FromThe Loveland Reporter-Herald (Sam Lounsberry) via The Denver Post:
An environmental group’s motion to intervene in a dispute between Denver Water and Boulder County over the proposed expansion of Gross Reservoir was granted by a judge on Tuesday.
Court documents show Boulder District Judge Andrew Ross Macdonald will allow the group, Save the Colorado, to enter the case as a party on behalf of Boulder County, the defendant in the suit.
Denver Water filed the complaint against the county after it decided the utility would have to subject its controversial proposed dam expansion — which would be the largest construction project in the county’s history — through the county development approval process.
The case is still moving through court, with Denver Water trying to avoid subjecting its project to county [1041 regulations].
The Colorado River is short on water. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at a slate of proposed water projects in the river’s Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
The river and its tributaries provide water for 40 million people in the Southwest. For about the last 20 years, demand for water has outstripped the supply, causing its largest reservoirs to decline.
In the Bureau of Reclamation’s 2012 Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, you can pinpoint when the lines crossed somewhere around the year 2002. It’s a well-documented and widely accepted imbalance.
That harsh reality — of the river’s water promised to too many people — has prompted all sorts of activity and agreements within the seven Western states that rely on it. That activity includes controversial efforts in some states in the Colorado River’s Upper Basin to tap every available drop before things get worse.
The utility that owns [Gross Reservoir], Denver Water, wants to increase the size of the dam by 131 feet, and fill the human-made lake with more water from the headwaters of the Colorado River via a tunnel that traverses the Continental Divide.
Imagine a tractor trailer hauling dam-building materials making this turn, Long says.
“If they truck all of this material up our canyon, people in our community are gonna get killed by those trucks. Period,” Long said. “There’s a lot of other issues here but the safety thing should really be a serious priority.”
Long and his wife, April Lewandowski, live near the reservoir in a community called Coal Creek Canyon. Like many of her neighbors, Lewandowski commutes from the sparsely populated canyon to her job on the state’s dense Front Range. Her daily commute on the canyon’s two-lane highway is the same as a haul route for trucks needed to build the dam addition.
Long pulls up to a small parking area that overlooks the dam. It’s a deep wall of concrete, stretched between the tree-lined canyon walls of South Boulder Creek.
“I mean you look at how the land splays out, you can see why they want to (build it),” Long said. “It’s so much wider all the way around.”
If the expansion goes through, the place where we’re standing will be submerged in water. The addition to Gross Dam will raise it to 471 feet in height, making it the tallest dam in Colorado…
Denver Water first started taking an expansion of Gross Reservoir seriously after the dry winter of 2002. Exceptional drought conditions took hold across the Mountain West. The utility’s CEO, Jim Lochhead, said in the midst of those historic dry conditions, a portion of its service area nearly ran out of water.
“This is a project that’s needed today to deal with that imbalance and that vulnerability and to give us more drought resiliency,” Lochhead said.
Since then, Denver Water has filed federal permits to start construction, and negotiated an agreement with local governments and environmental groups on the state’s Western Slope to mitigate some effects of the additional water being taken from the headwaters.
Before leaving office, former Colorado Democratic governor and current presidential hopeful John Hickenlooper threw his weight behind the project, giving it an endorsement and suggesting other water agencies in the West take notice how Denver Water approached the process.
But despite the political heft behind the project, it faces considerable headwinds.
Environmentalists are suing, arguing the expansion will harm endangered fish. A group of local activists say the additional water will spur unsustainable population growth along the state’s Front Range. In recent months, the utility began sparring with Boulder County officials over whether they were exempt from a certain land use permit.
Building a 131-foot dam addition does come with baggage, Lochhead said. But he argued his agency has done its part to address some of the concerns, like reducing the number of daily tractor trailer trips up Coal Creek Canyon and planning upgrades to the intersection where trucks will turn onto Gross Dam Road.
“It is a major construction project. I don’t want to gloss over that. It will have impacts to the local community,” Lochhead said.
Denver Water staff are doing more outreach in the canyon as well, Lochhead said.
“We are committed to the project and seeing it through. We’re also committed despite the opposition to working with the local community in doing this the right way,” he said…
The latest scuffle with Boulder County has brought the Gross Dam expansion squarely back into public view. At a county commissioner’s meeting in March, residents criticized Denver Water on all fronts, from specific concerns about the construction itself, to broader concerns about water scarcity in the Colorado River basin…
“This project represents an effort by Denver Water … to actually grab water while they can, before federal legislation and management of the Colorado River Basin is imposed,” McDermott said.
What McDermott is referring to is a stark disconnect in the Colorado River watershed. States downstream on the river — Arizona, Nevada and California — signed a new agreement in May called the Drought Contingency Plan that keeps them from becoming more reliant on the Colorado River. It requires cutbacks to water deliveries should levels in Lake Mead, the river’s largest reservoir, continue to drop.
Meanwhile, upstream in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, no such agreement was made. Those states wound up agreeing to study the feasibility of a program that would compensate farmers to stop irrigating their cropland if reservoirs dropped, with no solid way to pay for it. They agreed too to better coordinate releases from their biggest reservoirs to aid an ailing Lake Powell. While they figure out how to develop those two concepts, the Upper Basin states keep inching along on their development projects to divert more from the river.
The 1922 Colorado River Compact, the river’s foundational governing document, gives Upper Basin states the legal cover to continue developing projects like the Gross Reservoir expansion. In the compact, each basin is allocated 7.5 million acre-feet of the river’s water. Over the decades the rapidly growing and intensely farmed Lower Basin has used much more than that. The less populated Upper Basin has never reached its full allotment. Those state have been using roughly 4.5 million acre-feet for the last 13 years, with the rest flowing downstream for the Lower Basin to use as it sees fit…
Conservation programs tend to be less expensive than massive new projects, [Doug] Kenney said. But additional water supplies stored in reservoirs give more security and reliability. It’s why water leaders push for them, even when the economics don’t make sense.
From the Engineering News Record (Thomas F. Armistead):
“In the water-scarce West, there is little to no new water,” says Laura Belanger, water resources and environmental engineer with Western Resource Advocates. “What we’re seeing is a shift to a suite of solutions that make the most of our region’s water resources. So the first line is and always should be conservation, because that’s the most cost-effective thing utilities can do, and it’s also fast.”
In Colorado’s Front Range, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District is accepting qualification statements for construction of Colorado’s tallest new dam in a half-century, with selection of a contractor and notice to proceed by December, says Joe Donnelly, spokesman. The main dam will be a rockfill structure with a hydraulic asphalt core, 360 ft tall and 3,500 ft long at the crest. The dam will impound the 90,000 acre-ft Chimney Hollow Reservoir for the Windy Gap Firming Project. A contract for design was awarded to Stantec in 2016.
The reservoir would store water for 12 municipalities and other water suppliers. The project has support from both public authorities and some environmental advocates. But six environmental groups are contesting the project in federal court because it will divert 30,000 acre-ft annually from the Colorado River, taxing the already challenged flow of that body.
Denver Water is proceeding with the expansion of Gross Reservoir, built in the 1950s with a 1,050-ft-long, 340-ft-tall concrete gravity arch dam impounding 42,000 acre-ft of water. Following 14 years of planning, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a 404 permit in July 2017, allowing Denver Water to raise the reservoir’s dam 131 ft and expand the reservoir’s capacity to 77,000 acre-ft.
The utility is expanding the reservoir to address a known imbalance in the city’s water system, said Jeff Martin, program manager for the project, in a video on the project’s website. The North System, where Gross Reservoir is located, stores about 30% of the water, and the South System the rest. The imbalance results from differential snowpack runoff on the system’s north and south sides. “This will provide extra insurance and extra reservoir capacity to make sure that we can weather those times when we do have issues in our system,” Martin said…
Some existing storage facilities are being expanded or are having their water reallocated, and regional water sharing also is beginning to grow, Belanger says. She cites the Chatfield Reservoir, built in 1965 on the South Platte River south of Denver for flood control, as an example. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that up to 20,600 acre-ft of the water can be reallocated to drinking water and industrial supply, agriculture, environmental restoration and other purposes without compromising its flood-control function. Environmental mitigation and modifications are expected to cost about $134 million.
Gross Reservoir, west of Boulder. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Map from Northern Water via the Fort Collins Coloradan.
Full disclosure, I have written articles for the magazine in the past.
Here’s a look at Denver Water’s Moffat Collection System Project and the Boulder County Commissioner’s hearing on 1041 jurisdiction from George Sibley that’s running in Colorado Central Magazine. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
An interesting thing happened mid-March in Boulder which the media seem to have mostly missed. Commissioners from Grand County showed up at a noisy Boulder County commissioners’ hearing on a West Slope-to-East Slope transmountain water diversion project – to testify on behalf of the project. It is probably the first time ever, in the generally contentious history of Colorado water development, that the people in a basin of origin have supported a transmountain diversion project that people in the basin of destination oppose.
Although this is a story from just beyond our Central Colorado boundaries, it is a story of interest to anyone in the West who is wondering how, or even if, we are going to finally leave the 20th century and venture into the 21st and the Anthropocene Epoch we keep trying to pretend we haven’t brought on ourselves.
The report on the Boulder County hearing sounded like your usual 20th century public hearing on the kind of issue that seems almost structured to pit environmentalists against the developers of something or other – a hearing in which no one has to listen because everyone already knows what everyone else is going to say.
The issue in this case pits the usual Front Range environmental organizations against a public utility that everyone loved to hate through the 20th century, Denver Water (DW). DW wants to enlarge the Gross Dam and Reservoir it built in the 1950s in the foothills near Boulder, to hold some additional water it wants to import from the West Slope – its “Moffat Firming Project” which would bring a third more water on average through its Moffat Tunnel Project from the Fraser and Williams Fork Rivers in the Upper Colorado River watersheds…
For the West Slope and Grand County, DW is both funding and actively participating in planning and executing a Learning by Doing process – essentially, an adaptive management process of active experimentation in learning how to live with less water. Some of it is more conventional work providing funding and expertise to water treatment districts and irrigation districts needing to use less water more efficiently.
But some of it will actually be what strikes me as “creative environmentalism”: Actually reconstructing some streams to function ecologically with a permanent reduction of water – call it “downsizing” the stream to fit the unignorable realities of the future. Channels are narrowed and deepened to cool the waters, helping both the aquatic ecosystem and the human economy of floaters and fishermen; riparian vegetation is planted to shade the stream and stabilize banks; meanders are induced to give a healthy stability and resilience for the foreseeable diminished future. Half a mile of the Fraser near U.S. 40 has been so ‘remodeled’ and is open to public inspection (and fishing). DW has committed millions to this work. (The CRCA can be found online by browsing for the name in full.)
After more than four hours of impassioned pleas from members of the public Thursday night, Boulder County commissioners voted unanimously that Denver Water’s planned expansion of Gross Reservoir must go through the county’s review process.
That vote, affirming an earlier finding by Boulder County Land Use Director Dale Case, now poses a significant challenge for the utility, which serves 1.4 million water users in the Denver metro area — none of them in Boulder County — and claims the project is needed to meet the needs of metro population that’s just going to keep growing.
“I think it’s just critical that local people have their say on this project that affects them the most,” said Boulder County Commissioner Matt Jones, just before the vote was taken…
Denver Water’s plan had been to start construction this year on a project to raise the Gross Reservoir Dam in southwestern Boulder County by 131 feet to a height of 471 feet and to expand the reservoir’s capacity by 77,000 acre-feet.
The cost of the endeavor, said to be the biggest construction project ever contemplated in Boulder County, is now estimated at $464 million (in 2025 dollars) and could take at least six years to complete.
Boulder County Land Use Director Dale Case issued a finding on Oct. 22 that Denver Water’s plans, formally known as the Moffat Collection System Project,were subject to the county’s so-called “1041” review process — that number references the state House bill passed in 1974 allowing local governments to regulate matters of statewide interest through a local permitting process.
Denver Water however, has argued to the contrary.
“We contend that state law exempts the expansion from the 1041 process because it was permitted under local land use codes at the time that the state enacted the law authorizing the 1041 review process,” said Denver Water spokesman Travis Thompson.
Two lawsuits making their way through the federal court system are challenging two significant water projects in Colorado designed to divert more water from the Colorado, Fraser and Williams Fork river basins in Grand County.
The projects — Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s Windy Gap Firming project and Denver Water’s Moffat Collection System Project — would provide a combined firm yield of 48,000 acre-feet of water for the sprawling Front Range.
But environmental groups say government agencies violated the law in the environmental permitting processes of both projects.
“Our biggest claim is that [the agencies] claim they looked at reasonable alternatives [to the projects],” said Gary Wockner, the director of Save the Colorado, the lead plaintiff on both cases. “But they didn’t look at conservation or efficiency. Water providers are trying to go to big water projects first and not the cheaper option of conservation.”
Both Northern and Denver Water say they factored in conservation efforts when they calculated water demand and that even aggressive conservation efforts won´t be enough to meet water demand in the future.
“There are only a few answers for water supply in the future and Windy Gap Firming is one of those options,” said Brad Wind, the general manager of Northern Water. “Without that project, I can’t fathom where we will end up.”
But some water experts say that the state’s use of population growth as one of the major drivers of water demand was flawed.
“As population goes up, water demand continues to go down and it’s been that way for decades,” said Mark Squillace, a water law expert at the University of Colorado Law School.
The phenomenon of increasing populations with declining water use is known as “decoupling,” and it has been happening in nearly every part of Colorado since the 1990s.
Higher efficiency appliances, utility-driven conservation programs and greater citizen awareness of water shortages have all driven the change.
But water managers say the state’s growing urban areas are reaching the point of “demand hardening,” where the additional water that can be conserved will not outweigh the amount needed in the future.
“We have been hearing those kind of stories for a long time and it never happens,” Squillace said. “There are a lot of things that we could still do on the conservation end that would be a lot cheaper [than new infrastructure] and a lot more consistent with the environment that we live in.”
While they differ, the pair of lawsuits being spearheaded by Save the Colorado could both hinge on demand and conservation estimates, and the assumption that additional conservation won’t be sufficient in the future.
Both lawsuits were filed in federal district court and are now awaiting action by a judge to move forward.
The Windy Gap Firming case was filed in October of 2017 against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Moffat Collection System case was filed in December against the Army Corps, the U.S. Interior Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Both the Windy Gap and Moffat projects were conceived decades ago to address projected water shortages on Colorado’s Front Range and to add resilience to both Northern and Denver Water’s supplies.
Now estimated to cost about $600 million, the Windy Gap project will include a new 90,000 acre-foot reservoir in western Larimer county called Chimney Hollow Reservoir.
The reservoir is designed to store water from the Colorado and Fraser rivers transported from the Western Slope through the existing infrastructure of the Colorado-Big Thompson project.
Windy Gap Reservoir, built in 1985, is created by a low river-wide dam across the main stem of the Colorado River, just downstream from where the Fraser River flows in.
The reservoir is relatively small, holding 445-acre feet, but it’s well situated to gather water from the Fraser, pump it up to Lake Granby and Grand Lake, and then send it through the Adams Tunnel under the Continental Divide.
With the Moffat project, Denver Water plans to spend an estimated $464 million in order to expand Gross Reservoir in Boulder County, by raising the height of the dam by 131 feet, in order to store an additional 77,000 acre-feet of water.
Gross Reservoir is a part of the utility’s existing northern collection system and is filled with water from the headwaters of the Fraser and Williams Fork river basins. The water is moved through a pipeline in the Moffat Tunnel, which runs east through the mountains from the base of the Winter Park ski area.
The fork not taken
The plans to expand Gross Reservoir started in 1990 after the EPA rejected Denver Water’s plan to build Two Forks Reservoir on the South Platte River.
The EPA’s rejection of Two Forks signaled the end of an era of large dams and forced groups planning large water infrastructure projects to give more consideration to the environmental impacts of their plans.
Following this rebuke, Denver Water turned to the environmental groups that had opposed their project and solicited advice.
Throughout the 1990s, the utility implemented water conservation and recycling programs and started making plans to expand an existing reservoir instead of building a new dam.
“We embarked on the path that the environmental groups suggested. We implemented a conservation program and reduced our demands,” said Jim Lochhead, the CEO and manager of Denver Water. “But you can’t get to zero. We continue to be committed to conservation, but at the end of the day we still need more water.”
In partnership with environmental groups like Western Resource Advocates and Trout Unlimited, Denver Water has agreed to spend $20 million on environmental improvements in watersheds on the Western Slope as part of the Gross Reservoir expansion.
Denver Water has also agreed to a monitoring program that will require them to mitigate any unforeseen environmental problems caused by the project, a compromise between environmental groups and the largest water utility in the state.
“In some sense this project was the development of an alternative from a number of groups,” said Bart Miller, the director of the Healthy Rivers Program at Western Resource Advocates. “In some respect you are putting this in context next to what could happen or could have happened.”
Concerned with having their own projects fail, as Two Forks did, other water managers emulated Denver Water’s strategy.
When Northern Water started planning for the Windy Gap Firming project it also reached out to environmental groups, and ended up committing $23 million to mitigate problems caused by past projects and to make other improvements in the upper Colorado River watershed.
Even though there will be impacts from taking more water from the river, Northern Water says that these “environmental enhancements” will leave the river better off than it would be without the project.
And environmental groups working on the project agree.
“There is a lot of damage on the river that will continue to go on without an intervention,” said Mely Whiting, legal counsel for Trout Unlimited. “This is probably the best shot.”
While some environmental groups have seen compromise as the best step forward, Save the Colorado and the other plaintiffs in the two lawsuits take a harder stance.
Save the Colorado, in particular, is against any new dams or diversions.
“The river has already been drained enough,” Wockner said. “The mitigation, in our mind, is not consequential.”
Colorado and the six other states that use Colorado River water are now negotiating a plan to better manage Lake Powell and Lake Mead in response to drought and acidification.
Last week, an engineer from Northern Water told the city council of Loveland that it may have to take a ten percent cut in the water it draws from the headwaters of the Colorado River, sending the water instead to Lake Powell, where water is held before being moved through the Grand Canyon and into Lake Mead for use in California, Arizona and Nevada.
And Northern’s statement did not go unnoticed by the plaintiffs in the Windy Gap and Moffat lawsuits.
“The old guard in water have the default setting that we need to build more reservoirs and we need to find more ways to bring water from the western slope,” said Kevin Lynch, the lawyer representing the environmental groups in the Windy Gap Firming case. “The argument my clients are hoping to make with this case is that that may have made sense in the past but it doesn’t now. We are definitely trying to buck the status quo and change the historical way of doing things.”
Lynch and his team are arguing that the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corp of Engineers — the two government agencies being sued in the Windy Gap Firming case — failed to update and independently verify the water demand data used to justify the project.
To back up this allegation, the plaintiffs petitioned the court to include a statistics report in the administrative record.
The report, which looks at water use statistics in communities with stakes in Windy Gap Firming water, showed that their demand projections made back when the agencies conducted their environmental assessments were between 9 and 97 percent higher than the actual water use rates in those areas.
The lawyers in the Moffat Project lawsuit also found that Denver Water used old data from 2002 to project their demands future demands.
The complaint filed by the plaintiffs says that the Army Corps and the Department of the Interior — which are the two agencies being sued in the Moffat case along with the Fish and Wildlife Service — ignored more recent data that was available when they conducted their assessments.
“If they were to use today’s data they would no way be able to justify that they need the water,” said Bill Eubanks, the lawyer for the plaintiffs in the Moffat Project case. “Here we are talking about almost two decades. Two decades where we have seen the most transformative uses of water in a century.”
Both legal teams say that even if the data did reveal a demand for more water, the agencies failed to analyze the alternatives to two large infrastructure projects, including conservation.
Specifically, Wockner and Eubanks both spoke about how a “cash for grass” program — where the government pays people to dry up their lawns — was never analyzed as an alternative. Looking at similar programs in California, they say the same amount of water could be saved, but for less money than either of the two infrastructure projects.
To this claim both Northern Water and Denver Water say that additional conservation measures are already planned for the future, but that they are not enough.
“The state has done a lot of studies for need for water on the Front Range,” said Jeff Drager, Northern Water’s director of engineering and the project manager for the WIndy Gap firming project. “We agree that there can be more conservation, but it won’t be enough to meet our participants needs.”
Due to a long backlog in the court, both lawsuits are unlikely to see their day in court any time soon. According to both lawyers, it could be months or years until the cases are decided. The court’s slow pace could impact the construction of both projects.
Citing the lawsuit, Northern Water delayed bonds to build the project back in August.
Executives at Northern say they are using the time to hammer out the last of the details of the project’s design, but that if the project is delayed it may cause costs to rise or endanger the water supplies of the project’s participants.
Denver Water is still waiting on several permits before they can begin planning construction and is less concerned about a delay. Both Lochhead and Wind say they believe that the projects will go forward once the lawsuits are resolved.
“We feel confident that our permitting processes are on solid ground,” Wind said. “I don’t think there is anyone in this organization at all that has thought this lawsuit would be effective.”
While both Northern Water and Denver Water are confident that their projects will move forward, the plaintiffs in the cases are hoping for an upset that could topple the entire water system in Colorado.
“If we win this case, using this particularly egregious example of inaccurate water demand projections, we think we can set a precedent that would force the state to look at more recent data for different types of projects,” Eubanks said.
Community members wanting to comment next month at a Boulder County commissioners hearing on whether Denver Water can move forward with an expansion of Gross Reservoir can start signing up next week…
Online sign-ups for the March 14 hearing start Feb. 14, while in-person sign-ups will start an hour before the hearing.
Commissioners plan to continue to take public testimony until all speakers have had an opportunity to comment, according to a news release.
After the public hearing, commissioners will hear Denver Water’s appeal of a decision by the county’s Land Use Department that Denver Water must run the project through what is known as a “1041” review process before construction can begin.
Named for the bill number by which it was enacted in 1974, the 1041 legislation gives local governments the right to control development by agencies beyond their boundaries through a local permitting process.
Denver Water argues the Gross Reservoir expansion is exempt from 1041 requirements. Boulder County claims it is not.
The public hearing will focus on the limited scope of the determination and is not a hearing or decision on the perceived impacts or merits of the reservoir expansion project, according to a news release…
Written comments can be submitted through an online comment form available at bit.ly/GrossDamExpansion. Comments also can be mailed to the Boulder County Commissioners’ Office, P.O. Box 471, Boulder, 80306. Comments need to be received by noon March 12.