Fraser River health should improve some with Moffat Collection System Project

The plan includes environmental enhancements and protections to ensure the Fraser River will be better off with the Moffat Project than without it.

Here’s a guest column from Kirk Klancke that’s running in the Boulder Daily Camera:

As a long-time resident of Grand County, I’ve been disappointed by recent articles in the Camera about the Moffat Firming Project permit and especially about the west slope implications of the project. Coverage has been misleading in highlighting potential negative environmental impacts while ignoring the stream habitat improvements and flow benefits in the permit that will actually improve the health of the Upper Colorado River system.

It’s important for readers to get the total picture in weighing the environmental impacts of the project.

Trout Unlimited is also a group “dedicated to protecting and restoring the Colorado River” — and we’ve spent more than a decade closely following the proposed Moffat project and working to protect the Upper Colorado. Then, a couple years ago, TU helped negotiate a settlement with Denver Water and local stakeholders in Grand County that included tough permit requirements that we believe will best protect the Upper Colorado and Fraser Rivers.

It’s true that the Moffat project will increase total diversions from the Colorado headwaters. But the project will also provide significant help to rivers and streams currently impacted by transmountain diversions, including streams diverted to meet Boulder’s water supply (through the Windy Gap project). Under terms of their permit, Denver Water must undertake mitigation and enhancement measures that will actually improve the health of streams.

For instance, as part of its commitments, Denver Water will manage diversions to help provide needed flushing flows on the Fraser and its tributaries, complete habitat and native trout restoration work in the Williams Fork basin, and contribute funds toward projects like the Fraser Flats restoration project that is already underway to improve stream and riparian habitat.

Most significantly, Denver Water will participate in an ongoing adaptive management program called “Learning by Doing” through which Denver, Grand County, Trout Unlimited and other local stakeholders are cooperating to apply mitigation and enhancement resources, monitor river and watershed conditions and make adjustments to achieve the best results over time. These efforts were launched even before Denver received their federal approvals.

While my efforts have focused on Grand County, I know that Denver Water has looked for partnerships on the east slope as well. For example, as part of the project, they will provide 5,000 acre-feet of storage in the enlarged reservoir for Boulder and Lafayette to use in providing in-stream flows at critical times, to keep downstream stretches of South Boulder Creek healthy and flowing.

Denver Water’s plans to enlarge Gross Reservoir certainly will have significant impacts on Boulder County, including disruption to lives and property around the reservoir area during construction — but these are mostly temporary impacts. It’s important to look at the project’s long-term benefits to our rivers and streams as well as to our water security.

For years I saw Denver Water as my community’s public enemy number one. But in recent times Denver Water has demonstrated a willingness to work as a partner to keep the Upper Colorado River healthy. This collaboration among stakeholders represents the best opportunity to protect and preserve the Upper Colorado River into the future.

Indeed, it’s already working.

Gross Reservoir Expansion Project update

Gross Dam enlargement concept graphic via Denver Water

From The Summit Daily News (Kevin Fixler):

The U.S. Army of Corps of Engineers officially threw its support behind the proposed expansion of Denver Water-owned Gross Reservoir, aka the Moffat Collection System Project, to triple capacity of the storage facility this past Friday. The review process has been nearly a decade and a half in the making as the Front Range tries to keep pace with population and expected water consumption growth by pulling more of the resource off the Colorado River in headwater communities along the Western Slope.

Just to reach the milestone and obtain buy-in from the region, Denver Water spent six years in negotiations with Summit, Grand and Eagle counties and 14 other stakeholders, as well as several other subsidiary entities. The result was the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, which gave way to the impacted counties accepting the terms to allow the metro area’s municipal water agency to remove water to which it already owned the rights.

“While some may say 14 years is too long, I believe complicated issues deserve thorough study,” Jim Lochhead, Denver Water CEO and manager, said in a news release. “In accordance with other agreements we’ve implemented along the way, Denver Water will provide millions of dollars to improve watershed health in the critical Colorado and South Platte River Basins. The project enjoys broad, bipartisan support from lawmakers, major environmental groups, chambers of commerce and water interests on both sides of the Continental Divide.”

An environmental group that does not share in the reverie, however, is Save The Colorado, a nonprofit water advocacy organization against the project to divert 15,000 more acre-feet of water from the Colorado River…

Save The Colorado’s attorneys are presently reviewing the Army Corps’ record of decision in anticipation of a suit to be filed in federal district court in Denver as part of a larger coalition that may include Boulder homeowners who live around the reservoir’s perimeter. A requested injunction may be part of the legal strategy should Denver Water begin construction on the 131-foot heightening of the existing 340-foot dam wall if a few other smaller-scale permits are secured, but the aim is preventing it from ever coming to fruition.

“Our goal is stop the project, not slow it down,” said [Gary] Wockner…

Summit’s Board of County Commissioners believes the complex deal is a fair one, considering what the area’s water future may have looked like without it in place. Aside from other considerations to keep Denver Water’s appetite in check in the years to come, $11 million in cash — $2 million of which has already been paid — will ultimately be split evenly among the county government and its four major towns of Breckenridge, Dillon, Frisco and Silverthorne for future water and other environmental enhancement projects.

Various county entities, including Summit’s four ski resorts, also stand to receive access to a combined 1,700 acre-feet (approaching 570 millions of gallons) of water annually not previously available out of Denver Water-owned Dillon Reservoir. Grand County is to receive $6 million in payments upon the bypassing of possible legal barriers and final execution of all permits, on top of additional water and adaptive management assistance, while Eagle received some legal assurances of its own.

“This agreement provides for our economy, our environment, our way of life and are things we could have never gotten had we fought Denver Water in court,” said County Commissioner Thomas Davidson. “Denver Water already had these water rights, and that was something we from the Western Slope had to keep reminding ourselves of. Each side had to give up or give in on things they felt very passionately about not wanting to give up.”

With some exceptions, the compromise also better defines Denver Water’s service area to help prevent the expansion of those boundaries and the thirst for even more regional waters. The agency has committed to maintaining conservation activities and increasing reuse of water from the Blue River to reduce the need for more Western Slope water as part of these efforts. A guarantee to hold Dillon Reservoir at an accepted level for ideal aesthetic and recreational purposes from June 18 to Labor Day is a guarantee written into the agreement as well.

With the Army Corps’ endorsement as follow up to a prior certification granted by the Colorado Water Quality Control Division, Denver Water next needs a few remaining approvals from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, U.S. Forest Service and most likely a permit from Boulder’s Board of County Commissioners.

Denver Water is seeking approvals from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the state of Colorado to expand Gross Reservoir, which is southwest of Boulder. The 77,000 acre-foot expansion would help forestall shortages in Denver Water’s water system and offer flood and drought protection, according to Denver Water.

From The Denver Post (Danika Worthington):

Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead said the project, which was approved late Friday, was important to add balance and resiliency to the agency’s system. The dam expansion still needs approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to increase its hydropower capacity.

“It’s been a long haul,” Denver Water Board President Paula Herzmark said of Friday’s decision. “We are just ecstatic, just elated that this permit is now in place and we can begin. To have the insurance that we’re going to have this additional source of supply as our community grows.”

[…]

Colorado Trout Unlimited was happy with the news. The group has been working with Denver Water to make the project environmentally friendly, Trout Unlimited counsel Mely Whiting said.

The project includes an environmental pool to divert water to streams that need it. It also led to the Learning By Doing Cooperative Effort that brings together groups to monitor stream conditions and quickly take action when needed. Denver Water is also giving about $25 million to Grand County and other counties for environmental advancements…

Lochhead countered that the extra water will be needed as current conservation efforts won’t be enough to cover the growing population and effects of climate change. He added that Denver Water has been working with environmental groups and local and federal governments since the start to not just mitigate damage, but rather improve rivers.

Lochhead acknowledged that the five years of construction will be hefty, especially the three years of intensive concrete placing. He said Denver Water worked with the local residents to mitigate impacts and said an onsite quarry will be built to reduce truck trips.

“With a warming climate and with growth and other issues in our system, we need to make sure that our system is resilient in the long term,” he said.

From The Jackson Hole News & Guide (Allen Best):

Denver Water finally has a key permit that it needed to begin raising Gross Dam, located in the foothills northwest of Denver. The purpose is to triple the amount of water that can be stored there, including greater volumes of water diverted from the Winter Park area.

But the city still needs several more federal permits and may get caught in a legal fight. Unlike some water battles of the past, however, this one will come from elsewhere along the Front Range…

Denver Water has been working on this plan since the great drought of 2002 caused city water officials to realize the vulnerabilities of their system. The agency provides water not only to Denver, but many suburbs — altogether about a quarter of all Colorado residents.

“While some may say 14 years is too long, I believe complicated issues deserve thorough study,” said Jim Lochhead, Denver Water chief executive.

Denver has diverted water from the Fraser River and its tributaries since 1936 through the pioneer bore of a railroad tunnel under the Continental Divide. The water is impounded at Gross Dam. The dam already stands 340 feet tall, and Denver wants to raise the dam another 131 feet, to accommodate increased diversions.

Grand County, whose water will be diverted, has not opposed the project…

These diversions were mostly engineered in the 1930s. “Denver had a vision; we had none,” summarized Lurline Curran, who is the now-retired county manager of Grand County, at a water conference about a decade ago.

This time, Grand County sat down with Denver and brokered a deal. Denver gets more water, but it also agrees to work with Trout Unlimited and other local groups to try to take the water in ways that are least impactful to fish and other components of the ecosystem.

Army Corps of Engineers approves Gross Dam expansion — @DenverWater

The Gross Reservoir Expansion Project will add 77,000 total acre feet — 72,000 for Denver Water use and 5,000 for an environmental pool that provides additional water for South Boulder Creek during low-flow periods — nearly tripling reservoir capacity.

Here’s the release from Denver Water (Stacy Chesney):

Army Corps of Engineers issues record of decision and 404 Permit

Following 14 years of careful study, evaluation and deliberation, the Army Corps of Engineers has approved Denver Water’s request to raise Gross Dam in Boulder County. The additional water stored in Gross Reservoir will help prevent future shortfalls during droughts and helps offset an imbalance in Denver Water’s collection system.

The approval comes in the form of a record of decision and 404 Permit — two documents required by the federal government as part of the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Denver Water appreciates the Corps’ dedication and commitment to careful study of the anticipated impacts of this project,” said Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead. “We will complete this project responsibly, as evidenced by our actions during the public process and the resulting robust environmental protections we’ve agreed to along the way. We’re proud to be doing the right thing.”

The existing dam was built in the early 1950s and was designed to be expanded in the future to increase water storage capacity. The Gross Reservoir Expansion Project approval completes this original vision.

Expanding Gross Reservoir is a major part of Denver Water’s long-term plan to deliver safe, reliable water to the people it serves now and into the future. The project is part of Denver Water’s multi-pronged approach that includes conservation, reuse and responsibly sourcing new supply.

“Issuance of this permit will unlock significant resources that will allow us to do good things for the river and the environment,” said Mely Whiting, counsel for Trout Unlimited.

In accordance with existing agreements, including the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement and Grand County’s Learning By Doing, and conditions in the 404 Permit, Denver Water will provide millions of dollars to improve watershed health in the critical Colorado and South Platte River Basins. Lochhead said these commitments are one reason that last year Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found that the project will have a “net environmental benefit” on the state.

The project has earned key endorsements from Gov. Hickenlooper, state and federal lawmakers, major environmental groups, local mayors and city councils, chambers of commerce and economic development corporations, county elected officials and water interests on both sides of the divide.

“The next milestone we anticipate is approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission of Denver Water’s hydropower license amendment application at some point next year,” said Jeff Martin, Gross Reservoir Expansion program manager. “In the meantime, Denver Water continues to make significant investments in setting a firm foundation for the project’s overall success by recently hiring Black and Veatch as the owner’s representative. We are also in the process of procuring a design engineer.”

Preconstruction activities, including dam design and geotechnical work, are expected to begin in 2018. The entire project is expected to be completed in 2025.

Visit http://grossreservoir.org to read more about the project and http://denverwaterTAP.org for additional information.

From The Associated Press via The U.S. News & World Report:

The Army Corps of Engineers announced late Friday it granted the project a permit under the federal Clean Water Act.

The $380 million project involves Gross Dam in the foothills about 5 miles southwest of Boulder.

#Colorado Springs: Arkansas River Basin Water Forum, April 26-27

Here’s the release from the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum (Jean Van-Peldt):

Denver Water lawyer to share message of cooperation

Water agreements are always tricky, a matter of give and take.

Most importantly, they require cooperation.

That’s the message Patricia Wells, general counsel for Denver Water, will bring to the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum when she kicks off the second day of the forum on April 27 at Hotel Elegante, 2886 S. Circle Drive, Colorado Springs. The two-day forum will feature panels and tours to discuss water issues of concern to the Arkansas River basin, and El Paso County in particular.

“We’ll be talking about examples of how, when you’re dealing with the supply gap, you need to deal with others,” said Wells, who is also a member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “Multiple parties can accomplish more.”

Wells has represented Denver Water since 1991, coming on board just after the EPA veto of Two Forks. It changed how the state’s largest water provider dealt with the growth of its system, as well as the way it treated its neighbors. Wells came superbly prepared for the job, with her background as Denver City Attorney and as a staff attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund.

“The Two Forks veto came as a result of the environmental laws in the 1970s and ‘80s and was a paradigm shift,” Wells said. “Most large water organizations have gone through a metamorphosis in the last 30 years.”

In the case of Denver Water, that has meant two of the most far-reaching agreements in the history of Colorado Water, both occurring during Wells’ tenure at the legal helm. They were very different types of negotiations.

The first was the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, which brought together 40 parties, primarily on the Western Slope, which had fought for decades over Denver’s appropriation of Colorado River water. Denver sought the support, or at least lack of opposition, from the communities in order to enlarge Gross Reservoir, a key supply for Denver Water located in Boulder County.

“We did all the right things,” Wells said. “But we’re still in the 13th year of permitting on Gross Reservoir. If we can’t get Gross Reservoir done then water projects can’t be done in Colorado.”

The second was the WISE (Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency), which looked at how Denver, Aurora and water providers in the South Metro Water Supply Authority could pool resources.

They were far different negotiations, but the common thread was the need to work together for common interests and to overcome operational hurdles.

“The state Water Plan talks about CRCA and WISE as how projects should be developed,” Wells said. “But I don’t think there’s a single way to do things.”

The Upper Arkansas River Voluntary Flow Management Program, which will be discussed in one of the workshops at the forum, is an example of multiple parties working together in the Arkansas River basin. That program has been in effect since 1991.

“These agreements take a lot of time to put together and a long time to get organized,” Wells said. “It’s about how you work with other people and why you work with other people.”

Registrations and information about this year’s forum are available at http://www.ARBWF.org.

Arkansas River Basin — Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey

Conflict of interest — @DenverWater watershed funding for forest health in Boulder County?

St. Vrain River Rocky Mountain National Park
St. Vrain River Rocky Mountain National Park

From the Boulder Daily Camera (Charlie Brennan):

Denver Water, which serves 1.4 million people in the city and county of Denver and surrounding communities, is currently waiting for a permitting decision to be issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on its proposed expansion of Gross Reservoir, located in southwestern Boulder County.

The USFS has filed extensive past comments critical of the Gross Reservoir project, but now says all of its concerns about that project have been resolved.

Critics, however, point to a five-year, $4.5 million contract providing Denver Water funding for the original Forsythe project as well as numerous other Colorado forest management efforts — talks are now underway for a new five-year pact for Denver Water to help subsidize projects, including Forsythe II — and they challenge the level of transparency surrounding that wildlands management initiative.

Denver Water touts its relationship with the Forest Service on its website, billed since 2010 as the “From Forests to Faucets” program. That partnership called for Denver Water from 2010 to 2015 to match a $16.5 million investment from the Forest Service, for a total of $33 million, for forest treatment projects seen as critical to protecting water supplies and water quality.

A memorandum of understanding was signed by Denver Water in December for a similar new agreement between the two, setting up a new one-to-one matching effort totaling another $33 million, to cover 2017 to 2021.

The Colorado State Forest Service was also a partner to the previous pact, and will be to its successor, along with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Colorado saw a dramatic example of the healthy forests-healthy water link following the June 2002 Hayman fire, which filled Cheesman Reservoir — the oldest reservoir in the Denver Water system — with mud, ash and other debris.

Denver Water was forced to spend more than $27 million on water quality treatment, sediment and debris removal, reclamation techniques and infrastructure projects in the wake of the Hayman Fire and the 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire, according to Denver Water spokesman Travis Thompson.

But Magnolia-area resident David Bahr sees the Denver Water-USFS relationship as “absolutely” representing a conflict of interest, specifically as it applies to the controversial Forsythe projects in western Boulder County.

“How can it not be?” Bahr asked. “The fact that (USFA) employees and goods are being paid for by Denver Water means that if they weren’t doing this, those employees wouldn’t be getting paid. The Forest Service has to be aware of this, so it has to influence any decisions that they make.”

Vivian Long, president of the Magnolia Forest Group, has long been vocal in opposition to the original Forsythe project and its planned successor, Forsythe II, which calls for thinning and controlled burns on 2,855 acres of national forest land within the nearly 19,000-acre project area, to be carried out over 10 to 15 years.

“While they’re saying, ‘We’re taking money from Denver Water, but they have no input on what we do,’ I don’t know if that’s true or not,” Long said. “When we have asked about them taking money from Denver Water, they have tried to either downplay it, or deny, or just say they don’t know anything about it. So we’re left wondering, whose opinion is more important here: the public’s or Denver Water?”

Paperwork documenting the Denver Water-USFS relationship was obtained by Magnolia Forest Group member Teagen Blakey through Colorado Open Records Act requests…

Forsythe II critics point out that in March 2010, the Forest Service filed 142 pages of comments on the Gross Reservoir project with the Corps of Engineers highlighting many concerns, including the adequacy of Denver Water’s consideration for habitat and wildlife issues in the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests.

That same year, the Forest Service signed off on the five-year operating plan for Denver Water to pitch in $4,479,251 toward improving forest and watershed health on national forest lands in numerous Colorado watersheds designated as Denver Water “Zones of Concern,” including the St. Vrain Watershed, home to Gross Reservoir.

To date, $660,000 of that Denver Water money has gone toward Forsythe work, according to Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests spokeswoman Tammy Williams.

On Oct. 17, the Forest Service and Denver Water agreed on a lengthy agreement settling any concerns over Gross Reservoir, which it states “resolves all issues raised by the Forest Service during the consultation process” relating to the Gross Reservoir expansion

Clark Chapman, vice president of the Magnolia Forest Group, is among those wondering why the Forest Service is seeming now to soft-pedal habitat concerns around both Forsythe II and Gross Reservoir…

Tammy Williams, the USFS spokeswoman, said there is no conflict of interest inherent in Denver Water’s pushing for Gross Reservoir and funding Forsythe forest work at the same time.

“Gross Reservoir was independently analyzed and considered separate and apart from the Forsythe II project,” she wrote in an email. “These projects are being proposed by different agencies, these are independent processes, with independent timelines and different decision makers.”

[…]

The western half of Gross Reservoir, as it is currently configured, is encompassed by the southeastern corner of the Forsythe II project area. But despite their proximity, the Forest Service maintains that its evaluation of Forsythe II is not influenced by its relationship with Denver Water.

High Demand, Low Supply: Colorado River Water Crisis Hits Across The West — @NewsCPR

Colorado River Basin including out of basin demands -- Graphic/USBR
Colorado River Basin including out of basin demands — Graphic/USBR

From Colorado Public Radio (Grace Hood):

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.

“We’re kind of at the cliff right now in the Colorado River Basin” — Matt Rice

Denver Water's collection system via the USACE EIS
Denver Water’s collection system via the USACE EIS

From Colorado Public Radio (Nathaniel Minor):

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.

Workers pose for a photo in the Moffat Water Tunnel in this 1930 photo.
Workers pose for a photo in the Moffat Water Tunnel in this 1930 photo.

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

stoptwoforksdampostcardfrontcirca1988

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

A screenshot from the website for Colorado's Water Plan.
A screenshot from the website for Colorado’s Water Plan.

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.