Our vast plumbing system
From Minturn I easily traced the river to Camp Hale and then, by a road of progressing difficulty, zig-zagged upward. Finally, rounding a corner, I found a stunning waterfall. Excitedly, I scrambled up among the rocks to find the origin of this gush – the birth of the Eagle River.
What I found surprised me, although in retrospect it shouldn’t have. This waterfall was a man-made affair. I was in an industrial area, the complex workings of the Climax Mine. To avoid contamination, the stream had been diverted to an artificial course. The waterfall was as phony as a splish-splash fountain in a shopping mall.
Since the miners began sifting gold from the sands of the Blue River at Breckenridge, people have been manipulating water in Colorado. There’s little, except in wilderness areas, that’s natural about our streams and rivers.
In the future, the plumbing will become more complex yet as Colorado struggles to accommodate millions more people while still apportioning reliable flows for kayak parks, suburban lawns and even a few farms.
Figuring out this tinkering won’t be easy, and this year’s drought has put long-simmering back-burner discussions onto the hot coils of public debate. Even if heavy snows return to the mountains, government officials are unlikely to let the issues recede. These discussions will be both local and statewide.
Locally, winter is the time of water poverty, and a time when ski areas and communities have started outstripping the natural flows of streams. Unless demand is somehow dampened – snowmaking is reduced, or household water is suddenly and dramatically reduced – we’ll need more reservoirs to impound water during spring runoff.
Tremendous population growth seems to be a foregone conclusion.
Eagle and Summit counties were the 10th- and 15th-fastest growing counties, respectively, in the nation during the 1990s, and that growth is expected to moderate only slightly in the years ahead.
The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments projects local water needs in Summit County will triple as the county reaches buildout sometime between 2020 and 2030. Something similar is expected in Eagle County.
A key question in coming years will be to what extent communities will try to steel themselves from drought. By one paleoclimatology study, streamflows this year were the lowest since 1851. Do you build enough storage to ride out such 150-year droughts? Or 500-year droughts? Or even 1,000-year droughts?
In theory, at least, the engineering is possible on all of these, but costs would be enormous. And there are other repercussions, such as the environmental consequences of dams.
Policy makers may look at the demand side of the equation. Simply put, should there be an attempt to restrict the number of residents that are accommodated in these mountain valleys? Stock answers are the usual in what really is a complex debate.
Bottom line: This is basically uncharted territory. Growth has been actively limited in few places, most notably Aspen and Boulder, although even there the reality has been to transfer growth to nearby jurisdictions.
Similarly off-limits have been government-mandated restrictions on landscaping, which typically doubles water consumption. This year’s drought may open up that discussion.
And finally, of a local nature, water has become a crucial part of the recreation- and aesthetics-based economy of these mountain valleys. The Colorado High Country is a far different place than when Denver’s Dillon Reservoir was completed in 1963. Both the Breckenridge and Vail ski areas had just opened, triggering a torrent of change that economically – as well as physically – continues to make over the high mountain valleys.
That aesthetic and recreational need to retain Western Slope flows creates a far more complex calculus for the upcoming debate than existed in the last round of expanded diversions. The resort valleys will not readily concede more water from their headwaters to Front Range cities.
Front Range cities will come looking to the Western Slope, in part because water from the high mountains is more pure, and hence cheaper to treat. But the Front Range is not one monolithic entity. Different parts have different needs.
To the north, in the triangle of Boulder, Greeley and Fort Collins, cities are reasonably well-set because of diversions from near Grand Lake. Southward, Colorado Springs and Pueblo have options that, at present, don’t appear to greatly threaten Western Slope supplies.
Within metropolitan Denver, the Denver Water Department’s services 1.1 million customers in the city and closer-in suburbs, but planners think they’ll eventually need to serve an additonal 800,000 people as the former Stapleton airport, Lowry Air Force Base and land near DIA are developed.
“It’s not sprawl-type development,” explains Dave Little, Denver’s manager of water resources. “And if you notice what’s going on in Denver, it’s going up. Density is increasing.”
In looking into this future, Denver’s planners are calling for a 63 percent increase in water, which possibly can be had through smaller projects.
An outer string of suburbs, particularly those to the south, where job totals in recent years have rivaled those of downtown Denver, are in a pickle. That area depends primarily on underground aquifers, massive but with an unknown life expectancy.
“If you look out 15, 20 or 40 years from now, they have a crisis situation,” says Little.
The broad view from metropolitan Denver is suggested by Doug Kemper, Aurora’s manager of water resources.
“If the metropolitan area continues to grow as we have, we’ll have to figure out some significant supply that will come online in the next 25 to 30 years.”
To many metro-area minds, that significant supply is found as close as Summit County or as far away as Gunnison. Leap-frogging both is The Big Straw, going to the Utah border to collect the last bit of wet out of the Colorado River.
Whatever the source, this year’s drought has spurred suburban communities to more hurriedly seek Western Slope water and find places to store it. Representative of this view is Marie MacKenzie, an Arapahoe County commissioner, on Denver’s southeast side.
“I think we have to look at new places to store water,” she says, “so we can take advantage of the 400,000 acre-feet (of Colorado River water) that we’re not taking advantage of now.”
Various reservoirs are possible, mostly of a smaller nature, but the largest answer is also the riskiest – Conjunctive use of the aquifers underlying Douglas County. In this scheme, excesses of wet years would be pumped underground, then drawn upon in drier years. The Colorado River Water Conservancy District’s Erik Kuhn calls this the latest incarnation of Two Forks. It could provide 60 percent of the water of Two Forks. Some of that water would come from the Western Slope.
Still don’t get it
Yet, from the perspective of the Western Slope and of environmentalist activists, the Front Range still doesn’t get it.
Tom Long, a Summit County commissioner family with at least 50 years of water strife from his family’s home along the Blue River, adopts a traditionally belligerent Western Slope tone of the past when considering the future.
“It’s a lot cheaper to come steal someone else’s water than develop their own,” he says gruffly.
Tom Stone, an Eagle County commissioner, alleges a two-faced approach from the Front Range.
“They just figure, “I’ll grow, and I’ll take the water from some place,'” he says. “They may come in the room soft-spoken and smiley, but when they’re looking at you they’re thinking they will take the water from you one way or the other.”
Long and other Western Slope leaders contend the Front Range cities, despite some laudable efforts, should do more to conserve water and reduce demand. In this coming fight the Western Slope leaders are allied with key environmental activists, including Dan Luecke. As supervisor of the regional Environmental Defense Fund office during the 1980s, he helped kill Two Forks, even after Denver had poured $30 million into it. Although capable of sound-bite sloganeering, his success is grounded in knowing the issues thoroughly. His contention, both then and today, is that Front Range cities need no more than a little additional Western Slope water. What they need, he insists, is to use existing supplies more efficiently.
“I have argued for years that the Front Range has to figure out a way to solve its own problems,” he says. “Now it wants to go to the Western Slope for more water, and I don’t think it is a political or economic possibility anymore.”
The shape of the future
So, the we-can’t-stop-growth Front Range will seek Western Slope water, and they have the numbers in their favor in the Colorado Legislature. The Western Slope, however, has its own muscular response of economics and politics.
What is the Front Range’s favorite playground without water?
Looking several decades ahead, Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, sees this stronger and stingier Western Slope forcing Front Range suburbs to conserve. He sees smaller lawns and more intensive water recycling. And, if new supplies have big price tags, as they almost certainly will, he expects a huge debate about the role of government in supporting new growth.
If it chooses to finance billion-dollar water projects, the state would be effectively sponsoring growth. Is that what the state should be doing?
As for the federal government, Kuhn sees a reduced role. First, through its reclamation policies of subsidized water projects, the federal government promoted agriculture settlement of Colorado and other parts of the West. Then it became an environmental policemen.
Now, to the extent the federal government requires protection of endangered species in the Colorado and South Platte rivers, those rivers will continue to look pretty much as they do today, he says.
What will we lose?
Colorado will get more crowded and there will be more dams and diversions, if not necessarily big ones. And if, as most scientists contend, we have global warming, we could be in a much bigger pickle yet.
Global warming is too much to contemplate, though. The future on its current track seems threatening enough. Sharing the state with more people means steadfastly holding back the flows of spring, my favorite time of year in the mountains.
Often, during years past, I have sought out the roar of creeks and rivers when melting snow crowds their banks. I remember several years ago standing along the Eagle River one June evening, feeling the water churn, thrashing and gnashing, a savage death only a few feet away. I was scared but thrilled.
A water official interviewed for these stories has that same feeling, and wearily expects it will disappear.
“When they start storing all the runoff, you won’t see that anymore,” said the individual, who asked for anonymity. “It’ll be like standing next to the South Platte in Denver.”
That’s where we’re headed in Colorado, to a world of waste-not, want-not.