Water wars to rage at Capitol | VailDaily.com

Water wars to rage at Capitol

Matt Zalaznick

But that may increasingly be the situation as the population of Denver and its environs swells by another couple million people in the coming years and a thirsty Front Range looks for that most vital of natural resources to come flowing down from the mountains.

“They want to continue to take our water,” says state Rep. Carl Miller, D-Leadville, whose newly drawn House District 56 also includes Eagle and Summit counties.

“In the next 20 years,” Miller says, “we’re going to see another 2 million people in Colorado, and a majority will be coming to the Front Range. If we’ve ever seen a year that Western Colorado couldn’t supply water it was last year. We have to develop new sources.”

The wild card, as Coloradans were caught off guard to learn last year, is drought. Vail resident Curt Capinha says if officials last spring had given residents more warning of the impending water shortage, some of the troubles could have been avoided.

“I think we could have seen it coming and done a little more beforehand instead of imposing such heavy restrictions,” Capinha said. “But these things should be done whether there’s a drought or not.”

“People should take shorter showers,” adds Capinha’s friend, Maud Hanson, of Vail.

While that suggestion sounds light-hearted, its ramifications will be serious as state lawmakers in Denver prepare dozens of water bills for the 2003 legislative session, which began last week. The water bills are a tidal wave of legislation that could further harry the relationship between the Front Range, where a ballooning population needs more and more water, and the High Country, where most of the water comes from.

Mary Brown – a lobbyist who works with several water interests in Eagle County, including Vail Resorts, the Upper Eagle River Regional Water Authority and the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District – says the atmosphere in the capitol is not as contentious as some would think.

The drought, among other conditions, is forcing the Front Range and the Western Slope to work together, Brown says.

“There are mountain communities that can’t exist on direct flow any longer,” Brown says. “The Western Slope communities need additional storage as much as Front Range communities do. Therefore, projects that can meet the needs of multiple jurisdictions will present win-win situations.”

Water storage capacity will be a focus of many of the bills introduced this year, Brown says.

“I think we will see several initiatives that have to do with improving exist storage facilities,” she says. “It’s my understanding that a significant capacity increase is possible just by improving existing reservoirs.

“But,” she adds, “I think people will also look for new opportunities.”

Miller says the bill he’ll offer aims at prohibiting water courts from sending Western Slope water to Front Range communities that can tap into the largely neglected Denver aquifer, a huge, underground body of water that stretches into Colorado’s eastern plains, Miller says.

“They can mine that water 1 percent per year –that’s 3 million acre-feet,” Miller says. “We’re saying go to your own front yard before you come to our backyard.”

An acre-foot is the amount of water that fills an acre of land to a depth of 1 foot.

A 1987 U.S. Geological Survey study found the Denver aquifer holds 20 times the water of Lake Powell and 400 times the water of Blue Mesa Reservoir southwest of Gunnison, the largest in the state. A potential 43 million acre-feet of water may be recoverable from the Denver aquifer, according to the study.

Miller says that water should be a much larger piece of the Front Range’s growing water puzzle.

“It’s completely neglected,” Miller says. “And people are going to say the Denver aquifer is too expensive, but other water projects are too expensive, too.”

Miller says he’s not expecting a rubber stamp on his Denver aquifer proposal.

“We have to protect the quality in western Colorado,” he adds. “I think my bill will do it, even though I know I’m in for one hell of a battle.”

Eagle County’s representative in the state Senate, Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, says Colorado should build more reservoirs to store more run-off. In a year of normal snow and rain, Taylor says, the Western Slope loses approximately 800,000 acre-feet of water that flows across the state line into Utah. Two areas of substantial loss are near Fruita and in the Yampa River Valley, near Dinosaur National Park in northwestern Colorado.

“A series of small reservoirs would make sense,” Taylor says. “If we build storage then we can clearly argue that we’re putting our water to beneficial use. It’s a better argument to not lose it to downstream states.”

More than 100 sites throughout Colorado have been identified as potential reservoirs, and many are on the Western Slope, Taylor says.

“The next question is which ones get selected and how are they funded,” he says.

Among other bills that may be introduced in the General Assembly this year is the “Big Straw” concept. Under that scheme, water would be pumped from Colorado River at the Utah border back into Lake Dillon so it could be reused.

Whatever happens, Taylor says, Western Slope lawmakers have to unite and be aggressive when it comes to water.

“I think we’re going to see such a smattering of water bills,” he says, “I think we need to have as much representation from the Western Slope as we can get on water issues.”

Brown says laws passed this year are unlikely to ease the drought, though they can better prepare the state for future shortages.

“Most of the Legislature realizes we’re in a pretty difficult situation in the current drought,” she says. “It will be difficult to implement much that will have immediate effect, demonstrate need we have these kinds of weather conditions in the future.”

What’s not in question is how Mother Nature can best help the state’s growing thirst, Brown says.

“Every one needs more water,” she says. “We need to it rain and snow, but that’s the part we can’t write a law about.”

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at mzalaznick@vaildaily.com.

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a five-part series examining issues affecting residents of the Vail Valley that are being considered in the 2003 Colorado Legislature this year.

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