Settlement saved millions of gallons of water for Eagle CO.
EAGLE COUNTY If you can imagine Gore Creek ever being too dry to fish in, thats how much water was at stake in a recent settlement between Denver Water and Eagle County water managers.For decades, Denver Water had held rights to much of the water flowing through the valley, including millions of gallons of water in Gore Creek and the Upper Eagle River. They had rights to water in all those small tributaries you see while hiking, like Turkey Creek, Pitkin Creek and Booth Creek.Denver Water, which serves more than a million people in the metro area, had planned to someday use this water for future Front Range customers. But in a legal agreement reached recently, Denver is abandoning most of those rights.In total, it will be leaving 5,750 cubic feet per second of water in our local streams and 40,000 acre feet of water in Piney Reservoir, which translates to millions of gallons of water. Caroline Bradford, a longtime watchdog of water issues in the valley, said so many of the streams and rivers we take for granted would have been sucked dry had Denver ever used its water rights. Having Denver abandon those rights is a remarkable accomplishment for Eagle County, she said.It would have been a horrible thing, Bradford said. There would hardly be any water left for us.
Heres a look at how local streams would be affected if Denver ever had started diverting water to the Front Range.Gore Creek, the picture-postcard stream running under the covered bridge in Vail Village, would be heavily impacted if Denver started taking water out. Visually, it would be a striking difference, and people who dont usually notice water levels would surely be shocked. Gore Creek is known for good fishing, and if there were only the bare minimum of water in Gore Creek, fishing would be pointless, Bradford said.Many of the streams are well known only to hikers and backpackers. Booth Creek and Pitkin Creek both follow highly popular hiking trails. If water were diverted from these waterways, hikers would likely miss out on some of the dynamic waterfalls that make the trails special.Turkey Creek follows Shrine Pass Road on the way to Red Cliff, and is also Red Cliffs drinking water supply, Bradford said. Lime Creek and Wearyman Creek, which would have also been affected, are tributaries to Turkey Creek.Big Horn Creek and Spraddle Creek are familiar to Vail residents, and they too would be reduced to a mere trickle.The diminished water would also be noticed by hiker, campers, horseback riders and fisherman in the popular Piney River area. Meadow Creek, Freeman Creek, Dickson Creek and Moniger Creek would have all suffered as well. Denver also gave up more than 40,000 acre feet of water in the Piney Reservoir.Some of these creeks have protected minimum stream flows, which means they are guaranteed a certain amount of water will always be flowing. But, those minimums arent much, Bradford said.Denver also gave up water at State Bridge Pump Plant and the Eagle River Pump Plant in Wolcott.Overall, securing water in all these streams is important to the tourist-based economy that drives the area, said Glenn Porzak, attorney for the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority.
The settlement came just before lawyers went back to court to finish a trial that began this summer. Eagle County water managers were challenging the water rights held by Denver Water.Leaders with the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority were confident that they could have won the lawsuit, but decided that working with Denver on a settlement would be better for future relations.In the agreement, Denver does keep some water rights in Eagle County, and also would have the right to participate in a possible reservoir project in Wolcott.The settlement also comes while negotiations continue between several water agencies across the state to solve a number of complex water issues and decide how both the Front Range and the West Slope will have enough water for the future.This favorable outcome is representative of the value of our mediation efforts and sets the stage for more collaboration around water issues statewide, said Dave Little, Denver Waters director of planning.
Decades ago, the city and county of Denver bought up water rights on the Western Slope, including hundreds of thousands of water acres in Eagle County. To keep water though, you have to use it or at least prepare to use it in the future. Hoarding unneeded water isnt allowed in Colorado.Every six years, Denver goes through the paper shuffle of water court to prove its being diligent in using the water in some way or another. This is also a chance for someone to challenge those rights.The Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority and the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District pounced on that opportunity in 2002, arguing that Denver doesnt need the water and hasnt done enough to keep those water rights. Instead, that water should stay in Eagle County, they said.A trial began in June 2006 to decide if Denver should keep its rights. Denver argued in the trial that the water rights are part their long-term vision for providing water to residents. They said people who dont plan that far ahead are caught without water and that water projects in metro areas take a long time to finish, often citing a water right purchased in 1902 and developed in the 1980s as an example.The big question was if Denver has done enough in 35 years to prove that it can and will use the water rights in Eagle County. Porzak had argued theres little to show for their planning meaning they havent shown diligence in developing uses for the water.Local water officials also said Denver wouldnt need that much water and will be in fact hoarding a valuable commodity. They argued that Denver was speculating with the water rights and may sell the water to developing communities near Denver for which they arent responsible.
Denver Water not only wouldnt build what was needed to bring our water to the Front Range, it literally couldnt, attorneys argued.Porzak made the case that it would be impossible for Denver to obtain the necessary permits to complete their projects, especially a U.S. Forest Service permit and a presidential exemption to work in the protected Eagles Nest Wilderness.He also showed how piping water to Denver would actually put Dillon Reservoir over the legal limits of phosphorus, which also would end the project.Leaders with the district and authority have acknowledged they were making a strange case arguing both that taking all that water out of Eagle County would be devastating and that taking water out of Eagle County was near impossible.It ends up being about security, Bradford says. Who knows for sure if someday that Denver wouldnt find a way to make it all happen?Why not stop it now, instead of leaving it for our grandchildren to deal with? Bradford said.Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or email@example.com.