Failing the Fraser River |

Failing the Fraser River

Ken Neubecker

A couple weeks ago the Fraser River in Grand County was listed by the group American Rivers as the third most endangered river in the United States for the year 2005. American Rivers publishes this list of the 10 most endangered rivers each year to draw attention to some of the very serious problems and threats that one of our nations greatest resources, its rivers, face. The theme this year focuses on the sewage and waste water effluent that can foul our rivers.The threat to the Fraser in this context lies in its diminishing ability to dilute the treated waste water effluent coming from towns like Winter Park and Fraser. Significant amounts of water are diverted out of the Fraser for domestic, snowmaking and agricultural use. The largest of these diversions, by far, are made by Denver Water. Water is collected at a number of sites, on tributaries Ranch, Vasquez, Jim and St. Louis Creeks as well as from the Fraser itself. This water is piped into the Moffat Tunnel for delivery to the Front Range. As less water is available to dilute the effluent it becomes harder to meet required water quality standards. It becomes harder to maintain the river in a way that protects both human and aquatic health.There is a dispute as to how much water is actually taken out of the basin. Denver Water objects to the numbers shown by the American Rivers report and the method used to create these numbers. Denver Water has its own way of determining numbers and claims they provide the best way to determine the amount of water diverted.The numbers from American Rivers are based on historic flows as measured by the USGS near the actual points of diversion. The numbers subsequently supplied by Denver Water are based on a computer model at points further downstream, even as far down as the confluence with the Colorado River. Both methods have their strong points, and their weaknesses.But the numbers, how they are derived and whose are more “valid” is not the point. The point is that a very substantial amount of water is being drawn off from the Fraser, (up to two thirds depending on where and how you measure it) and Denver Water is responsible for most of it. Denver Water is also the only diverter on the Fraser proposing to take substantially more water from the basin.The real issue is that the Fraser is a river in trouble, a river that is truly endangered from a permanent loss of water. Diversions for domestic, agricultural and snow making use within the Fraser Valley will mostly return to the river as “return flows,” much coming back as effluent from the local waste water treatment plants. Unlike diversions within the Fraser Valley, the water taken to the Front Range by Denver Water is gone forever, never to return. These are the diversions that are crippling the Fraser.Rather than trying to obscure the real plight of the Fraser by squabbling over numbers, numbers that few of the public even understand, Denver Water should be recognizing the reality of the impacts that it has on the Fraser River and concentrate its energies on working with the people of the Fraser Valley and the Colorado River headwaters, including Eagle County, to mitigate the impacts from their diversions and the diversions of others.Denver has both rights and a need for more water. But there are other ways to increase the water supply, through conservation and efficiency, before pulling more water out of the Fraser. Denver Water needs to work with people on the West Slope and in the Fraser Valley, to ensure that the impacts from the diversions currently being made, as well as any increase in the future, will be done in a way that protects the Fraser River and the communities of Grand County. The health and life of the Fraser, from both a human and aquatic standpoint, depend on it.Denver Water was a major contributor towards the channel and habitat improvement work done for the Gold Medal fishery on the Blue River below the Dillon Dam. Recognizing that the low flows coming from the reservoir had impacted the health and ability of the river to maintain itself, Denver Water generously supported the project. The channel was narrowed and deepened, giving fish places to over-winter and spawn. Riparian vegetation was re-established. Denver Water took an active role in working to improve the function and health of the Blue River.We also still face a drought. As of this morning, with a wet spring snow falling, the Colorado River headwaters are at 73 percent of normal snow water equivalent, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. That’s the one important number we all have to keep in mind. This snow will boost that number, but it won’t end the drought.The myriad methods and means of calculations show that much of the Fraser is disappearing forever into the dark enclosure of a pipe. Getting embroiled in a numbers game does nothing to help the Fraser, a river that is truly endangered, a river that can recover and survive with the focused energy of all parties involved, including Denver Water. That’s the real point, the real issue for the Fraser and Colorado River headwaters. VT– Ken Neubecker writes about water and the environment for the Vail Trail. He can be reached for comment at

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