Vail Valley Voices: Water pact falls short
May 20, 2011
The rivers of the West Slope, especially in the upper Colorado and Yampa basins, look like they will flow this spring as they haven’t since 1984, 27 years ago. The snowpack water levels from the Roaring Fork up are near record levels. Throughout the northern mountains, the snowpack this year has been well above normal. Periodic high flows like this that can scour the riverbed, flush away accumulated sediment and flood the adjacent riparian areas are essential for a healthy river ecosystem.
Another big event this spring was the agreement between Denver Water and West Slope stakeholders. For the first time, a truly collaborative agreement has been forged that benefits water-supply needs on both sides of the Continental Divide. Working as partners for the good of all rather than just throwing lawyers at each other is indeed historic. It’s an example that others would do well to follow. However, this agreement and continued project discussions still fall short.
If anyone is a loser in this, it is the river itself. Although the agreement claims to have provisions that will help the rivers, that’s not as accurate as it could be. Yes, lots of money, cooperation and a small amount of water for environmental “enhancement” are provided. But far more water will still be taken from the river than is left to flow in its starved channel. The agreement does not address or acknowledge that more than 60 percent of the Fraser and upper Colorado are already being diverted to the Front Range. The Moffat Expansion will take an additional 15 percent or more on top of that. With that much of the native flows removed, making about 1 percent available for “environmental enhancement,” as this agreement does, won’t go far to help the river, much less improve it.
The agreement does not deal with the impacts from the Moffat and Windy Gap expansion. Future diversions by Denver Water and others are not ruled out. Even with cooperation, the upper Colorado and Fraser could still be drained of their last drop.
Neither this agreement nor the potential mitigations proposed to the Division of Wildlife deal with the damage already done from more than a hundred years of diversions. Yet everyone pats themselves on the back for a job well done and goes back to work, never really admitting what has been lost. The public is kept in the dark, thinking all is well. After all, wouldn’t it be illegal to destroy a river? Not in Colorado. The environmental enhancements are nothing more than river hospice, making us more comfortable with the advancing stages of decay.
Aldo Leopold wrote, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” People don’t see the damage that afflicts much of the Colorado and other rivers. There is water in the channel, so it’s a “river,” right? Interpretive signs at the Windy Gap reservoir tell how water is taken from the “Mighty Colorado” for the benefit of the cities and farms on the other side of the mountains. That the “Mighty Colorado” no longer exists, and hasn’t for generations, is not explained. The true condition of the degraded stream now flowing below the reservoir is not mentioned.
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Even with the promise of a strong runoff this year, the upper Colorado has become mostly a shadow river. Nature may do something to help the ailing Colorado River in the next few weeks. We certainly aren’t.
Coloradans and much of the mainstream media assume all is in good order and the water wars are now over. We think we have negotiated a fair truce balancing healthy rivers, farms and growing cities. The Colorado River Cooperative Agreement is indeed historic in many ways, but not in our ability to manage or see rivers as rivers. Until we can do that, the rivers will continue to lose. So will the people of Colorado, on both sides of the divide.
Ken Neubecker, a former Vail Valley resident, is executive director of the Western Rivers Institute.