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Water warriors working on peace treaty

Cliff Thompson

KEYSTONE – When representatives of the headwaters of the Colorado River met with the Denver Water Board atop Keystone Mountain, what wasn’t said was more significant than what was.Overlooking Dillon Reservoir and the snowy, water-producing peaks of the Continental Divide, these former competitors for Colorado’s finite water supply didn’t make any negative comments about a proposed statewide water-management plan that would require close cooperation. Instead, both groups issued carefully worded statements about the possibilities of working together.Denver and other Front Range water providers have rights to huge water supplies in Eagle, Summit and Grand counties. A month ago, Western Slope water managers presented an upper-Colorado River water plan to the Denver Water Board. It’s now a multi-billion dollar negotiation involving hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of Western Slope water and managers on both sides of the Divide.The complex plan hinges on hard-to-find middle ground. It also depends on cooperation between water users with a history of lawsuits. The plan is further being touted as the archetype of future water developments in Colorado, where rapid population growth and a emergence from a recent drought is refocusing efforts to build more places to store water. Finite water supplies are being stretched by a rapidly growing state population that has exceeded 4.4 million. A new law, Colorado Water for the 21st Century, was signed last month by Gov. Bill Owens. It creates a new process for solving water problems in each of major river basins in the state.”People, by necessity, are going to have to overcome their parochialism,” said Chips Barry, director of the Denver Water Board. “This means you’re going to have to look at things in a much broader context.”The Front Range and the mountain communities need additional water for a growing population. The answer to meeting that need, both Denver and Western Slope interests are now saying, lies in cooperating to share the water and huge expense of building reservoirs and distribution systems. Neither side has set any deadlines, but the group have acknowledged they are jointly funding engineering studies.Settlement in Red CliffHanging over the discussions is the knowledge that fighting over water no longer works, an lesson perhaps learned from a battle that broke out in Eagle County in 1986. Colorado Springs and Aurora wanted divert more water through their Homestake diversion system that takes water from the headwaters of the Eagle River and transports it under the Continental Divide to the headwaters of the Arkansas River, which flows east to the Front Range.Eagle County did not issue a permit for the reservoir south of Red Cliff, based on the harm it could cause to wetlands, among other factors. Colorado Springs and Aurora then sued and lost an expensive, decade-long legal battle with Eagle County. In the wake of that, the former litigants in 1998 agreed to jointly develop and share water here.The new plan presented by Grand, Eagle and Summit counties is an attempt to do roughly the same thing, but on a much more comprehensive basis. One of the provisions calls for reimbursement by the Eastern Slope for water taken from the Western Slope, officials said. The detailed proposal, which has not yet been made public, would limit the amount of water Denver and other Front Range water users could extract from the three counties on the headwaters of the Colorado River. Another provision calls for water “re-use” agreements that would also meet some immediate needs for water in Summit and Grand counties. It would create additional shared reservoirs and other joint projects. In return water users in the three headwaters counties would agree to refrain from contesting Denver’s water rights in their counties.”This opportunity is occurring now and we need to take advantage of it immediately,” said Rick Sackbauer of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation Board. He’s also a member of the Denver Water Board’s West Slope citizen’s advisory committee.Jumble of rightsAnother possible participant in the basinwide management plan could be the Northern Water Conservancy that serves Ft. Collins and other Front Range cities. It has significant water rights in Grand County, particularly on the Fraser River. Because of the depletion of water from that river it has been placed on the endangered list by American Rivers, an environmental watchdog group. The conservancy has rights to an additional 18,000 acre-feet there.If the Denver Water Board agrees to fully participate in the basinwide management plan, one of the provisions would be that in return for a guaranteed source of water that would not be legally contested, it would abandon portions of the more than 260,000 acre-feet of water rights it holds in the Colorado and the Piney River north and west of Vail.Under Colorado law, water can be claimed and used in a process similar to making a mining claim. The first to claim it and put it to a “beneficial use” – irrigating fields or for potable water -may divert from rivers. Denver filed claims in Colorado’s high country all through the 1940s and ’50s. The new proposal contains more than 80 interlocking water-sharing/exchange and financing elements according to participants. It may become even more complex, said Glenn Porzak, a regional water attorney.”We’ve already progressed from a more limited dialogue to something much more comprehensive,” he said.Part of the plan, not surprisingly, will require some money to change hands, said Denver’s Barry.”People believe that Wolcott plus Green Mountain is the cash register through which the Front Range pays for water which the West Slope has produced,” said Barry. “The thinking is there are elements on the Front Range that have significant resources and water needs and that they will pay a lot of money for good, clean water which can be used to solve water problems and other issues on the Western Slope.”Low waterAnother issue is the effect the increased sharing and swapping of water rights will have on the river system. For instance, if water is taken out at the headwaters of the Colorado and released from a mid-region reservoir like Wolcott and doesn’t reach the Colorado until Dotsero where the Eagle and Colorado meet, it will deplete the flow of the Colorado between those points.”That stretch of the river will have less water in it,” said Barry.Porzak said another reservoir would have to be built to help keep the river flowing through that stretch, but it’s too early to tell where and when that would happen, he said.Upstream in Summit County, on the Blue River, Denver is looking at releasing water from Dillon Reservoir, which it owns, into Green Mountain, then pumping that back uphill into the Roberts Tunnel to the Front Range. That could involve up to 50,000 acre-feet or more, said Porzak.The proposal keeps the Blue River between Dillon and Green Mountain full, but it could deplete it along the 15-mile stretch between Green Mountain Reservoir and the Colorado River.”You would need to find a replacement for Green Mountain,” Porzak said, adding that Wolcott Reservoir could fill that void.This new proposal grew out of a study of water needs for the upper Colorado River Basin by Denver and local users that helped highlight the supply-and-demand picture on the river. Early conversations between the former competitors in Grand and Summit counties for water did not result in agreement.But both side of the Divide have committed money and time to “fully exploring” the proposal, Porzak said. “Something of this magnitude will take a couple of years,” he said. “West Slope entities want to see real progress oven the next year.”Staff Writer Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 450, or cthompson@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado


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