Liquid coalition forming along the Colorado
BEAVER CREEK – A group of typically independent Western Slope water users connected by the Colorado River have joined to determine how the river will be shared with Denver, which holds the right to divert huge amounts of water to the Front Range.The Western Slope group, as yet unnamed, consists of representatives of Eagle County water users, Summit and Grand Counties, representatives of water users in Grand Junction, and the 15-county Colorado River Water Conservation District.The group, which met for the first time last week in Beaver Creek, will meet with the Denver Water Board next month.The arid and populous Front Range and water-rich Western Slope have a history of legal clashes over the finite supply of water and the demand created by a growing population. Removing water from rivers degrades aquatic habitat, recreational activities and lowers water quality, water experts say.It’s the first time an inter-basin coalition has formed to deal with water use, proponents said. And the presentation to Denver will be part negotiation and part cooperation, said Glenn Porzak, a water attorney who helped create the coalition.The coalition grew out of negotiations between Denver and Grand and Summit counties, and the idea spread, said Chips Barry, executive director of the Denver Water Board.For the Western Slope, it’s a case of hanging together or hanging separately in negotiations with the giant Denver Water Board, Porzak said.”We realized there were common issues and that collectively the Western Slope could gain more if it were engaged in individual negotiations with Denver,” he said. Porzak declined to provide the detailed negotiating points that will be presented to Denver.But this is an approach that Denver, too, wants to use.
“We clearly prefer that,” Barry said. “It’s much more productive and more likely to produce a result that everybody can embrace.”Dividing it upIf the coalition and Denver reach accord it will limit the amount of water taken to the Front Range from the headwaters of the Colorado River by using shared-storage facilities, like the proposed Wolcott Reservoir, Porzak said. Denver also would likely abandon many of the water it has rights in the upper Colorado basin, Porzak said. Denver has water rights for 260,000 acre-feet -enough for 1 million people for a year – in the Colorado River basin.A cooperative, negotiated approach would provide Denver with a known amount of water without an expensive legal battle with the Western Slope, Porzak said.When the cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora attempted to expand the Homestake Reservoir system in the mid 1980s, it resulted in a decade-long and very expensive legal battle that ended with Colorado Supreme Court upholding Eagle County’s right to regulate water projects.Denver isn’t the only major player on the Colorado River. The Northern Water Conservancy, which supplies the northern Front Range, currently diverts 240,000 acre-feet from the river via tunnel beneath the Continental Divide.A better way
The Western Slope inter-basin agreement is unique in Colorado, said Russell George, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, and it may well provide a blueprint for future Colorado water use decisions.”We will do a lot better in accommodating the many competing interests if we are talking with and negotiating rather than litigating or legislating,” George said. “Clearly it is the wave of today. I applaud them for it. Too often our approach has been too parochial. We can’t stay that way.”George, a former water lawyer and former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives has supported a bill – the Colorado Interbasin Compact Act – that’s wending its way through the Colorado legislature. ‘The bill discourages expensive litigation and encourages negotiation and collaboration on water issues. It’s similar in its purpose to what’s happening between waters users in the headwaters of the Colorado River.Part of the agreement would likely be an effort to curtail Denver’s attempt to purchase the 1,400 cubic feet per-second water right held by the Shoshone hydropower generating station on the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon. This most senior right on the river keeps water flowing from Grand Lake to Glenwood Springs.Wolcott ReservoirDenver and other water users in Eagle County would share the estimated $180 million expense of building the Wolcott Reservoir and would share the water stored in it.
The reservoir, at a maximum size of 105,000 acre-feet, would be less than half the size of Dillon Reservoir, and would be filled by existing creeks and by water pumped from the Eagle River. A dam for the reservoir would be about one mile north of Wolcott. Water would be released from the reservoir into the Eagle River during low-flow months to fulfill a variety of water demands, ranging from protecting spawning habitat for endangered fish in the lower Colorado River to fulfilling water exchanges that would provide Denver with more water than it could take from Summit County’s Blue River via Lake Dillon. In Grand and Summit counties, agreements on sharing and trimming of Denver’s water rights would be made.One of the issues for water users in the Grand Junction area is the salinity of the Colorado River. Much of the area the river flows through is an ancient seabed, full of salt that can ruin crops.By adding water to the Colorado from Wolcott and other reservoirs, the additional water would dilute the salt, improving water quality, Porzak said.If negotiations with the Denver Water Board are successful, the end result could be a memorandum of understanding similar to that between the cities of Colorado Springs, Aurora and water users in Eagle County, Porzak said. That agreement, struck in 1998 after the bitter court battle over the Homestake Reservoir expansion, calls for joint projects and sharing water between Eastern and Western Slope interests. Eagle County water users now store water in Homestake Reservoir.Staff Writer Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 450, or firstname.lastname@example.org