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.
Colorado’s economy depends on water: where it is, where the people who need it live and work, who has rights to it. Fights over those needs are a core part of the state’s history, and they tend to follow a pattern. So in some ways, the fight over the Fraser River in Colorado’s Grand County is familiar.
Denver Water holds unused water rights on the river, which starts in the shadow of Berthoud Pass and courses down the western side of the Continental Divide past Winter Park, Fraser and Tabernash to join the Colorado River outside of Granby.
The agency, looking at the booming population and economy in Denver, now wants to exercise those rights. That means taking more water from the river, piping it under the Indian Peaks and sending it into Gross Reservoir near Boulder.
Some conservationists and environmental groups are crying foul, saying that the river has already been overtaxed (about 60 percent of its existing flow is already diverted to slake Denver’s growing thirst) and it’s time to let the river alone.
But the fight’s pattern is taking some unfamiliar twists and turns. Influential groups like Trout Unlimited and American Rivers, who’ve historically fought diversion projects, support this one. In exchange, Denver Water says it will will help protect and enhance what’s left of the Fraser River.
That compromise has fractured traditional lines in Colorado’s conservation and environmental advocacy community, and fostered new alliances. While these organizations more or less agree on their ultimate goal — to protect and restore the environment — the strategies they use are very different. The big question that divides them: When to compromise?
Denver Water Extends An Olive Branch
Decades ago, environmentalists were not at the top of list of Denver Water’s concerns when it would try to build dams and add capacity. In the 1980s, environmental groups pushed back on a huge proposed dam called Two Forks.
“[Denver Water] told us in so many words: ‘We’re the experts. You’re little environmentalists. Get out of the way,’ ” Dan Luecke, then head of Environmental Defense Fund’s Rocky Mountain office, told High Country News in 2000.
Then, in 1990, an EPA veto torpedoed the project at the last minute.
“That was really a turning point for our organization,” said Kevin Urie, a scientist who’s worked for Denver Water for nearly 30 years. “I think we realized with the veto of Two Forks that we needed to think about things differently.”
He believes that while Denver Water has long taken environmental impacts into consideration with its plans, it didn’t engage with local stakeholders — like conservation and environmental groups and Western Slope governments — until after the Two Forks project died.
There’s a demographic change underway as well: Many of the Denver metro area’s new residents also want to play in Western Slope rivers on the weekends. That has pushed Denver Water leadership to put a larger emphasis on environmental stewardship, Urie said.
But all those new residents still need water. Denver Water delivers water to about 1.4 million people across the metro, about double what it did some 60 years ago. Conservation efforts have kept overall demand relatively low in recent years. But with more people moving to Denver every day, Denver Water expects its demand to rise 37 percent by 2032 from 2002 levels.
The Fraser River is key to Denver Water’s plan to head off a shortfall in the relatively near future. The agency wants to divert half of the remaining flows from the Fraser and its tributaries through the Moffat Tunnel to Gross Reservoir near Boulder. (The proposed expansion of Gross has started its own fight, which CPR News’ Grace Hood chronicled last month.) It would be treated at the agency’s plant in Lakewood, and eventually delivered to customers across the metro.
The agency expects to have all of its necessary permits by 2018 and construction could begin in 2019 or 2020. But to get those permits, Denver Water has agreed to be part of a group that includes Grand County officials and environmentalists called “Learning by Doing.” These different players are often at odds when it comes to water issues.
Urie said Denver Water’s participation shows its desire to do right by the environment and local stakeholders. They’ve helped fund an ambitious project that will engineer the Fraser River’s flow on a nearly mile-long stretch between Fraser and Tabernash, squeezing it to make it narrower, deeper and colder — and thus healthier.
But is that what’s best for the river?
Urie thought about that question for a minute, and then chose his words carefully:
“Clearly the system would be better if we weren’t using the water resources for other uses. But that’s not the scenario we are dealing with,” Urie said.
Trout Unlimited Sees Opportunity
The Fraser River project’s biggest booster is Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited. For him personally, it’s a way to help a river that he’s lived near and played in for 45 years.
“I can’t talk about it without getting all emotional. My life’s been spent on this river,” he said.
He sees it as a chance to restore a part of the river popular with anglers called the Fraser Flats. Here, the brush-lined river levels out after tumbling through the pine forests of Berthoud Pass.
His playground is popular with others, too. Grand County is a short one- to two-hour drive from Denver. From fly fishing to alpine and nordic skiing to snowmobiling, it’s a tourist-based economy. And in Klancke’s eyes, all of that rests on the health of its water.
He’s watched the river dwindle and get warmer as more water has been pulled out of it. And that’s changed how his family has used it. When his children were young, they could stay in the river for only a minute or two.
“They’d come out and their lips would be purple and they’d be squealing,” Klancke said. “Now I throw my grandchildren in the river and they’re not in a hurry to get out. We spend up to an hour in a pool in the river.”
He’s watched this river that means so much to him get sicker and sicker; warm, shallow channels aren’t suitable for native fish and bugs. For years, he blamed the deteriorating environment on the Front Range and its water managers.
“I was a little radical because I urinated in diversion ditches. It’s about all I knew to do. I’ve matured quite a bit since then,” he said.
His turning point came when he got involved with Trout Unlimited.
“I loved their approach,” he said. “They were able to look at it in someone else’s shoes, which is what all mature people do. And then, move forward with opening up conversation.”
Such conversations are what led to the Fraser Flats project, Klancke said. When flows are low, like they were this fall, the river is shallow as it stretches across its native bed. The new channel will allow the river to recede and stay deeper — and cooler.
Essentially, that stretch of river will be turned into a creek. On its face, downsizing a river doesn’t sound like a big victory for environmentalists. But that’s not how Klancke looks at it. During peak flows in the spring, Klancke points out, the river will be nearly just as wild as it is now.
And moreover, Denver Water has to stay involved in the Learning by Doing group. So if environmental issues arise down the road, Klancke said the agency will be there to help solve them.
Is it a compromise? Yes, Klancke admits. But water managers own water rights in the upper Colorado Basin that they’ll use — with or without his blessing. The right to divert water for “beneficial uses” is enshrined in the Colorado Constitution.
“We have to face reality here,” Klancke said. “There is no more mighty Upper Colorado. There’s only keeping what’s left healthy.” [ed. emphasis mine]
WildEarth Guardians Stakes Out Moral High Ground
Like Klancke, Jen Pelz, wild river program director for WildEarth Guardians, has had her own evolution in thought toward environmental causes. Earlier in her career, she was a water lawyer in Denver who represented clients like the city of Pueblo that were taking water from Western Slope rivers.
But eventually she felt a pull toward environmental advocacy. Pelz credits that with childhood days spent on the banks of a tributary to the Rio Grande in New Mexico.
“It was kind of the place that I could go just be myself,” she said. “I developed a really strong connection to the river there.”
She was drawn to the confrontational, no-holds-barred approach used by WildEarth Guardians. The group is known for its headline-grabbing lawsuits. Most recently they sued the federal government over haze in Western Colorado and leases to coal mines.
The approach seems to be working, at least by WildEarth Guardian’s measure. The haze lawsuit ended in an agreement where a coal mine and coal-fired power plant in Nucla, south of Grand Junction, will shut down in the next six years. A power plant in Craig, Colorado will shut down one of its units too.
“We’re willing to not be liked by the general public, or by particular industries,” Pelz said. “And I think it takes that kind of moral integrity and just knowing where you stand on the issues, to really push the envelope.” [ed. emphasis mine]
Pelz is not interested in compromise on the Fraser River. She faults Trout Unlimited for starting negotiations at the wrong place. In her view, the baseline shouldn’t be where the river is now with about 60 percent of it being diverted. The conversation needs to start with the river at its natural flows, she said.
“The harm has already been done,” Pelz said.
If the Fraser River is going to be saved, she says, it’ll happen by letting more water back into the river — not by taking more out. As the climate warms, she says the river will need all the help it can get.
“Let’s start dealing with it now. Let’s have that hard conversation now, not 50 years from now when there’s no water left to have a conversation about,” she says.
Pelz says her organization, and another group called Save the Colorado, are considering litigation once final permits are approved. That could happen in 2018.
Such tactics doesn’t make Pelz a lot of friends. She said she’s been ostracized from her former clique of water lawyers. It’s hard for her to get meetings with government regulators.
WildEarth Guardians’ relationship with the greater environmental community is similarly strained. She said Denver Water is more willing to meet with environmentalists now because they’ve softened. And she’s upset with what Trout Unlimited has become in the eyes of regulators.
“Trout Unlimited has been deemed by Denver Water and the state of Colorado as being the environmental voice,” Pelz said. “They get invited to the table because they have this role in communities, which I don’t think is a bad thing, but they don’t necessarily represent all of the different interests in the environmental community.”
As a result, she said, groups like hers are being left out of the conversation.
“They don’t talk to us. They don’t ask us what we think. And I’ve called them. And I’ve had meetings with them. I’ve asked them what they think. And they’ve told me they don’t like our approach. And I understand that. But I think that it works both ways.”
Pelz said it can be hard to be out “towing the left line.” Everybody likes to be liked, she said. But she’s decided that over the long run, her methods are what will make a difference. To do anything else would be surrender.
“I don’t want to have to explain to my kids that I gave up the fight for this river that is the namesake of our state, the state they were born in, because I was willing to compromise,” she said. “We may not win, but damn we are going to try.”
American Rivers Finds Room To Maneuver
When Matt Rice, Colorado River basin director for American Rivers took the job a few years ago, he made the decision to put aside his dreams for what he really wanted. Instead, he focuses on what he thinks he can actually pull off.
“In a perfect world, I’d like to see all the wild rivers in this country and in this state flowing freely and filled with fish, doing what rivers should do,” Rice said. “It’s not realistic.”
But he acknowledges that groups like WildEarth Guardians can make his job easier at times. When Guardians files a lawsuit and makes a bunch of people mad, a group like his can step in and talk with state regulators and businesses. Guardians essentially provides cover for groups closer to the political center, he said.
“Their advocacy pushes everybody, not just conservation organizations, kind of further to the left. And I think that’s good,” Rice said.
But there’s a downside. Lawsuits and sharply worded press releases can sting, and are not easily forgotten. And Rice worries that aggressive tactics from far-left groups lead to skeptical parties like ranchers or Front Range water managers lumping all environmentalists together.
“That has the potential to undermine the progress we’re making,” he said.
Looking To The Future
With the publication of last year’s Colorado Water Plan, a first for the state, officials are trying to turn the page on Colorado’s long fight over water. The plan, which officials describe as a roadmap to sustainability, stresses collaboration between competing interests and conservation of the increasingly precious resource.
“Now is the time to rethink how we can be more efficient,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said at the water plan’s introduction in November 2015.
Diverting more water should be the last-possible solution, Hickenlooper said. That’s welcome news to environmentalists like Matt Rice of American Rivers.
Rice said they are supportive of the Fraser River diversion plan for the same reasons Trout Unlimited is, though they aren’t part of the Learning by Doing group. But he hopes the Fraser diversion, and another major project in the works called Windy Gap, are the last trans-mountain diversion projects.
There just isn’t enough water on the Western Slope, he said. And if another one comes up, Rice said they’ll fight it with everything they have.
“We’re kind of at the cliff right now in the Colorado River Basin,” he said.
Collaboration and compromise will certainly be part of environmentalism’s future in Colorado. But as groups like WildEarth Guardians continue to find success in the courts, the advocacy ecosystem has room for other strategies too.
Next year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to decide whether to issue a permit to triple the capacity of Gross Reservoir in the Rocky Mountain foothills, with additional shipments of about 18,000 acre feet of water a year from the Colorado River watershed. An acre foot is enough water to meet the annual needs of an average family of five.
That is one of the last regulatory barriers for utility Denver Water’s $380 million project, for which district officials say they hope to break ground in 2019 to help ensure local water supplies.
“We have an obligation to supply water,” said Jeff Martin, Denver Water’s manager of the project, as he stood recently atop a 340-foot concrete dam that is to be raised by 131 feet under the plan. “It’s not an option to not have water.”
The Corps of Engineers is expected to decide next year on a proposed new “Windy Gap” project in Colorado, which would divert up to another 30,000 acre feet a year to the Front Range, the heavily populated area where the Rocky Mountains rise up from the plains.
In addition, more than 200,000 acre feet would be diverted for proposed projects in Utah and Wyoming…
Water officials in California and other lower basin states say they aren’t overly concerned about more diversions upstream, because a 1922 compact requires the upper basin states to deliver them about 7.5 million acre feet a year, or one half the river flow set aside for human use north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Much of that water is stockpiled in Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border.
With the Colorado running much lower than when the compact was signed, water experts say there is less water to divert.
“So long as their development doesn’t impinge on their release to us, that is their business,” said Chuck Cullom, a program manager at the Central Arizona Project in Phoenix, which pulls from the river and stands to lose a fifth of its deliveries if a shortage is declared on the Colorado. “If it falls below that, then they would have to figure out how to manage their demand.”
Don Ostler, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, which oversees use of the river in the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, agreed that new diversions increase the risk of shortages.
“The more you develop, the more a severe drought can affect you,” said Mr. Ostler. “But we are able to live with a certain amount of shortage.”
In Denver, water officials don’t feel they have much choice but to seek more Colorado water.
In 2002, tons of sediment from a forest fire clogged one of Denver Water’s reservoirs during a drought. “We came close to running out of water in the northern end of our system,” said Jim Lochhead, chief executive officer of Denver Water, a utility that serves 1.4 million people.
That crisis helped prompt the district in 2003 to undertake the Gross Reservoir expansion, which would store more water from an existing tunnel that transfers Colorado River water from the west side of the Continental Divide.
Denver officials pledged to only take the water in wet years and release more into streams when it is dry—measures that drew praise from some conservationists…
Gov. John Hickenlooper in July gave the state’s approval, calling the dam’s expansion vital. “The state’s responsibility is to ensure we do the right thing for Colorado’s future,” the Democratic governor said at the time, “and this project is vital infrastructure for our economy and the environment.”
It’s been almost a century since the Colorado River Compact was created, divvying up the resources of this mighty waterway between seven states and Mexico. That means almost 40 million people are dependent on the river in some way. Traditionally, the economic value of the river was based on what the water could be used for when extracted—things like agriculture, mining, and industry. Now, more people are pointing to the economic value of keeping water in the river itself.
The Fraser River in Grand County is a tributary of the Colorado River, which starts in Rocky Mountain National Park. It runs through the heart of the town of Fraser and neighboring Winter Park. These towns attract skiers in winter and fly fishers and outdoor enthusiasts the rest of the year.
“The recreation is all based around the river… it’s the absolute base of the recreational system,” says Dennis Saffell, a real estate broker in the mountain communities of Grand and Summit Counties. Saffell says there’s a direct connection to property values and proximity to the river…
Saffell says a loss of flow in the river would likely decrease the values for all properties in these mountain communities that are dependant on the river for a tourism economy.
That’s something that others in western slope communities are well aware of, including Jim Pokrandt with the Colorado River District, the principal water policy and planning agency for the Colorado River Basin within the state.
“We understand that water left in the river is important to the economy,” says Pokdradt, “and if we have dried up rivers then we’d have degradation to our western slope economy.”
Pokrandt says the fortunes of many western slope towns hinge on understanding that the strength of local economies is beginning to shift from taking water out of the river to leaving it in.
“Rafting, that’s a big deal, skiing that’s a big deal now, hunting, fishing… this is our economy here on the west slope,” says Pokrandt. “Yes, ag is still big, and yes there’s still some mining, but our new economy is based on water in the rivers in western Colorado.”
Historically, most Colorado water rights have involved uses that divert water from the streams, but back in the early 1970s lawmakers began to recognize the need to create rights allowing water to remain in the river, to help protect ecology. But that was just a first step. Now 43 years later, a lot of water is still being taken out of the Colorado River basin and diverted to the east. There are 13 major trans mountain diversions and many other smaller ones.
It’s a concern for advocates like Craig Mackey, co-director of the non-profit Protect the Flows.
“In the 21st century we have an economic reason to have the river itself, the recreation economy, the tourism economy and I think the hardest one to quantify is a quality of life economy,” says Mackey.
Protect the Flows advocates for conservation of the Colorado River Basin, pointing to the connection between a healthy river and healthy economies.
“People want to live here, they want to locate here, they want to grow businesses here, they want to raise their families here,” says Mackey. “And water and our snow in our mountains, which becomes the water in our rivers, is a huge driver in that quality of life economy that we’re so lucky to have here in the state of Colorado.”
Protect the Flows worked with Arizona State University in 2014 on the first study on the economic impact of the Colorado River. It found that the major waterway generates $1.4 trillion in economic benefits annually throughout the entire seven state river basin. In Colorado, the tourism and outdoor recreation economy tied to the river brings in more than $9 billion annually.
The Colorado Water Plan acknowledges the need to keep water in streams, but it also acknowledges the water needs of growing cities.
Realtor Dennis Seffell says even more needs to be done.
“Now it’s time to take a new fresh look as to why it’s important to keep rivers full of water,” Saffell says.
A prolonged drought in the south west, paired with over allocation, has left the Colorado River in a sorry state. Front Range communities, largely dependent on that western water, are having some success with conservation. But with an additional 2 million people expected to move to the Denver metro area over the next 25 years, demand will only increase.
Owners of a typical single family home in Arvada will likely have to pay $1.41 more a month — or $16.90 additional a year — for water and sewer services fees in 2017.
The average single-family home is considered to be 3.2 people and a yard. And the average single family drinking water bill in Arvada runs about $481 annually and $291 annually for sewage.
Jim Sullivan, director of utilities for Arvada, said the average single-family account in Arvada uses 120,000 gallons of water each year for domestic and irrigation purposes and generates 60,000 gallons of sewage. Single-family accounts form the largest customer group in Arvada, using about 60 percent of the water.
Arvada City Council heard the proposed rate increases at the Sept. 26 workshop and will discuss the proposals during council meetings on Oct. 3 and Oct. 17, also the date of a public hearing. The rates have been raised every year over the past decade.
When taken separately, the proposed increases amount to 2 percent for water and 3 percent for wastewater. A 1.45 percent increase for water tap fees is also proposed. Stormwater and sewer tap fees are not projected to increase, city officials said.
The increases are needed because of rising vendor prices, new equipment and materials, and employee salary raises, Sullivan said.
Sullivan added that over the next 10 years, water operation costs will likely slowly increase as the city prepares to contribute payment for the Denver Water Gross Reservoir expansion project.
Sources of water
Arvada has two sources of water. The first is a 1965 contract with Denver Water. The second source is the city’s Clear Creek water right holdings.
But “these two sources will not be sufficient to meet the residents’ needs at buildout of the city,” Sullivan said. “The city has entered into an agreement with Denver Water to financially participate in the Gross Reservoir expansion in exchange for additional water supplies. This project should increase Arvada’s water supplies sufficiently to meet the city’s needs at buildout.”
Gross Reservoir, named for Denver Water former Chief Engineer Dwight D. Gross, was completed in 1954. It serves as a combination storage and regulating facility for water that flows under the Continental Divide through the Moffat Tunnel and supplies water to Denver Water’s North System.
The reservoir was originally designed with the intention of future expansion to provide necessary storage.
With demand expected to increase in coming years, expanding Gross Reservoir will increase sustainability to the water supply as part of Denver Water’s multi-pronged approach that includes conservation, reuse water and developing additional supply to meet customers’ future needs.
“We think we have enough money in the fund to avoid issuing debt for this project,” Sullivan told city council.
The proposed 2017 water fund budget is $29 million, with 75 percent going toward water system operations, 8 percent for debt services and 17 percent for capital improvements. The Gross Reservoir project is the majority of the capital improvements area.
The city’s current debt service is $2.2 million, paid mostly from tap fees, Sullivan said. He added that in 2020 the water bonds issued in January 2001 will be paid off.
The projected increase in the operations budget for water is $656,000 or 3 percent. However, the bond repayment in 2020 will reduce operating costs by $445,000 annually. Because of this, city staff is proposing to increase water rates by 2 percent rather than 3 percent in 2017, smoothing out future rate changes.
The proposed 2 percent rate increases the water fee part of the bill by $8.52 annually or 71 cents per month. The 3 percent increase for wastewater amounts to $8.40 annually or 70 cents per month.
It is expected that by 2023, the 20-year program to rehabilitate the sanitary sewer system in the city will end and the $2 million needed annually will drop to $500,000 for major repairs and maintenance.
The water tap fee increase of 1.45 percent applies to new construction and would increase by $275, bringing the total cost of a single family water tap to $19,275.
Considering the Denver region is growing by an average of 4,500 new residents per month, a large sector of the population likely doesn’t remember the catastrophic 2002 drought. The most severe water shortage since the Dust Bowl, snowpack and soil moisture were at all-time lows, and we remained in a dry period until 2006. Luckily, with water restrictions in place, we never actually ran out of water—we just got really close.
“We realized that we had an immediate need to correct a vulnerability in our system,” Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead says. That’s when Denver Water started planning the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project, and after more than a decade of negotiations, the project (which was recently endorsed by Gov. John Hickenlooper) is underway.
But will it be enough? The short answer is yes—as long as Denverites work on strengthening their water conservation practices. Lochhead was pleased to note that when a storm comes through the Mile High City, there is a noticeable drop in outdoor water use, because well-informed residents are turning off their sprinkler systems. Denver residents have managed to reduce water consumption by more than 20 percent in the last 15 years, even with a 15 percent increase in population, according to Lochhead.
The decrease is not enough to mitigate the risk of drought, however. As Colorado’s largest water utility, the Denver Water system is made up of two collection systems—the Northern and the South Platte—and they are incredibly imbalanced. About 80 percent of the water comes from the south system, leaving the north very vulnerable to low rainfall or wildfires. During the notable dry years of 2002 and 2013, clients in the north end were lucky their taps continued to flow.
“We were literally only one drought away from a major problem in our system,” Lochhead says, noting that as recently as 2013, the system was virtually out of water in the north-end.
In Colorado, rivers flow not only down mountain slopes but beneath them, across them, and through them.
Nearly four dozen canals, tunnels, and ditches in the state move water out of natural drainages and into neighboring basins. Some snake across high passes. Others pierce bedrock.
All manmade water courses, meant to supply farming, manufacturing, or household use, eventually become so familiar they become part of the landscape. But old infrastructure can come to life in different form. Recently, Gov. John Hickenlooper cast renewed attention on water supply and growth in the West with a decision in a long-running process to expand a Colorado River diversion.
That diversion is the Moffat tunnel which supplies water to Gross reservoir. From its western portal at the base of Winter Park’s ski slopes the 80-year-old conduit, blasted through layers of gneiss, granite, and schist, sends water from west-flowing Colorado River tributaries to Gross reservoir, east of the Continental Divide.
Denver Water, the public utility that owns Gross reservoir, wants to triple its capacity in order to secure water for one of the country’s fastest growing big cities. The $US 380 million project, under state and federal review since 2003, gained Gov. Hickenlooper’s endorsement on the last day of June, a week after it collected a key state water quality permit. The final piece will be a dredging permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Gross reservoir expansion reflects a fundamental tension for the seven states and two countries that share the Colorado River: how many more diversions can the stressed basin tolerate? The watershed is drying but states in the upper basin still plan to pull more water out of the river. Whether they should — and how much — is a matter of constant debate.
“The challenge becomes reconciling the ability to develop water with the reality that you are assuming a ton of risk,” James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, told Circle of Blue..
A Game of Risk
Some observers say that the risk threshold has already been crossed. A group of respected academics calling themselves the Colorado River Research Group argued in a 2014 paper that the basin must strive to use less water, not more. “Any conversation about the river that does not explicitly acknowledge this reality is not helpful in shaping sound public policy,” they wrote.
Eklund said he understands the sentiment behind the call for restraint. However, Colorado’s constitution is set up, he said, to protect the right to develop water.
“The state is not going to call balls and strikes and say whether a project is a good investment,” he said. “You take it at your peril. You assume the risk.”
The upper basin is starting to think about those risks. Like the lower basin, it is participating in the pilot conservation program. Most of its projects are located in Colorado and Wyoming. The goal is to prop up Lake Powell with the saved water.