Rejected and rebuffed
Congress didn’t necessarily see it that way when designating the wilderness area in 1980. The legislation said wilderness designation would not interfere with a diversion, a project planned by Aurora and Colorado Springs called Homestake II.
Front Range cities had always got their water before, and most expected they would this time. But even in 1980, rules governing water diversions in the Colorado High Country had changed. Twice in the years that followed, the cities suffered major setbacks. Not since 1985, when the Windy Gap diversion was completed near Granby, has a transmountain diversion been built. Those setbacks in turn have changed how the cities seek Western Slope water.
“I have to give Denver credit – it’s been a nicer, friendlier Denver Water Board since the Two Forks veto,” says Tom Long, Summit County commissioner. “When they came along with Two Forks, it was, “You’re going to love this water project or the hell with you.’ That obviously didn’t fly with the environmental movement or the better-informed general public.”
In the Homestake case, Aurora and Colorado Springs had financed a project that, beginning in 1967, diverted water from near the abandoned mining camp of Holy Cross City. The water is diverted to Turquoise Lake, near Leadville, eventually pumped into South Park and then distributed to the two cities.
By the early 1980s, growing at a frenzied pace matching that of recent years, the two cities were ready for the second phase. Using tunnels to keep restrict disturbances within the wilderness area to two acres, this time the cities proposed to strike streams from directly around the base of Mount of the Holy Cross. Getting federal and state permits beforehand, the cities delivered their plans in 1986.
But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a raft of laws designed to slow the degradation of the environment had been passed. Congress during the Nixon years delivered the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and others.
In Colorado, legislators passed House Bill 1041, which gave county governments expanded power to review projects within their borders considered to be of statewide concern. Even other counties and cities were not exempt.
Rural counties by then had mustered new strength. Farther west on the Western Slope, counties had stood up to Fortune 500 oil companies to demand impacts of oil shale development be mitigated. When the oil companies fled in 1982, the counties had community centers and other things to show for the experience.
Yet Front Range cities didn’t quite see it that way. To them, this was purely a property rights issue. In Colorado, water is property. How could Eagle County deny them the right to take that water?
Eagle County did so without hesitation. After 180 hours of testimony in 1987, the county commissioners – Dick Gustafson, Don Welch and Bud Gates – consulted their notes and lawyers, then voted to withhold two permits.
Pivotal was the testimony from David Cooper, a hydrologist retained by the Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund, a grassroots environmental advocacy group. Cooper testified that water diverted from streams near Mount of the Holy Cross would cause wetlands to dry, eventually being encroached by trees and shrubs. The commissioners professed to believe Cooper, not the countervailing testimony from experts proffered by the cities. The 1974 state law had given them authority to care about such things as wetlands.
Aurora and Colorado Springs appealed the decision to the Colorado Supreme Court, but Eagle County ultimately prevailed in 1994. Colorado Springs attempted to overturn the decision less directly, lobbying state legislators to withdraw the authority delegated to Eagle County and other headwater governments. But a coalition of Democrats from Denver and Republicans from the rural areas held fast.
“I think the cities made a tactical error,” says Chris Treese of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “The cities got all their (state and federal) permits, but not the 1041 permit, thinking that they could force the county into accepting their project the way they had proposed it.”
Abandoning this take-it-or-leave-it approach, Aurora accepted an invitation from the Eagle Valley and other Western Slope interests to lay the groundwork for something more acceptable on both sides of the Continental Divide.
“We said, “We just can’t keeping approaching things the same damned way,'” recalls Doug Kemper, Aurora’s water resources manager. “There is something in it for all of us if we look at each other’s points of view, and spend time outside of the courtroom.”
The most direct result of those talks was a 1997 memorandum of understanding between the Eagle Valley and Aurora and Colorado Springs. That agreement gives the Eagle Valley use of limited water in Homestake Reservoir, most needed in winter. More important, the agreement defines the grounds for cooperation on building a project of benefit to both Western and Eastern slope parties in the Camp Hale area. Four options are being considered.
“They get a chance to get at least some water, although maybe not as much as they like,” explains Dennis Gelvin, general manager of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.
Bigger battle brewing
Meanwhile, an even bigger battle was brewing to the east, where Denver had since the 1920s been planning a huge dam and reservoir called Two Forks. To have been located southwest of Denver, in the area where the Hayman Fire occurred this year, the dam would have cost $1 billion, inundated 25 miles of the South Platte River’s gold medal trout fishery and impounded four times as much water as the Dillon Reservoir at capacity.
Filling Two Forks would have required additional transmountain diversions from Summit County and elsewhere. The project was sponsored by Denver, although the water was needed more by its suburbs than the city itself.
Opposition from fishermen and environmentalists was substantial, but few expected them to prevail.
Then a shocking thing happened. William Reilly, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, vetoed the project, which would have occurred on public lands. He cited provisions of the Clean Water Act. That was in 1990.
Explaining himself to the High Country News a decade later, Reilly said environmentalists had the better argument. Denver’s needs could be met by conservation in the short term, he said, and proponents had been cavalier about the loss of Cheesman Canyon. And finally, he said he gave President George Bush Sr. plenty of opportunity to overturn his decision, but Bush never even brought up the matter, apparently delivering on his promise to be an “environmental president.”
That veto led to a sequence of events that puts Colorado – including the mountain communities – where we are today. Denver figured out how to serve 11 percent more customers with the same supply by such things as putting water meters on 88,000 previously unmetered households. Additional conservation measures, such as a water recycling plant, are soon to come on line.
“I think the denial of the Two Forks project really made Denver a little smarter and a lot more creative,” says Dave Little, Denver’s manager of water resources. “If we had got Two Forks, I think we would have gotten lazy. And now, I think we have squeezed all the wet out of the water.”
Denver also adopted a softer, gentler approach in working with environmental groups and Western Slope interests. “We pulled back and reassessed how we did business,” says Little.
Story isn’t Denver
Not all Western Slope leaders concur that Denver has done all it can and should do, but there is broad agreement that the fundamental issue now is not Denver itself, but rather the suburbs that Denver decided it would not go to bat for.
Those suburbs are particularly on the southern side in the area of Highlands Ranch, Parker, and Centennial, and they rely on underground aquifers that eventually will go dry.
Could Two Forks come back? In metropolitan Denver some people still are muttering that it should, but water experts give it little chance.
“Vanishingly small” is how Dan Luecke, former regional director of the Environmental Defense Fund, puts the chances. Luecke is generally credited with being the environmentalist most responsible for killing Two Forks in 1990.
Denver, explains Luecke, owns the water rights for that site and it has plans to develop those water rights elsewhere. Besides, Two Forks wouldn’t have produced much water, despite the massive dam that was planned.
Little, from Denver Water, largely agrees.
“Denver has plans to go in other directions, but it’s not out of the question if the other plans don’t pan out,” he says, before listing a half-dozen options. “I am real confident we’re going to get those other options in place.”
Could those southern suburbs try to resurrect Two Forks? Given continued drought, Little doesn’t discount the possibility. But it would still probably be a difficult project.
Among the difficulties, says Luecke, is that those suburbs just don’t have the water rights.
That – the plight of Denver’s suburbs – is really the over-arching story of the decades to come.