Getting water across Continental Divide without ruining the Western Slope is key issue |

Getting water across Continental Divide without ruining the Western Slope is key issue

Cliff Thompson
Chris Treece

Every year for the last two decades, the water-rich Western Slope has embarked on a Quixotic quest.

It has attempted to create state legislation ensuring its rivers would not be harmed by water diversions to the arid and thirsty Front Range, and each year, it has failed because it is out-voted by the legislators representing the more populous metropolitan areas.

It has Chris Treece of the Colorado River Water Conservation District referring to his efforts supporting legislation in mythologic terms.

“I feel like Sisyphus rolling the rock,” said Treece. “I keep pushing the rock up the hill.”

Unlike Sisyphus’ rock, however, water from the Western Slope will in the future be rolling up over the hill of the Continental Divide and down to Front Range cities who hold huge water rights across the Western Slope.

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So far this year there has been only one legislative attempt to address the state’s water problems. House Bill 1040 would require trans-basin water diversion that move water from one river to another, but do not harm water use in the source basin, Treece said. The proposed legislation encourages a cooperation rather than lawsuits, he said.

Legislation has succumbed to simple arithmetic. Front Range legislators outnumber Western Slope legislators 89 to 11, and typically have failed to support efforts similar to House Bill 1040 because they would make water-supply projects more expensive or might impair the ability of the Front Range to develop future projects.

How to address the future removal of water from the Western to Eastern Slope was the topic of a monthly Waterwise Wednesday seminar in Avon Wednesday. If featured Treece; water lawyer David Hallford of Glenwood Springs; and Summit County Commissioner Tom Long. The program was presented by the Eagle River Watershed Council.

Water for water

Early efforts to address the effects on rivers of the removal of water by large diversion projects focused on building reservoirs. Reservoirs held water in reserve to help prop up rivers that have lost much of their natural flows to diversions. Once water is diverted from rivers, it can create economic, environmental, aesthetic and other problems, said Treece.

“Now the rubric is much broader,” Treece said. “It goes beyond requiring water-for-water.”

Some communities receive payments to offset the impacts of water removal, while others require stored water and still others can request economic development money.

The singe legislative success on the issue, however, occurred in 1937 with passage of the Water Conservancy District Act which led to the creation of the Green Mountain and Reudi reservoirs, among others, to offset the effects of water diversions from Western Slope rivers.

The problem is geographic and demographic. In Colorado, 80 or more percent of the populations lives in the cities of the arid Front Range, while 80 percent of the precipitation falls on the Western Slope. Finding a way to get one to the other has spawned a number of ideas. Last fall voters trounced Referendum A which proposed floating $2 billion in bonds to build water storage facilities.

Another, more comprehensive idea being floated is the Statewide Water Supply Initiative that looks at water supplies and water needs in each of the eight major rivers in Colorado. But it’s being eyed warily.

“It’s the gold rope,” said Long. “You’re going to hang yourself. I’m concerned it may in the future be used against us.”

Treece said the concept may cause the water needs of one area to overshadow the damage done in another area.

Another statewide measure was the Colorado 64, a set of water-development principles agreed to by every county in Colorado. Those principles, however, haven’t been tested yet, the panelists said.

Keep it local

Long and Treece said the best solutions to addressing impacts caused by removal of water from Western Slope rivers have been arrived at locally.

“Legislatively, it has been a Quixotic quest to date,” said water lawyer Hallford, adding he is now seeing a shift in focus. “But if you talk about (water) transactions it’s not a Quixotic quest. People have recognized that transmountain diversion needs to leave something for the basin of origin. Those transactions are going to been on-going.”

Treece said many towns that have their economies tied to river flows are bringing those financial considerations into water diversion discussions.

The water-rich and population-light Western Slope can’t just say “no” to Front Range water development projects. Being able to develop water is like a private property right. You file a claim, similar to a mining claim, but the water is available on a priority basis with the first filers getting the first water.

When water supplies are in tight supply – as they were during the drought of 2002 – the demand for water will likely create crisis decisions.

Cooperation push

“Deliberate, multiple and cooperative ventures are better than saying no,” Treece said. “That will fail when we hit another 2002. Then we’ll have a crisis and you don’t make good decisions in crisis. That’s when we’ll lose our water.”

Twin forces have been driving the recently cooperative East Slope/Western Slope water discussions. The decade-old and titanic battle over developing the Homestake II reservoir need Red Cliff demonstrated how expensive legal battles over developing water can become. The other driving factor is the continuing demand for water created by population growth.

Western Slope counties have several arrows in their quiver that can be used to address removal of water from their area. Homestake II upheld the county’s regulatory ability, under which water development projects fall. There re also state and federal regulations to consider.

Counties, such as Eagle, have also begun banding together with other counties under intergovernmental agreements to jointly review water projects. These agreements may be the wave of the future, said Long, because they provide some strength in numbers. Eagle County’s agreement is now in the draft phase.

“We’re better off in a group than alone,” Long said.

“Mayberry on steroids’

Long characterized the bulging communities of Eagle, Summit and Grand Counties as “Mayberry on steroids,” saying the burgeoning tax base has created the ability to bring the right resources to water discussions.

“We can do battle now with these (Front Range) people,” he said.

But the future of the Eastern/Western Slope water projects may be modeled after the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding forged after the water war over Homestake II. It features compromise instead of conflict.

It requires future water development projects by the cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora in the Eagle River watershed to be shared two-thirds, one-third with Eagle County water interests. In return, the cities dropped many of their future water development projects.

There’s a move afoot to have Denver become join the agreement. Instead of extracting hundreds of thousands of acre-feet from the Colorado River basin and facing expensive water fights from the Western Slope, the city is looking at a cooperative venture with Eagle County water users.

Instead of building a Dillon-sized reservoir at Wolcott, and pumping water to the Front Range, the city would build a much smaller reservoir and release its water into the Eagle River and trade that for water elsewhere. The city is studying the measure.

“We need to make sure everyone’s talking and understanding each other instead of trying to cut the best deal,” said Long.

Cliff Thompson can be reached via e-mail at: or by calling 949-0555 ext. 450.

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