Water in the West: Water breathes life into Western Slope economies
August 19, 2014
This is the third part in a four-part series about water in the West as it relates to the Colorado Water Plan.
Nathan Fey's passion for kayaking led him to a passionate career in river conservation and water quality issues. As the Colorado stewardship director for American Whitewater, a nonprofit that works to conserve and restore American whitewater resources, he's watching carefully as the state progresses through its water planning process.
There are some major conflicts the state needs to address as it creates the Colorado Water Plan, he said.
"Sure, our population is focused on the Front Range, but the reason we all live here is because recreation is a way of life for us here in Colorado," Fey said. "I think there's a big disconnect for people in our urban areas about where their water comes from. They don't understand that if they grow green grass, there's less water in the river when they're fishing."
With a state population expected to double by 2050 and water resources already struggling to meet demands, Fey and American Whitewater are focused on the big picture of water in Colorado, which includes stream health, conservation and, of course, recreation.
Recreation along the Colorado River and its tributaries is a $9.6 billion industry, and that's just within the state of Colorado. According to a 2012 study for Protect The Flows, done by the consulting firm Southwick Associates, which specializes in recreation economics, the Colorado River would rank as the 19th largest employer on the 2011 Fortune 500 list based on the jobs it generates.
"People moved here for the environment — it underpins the economy," said Jim Pokrandt, chair of the Colorado Basin Roundtable and the communications and education director for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. "Water in the streams is an economic driver in and of itself."
The recreation-based economies in mountain resort towns depend on healthy streams for more than just the water-based activities. Indirectly, hikers, campers and mountain bikers, to name a few, also depend on healthy streams.
In short, none of these mountain town economies would exist without a healthy environment, and that includes rivers and streams.
"That's the value we're hoping Colorado embraces, so the desire to push for another transmountain diversion is deferred for a long time, if not forever, in favor of using the water we already have to its highest and most efficient use," Pokrandt said.
Pokrandt likens the process to economizing, just like any business would do during tough times. You look at internal expenses, in this case water uses, and you cut back.
The state has to approach the Colorado Water Plan like a business plan, he said.
With nine basin roundtables working simultaneously on basin implementation plan drafts, there's already a very clear divide between eastern and western interests. Gary Wockner, coordinator with the Save the Colorado River Campaign, is really nervous about the drafts he has seen thus far. The Front Range roundtable groups have a lack of what he calls "river protectors" at the table, but rather groups made up almost entirely of reservoir and diversion companies, as well as municipalities.
"It's a process where the people who benefit from destroying the rivers are creating the plan," he said. "And organizations meant to protect the river are purposely eliminated from the process. We've been screaming about this for years, then when the governor said the roundtables would write the plans, we started hollering about it again."
Wockner worried the entire process will be driven by the South Platte and Metro roundtables' desires to fuel and subsidize rapid population growth. Early drafts show endorsements for another major transmountain diversion out of the Colorado River Basin.
"They're trying to drain every river in the state," he said. "Will Hickenlooper allow this to happen? That's the bottom line. He appoints the Colorado Water Conservation Board, he has to sign it — it'll come down to the governor and his board."
With the Colorado Water Plan's deadline more than a year away, that's a long time for state water users and planners to wait. In the meantime, the Colorado Basin Roundtable is polishing its implementation plan through the end of this year to make sure it gets the point across that more transmountain diversions would be detrimental to tourism economies, the environment and agriculture.
Summit County commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier, a member of the Colorado Basin Roundtable, said it's important to paint this water planning process and impending consequences of getting it wrong as a crisis, because that's what it is.
"People respond to a crisis," she said. "That's why painting the picture of what the future will be and making choices now — that's the crisis."
What's at stake — in addition to potential environmental disasters, deflated economies and a diminishing agriculture industry — is a Colorado River Compact curtailment or "Compact call." It means junior water rights — which include most municipalities along the Front Range — would have to give up water in order to meet senior water rights if there's not enough water flowing out of Colorado to the other states in the basin. There's a real possibility that could happen as Colorado's population grows and more water is needed here.
"A Compact curtailment is sort of imminent at this point, unless we see a major change," Fey said.
In the mountains, many of the major water providers such as the town of Breckenridge, the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority and the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, have senior or pre-Compact water rights. The same goes for the Grand Valley and Grand Junction areas, said water attorney Glenn Porzak, who represents those entities as well as Vail Resorts and other local municipalities.
"The water rights really affected the most (under a Compact curtailment) are all of the transmountain diversions," Porzak said. "Fifty percent of Denver's supply comes from the Dillon and Moffat systems and are post-Compact. All of the Northern Colorado Conservancy District comes from the Thompson project, also junior. All of Colorado Springs and Aurora diversions are junior to the Compact."
When 75 percent of the Front Range supply comes from junior diversions, Porzak said it's clear what municipalities will do: They'll buy up more senior agriculture rights for the Western Slope.
More Front Range municipalities buying Western Slope agriculture water rights depletes rivers. When the water is diverted over the hill, it never returns to the basin. That affects flows, which affect water quality, stream health and the economic powerhouse that is recreation-based tourism.
The ski industry is the pulse of Summit, Eagle and Pitkin counties during winter months. Water is the source of winter-based recreation, but the fact that it doesn't always fall from the sky at the right times or in the right quantities that ski resorts need, water has to be taken from elsewhere.
Aspen Skiing Co. and Vail Resorts have bought and maintained important water rights since the beginning of each company's existence.
"It's just critically important for our operations, and the biggest is snowmaking," said Andy Hensler, Vail Resorts assistant general counsel. "Without the robust snowmaking capacity we have, we wouldn't be able to provide the predictability we do."
Predictability like a start date for the season — something the company typically announces during the previous ski season — is crucial when the company is trying to lock in season pass sales during spring months.
Without important water rights and water supplies, Hensler said opening for Thanksgiving might be impossible, and Christmas would even be a challenge.
"It would be economically catastrophic," he said.
Because most of Vail Resorts' water rights are owned rights, meaning they're vested property rights, the company doesn't worry too much about losing them any more than it worries about losing any other real property it owns, Hensler said.
The same is true at Aspen Skiing Co. Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability, said most ski resorts in the West have locked up water access, including important water storage projects.
"If you're a ski resort now and don't have water snowmaking rights locked up, I think you're out of business," he said.
Reduced runoff or supplies that would come with more transmountain diversions or more bought-out water rights from the agriculture industry isn't going to have a major impact on ski resorts, he said.
Snowmass, Aspen Skiing Company's largest resort, gets its water from Snowmass Creek, but low flow periods caused environmental concerns, so the ski company bought rights to a portion of the Ziegler Reservoir for snowmaking purposes.
"The environmental community didn't want us pulling (water from Snowmass Creek) at low levels, and neither did we," Schendler said. "Storage enables you to fill it at peak flows and then use it opportunistically. A lot of the improvements we and other ski resorts have made on snowmaking kind of set you up for a climate changed world."
Ski resort companies also try to lead the way in terms of environmentalism. The nature of the business revolves around the natural world, which is why you see companies such as Vail Resorts and Aspen Skiing Co. creating and expanding entire corporate divisions that are dedicated to environmental causes.
There are interesting conflicts that come up, though, Schendler admits. Certain parts of management want snowmaking no matter what, while other parts of management are trying to save as much energy and water as possible every year. That makes it more and more difficult to answer the question of how does the company balance operational needs with environmental concerns.
"First, it starts with, 'Do we want to be in business?'" Schendler said. "Yes. And if that's the case, we have to do snowmaking. Our problem has been that even though we've put in a lot of efficiency and planning, our usage has gone up and up crazily. So, we've got to get that under control."
That's why the company has made operational tweaks such as making snow when it's cold rather than firing up the snow guns in October, regardless of temperatures.
And, as Hensler points out, snowmaking is only about 20 percent consumptive.
"About 80 percent of the water we put on the mountain as snow melts and flows back into the streams — it's a very sustainable use," Hensler said.
Vail Resorts also heavily relies on storage reservoirs for snowmaking water and, just like Aspen Skiing Co., is trying to look for ways to use less water through innovative efficiencies such as trail designs.
But while ski resorts seem to have the whole water thing figured out in terms of securing water rights, that doesn't mean some other entity isn't going to try to take them. The U.S. Forest Service, the major federal government entity with whom ski resort companies work so closely, tried to do just that last year.
The National Ski Areas Association won litigation against the Forest Service over the lack of public process over a water policy that would have required ski resorts to transfer ownership of water rights to the U.S. government for no compensation. The Forest Service had tried to take control of those water rights because the water originates on public lands.
In a new move, the Forest Service is now proposing to tie water rights to ski resort land leases, citing an effort to maintain the lands as ski areas regardless of lease transfers. The Forest Service is backing off its original goal to transfer water rights to the federal government. That proposal is currently in a public comment period through Friday. (Comments can be sent to email@example.com.)
Hensley said Vail Resorts takes the new route as a good sign, although there remains to be "some concerning stuff in it," he said.
"We're trying to work with the agency and other stakeholders — we're trying to get to a point where we can reach agreement and they can meet their needs and we can protect the value and integrity of our water," he said. "We're not concerned, but we're also not unconcerned. I have full confidence we can get to a good outcome."
Read the final part in this series in Thursday's paper, which will look at environmental issues as they relate to the Colorado River Basin and the Colorado Water Plan.
Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects manager for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 970-777-3125.