Denver, West Slope eye water accord |

Denver, West Slope eye water accord

Cliff Thompson

More water flow in the valley could be slated for the future now that two water entities are quietly talking about future diversions.

Talks of potentially historic proportions have been quietly conducted between the Denver Water Board and Western Slope water entities about cooperating on future diversions from the upper Colorado River basin.

If Denver agrees to participate in the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding – as the cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora did in 1998 – Denver would abandon its claims to more than 150,000-acre feet of water rights in the Eagle and Piney River areas and rights to build a Dillon -sized reservoir at Wolcott – in return for being able to divert water from a reservoir at the head of the Eagle River and the ability to develop a smaller reservoir at Wolcott.

It’s a devilishly complex shell game that shuffles water rights and balances them against the potentially significant expenses of water litigation, and it is part of a larger state and region-wide effort to allocate a finite resource to a growing population.

The advantage to Denver is that it can secure additional water without a legal donnybrook, said water attorney Glenn Porzak who is orchestrating the negotiations. For Eagle County and streams in the Upper Colorado River basin it means there will be more water flowing.

“It’s significant that we now have Denver, Colorado Springs and Aurora all discussing common projects with the Western Slope that would develop (water) under the MOU,” Porzak said

“It’s very complex,” said Chips Barry, general manager of the Denver Water Board. “It has the potential to be a classic win-win situation.”

A better way

The entreaties have their roots in the struggle by the cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora in the mid-1980s to develop a new reservoir, Homestake II, on Homestake Creek south of Red Cliff that would have diverted an additional 21,000 acre-feet from the Eagle River basin. After nearly a decade of litigation, appeals and monstrous legal bills, the project was dropped when the sanctity of Eagle County’s 1041 land use law was upheld by the state Supreme Court.

Ironically, out of that conflict emerged a new process for developing water. It involves cooperation between East Slope and West Slope water users rather than legal fisticuffs before a judge.

That new process and the development of the expandable Eagle Park reservoir near Climax, makes cooperating that much more valuable, said Porzak.

Wolcott reservoir downsized

In return for being allowed to develop up to 20,000 acre-feet of water for Denver, the Denver Water Board would drop abandon its water rights in the Eagle and Piney drainages. It would, however, retain the right to build a 60,000 acre-foot reservoir at Wolcott. That Eagle-Colorado Reservoir would be scaled back from the 260,000 acre-feet originally envisioned, and would not be used to pump water to the Front Range over Vail Pass, but instead to augment flows of the Eagle River.

That would provide a more reliable source of water from Denver’s Dillon Reservoir by taking pressure off its downstream counterpart, Green Mountain Reservoir. The Wolcott reservoir could replace the augmentation water rights held in Green Mountain Reservoir that last year’s drought made unreliable.

Augmentation of river flows is required by state water law, when seasonal agricultural water rights are converted to year-round domestic water supplies. River flows lowered by year-round diversion need to be propped up with releases from reservoirs.

The reservoir at Wolcott would provide better streamflows in the Eagle, improve water quality, additional recreational opportunities and also help meet a firm environmental deadline that’s just seven years off.

It requires the East and West Slope water users to jointly provide 10,825 acre-feet of water to a 15-mile-long stretch of the Colorado River near the Utah border to protect spawning habitat of the endangered Colorado River Squawfish or Pikeminnows and Razorback Sucker. Water for those fish is released from Reudi Reservoir, east of Basalt.

Barry and Porzak declined to speculate on when the Wolcott reservoir might be built. It has been on watery drawing boards for more than 30 years. A dam would be built at the narrows of Muddy Creek less than a half-mile north of Interstate 70.

Hills, snow and people

The larger water issue for Colorado is its topography and demography. Colorado’s thirsty Eastern Slope is where 85 percent of the state’s population lives while 85 percent of the state’s water falls as snow on the Western Slope and numerous transbasin diversions take Western Slope water to the Front Range.

One of the key elements of the memorandum of understanding is Eagle Park Reservoir. It’s a mere 3,000 acre-feet in size but can be expanded to nearly 12,000 with a larger dam. Eastern and Western Slope interests would share the additional water development expense and water.

Some of the additional water, ironically, may come from a transbasin ditch and a well near the Continental Divide just upstream of the reservoir that draws from the headwaters of the Eastern Slope’s Arkansas River. Eagle Park Reservoir is particularly valuable because it lies at the head of three drainages, the Eagle, Ten Mile Creek, which drains into Lake Dillon, and also at the headwaters of the Arkansas River. As such, it can supply water a number of directions with minimum pumping.

Negotiations on the proposal are expected to take a year or longer to conclude.

“It’s not a done deal yet,” said Porzak. “A lot of pieces have to come together.”

Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555 ext 450 or

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