Western Slope water study turns into political battle
March 30, 2017
GREELEY — A funding request for a Western Slope water study to figure out how to keep enough water in Lake Powell became a hot potato last week and was tossed back and forth across Colorado's Continental Divide.
Officials from four West Slope basin roundtables and two water conservancy districts had asked the Colorado Water Conservation Board to contribute $40,000 toward the $100,000 cost of the second phase of a study looking into potential changes to regional water use during a severe drought.
But the chairs of three East Slope roundtables told the directors of the conservation board they didn't feel comfortable with the first phase of the study or how the second phase was shaping up.
They recommended to conservation board directors that they deny state money for the second phase. And if they did fund the study, then to include a disclaimer saying it did not represent the views of the state.
The water conservation board directors, meeting in Greeley last week, were suddenly caught between fractious basin roundtables, which have been praised in the past for their collaborative work on the 2015 Colorado Water Plan.
"There was a fuss," Russ George, who represents the Colorado River basin on the board, told the members of the Colorado basin roundtable in Glenwood Springs on Monday. "We're of course sitting in periods of, probably, continuous shortages, continuous draw-downs of the big reservoirs. I think everyone is as edgy as ever.
"It bothered us all to see that controversy just erupt," George said of the study request. "The touchiness still exists, even though we've made enormous progress in the last 10 and 12 years, as we all know, in working together and making decisions."
After a flurry of last-minute negotiating, the conservation board directors voted on March 24 to approve the requested $40,000 in state funding, but also agreed to the Eastern Slope's request to include a disclaimer in the study's scope of work: "This work product is solely that of the applicants and the applicants do not claim that it represents the views or interests of the state of Colorado."
Patricia Wells, a water conservation board director representing the city and county of Denver, and who is general counsel for Denver Water, said of the study, "This isn't the state's position on anything. And it really belongs to the West Slope roundtables to help them make some decisions."
The Colorado, Gunnison, Southwest and Yampa/White/Green river basin roundtables had recently all approved spending $10,000 from their allotments of state funds on what's known as the "risk study," and then sent a joint funding application for $40,000 to the water conservation board, which must approve all roundtable grants.
The four western roundtables were also being supported by another $30,000 each from the Colorado River Water Conservation District in Glenwood Springs and the Southwestern Water Conservation District in Durango.
Meanwhile, on the Eastern Slope, the chairs of the South Platte, Metro and Arkansas roundtables were united in their call for the water conservation board to distance the state from the study.
"The East Slope roundtables strongly recommend that (the board) only be involved if it is part of an equal management partnership between all affected regions and the state," a March 23 letter stated.
The letter said the study should not be "biased toward any particular regional interests," noting that "the discretion to define the modeling runs and their assumptions is retained by the Colorado River Water Conservation District," which represents 15 West Slope counties.
Eastern Slope interests also believe the myriad assumptions used in the study's hydraulic modeling would "afford great latitude to reflect certain desires and points of view that in turn implicate state water policy and East Slope interests."
After the vote, Barbara Biggs, the chair of the Metro roundtable, which includes Denver and neighboring cities, told the conservation board directors that the decision to fund the study, even with the disclaimer, may not satisfy everybody.
"I'll be very honest," Biggs said. "I suspect I will not be welcomed with hugs and kisses by all of the members of my roundtable. I think they were hoping for more."
Of chief concern to both east and west interests is the potential for a new transmountain diversion that would move more water to the Eastern Slope.
"This is not a water availability study, but there are real limits on how much Colorado River water Colorado can consume without causing an unacceptable risk to existing users," said a March 23 letter to the water conservation board signed by the four Western Slope roundtable chairs and the directors of the two conservancy districts.
Underlying the tension regarding the second phase of the study are the results of the first phase, which cost $52,000 and included $32,000 in state money from the water conservation board.
"Droughts similar to those in the recent past could cause Lake Powell to, within a few years, drop to levels that jeopardize Glen Canyon Dam's ability to generate electricity, and create a risk that the Upper Colorado River Basin would be unable to meet its delivery obligations under the 2007 Interim Guidelines and potentially the Colorado River Compact," the grant application to the board said, summarizing the study's phase one findings.
It also said "the higher the consumptive use in the Upper Basin going forward, the greater the risk to all water users."
After last week's board vote on the study, Wells from Denver said the second phase of the study did not need to be collaborative, and that the Western Slope could explore water management scenarios on its own.
But she cautioned about using the results of the study as a weapon.
"If the modeling is used externally as a weapon in negotiations, as proof of something to the other states in the Colorado basin, then it's a problem," Wells said. But if it is not used that way, she said, then "the East Slope won't have to be worried, and they won't have to try to tear it down."
Eric Kuhn, the director of the Colorado River District and the primary mover behind the risk study, described the outcome of the grant process as "good news," as least in regard to the funding being approved and the study progressing to a second phase.
"The thought this time was that this one really does need to be focused with the West Slope," Kuhn said. "The East Slope wanted to sort of participate at a higher level, at a management level. Our concern was we didn't want the East Slope to interfere with the questions that the roundtables might have, in doing that."
Kuhn also said the study, which is expected to be complete in the fall, would be done in "an open and transparent way."
"If the East Slope is participating in it, if they are observing, we're going to address them like we do everyone else, which is all input and all bodies are welcome to this open process," he said.
Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Post Independent, Aspen Times, Vail Daily and Summit Daily News on coverage of rivers and water in the upper Colorado River basin. Fore more information, visit http://www.aspenjournalism.org.