Big Straw aims to prevent "wasted’ water |

Big Straw aims to prevent "wasted’ water

Allen Best

He proposed to pump any excess water from the Colorado River near Grand Junction through a 10-foot-wide pipeline to a point near the Continental Divide, maybe near Mt. Lincoln, or possibly into Dillon Reservoir. That way, he’d keep water in the streams near his home, and the Front Range would get water.

The idea was gathering dust until a year ago, when several Western Slope leaders began promoting it. If the Front Range wants Western Slope water, they said, then the Front Range should be prepared to pay the real cost.

The Western Slope perspective is probably best explained by Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

“If the goal is to develop our Colorado River water compact entitlement, it’s not going to be cheap,” he says. “If you’re going to do it, you can’t do it by developing the headwaters.”

Already, he contends, headwaters from Aspen to Breckenridge to Grand Lake have all been diverted to their maximum potential. He believes there is no excess water any way you measure it until downstream of Glenwood Springs.

The river compact entitlement is a sore spot with many Colorado political leaders on both sides of the Continental Divide. They fear that California, which is currently using Colorado’s share of the river, will eventually try to wrestle the water away from Colorado politically. Interstate squatting, if you will. The only sure way to prevent that from happening, they say, is to use the water. They see any Colorado compact water flowing as waste.

That threat is “quite serious,” says Greg Walcher, director of the state’s Department of Natural Resources. “If we had stored the water while it was in Colorado, we wouldn’t have to argue about it.”

For these reasons of fear and drought, The Big Straw is now targeted for a $500,000 study if legislators endorse it in January. Little dissent is expected. At an emergency session in July, some legislators were talking about allocating $10 billion for more reservoirs.

Skepticism abounds

Even among those on the Front Range who support the study, skepticism abounds.

“It deserves to be looked at,” says Chips Barry, manager of the Denver Water Department.

That said, he sees putting sullied, silted and salted water from Grand Junction into Dillon Reservoir as “neither wise nor workable.”

Cost may be an even bigger problem.

“My own impression is that the economics may be distressing news to people. But until the study, anybody’s off-hand guess – including mine – is probably not of great value,” Barry says.

Bar-napkin calculations have projected the cost of The Big Straw at as much as $5 billion, the final cost of Denver International Airport. Pumping costs caused one newspaper columnist to say that “The Big Straw is a Big Joke.” Plus, others figure a reservoir at one, the other, or both ends of the pipeline might be necessary.

Environmental effects could also be fatal flaws. Brent Uilenberg, the technical service division manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, warns of introducing aquatic life from the warm-weather Colorado River into the Missouri River basin.

“Everybody seems to think this is some kind of environmental panacea. But in fact, it has some potentially disastrous consequences,” he says.

Impacts to the recovery of endangered warm-water fish in the Colorado River already concern officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Program, but they say too little is known to decide whether that is a fatal flaw.

Finally, there’s debate about just how much of Colorado’s unclaimed portion of Colorado River flows remains. Colorado’s top water officials estimate the state could hold back 400,000 acre-feet, or roughly enough for 2 million people, if the water isn’t lost to evaporation or leakage. But a study by Lee Rozaklis, an engineer at water consultant Hydrosphere, suggests there may not be enough water to argue about.

If the answers to any of these questions kill The Big Straw, as many observers expect, that may push the discussion back to what Butch Clark was trying originally to avoid, a diversion from the Gunnison River. Under this scenario, South Metro will then feel justified in grabbing water from Blue Mesa Reservoir.

This also pushes the discussion back toward converting water from agriculture to municipal uses and toward increasing conservation, each with its own set of problems.

Wolcott Reservoir heads list of possible High Country diversions

How the Front Range cities will get more Western Slope water, if any, remains unclear. What is clear is that the cheap and easy answers have been adopted. Following are some other ideas:

Wolcott Reservoir

Also known as the Eagle-Colorado project, this idea has been sitting around for at least 20 years, It would be just north of Wolcott, and would inundate the valley containing 4 Eagle Ranch, land owned by Denver. The water could conceivably be pumped to Dillon Reservoir by way of Vail Pass. An alternative is to store water for release to compensate for water pumped from Green Mountain Reservoir back to Dillon. However, the project still has no water rights.

Gunnison River

If The Big Straw proves as expensive as skeptics suspect or otherwise fatally flawed, attention may return to the Gunnison River, which remains virtually untouched for transmountain diversions. It has been described as “the ripest cherry remaining to be picked by the Front Range.” A Supreme Court decision killed diversions upstream of Blue Mesa Reservoir, the state’s largest, but water seems to be available from below it.

Eagle Park

Aurora and Colorado Springs’ needs may be partially answered by expansion of a reservoir at Eagle Park, between Copper Mountain and Leadville. Four different configurations are being considered. Recently, however, Aurora has begun looking anew at possible reservoir sites in the Eagle Valley. Iron Mountain, a long-studied reservoir near Red Cliff on Homestake Creek, is also being looked at again.

Green Mountain pipeline

Also being mentioned is potential for a pipeline that would pump water from Green Mountain Reservoir to Dillon, and hence eventually for transmountain diversion. That would keep water in the Blue River.

Moffat Tunnel diversions

Denver’s first water diversion system, this takes water through the Moffat Tunnel, near Winter Park. Some think substantially more water can be skimmed during wet years from the Fraser River and William Fork rivers. To do this, however, would involve enlarging Gross Reservoir, on the Eastern Slope, and then connecting it better to the southern part of the metropolitan area. In addition, Denver is in competition with the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which wants to divert some of that same water from near Granby, at Windy Gap.

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