Is legislating our water wise?

Allen Best
The Eagle River near Minturn.

Expect nothing major, says Chris Treese, external affairs director for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, speaking at a forum in Avon on Monday. The Glenwood Springs-based district is the umbrella agency for 15 counties, including Eagle and Summit.

“The issues aren’t terribly different now than they were – well, you name the year,” he said. “What you will see are incremental steps.”

The story has two parts: increasing supply; or reducing demand.

Increasing supply means impounding more of spring runoff in reservoirs, such as Dillon and Green Mountain. Spring runoff is usually the only time of surplus in Colorado.

The problem now, as throughout Colorado history, is that the Western Slope gets nearly 80 percent of the state’s water – most of that falling in the form of snow – while about 80 percent of people live on the state’s Eastern Slope. Despite the rapid growth of ski resorts, the same rough proportion has existed for decades and the imbalance is expected to continue.

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The “Big Straw’

So, where can Front Range communities get significant additional water supplies? The big answers are: right below their feet, in something called the Denver Aquifer; or by going at least a hundred miles to sites on the Western Slope.

Best known of these ideas is something colloquially called the “Big Straw.” An idea talked about since at least 1988, it would entail going at least as far west as Glenwood Springs – but perhaps even the Utah line – to bring back extra water for distribution along the Continental Divide, perhaps at Dillon or near Climax or Camp Hale.

“People are always saying to think outside the box,” said Treese. “You can’t think much further outside the box than the Big Straw.”

The River District says the idea should be studied, at least to demonstrate the cost of getting water to the Front Range, making less grandiose ideas involving both conservation and supply look better. But many questions remains, however, about the ecological wisdom of mixing downstream water with relatively unsullied headwaters water.

That the idea – proposed at a cost of $500,000 – is even being studied demonstrates that all the easy projects have been done.

“Projects we are now talking about involve a minimum of 100 miles and surmounting two or three passes,” said Treese. “To get any water at all in all but our wettest years you have to go to Glenwood, if on the Colorado River, or to Delta, if on the Gunnison River.”

Another big idea, one popular with many on the Western Slope, is that metropolitan Denver be forced to exhaust the aquifer underneath it before seeking more transmountain diversions. That idea, dubbed the “Big Auger” by one lobbyist, was introduced by Rep. Carl Miller, whose district includes Eagle and Summit counties.

Miller’s bill was killed rapidly, however, and appears unlikely to return, even in a fashion more palatable to Front Range interests. While water officials believe they might be able to use the aquifer as a reservoir, they fundamentally believe it’s bad policy to continue to increase their already considerable dependence on an exhaustible resource.

How to pay for them?

Meanwhile, at least four districts proposals have emerged to finance construction of water projects. One, Senate Bill 236, introduced by Sen. Jim Dwyer, of south metropolitan Denver, would send to Colorado voters the question of whether to approve up to $10 billion in bonding authority for water projects.

Governments already have such authority, but this would enlarge the concept, conceivably encouraging a metropolitan group, for example. A variation on the theme would establish a $2 billion maximum.

These figures are the sort usually used when talking about the space program or missile systems. Is that much money needed?

Dave Nickum, executive director of Trout Unlimited, warned it’s unnecessary, and perhaps even dangerous. If some group defaults on its bonds, the state might be forced to pay. Moreover, it’s probably not needed.

“Already,” he said, “if you have a project that is viable, you’re going to be able to find financing.”

Essential principle

Mary Brown, a former Steamboat Springs town councilwoman and now a lobbyist for various groups from the Vail Valley to Aurora, said voters have consistently freed local governments from fiscal restraints if the projects for the money are identified specifically. That essential principle must be remembered in water planning, she said.

Does that mean a big water project – something that might be called “The Answer” – is out of the picture? Not necessarily. Treese said he doubts there is any big water projects along the lines of Dillon Reservoir, but if there is another one, it likely will be very big.

“It may not be as far out of the box as the Big Straw,” he said, “but it will be far out.”

Demand key

On the other side of the equation is demand – how can we do with what we already have in our plumbing system? The answer there is even clear-cut than on the supply side.

Several bills have been introduced that would encourage conservation by, for example, outlawing subdivision covenants that insist on bluegrass lawns. Democrats introduced all of these bills, and Treese and other observers said it’s probably not coincidental that all but one have been killed in the Republican-dominated Legislature. That one remaining bill, Senate Bill 87, requires larger cities to develop plans to reduce water use by 20 percent. However, the proposal has no teeth.

Not least there’s the issue of agriculture water. In Colorado, somewhere between 85 and 92 percent of water – the figures seem to vary – is devoted to agriculture. While that water is being steadily reallocated to urban use, the conversion is difficult mechanically and also philosophically. Colorado’s image is of an agrarian-based society, even if the reality is very different. It is, in fact, a very urban state.

Brown, the lobbyist form Steamboat, called all this a “very interesting conundrum.”

“It’s a very interesting dynamic,” he said, “and I don’t know how it will be resolved.”

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