Eagle River Watershed Council: The Eagle River MOU and what’s ahead
This is Part III of a three-part series.
When the Cheesman Dam and reservoir were completed in 1905, the dam was the largest masonry gravity arch structure in the world, and the reservoir drowned the South Platte River canyon in 79,000 acre-feet of water. At the time, that was a huge amount of water, and the Denver newspapers declared that the city’s water supply problems had been solved forever.
Less than 20 years later, Denver sought water rights in the Fraser River Valley of Grand County, and then later, the Blue River in Summit County.
“Forever” turned out to be less than a single lifetime.
Other large storage and diversion projects followed Denver’s lead, taking water from the Western Slope and diverting it through the Continental Divide and East to the Front Range, for both agricultural and municipal supply needs.
The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs built the initial Homestake Reservoir project in the 1960s, at the headwaters of Homestake Creek. The reservoir supplied as much as 50% of the cities’ needs at the time. Knowing that over time and as their communities grew, this first Homestake project would not be enough, the cities planned and proposed a second project in the 1980s that would greatly expand the amount of water collected and sent East. This time, they met stiff resistance and the project was defeated after a lengthy battle in the courts.
Out of that defeat came the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding and the hopes for a new, joint project that could benefit communities and needs on both sides of the Continental Divide. For more details on this MOU, please see the previous two columns in this three-part series or visit the Eagle River Watershed Council’s blog.
The Eagle River MOU was signed in 1998, and it seems that before the ink was dry, Colorado and the Colorado River Basin entered into the greatest prolonged drought in more than 800 years.
One problem, noted in Part II of this series, was the hydrologic period used to establish the average yield of water for an MOU-based project. The maximum averages of 20,000 acre-feet for the Front Range cities, 10,000 acre-feet for Eagle County and 3,000 acre-feet for Climax Molybdenum Co. were based on a record of 50 years, from 1945 to 1994. While current planning has extended the hydrologic record to 2017, the original yield calculations are still in place.
This is unrealistic, given the long record of the ongoing Millennial Drought and model projections for the future that incorporate climate change. The original calculations didn’t take that into account, yet the cities seem determined to obtain their full yield under the MOU. The water the Front Range entities expect simply is no longer there. Stationarity, the planning tool that suggests that the past can be used to predict the future no longer works. Stationarity is obsolete.
Just look downstream. Homestake Creek runs into the Eagle River, which then runs to the Colorado River at Dotsero. It’s difficult to ignore the current plight of the Colorado River system and the water it provides through myriad agreements for some of the largest cities and agricultural regions in the country.
Locally, the Eagle River ran well-below average this year, with the boating season short and river temperatures too high for fishing activities. Summer 2021 has brought the Colorado River into the national spotlight across the country, as major reservoir levels plummet.
The recently declared shortage on the Colorado River has important implications for more junior water development upstream. The water the cities are planning and relying on just isn’t there. Moreover, the risk of curtailment, or legal reductions, for diversions on Homestake Creek is growing larger.
Colorado’s first Territorial Governor, William Gilpin, was an ardent promotor of growth and the ideas of Manifest Destiny. He felt it was our “untransacted destiny” to move West to the Pacific and beyond and bestow the “blessings” of our American civilization on this benighted western wilderness, to tame the wild lands and make them fruitful with agriculture, industry and growing cities. Gilpin was also a fervent believer in the theory that rain follows the plow, that all that was needed to solve water shortages was to plow up the rich prairie sod. He claimed that the Front Range could and should accommodate a population of 20 million.
Gilpin’s dreams were wildly inaccurate, but he set the stage. People have been trying to turn Colorado into Ohio for 160 years and it hasn’t worked. We need to try something else.
The Colorado River Basin is getting drier due to increased aridification driven by climate change. Coming to the West Slope for water to supply even the reduced fantasies of William Gilpin is no longer a viable solution. The cities and all of us in Colorado need to seriously reconsider the economics of endless growth. Serious water conservation, land use planning and greater reliance on reuse are imperative.
We ignore the changing realities of our western climate and shrinking water supply at our peril. The solutions we’ve relied on from the past no longer suffice.
Our cultural values and knowledge regarding rivers and the environment have also changed over time. The value of the Homestake Valley for its wetlands, fens, wildlife and relatively pristine nature are more important than as a sunken treasure drowned beneath another reservoir. There are too few valleys like Homestake left in the Colorado High Country. Homestake is a “natural” reservoir, and we need to treasure and protect such places that remain.
Ken Neubecker is a founder of and former board president for Eagle River Watershed Council and recently retired from his position as the Colorado Project Director at American Rivers. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit ERWC.org.