Future of Colorado water murky | VailDaily.com

Future of Colorado water murky

Cliff Thompson
With voters' rejection Tuesday of Referendum A, supporters and opponents of the controversial bonding measure are again talking about cooperating on Colorado's water problems. The Eagle River, pictured above flowing through Minturn, will be at the heart of local discussions.

The measure was trounced in Eagle County, with 83 percent of voters casting “no” votes. In the post-election ash sifting, proponents and opponents are now speaking in more conciliatory terms about what it will take to work together.

“With the defeat of Referendum A, I want to work with all sides to come up with an approach to address our state’s water needs,” said Rep. Mark Udall, D-Boulder, who adamantly opposed the measure. “That approach should be sensible and could involve several strategies, such as expanding existing reservoirs, repairing existing dams so that they can hold to their capacity, increasing efficiency measures across the board, getting serious about conjunctive use and looking for new storage.”

Udall continued: “We need to get everyone together to work on this. There is a statewide water-supply study underway that will identify needs and possible solutions which could involve more storage.

“If we use this study effort, it needs to be a more inclusive effort,” he added. “I stand willing to help with federal assistance if that is needed and appropriate.”

But others provided more analysis of what it will take to resolve Colorado’s lack of water storage.

Working together

“Referendum A reinforced that it will take cooperation on both sides of the divide to get anything going in the future,” said Peter Roessman, spokesman for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, a regional agency.

“Not a single county in the state was in favor of it,” he said. “People are concerned with the schism (it created) between East and West Slope.”

The hotly debated measure would have provided up to $2 billion in bonds for building new reservoirs and refurbishing existing facilities. It also sparked fears that it would rekindle an age-old water war between the dry Eastern Slope and water-rich Wester Slope, because the measure did not contain language adequate to protect rivers on the Western Slope from Front Range diversions.

That issue kept the City of Aurora on the sidelines with a neutral stance on the issue, said Doug Kemper, manager of water resources for the city.

“Our main concern was the way the politics was shaping up into an east verus west slope battle,” he said.

Stone’s take

One of the most visible and vocal supporters of the issue was Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone, who has been criticized for supporting an issue that many argued would have proven detrimental to the Western Slope.

“It’s obvious we did not come up with a solution,” Stone said. “I’m pleased with the headway we made. The prevailing sentiment was that it probably wasn’t written right.”

But Stone said he’s going to continue to promote more water storage in Eagle County.

“We need to do it in small, incremental steps,” he said.

Stone said he feels like Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes who quipped that he never lost a game, that he just ran out of time.

“I still don’t think we’ve lost the issue,” Stone said. “It’s still before us. My concern is that we’ll run out of time. We’re still in a drought and we need to find some incremental solutions.”

Fellow Commissioner Arn Menconi helped to lead a grassroots opposition campaign to Referendum A.

“Referendum A was intellectually dishonest from the get-go,” he said. ” It also sends out a signal. Voters of the state will not be fooled.”

Menconi said the solution to the lack of reservoirs is contained in the number of water projects already in the works.

“There are dozens to hundreds of water projects that are in different stages of development and that’s legislation that could have been passed in the last session that would have brought a real solution,” Menconi said.

Local solutions

But opponents like water attorney Glenn Porzak, who represents local water districts, said water storage solutions need to have grassroots support.

“To me what Referendum A really signalled is that water-supply solutions have to come at the local level,” he said. “One of the main arguments against Referendum A is that it put too much control in the hands of the state. We need to move forward on these local and regional solutions.”

One of the projects that he’s involved in is the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding – or MOU – between Eagle County water users and with the cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora. This cooperative venture sprung from the fierce and prohibitively expensive decade-long water battle over developing additional storage at Homestake Reservoir south of Red Cliff. It demonstrated that cooperative water development was cheaper than unilateral action.

The MOU requires joint development and sharing of water-storage facilities.

Another potential cooperative venture would add the Denver Water Board to the MOU. Denver has significant water rights filed in Eagle County and the streams that flow through it.

The MOU proposes building a 60,000-square-foot reservoir at Wolcott to be used to augment flows of the Eagle River, instead of a Dillon-sized 260,000-acre-foot reservoir. Denver would abandon its water rights to more than 150,000 acre feet of water in the Eagle and Piney rivers in return for being able to divert water from a reservoir at the head of the Eagle River. That arrangement is still being studied by the participants.

In the mean time, the issue of water storage to protect against drought and water a growing state population won’t go away.

“One of the big things for any water project will be basin of origin protection,” said Roessman. “That will require building support on both sides of the divide. It will be a hot topic in the next legislative session.”

Cliff Thompson can be reached at 970-949-0555 x450 or cthompson@vaildaily.com

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