A water-measuring flume on a ditch sitting exactly astride this pass outside Leadville might be as good a place as any to bring Western and Eastern Slope interests together to talk about water.
Those interests met in the middle here last week, at this point where the Ewing Ditch crosses the Continental Divide, on a transbasin diversion tour presented by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. It was a chance to consider the past of water development in Colorado while also pondering its future. And where better to look back at the history of transbasin diversions than at Ewing Ditch, the oldest diversion of Western Slope water to the Eastern Slope?
This straightforward, unassuming dirt conduit seemingly defies gravity, diverting water from Eagle River tributary Piney Gulch just a short walk from Tennessee Pass, and just high enough up the gulch that the water can follow a contoured course crossing basins and head into the Arkansas River Valley.
“It’s simple, but I love simplicity. It fits my mind,” Alan Ward, water resources manager with the Pueblo Board of Water Works, joked about the ditch, which the utility bought in 1955.
Buried in snow
It was built in 1880 and also is called the Ewing Placer Ditch, which Ward believes suggests early use of the water in mining.
As transbasin diversions go, it’s a minuscule one, delivering up to 18.5 cubic feet per second, or an average of about 1,000 acre-feet in a year. It diverts about five square miles of melt-off from snowpack that can leave the ditch buried beneath 10 to 20 feet of snow in the winter. David Curtis is in charge of clearing that snow and maintaining and operating the ditch during the seven months out of each year that he works out of Leadville as a ditch rider for the utility.
The utility says Ewing Ditch is about three-quarters of a mile long.
“I think it’s a little longer,” Curtis said, adding that at least it seems that way when he and others are busy clearing spring snow.
A chartered bus delivered more than two dozen tour participants to view the ditch, including Boulder County resident Joe Stepanek. He found last week’s two-day tour to be highly informative. He’s interested in Colorado’s history of water development, and is retired from a U.S. Agency for International Development career that had him traveling abroad.
“I come back and join this water tour and learn a lot about Colorado,” he said.
Sonja Reiser, an engineer with CH2M HILL in Denver, likewise was finding the tour to be eye-opening.
“I’m learning so much about how complicated Colorado water law is,” she said as the tour bus moved on from this tiny diversion point to the outlet of the five-mile-long Homestake Tunnel, which goes under the Continental Divide from Homestake Reservoir in Eagle County and is capable of delivering a much more massive 800 cubic feet per second to help meet municipal needs in Colorado Springs and Aurora.
Before getting to those cities, that water also is put to use at another tour stop, the Mount Elbert Power Plant just above Twin Lakes. There, the water goes through hydropower turbines that can be reversed to pull water back up from the lakes to a reservoir above the plant, helping ensure the water is available to create on-demand power to meet grid shortages at times when renewable energy from wind and solar sources wane.
While traveling to the tunnel, the busload heard Pitkin County Attorney John Ely discuss legal means that county has to at least weigh in on transbasin diversion proposals, even if it can’t outright stop them.
He then opined that Pitkin County has more in common with some Front Range counties than it does with some counties on the Western Slope.
“I think that at the end of the day everybody appreciates that we’re in this together,” he said.
Such thinking is helping drive an ongoing effort to develop a state water plan in Colorado. Ely said the priority is always going to be providing water for human consumption, but beyond that, decisions must be made about how to distribute it among competing uses such as agriculture, watering lawns, generating hydropower and maintaining streamflows.
“The only way you can get at that is to invite the public to participate,” he said.
Since 1880, many others have followed the lead taken with the Ewing Ditch and diverted Western Slope water for use on the populous Front Range. As a result, a big challenge facing the state water planning process is reconciling the Front Range’s desire to be able to access yet more of that water with the feeling of many on the Western Slope that they’ve given up enough of it. Although tours like last week’s can’t be expected to lead to breakthroughs on such difficult issues, they at least help to put faces behind the entities involved.
“We’re not three-headed monsters on the Eastern Slope,” Kevin Lusk, who works with Colorado Springs Utilities, said during a windy lunch break alongside Turquoise Lake, which stores water delivered by the Homestake Tunnel.
Front Range lawns
Fielding questions from a few Western Slope residents as they ate, Lusk and some other Front Range utility officials found themselves defending the amount of water conservation they’ve already undertaken, and questioning the Western Slope frustration about water being used to keep Front Range lawns green. Brett Gracely, also with Colorado Springs Utilities, said that watering accounts for just 3 percent of state water use.
“I don’t get it — why do people hate grass?” Lusk wondered.
But as Lusk later described Colorado Springs’ efforts to better shore up its diversion infrastructure to reduce leakage far up the Roaring Fork Valley in Pitkin County, it engendered a frustrated sigh from Lisa Tasker, a member of Pitkin County’s Healthy River Board. She has hiked around that infrastructure, and what has leaked from it has helped vegetation in the same pristine mountain basins from where that water originates, rather than irrigating Front Range lawns.
Still, Tasker bit her lip during Lusk’s presentation. She was on the tour to look and listen, and said earlier it was a chance to see diversion infrastructure firsthand and hear not just the perspectives but the passions of people from the Front Range.
“I’m strictly in learning mode,” she said.
Chris Treese, external affairs manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, based in Glenwood Springs, sits on the board of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education, which uses tours and other means to provide unbiased information on water resources and issues. Treese, who also was a presenter during last week’s tour, said he believes such events help foster dialogue about water in the state and get new voices involved in the state’s water future.
“If it’s going to be a state water plan, it can’t just be water buffaloes’ state water plan,” Treese said, referring to the more traditional participants in water issues on both sides of the divide.
“It’s good for us to get outside of our box and look at the bigger picture,” said tour participant Joe Burtard, who works in external affairs for the Ute Water Conservancy District utility in Mesa County. “… It’s good for us to be exposed to the Front Range and Eastern Slope perspectives as well.”