EAGLE COUNTY — For the second year in a row, the Upper Colorado River has been named among the country’s most endangered rivers, coming in at No. 2.
The conservation group American Rivers releases the annual list, and rivers that are threatened include sections of the Colorado that run through Eagle County, including headwater rivers, which include the Eagle River.
According to the group, the river is threatened as many Front Range cities look for future water sources to meet growing municipal and industrial needs. Some of those communities are eyeing various parts of the Colorado for diversion.
Advocates hope the list garners some national awareness and spurs lawmakers to prevent new water diversions and prioritize river protection and water conservation measures in the state water plan.
“The America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a call to action to save rivers that are at a critical tipping point,” said Ken Neubecker, of American Rivers. “We cannot afford more outdated, expensive and harmful water development schemes that drain and divert rivers and streams across the Upper Colorado Basin. If we want these rivers to continue to support fish, wildlife, agriculture and a multi-billion dollar tourism industry, we must ensure the rivers have enough water.”
This past year, the Upper Colorado was listed No. 1 on the list due to outdated water management throughout the entire basin. To address the problem, Gov. John Hickenlooper directed the Colorado Water Conservation Board to develop the first statewide water plan to determine how Colorado will meet its water needs in the future.
For decades, Front Range growth has been fed by Western Slope rivers. Around a half million acres of water is already being diverted east from the Upper Colorado and growing cities need more. The problem with diversions, said Neubecker, is that the water leaves the Western Slope forever, citing a proposed project to tap into Summit County’s Blue Mountain Reservoir and divert water from the Blue River.
“Grand and Summit counties are justifiably worried about a Green Mountain pumpback, and so should Eagle County, because that project isn’t possible without a Wolcott reservoir,” he said. “With water diverted to the Front Range, we never see it again. It has serious impacts on us as far as drought and growth. It’s a finite resource.”
Historically, there have been agreements that have benefited both the Western and Eastern slopes, and river advocates said they want to see more such projects. The Colorado Cooperative Agreement, announced in 2011, involved the cooperation of many Eagle County entities. The Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding, signed in 1998, was also a major victory for mountain communities, significantly capping the amount of water that could be taken at the Homestake Reservoir and keeping some water in Eagle County.
Another settlement with Denver Water in 2007 was a big win for the local water community, said Diane Johnson, of Eagle River Water and Sanitation. “Denver Water gave up a huge amount of water rights, pretty much everything leading into Gore Creek, and as for a Wolcott Reservoir, it could only be developed with local entities in control,” she said. “Things are done more collaboratively now. It’s not the 1960s and ’70s anymore, where the Front Range developed the rivers without thought of how it affected local communities.”
The water gap
However, the looming “water gap” still has river authorities worried about the future. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the state’s water needs in the next 50 years are far greater than the water available. The bureau estimates that by 2060, the state will be short 3 million acres of water.
“We’re looking at a serious situation down the road, and the folks in the Front Range just aren’t getting it that the Western Slope fountain is drying up,” said Neubecker, adding that he’d like to see state officials get serious about conservation and requiring new developments to account for water use before approval.
A new Colorado State University report commissioned by the Eagle River Watershed Council studied the state of the Eagle River.
“It’s clearly showing that the biggest threat to this portion of the Upper Colorado is reduced flows. It’s impacting wildlife for sure, most notably the fish,” said the council’s executive director Holly Loff.
With less water, the average river temperature is rising, and many cold-water fish have either been pushed out or killed as a result. Less water also means less riparian (riverside) habitat, an ecosystem that supports 250 species of animals. Of course, less water also affects river recreation and means there’s less water to drink.
“If anymore water comes out of the Colorado, its going to have huge impacts, so our biggest goal is to keep water here,” said Loff. “This is an issue for both sides of the Colorado divide. It’s not that we’re being stingy about sharing our water. Quite frankly, there’s not much water left to share.”