Vail Valley Voices: Not such a great deal for Colorado River |

Vail Valley Voices: Not such a great deal for Colorado River

Ken Neubecker
Vail, CO, Colorado

Recently, Eagle County and other Eagle River water entities became the first signatories to what has been hailed as an historic agreement between Denver Water and the Western Slope.

The Colorado River Cooperative Agreement is indeed an historic first for many things, but not, as is claimed, for the health and environmental integrity of the upper Colorado and Fraser rivers.

Eagle County Attorney Brian Treu stated, “This has been a good year for the river.” I respectfully disagree.

Studies conducted by the Colorado Division of Wildlife clearly show that the upper Colorado River is a collapsing ecosystem. Most of this is due to the fact that well more than 65 percent of the upper Colorado is drained by diversions to the Front Range.

The EPA recently castigated the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District for the utterly insufficient environmental impact analysis on its Windy Gap Firming project. Denver Water’s analysis for its Moffat Expansion was even worse.

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The agreement has some environmental “enhancements” in it, but they also are hopelessly inadequate. It throws a lot of money at the river, but only token amounts of water, and water is what the river really needs.

Most of the money will be spent on wastewater treatment upgrades, so plants can meet state standards with less native dilution flows in the river. Some money is provided for mechanical “improvements,” using backhoes to turn the river into a creek. This will help for a while, until natural processes take out the improvements. There is no money for fixing that.

The Eagle River will be fine, and thanks to flows from the Eagle, so will the Colorado through Glenwood Canyon, as Mr. Porzak stated. But then Denver Water’s increased diversions were never a real threat to the Eagle River. The Colorado above the Eagle, however, is in grave jeopardy.

Another misleading statement was that the Eagle River currently has only 20,000 acre-feet of diversions “and it’s now likely to stay that way.” Aurora and Colorado Springs still have the right to divert an additional 20,000 acre-feet from the Eagle.

But the recently signed agreement only covers Denver Water, which has no diversion out of the Eagle. They might someday want to build the Wolcott Reservoir project with partners in the Eagle Valley, but even then no water would be diverted from the Eagle to the Front Range. However, with a Wolcott Reservoir in place, even more water could be taken from Grand and Summit counties.

The agreement will still allow Denver Water to divert as much as 80 percent of the native flow of the Fraser River. In return for this an insignificant token amount of water will be available for “bypass flows” to the Fraser if Grand County wants it. That’s hardly a good deal for the river.

Northern is also not a party to this agreement. The Colorado-Big Thompson project, along with Windy Gap and the Moffat diversions, take most of that 300,000 acre-feet of water from Grand County. If Windy Gap and Moffat go through as proposed, as much as 75 percent of the native flows of the upper Colorado will be diverted under the mountains to the Front Range.

It was pretty easy for Eagle County to sign this agreement, as they have little to lose. It may be a harder sell for the folks of Grand and Summit counties, even with their county commissioners’ backing. After all, Denver Water came to the table with all the cards.

The flows of the upper Colorado have been severely altered by diversions since the 1930s. So much water has been taken out that John Nickum, a retired fisheries biologist, noted: “Alteration is really too moderate a term to use for such changes. … Degradation leading to destruction is much more accurate.”

This agreement, with its “enhancements” and the proposed mitigations for the Windy Gap and Moffat projects, can’t even be considered a Band-Aid when it comes to restoring or protecting the river.

No, this has not been a good year for the Colorado River.

Ken Neubecker is the executive director at the Western Rivers Institute.

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