municipality can divert from the headwaters of the Fryingpan River through the Busk-Ivanhoe Tunnel under Hagerman Pass.
And the ruling clarifies that transmountain water rights under the Continental Divide in Colorado do not automatically come with a right to store water in a reservoir, anymore than other water rights do.
Aurora had argued there had always been an implied right in its decree to store water from the Fryingpan headwaters in Turquoise Reservoir. But the court didn’t agree.
“The supreme court concludes that the right to store water in the basin of import prior to use is not an automatic incident of transmountain water rights, but rather, must be reflected, or at least implied, in the decree,” the court’s majority opinion stated. “In this case, the decree is silent with respect to storage of the water on the eastern slope prior to use for supplemental irrigation and, on the facts of this case, the record does not support the water court’s finding of an implied right in the decree for such storage. To the extent that unlawful storage of the water on the eastern slope expanded the decreed rights, such amounts cannot be included in the quantification of those rights.”
The Colorado River District, which represents 15 Western Slope counties, said Tuesday in a statement it is “very pleased with the supreme court’s well-reasoned opinion in which it reversed the Division 2 water court. In particular, we are pleased with the court’s recognition that transmountain water rights are subject to the same legal principles as all other water rights in the state.”
As might be expected, Aurora officials were less pleased.
“The city is disappointed with [Monday’s] supreme court opinion reversing the trial court’s earlier decision,” said an Aurora representative in a statement. “The city regrets the departure from what it believed to be settled law regarding use of transbasin waters.
“Additionally, it appears due consideration was not given to aspects of the trial court’s determinations regarding the state of the law when the water rights were originally requested,” the statement said. “Aurora is currently evaluating its possible next steps.”
One possible next step is for Aurora to file a petition within 14 days for the supreme court to rehear the case.
If Aurora does not petition for a rehearing, the case will be sent back to water court in Pueblo for a recalculation of how much water Aurora is allowed to divert via the Busk-Ivanhoe Tunnel for municipal purposes, instead of for irrigation purposes.
The supreme court said the new calculation should include the 22 years from 1987 to 2009 when Aurora used the water for municipal purposes without a decreed right to do so.
And by factoring in those 22 years of “zero use,” the new calculation is expected to lower the amount of water the Front Range city can divert from the Fryingpan in the future.
Another aspect of the ruling could also reduce the size of Aurora’s water right, as the court found that much of the water diverted through the Busk-Ivanhoe Tunnel since 1928 had been stored without a decreed right to do so.
“Because undecreed storage of a direct flow water right may amount to an expansion of that right, any expansion of the Busk-Ivanhoe water rights resulting from the unlawful storage of those rights on the eastern slope cannot be included in an historic consumptive use analysis,” the ruling stated.
The court also suggested that harm may have been caused to junior water rights owners on the Western Slope by undecreed diversion and storage of the Busk-Ivanhoe water.
“Storage of a decreed direct flow right can potentially expand that right by permitting the diversion of available water not immediately needed for beneficial use — water that would otherwise be left in the stream for junior water users,” the ruling said. “This impact on junior users does not cease to exist just because the water is diverted for export to another basin. Junior users in the basin of export have a right to divert and use water not lawfully diverted in the first place under a senior water right, regardless of whether that water is diverted for transmountain use.”
Worth the fight
Pitkin County has been opposing Aurora in the case since 2009 and has now spent $353,000 in the process.
“It was worth it,” said John Ely, Pitkin County attorney. “It was important for Pitkin County to assert that transmountain diverters are subject to the same legal consideration as any other water diverter or water user, because Pitkin County hosts two of the larger water diversions in the state.”
In addition to the relatively small level of diversions through the Busk-Ivanhoe Tunnel by Aurora and Pueblo, significant amounts of water are diverted off the top of the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork rivers to the Front Range as part of the larger Fry-Ark and Twin Lakes projects.
Aurora still has a valid water right from 1928 to divert 2,416 acre-feet of water through the tunnel for irrigation uses in the Arkansas River basin.
But officials now want to use the same water for municipal purposes in Aurora, which is in the South Platte River basin.
And when the growing Front Range city came into the court in 2009 seeking a change to its water right, it admitted it was already using the Fryingpan water for municipal purposes without a decreed right to do so, and had been doing so since 1987.
However, Aurora told the court that that fact should not count against it in its change case. It also said it shouldn’t matter to the Western Slope how it used its water once it was sent under the Continental Divide, including if the water was stored in an East Slope reservoir or not.
A judge in Division 2 water court in Pueblo agreed with Aurora and ruled in its favor in August 2014. That decision was appealed by a list of Western Slope interests directly to the supreme court, which issued its opinion on Dec. 6, 2016.
Both the broad ruling, that storage is not an inherent right for transmountain diversions, and the narrow ruling, that Aurora needs to recalculate its historic consumptive use, were welcome news for Western Slope water interests.
“The reason our clients stayed involved is [that] from the get-go, Aurora was asserting some untenable legal positions that seemed to rely in large part on the concept that, ‘Well, we’re a transmountain diverter, so we look at things differently,’” said Kirsten Kurath, an attorney in Grand Junction.
She represented the Grand Valley Water Users Association, the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, and the Ute Water Conservancy Districts in the case.
The other Western Slope parties in the supreme court case were Eagle and Grand counties and the Basalt Water Conservancy District.
The Colorado state engineer, and engineers in Divisions 1 and 5, were also in the case, and had sided with the arguments made by the Western Slope.
On the Front Range side of the arguments were Aurora, Colorado Springs, Denver Water, Pueblo Board of Water Works, Greeley, Northern Water, Southeastern Water Conservancy District, Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, Busk-Ivanhoe Inc., Cache La Poudre Water Users Association, and the city of Northglenn.