#ColoradoRiver — Tale of Two Basins — Circle of Blue

West portal Moffat Water Tunnel
West portal Moffat Water Tunnel

From Circle of Blue (Brett Walton):

In Colorado, rivers flow not only down mountain slopes but beneath them, across them, and through them.

Nearly four dozen canals, tunnels, and ditches in the state move water out of natural drainages and into neighboring basins. Some snake across high passes. Others pierce bedrock.

All manmade water courses, meant to supply farming, manufacturing, or household use, eventually become so familiar they become part of the landscape. But old infrastructure can come to life in different form. Recently, Gov. John Hickenlooper cast renewed attention on water supply and growth in the West with a decision in a long-running process to expand a Colorado River diversion.

That diversion is the Moffat tunnel which supplies water to Gross reservoir. From its western portal at the base of Winter Park’s ski slopes the 80-year-old conduit, blasted through layers of gneiss, granite, and schist, sends water from west-flowing Colorado River tributaries to Gross reservoir, east of the Continental Divide.

Denver Water, the public utility that owns Gross reservoir, wants to triple its capacity in order to secure water for one of the country’s fastest growing big cities. The $US 380 million project, under state and federal review since 2003, gained Gov. Hickenlooper’s endorsement on the last day of June, a week after it collected a key state water quality permit. The final piece will be a dredging permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Gross reservoir expansion reflects a fundamental tension for the seven states and two countries that share the Colorado River: how many more diversions can the stressed basin tolerate? The watershed is drying but states in the upper basin still plan to pull more water out of the river. Whether they should — and how much — is a matter of constant debate.

“The challenge becomes reconciling the ability to develop water with the reality that you are assuming a ton of risk,” James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, told Circle of Blue..

A Game of Risk
Some observers say that the risk threshold has already been crossed. A group of respected academics calling themselves the Colorado River Research Group argued in a 2014 paper that the basin must strive to use less water, not more. “Any conversation about the river that does not explicitly acknowledge this reality is not helpful in shaping sound public policy,” they wrote.

Eklund said he understands the sentiment behind the call for restraint. However, Colorado’s constitution is set up, he said, to protect the right to develop water.

“The state is not going to call balls and strikes and say whether a project is a good investment,” he said. “You take it at your peril. You assume the risk.”

The upper basin is starting to think about those risks. Like the lower basin, it is participating in the pilot conservation program. Most of its projects are located in Colorado and Wyoming. The goal is to prop up Lake Powell with the saved water.

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer's office
Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

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