Thirsty south Denver turns to High Country water | VailDaily.com

Thirsty south Denver turns to High Country water

Christine McManus

Two anglers fly-fish on the Blue River with the Dillon Dam looming in the background in Silverthorne on a recent morning.

DILLON – There’s a small chance the fast-growing cities south of Denver might replace drought as the top reason water levels could drop again at Dillon Reservoir and at other Denver Water reservoirs.

Dillon Reservoir can be used to the very last drop under water law. Just because Denver Water can, though, does not mean it will, said Dave Little, Denver Water planning manager.

However, south metro water agencies are gearing up to ask for a share of Denver Water supplies, despite the several-billon-dollar price tag for piping and water storage infrastructure.

Denver Water has supplies that are closer to the south metro area, including Cheesman, Antero and Strontia Springs reservoirs.

The 200-percent growth rates of suburbs between Colorado Springs and Denver over the past 12 years was fed by seemingly endless underground water supplies.

Despite residents’ pleas to south metro officials at public hearings to protect their water-well levels, rezoning after rezoning turned ranchlands into neighborhoods as Colorado’s popularity soared.

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As water wells in Douglas and Arapaho counties have begun to run dry, debates over how long underground supplies will last is coming to a boil.

Regardless of how much longer the aquifers last, the underground water supplies that the south metro area relies on are not renewable like rivers, said Pat Mulhern, who is leading a south metro water supply study.

South metro water agencies are thirsty for renewable Denver Water supplies because they come from snowmelt, much of it from Summit and Grand counties.

$3 billion price tag

Colorado’s famous water buffalo has water rights all over the state, such as Dillon Reservoir, which already feeds customers in Denver.

“It’s important for Summit County to know that Denver Water is committed to defending Summit County’s concerns,” said Little. “This is not some unilateral agreement between Denver Water and Douglas County.”

Ever since the giant Two Forks Dam proposal 30 miles west of the south metro area was turned down for environmental reasons more than a decade ago, water experts in Douglas and Arapaho counties have been looking for new water supplies.

More than a dozen south metro water agencies – funded by suburban residents’ water bills – are studying their nonrenewable, aquifer water supply.

The study results are expected in the next month or two, Mulhern said. The results will guide what south metro interests ask for and what they plan to offer in return.

On Nov. 13, Colorado Attorney Gen. Ken Salazar sent a letter to legislators, supporting the South Metro Water Supply Study board’s preliminary proposals. Salazar also supports Western Slope desires to protect the interests of the water basins where supplies originate.

The south metro water coalition wants Denver Water to share “extra” water in high-flow years, in exchange for Denver using aquifer water in dry years.

Called “conjunctive use,” the proposal’s piping and reservoir storage infrastructure would cost south metro water users an estimated $3 billion over several decades.

No growth restrictions

Parker Water and Sanitation District in Douglas County, which has been planning to build a reservoir to meet its ever-increasing number of residents and lawns, dropped out of the South Metro Water Supply Study.

Parker Water director Frank Jaegar said the study paints a rosy picture of the south metro water situation.

South metro water agencies still involved in the study welcomed Salazar’s support for their plan, Mulhern said.

The Northwest Colorado Council of Government, representing Summit, Grand, Eagle, Pitkin, Park and Gunnison counties, told Salazar it should not be necessary for the state to get involved. After all, water planners in the High Country have cooperated to build water-supply projects such as the Wolford Mountain and Clinton reservoirs.

The attorney general is getting involved as a facilitator to encourage legislators to authorize a formal south metro water authority and laws protecting basins of origin, said Steve Sims, senior water council for the attorney general’s office.

Getting renewable water to the south metro area would take several years just to get agreements in place before infrastructure could be built.

South metro water agencies, Denver Water, the Colorado River District, Summit County and others would have to negotiate once the south metro study is finished and an official south metro agency is formed from more than a dozen current providers.

Ultimately, the south metro area’s water supply solution will likely combine the options of conjunctive use, water conservation, water recycling plants and use of reservoirs.

Growth restrictions have not entered the equation, and in fact the south metro population is expected to continue to increase significantly.