We think of reservoirs as bodies of water, places created by dams where you can go sailing or fishing. Denver Water is investigating whether Denver’s future reservoirs will lie several hundred feet below the feet of its customers in aquifers called the Arapahoe and Laramie-Fox Hills.
Aquifer recharge has been used in many places as a way to store water. Arizona, for example, stores water for Las Vegas in an innovative partnership as well as water for its own use. In metropolitan Denver, the Centennial Water and Sanitation District, which serves Highlands Ranch, has also been pumping water into an aquifer, for withdrawal when needed. Others in the Denver area have also used it, with various degrees of success.
Denver has 17 reservoirs already able to store a combined maximum of 690,000 acre-feet. The adequacy of that storage is challenged by the uncertainties posed by the changing climate and continued population growth, said Bob Peters, a water resource engineer with Denver Water, speaking at a National Groundwater Association conference in Denver on April 25. Among the options now being studied is whether the aquifers underlying the city could also provide storage.
The city is bisected by the South Platte River. For most of the year, the river is over-appropriated, meaning there is no new water to be claimed. Furthermore, many of Denver’s existing rights from the South Platte are junior, meaning Denver might be left short in years of little snow or rain.
In a PowerPoint presentation, Peters also showed a variety of scenarios, all depicting gaps between needs and supplies. Denver is pursuing stepped-up conservation and greater reuse.
Denver also wants to divert more water from the Colorado River Basin through its Moffat Tunnel delivery system near Winter Park. That Moffat system expansion would include raising the height of Gross Dam, located southwest of Boulder, by 125 feet, nearly tripling the capacity of the reservoir. Denver has not received final authorization from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Aquifer storage might also play a role in Denver’s future. Pumping water underground results in no evaporation, Peters said, requires fewer permits, and has less of an environmental footprint. Plus, it’s less costly than above-ground storage and can be done in small increments, unlike dams.
Challenges include figuring out where to put wells in urban areas, questions about the quality of water to be injected, and uncertainty about how much the water can later be recovered.
“We know it’s feasible. The question is whether it will work for Denver Water,” said Cortney Brand, of Leonard Rice Engineers, a consulting group.
Brand outlined Denver’s aquifers. The Arapahoe Basin is 500 to 2,100 feet thick, but the water-bearing sands of that formation are only 150 to 250 feet thick and not necessarily in one seam. The water-bearing sands of the Fox Hills has average thickness of 382 feet. These are averages for wells logged within Denver, but the city is only 2.5 percent of the much broader Denver Basin.
But the understanding of what lies underneath is not as sharp as those figures might suggest. To get a clearly image of the ability of the aquifers in specific areas to store water, three or more wells are being drilled this year.
With those additional wells, he said, engineers expect that they can deliver designs and cost estimates of a pilot project for an aquifer storage and recovery project by the end of 2016.
How much storage might these wells provide? The study intends to answer that question, but Denver Water’s website suggests that nobody should expect a quick Dillion Reservoir. One recharge sit could store an estimated 20 to 150 acre-feet of water per year. That compares with the 7,863 acre-feet stored by Denver’s smallest surface reservoir, Strontia Springs.
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — In its effort to secure water rights for three proposed whitewater parks on the Colorado River, the city of Glenwood Springs has reached formal or conceptual agreements with a list of opposing parties in the water court case, including Denver Water, but it’s still facing opposition from Aurora and Colorado Springs.
“We have a number of parties that have already settled,” said Mark Hamilton, an attorney with Holland and Hart representing Glenwood. “And while there are still some significant question marks, we think the process so far has been productive and continues to be productive.”
Since December 2013, the city has been seeking a recreational in-channel diversion (RICD) water right tied to three whitewater parks on the popular Grizzly-to-Two Rivers section of the Colorado River, at No Name, Horseshoe Bend and the upper end of Two Rivers Park.
The two wave-forming structures in each of the three whitewater parks would operate under a common water right that could call for 1,250 cubic feet per second of water from April 1 to Sept. 30, 2,500 cfs of water for up to 41 days between April 30 and July 23, and 4,000 cfs on five consecutive days sometime between June 30 and July 6.
The 1,250 cfs level is the same as the senior water right tied to the Shoshone hydropower plant, which is upstream from the three proposed whitewater parks. Glenwood officials have previously said, however, that 2,500 cfs is a better level for boating and floating than 1,250 cfs, and the city wants the flows of 4,000 cfs for five days around the Fourth of July to hold expert whitewater competitions.
But Aurora and Colorado Springs, both as individual cities, and together as the Homestake Partners, have told the water court that Glenwood is seeking more water than it needs.
“Glenwood has ignored the law limiting a RICD to the minimum flow necessary for a reasonable recreation experience, and instead has reverse-engineered its proposed RICD to tie up half the flow of the mainstem of the Colorado River,” the Front Range cities said in a June 2015 statement filed with the court.
And the cities, which own conditional water rights upstream of Glenwood, said that the city’s proposed water right “would dramatically and adversely affect the future of water use in the Colorado River drainage, if not the entire state.”
Hamilton has met twice this year with representatives of Aurora and Colorado Springs, most recently on April 22 in Denver, to see if a deal can be worked out on how much water is appropriate.
“We’re talking,” said Joe Stibrich, the water resources policy manager at Aurora Water. “But, we’ll see where it goes.”
“There are ongoing negotiations and discussions that seem to be productive at this time,” said Kevin Lusk, principal engineer at Colorado Springs Utilities. “Whether or not we can reach agreement, of course, is really up to how those discussions go.”
A status conference with the water court referee is set for June 23. The referee could then decide to send the application up to James Boyd, the judge who hears Division 5 water court cases in Glenwood Springs, or the parties in the case could ask for more time to keep talking before heading to trial.
“We are actively communicating with Colorado Springs and Aurora concerning the possible development of additional call reduction provisions in order to protect future yield to their systems,” Hamilton said. “And we remain hopeful that a stipulated decree may be able to be entered after completion of these ongoing negotiations.”
Glenwood has recently worked out a “call reduction provision” with Denver Water.
“There has been a lot of progress on our end with the RICD discussions,” said Travis Thompson, a senior media coordinator at Denver Water. “In fact, in the collaborative spirit of the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement (CRCA), Denver Water has agreed to allow Glenwood Springs to exceed 1,250 cfs under certain conditions.”
In the CRCA, signed in 2013, Denver Water agreed not to oppose a future recreational water right application if it did not seek flows greater than 1,250 cfs. But given that Glenwood is also seeking 46 days at 2,500 cfs and five days at 4,000 cfs, above the relatively consistent flow of 1,250 cfs, Denver did file a statement of opposition in this case.
Glenwood and Denver have now agreed that Glenwood would reduce its call for the whitewater parks to 1,250 cfs if continuing to call at a higher rate, such as 2,500 cfs, would limit a potential future water project that is described in the CRCA as providing 20,000 acre-feet to the East Slope.
Staff at Denver Water approved such an agreement with Glenwood on March 9, according to Thompson, and Hamilton said a copy would soon be filed with the court.
Glenwood enjoys the support of three “opposers” in the case: American Whitewater, Western Resource Advocates and Grand County, as the entities have filed statements “of opposition in support,” which is an option in Colorado’s water courts.
And Glenwood has now filed formal agreements in water court that it has reached with five other true opposers with a range of issues: Glenwood Springs Hot Springs & Lodge Pool, Inc., BLM, Grand Valley Water Users Association, Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, and Ute Water Conservancy District.
The Glenwood Hot Springs Lodge & Pool is concerned about the project disrupting the deep Leadville limestone aquifer that provides its hot water.
But they’ve reached an agreement with the city that allows them to review construction plans for the wave structures at the Two Rivers Park location and requires the city to monitor the resulting wave structures for five years to watch for scouring of the riverbed, among other provisions.
And an agreement between Glenwood and the BLM was filed with the court in June 2015. It says that if the city needs to cross BLM property to create a whitewater park in Horseshoe Bend then the city will go through the required federal land use process.
The city has also signed a memorandum of understanding with CDOT that moves issues coming from the use of land at the No Name rest area on I-70 out of water court and into a future potential land-use application.
“One of the conditions is that the city will have to work with CDOT as they move forward with building the whitewater park, as the (No Name) location falls in CDOT right-of-way,” said Tracy Trulove, a communications manager for CDOT. The agreement has yet to be filed with the court.
The city is also close to finalizing agreements with the Colorado River District, the town of Gypsum, and the West Divide Water Conservancy District, according to Hamilton.
Peter Fleming, general counsel for the Colorado River District, which represents 15 West Slope counties, said staff at the district is now comfortable with proposed settlement language in the Glenwood case.
And he said once the district’s initial goals in a RICD case are met, the district often stays in the case on the side of the applicants “in order to support the right of its constituents to use water for recreational purposes that will support and/or enhance the local economy.”
“We anticipate that such participation may be necessary in the Glenwood Springs RICD case,” Fleming said.
At the end of the list of opposers is the Colorado Water Conservation Board, a state agency whose board of directors in June 2015 recommended against the proposed RICD after concluding it would “impair Colorado’s ability to fully develop its compact entitlements” and would not promote “the maximum beneficial use of water” in the state.
“While we stand by our initial decision on this RICD, we’re encouraged that the applicants are actively seeking resolution with stakeholders and hope they will resolve the issues we raised,” James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said this week.
Eklund said the CWCB staff will likely reconsider Glenwood’s proposal after it has reached agreements with other opposing parties in the case, and if staff is satisfied, bring the proposed decree back to the board.
“Water for recreation in Glenwood Springs and around Colorado is essential and we want to make sure all RICDs strike the right legal, design, and safety balance,” Eklund said.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of water and rivers in Colorado. The Daily News published this story on Saturday, April 30, 2016.
LOVELAND – Mike King, the new director of planning for Denver Water, said at a recent meeting that beyond additional transmountain diversions through the Moffatt Tunnel into an expanded Gross Reservoir near Boulder, Denver Water doesn’t have other Western Slope projects on its radar.
King served as executive director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources from 2010 until January of this year, when he took the planning director job with Denver Water.
After speaking to a luncheon crowd of close to 200 at the Northern Water Conservancy District’s spring water users meeting in Loveland on April 13, King was asked from the audience “How much more water does Denver Water need from the Western Slope?”
“I think if we get Gross Reservoir approved, the answer is for the foreseeable future, you know, we need to do that first,” King said.
King is a native of Montrose, son of a water attorney, and has a journalism degree from CU Boulder, a law degree from the University of Denver, a master’s in public administration from CU Denver and 23 years of state government experience.
“And I can tell you that the reality is, whether it is from a permitting perspective or a regulatory perspective, the West Slope is going to be a very difficult place,” King continued. “If there is water available, it is going to be a last resort. And I so think that the answer is, that won’t be on our radar.”
Denver Water is seeking federal approval to raise the dam that forms Gross Reservoir, in the mountains west of Boulder, by 131 feet. That would store an additional 77,000 acre-feet of water and bring the reservoir capacity to 118,811 acre-feet. Ruedi Reservoir, by comparison, holds 102,373 acre-feet.
The $360 million project would provide 18,000 acre-feet of firm yield to Denver Water’s system and result in an additional 15,000 acre-feet of water being diverted from the West Slope each year. On average, Denver Water’s 1.3 million customers use about 125,000 acre-feet of West Slope water each year.
The water to fill an expanded Gross Reservoir would mainly come from tributaries of the Fraser and Williams Fork rivers, via the Moffat Tunnel, near Winter Park.
Beyond the Gross Reservoir project, King explained that any future Denver Water projects on the West Slope would need to fit within the confines of the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, signed by Denver Water and 17 West Slope entities in 2013.
The CRCA, says that “if there is more water, it only comes after the West Slope says they agree with it and it makes sense,” King said. “That sets the bar so incredibly high and gives them the ultimate ability to say, ‘This is good for the West Slope.’
“And so I just don’t think Denver Water is going to be looking to the West Slope,” King continued. “I think anybody who manages natural resources, and water in particular, will never say ‘never’ to anything, but I think it is certainly not on our radar.”
Not on Denver Water’s radar, perhaps, but it is worth noting that Denver Water is the only major Front Range water provider to have signed the cooperative agreement with the West Slope.
When asked what he thought of King’s remarks about West Slope water, Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River District said he thought the comments reflect “the concept that if Denver takes more water from the West Slope it could undermine the security/reliability of what they already take.”
Kuhn’s comment relates to the possibility that if Denver Water diverts too much water from the Western Slope, it could help trigger a compact call from the lower basin states, which could pinch Denver’s transmountain supply of water.
Editor’s note: Above is a recording of Mike King, the director of planning for Denver Water, speaking after lunch in front of about 200 people at Northern Water’s spring water users meeting, a public meeting held at The Ranch event center in Loveland on Wednesday, April 13, 2016. The recording, made by Aspen Journalism, begins shortly after King had begun his remarks. It is 26:34 in length. At 8:20, King discusses the development of the Colorado Water Plan. At 22:40, King answers a question about the governor’s endorsement of the Windy Gap project and another phrased as “How much more water does Denver Water need from the Western Slope?”)
A buoyant crowd
Earlier in the meeting engineers from Northern Water — which supplies water to cities and farms from Broomfield to Fort Collins — told the mix of water providers and water users from northeastern Colorado that they could expect an average spring runoff this year, both from the South Platte and the Colorado Rivers.
They were also told that Northern Water was making progress on its two biggest projects: the Windy Gap Firming Project, which includes construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir near Berthoud; and NISP, the Northern Integrated Supply Project.
NISP includes two new reservoirs, Glade and Galeton, to be filled with East Slope water from the Cache La Poudre River, which runs through Fort Collins and into the South Platte River.
Just before lunch, John Stulp, the special policy advisor on water to Gov. John Hickenlooper, read a surprise letter from the governor endorsing the Windy Gap project, which would divert an additional 9,000 acre-feet of water each year, on average, from the upper Colorado River and send it through a tunnel toward Chimney Hollow.
Windy Gap is part of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which diverts on average 260,000 acre-feet a year from the Western Slope.
The Windy Gap project does include environmental mitigation measures for the sake of the Colorado River, and has approval from the required state agencies and Grand County, but it still needs a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
A political risk
After lunch, King shared some insights from his old job as head of the state’s department of natural resources.
“I think it’s important that you understand what the development of the state water plan looked like from the governor’s perspective and the state’s perspective,” King told his audience.
As head of DNR, King had oversight over the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which was specifically tasked by the governor in late 2013 to produce the state’s first-ever water plan, and to do so in just two years.
King said that he, Stulp and the governor knew that a water plan in Colorado could be “the place where political careers went to die.”
“So the thing we had to make sure that came out of this, knowing that we weren’t going to solve the state’s water issues in two years, was that we had to do this in a manner that politically, this was viewed as a big win, and that future governors and future elected officials would say, ‘We need to do this again and we need to continue this discussion,’” King said.
“Not because the governor needed a political win,” King added, “but because to have the next stage of the water plan, to have the discussion in five years, you can’t have an albatross around this, and I think we were able to do that, and so we’re very proud of that.
“If we had a political mushroom cloud, no one would have ever touched the Colorado Water Plan again,” King continued. “That meant we aimed a little bit lower than maybe we would have liked, and I’ve gotten this at Denver Water, talking about lost opportunities in the Colorado Water Plan. Maybe we did aim just a little bit lower than we should have.”
King said the state was not able to “reconcile the inherent conflicts” in the various basin implementation plans, or BIPs, that were put together by regional basin roundtables as part of the water planning process.
And he acknowledged that the plan has been criticized for not including a specific list of water projects supported by the state, and for reading more like a statement of problems and values than a working plan.
“One of things that has been driven home to me time and time again in the two months that I’ve been at Denver Water is that planning is not something you do every five or six years,” King said. “Planning is a continuous process.”
King also said that there were some “tremendous successes” in the water plan, including the basin implantation plans, or BIPs, even though they sometimes conflicted.
“We got BIPs from every single basin,” King said. “The basins turned over their cards and said ‘This is what we need.’ So now we have a major step forward.”
Other plan elements
King said other successes in the Colorado Water Plan include the stated goal of conserving 400,000 acre-feet of water by 2050 and a nod to changing land use planning in Colorado.
King said tying land use to water availability “was something we never discussed in Colorado because it infringed on local control and it was just kind of a boogieman in the room.”
But he pointed out that “the vast majority of the basin implementation plans said, expressly, ‘We need to have this discussion’ and ‘We need to start tying land use to water availability,’” King said. “That’s a good thing. That’s a major step forward.”
When it comes to land use and Denver Water, King said driving down the per capita use remained a high priority and that if Denver proper grows, it is going to grow up through taller buildings, not by sprawling outward.
King also said Denver Water was working to manage, and plan for, the already apparent effects of climate change, especially as spring runoff is now coming earlier than it used to.
“We know that the flows are coming earlier, we know that the runoff is coming earlier,” King said, noting that reality is causing Denver Water to plan for different scenarios and ask questions about storage and late summer deliveries of water.
“For us, the most immediate thing is, is that we know it’s getting warmer,” King said. “In the last 20 years we’ve seen that, the way the [run offs] are coming earlier. We know we’ve had catastrophic events that are incredibly difficult for us to manage. And so we’re trying to work through that.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News and Coyote Gulch are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Wednesday, April 20, 2016.
Environmentalists are rallying support for a renewed fight against a long-standing proposal from Denver Water to nearly triple the capacity of Gross Reservoir by diverting from the Colorado River Basin…
Before a group of about 30 Monday night at Shine Restaurant and Gathering Place, the directors of two non-profits united in the fight against the expansion — Save the Colorado River and The Environmental Group — made presentations alleging impropriety on Denver Water’s part and soliciting donations to a legal fund.
“They’ve been working on their decision, and we assume, feel very strongly, that (Army Corps) will issue the permit,” said Chris Garre, President of The Environmental Group, which is based in Coal Creek Canyon. “As soon as that happens, the clock starts ticking.”
The Colorado River, the presenters said, is the most dammed and diverted on the planet. At the Colorado River Delta, there is no longer water, and there is concern that an expansion of Gross Reservoir would see some creeks and tributaries drained at the 80 percent level, with some “zero flow” dry days.
An expansion of Gross Reservoir, which is a roughly 25-minute drive west from Boulder on Flagstaff Road, would have a significant local impact. In fact, it would be the biggest construction project in Boulder County history, and would likely take about four or five years to complete.
The proposal seeks to increase the height of the dam by 131 feet, and would require the clearing of about 200,000 trees…
“Caring for the environment,” Garre added, “particularly those who live in the environment, in the forest, is crucial to your experience in Boulder County. This has never been addressed by Denver Water. It’s been ignored.”
While the universal downsides such major construction — noise and temporary aesthetic downgrade, among others — aren’t up for debate, Denver Water tells a very different story about the project.
The public agency that serves 1.3 million people in the Denver metro area gets about 80 percent of its water from the South Platte River System, and another 20 percent from Moffat, a smaller clump up north. Expanding Gross Reservoir and thereby Moffat, Denver Water says, will help balance the existing 80/20 split.
“This imbalance makes the system vulnerable to catastrophic events, such as the Buffalo Creek and Hayman fires, which caused massive sediment runoff into reservoirs on the south side of our system,” the agency published on its website.
During times of severe drought, the argument continues, “We run the risk of running out of water on the north end of our system,” which would primarily impact customers in northwest Denver, Arvada and Westminster.
Denver Water also maintains that as the Front Range continues to be one of the country’s fastest-growing areas, a shortfall in water supply is imminent unless addressed through projects like the one pitched for Gross Reservoir.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
New rate structure in effect
Beginning April 1, your water bill reflects Denver Water’s new rate structure. This new structure will begin to shift our revenue from such a heavy reliance on usage to a more stable fixed fee over the next few years, which means that future rate increases will be less subject to bigger jumps because of unpredictable weather.
Residential customers will continue to be charged on a tiered structure — the more you use, the more you pay. Now, however, the rate structure is based on three tiers instead of four. The first and least expensive tier is based on indoor use. This rate is calculated by averaging your monthly water consumption reflected on January, February and March bills each year (beginning in 2016), which is a way of determining indoor water use (also known as your average winter consumption).
Because the majority of our single family residential customers’ indoor water use is 5,000 gallons or less in the winter months, the minimum average winter consumption allowance is 5,000 gallons, and the maximum is 15,000 gallons. The minimum helps ensure customers aren’t penalized for low water usage in the winter.
Each month, the amount of water you use up to your average winter consumption in tier 1 will be charged at the lowest rate. In tier 2, customers will be allotted 15,000 gallons in addition to their average winter consumption — what it takes to water an average-sized yard efficiently — for outdoor use, which falls into a higher-priced tier. Any use above that will fall into the third, highest-priced tier.
Fixed monthly charge
For residential customers, the fixed monthly charge has increased to $8.79 each month. The fixed monthly charge varies by meter size, but the majority of single-family residential customers have 3/4-inch meters.
The costs to collect, store, treat and deliver water are expenses that have to be paid regardless of the amount of water customers use every year. No matter how much water customers use, we still need to maintain and operate more than 3,000 miles of pipe, 19 reservoirs, 22 pump stations, 30 underground storage tanks, four treatment plants and much more.
Wait — don’t irrigate!
When it comes to lawn watering, April is too early to go automatic. Set aside plans to program your sprinkler system for later months, when the ground is less likely to retain wintertime moisture.
But you can still dig in and start preparing for the planting season.
Start from the bottom up and aerate your lawn. If you can, aerate after a rain or snow shower provides moisture, which helps prepare soil for the process.
Then take a top-down approach by checking the height and width of your trees, shrubs and perennials.
Prune any overgrowth — which makes excellent compost when shredded.
Watch your mail for a detailed explanation on Denver Water’s summer watering rules, which go into effect May 1.
Save water, get a rebate
Here’s a simple springtime project that pays off: earn a rebate for installing a new water-efficient toilet.
We offer rebates of up to $150 for purchasing a WaterSense-labeled toilet that uses an average of 1.1 gallons per flush or less. WaterSense is a national program that makes it easy to choose quality products that use less water. Makes sense to us!
During the next few years, two major installations will take shape in Denver that will seek to inform urban development of the future, including the use of water.
Along I-25, jut southwest of downtown, Denver Water has already started redeveloping its administrative campus. Most of the buildings there are more than 50 years old, but the water agency also sees it as an opportunity with the $195 million redevelopment to demonstrate the technology and concepts of the future.
With all that it has planned said Jim Lochhead, the chief executive of Denver Water, the agency thinks it can reduce the amount of water needed for the campus by 50 percent. The agency, he said, is embracing “total reuse.”
The other project to keep an eye on within Denver is at the Coliseum and Western Stock Show complex along I-70 north of downtown Denver. With state backing, the aging complex will be redeveloped by Denver in concert with Colorado State University using cutting-edge building technologies but also minimal water uses.
Denver and the West have entered a new era that recognizes limits. Lochhead, in a recent presentation at the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute. During the 25 years of the conference there has been an “extraordinary remarkable transition in the paradigm of water,” he said.
In the first half of the 20th century, water developers, commonly called “water buffaloes,” encountered little opposition to their work. But after World War II, they “really ran into this new world that they didn’t understand,” said Lochhead.
The buffaloes understood water development in ways that were both monolithic and linear. Major cities and other agencies developed water, and they just ran over the opposition. Their development was linear, in that they just expected to do one more project after another. Their attitude, he said, was “if we run out of water, we’ll just get more.”
Lochhead identified a pivotal change in the 1950s, when a proposal to dam the Yampa River at Echo Park in northwest Colorado was fought by environmental groups and conservationists such as Wallace Stegner.
“They really didn’t see the first signs of the world shifting from under them as the Sierra Club was able to defeat construction of the dam in Echo Park,” he said. The water buffaloes didn’t see what was coming as Congress adopted the Wilderness Act and then a raft of environmental legislation. They didn’t see it when Jimmy Carter issued his “hit list” of federally funded reclamation projects in 1977, which effectively became the end of the era of dam building.
In Colorado, according to Lochhead, the pivot came in the early 1990s, when Two Forks Dam was defeated. It was a stern rebuke to the thinking of Colorado’s water developers, who believed if “just only they could get one more big water project.”
Denver, in the 21st century, has been part of the new wave of thinking. This has been evident most clearly in the plans to enlarge Gross Reservoir, southwest of Boulder. The increased water will come from stepped-up diversions from across the Continental Divide, in the Fraser and Williams Fork valleys, at the head of the Colorado River.
At first glance, this looks like business as usual. But this project has been different. Nobody questioned Denver’s right to the water under Colorado water law. But Denver at the outset admitted that there were other considerations, especially when the streams were already nearly tapped out. With the increased diversions, up to 80 percent of the flows of the Fraser River will be diverted.
The plan worked out after lengthy negotiations between Denver Water representatives and those from Grand County and the Western Slope is complex. What is pertinent is that some of the major environmental groups, most notably Trout Unlimited, endorsed the settlement. And here’s a key principle:
When diversions occur will matter equally, or even more so, than how much is diverted.
Lochhead also pointed to the need for partnerships with irrigators downstream on the South Platte River. Denver has pledged to step up the reuse of the water it imports from the Western Slope, and it is entitled, by law, to use that water to extinction. Using the water to extinction, however, means less water for those downstream.
“We will have to have partnerships in how we deal with those impacts,” said Lochhead.
Also speaking on the same panel at the Rocky Mountain Land Use institute was Lawrence McDonnell, an adjunct professor of water law at the University of Colorado. The broad change in the West in the last quarter-century has been a small shift of water from agricultural produce to municipal uses, to accommodate rapid population growth. In the eight states, population grew 60 percent from 1990 to 2010, with most of that growth occurring on urban areas.
“Leadership has to come from cities,” he said, and it has. Growth has occurred “in ways that often resulted in far less per-capita water use.”
From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Hannah Holm):
A recent Bureau of Reclamation report projects that Western river basins, including the Colorado Basin, are likely to experience a 7-27 percent decline in spring streamflows during this century.
The bureau’s 2016 SECURE Water Act Report to Congress, which can be found at http://usbr.gov/climate/secure/, is just the latest to warn of reduced streamflows in our region as temperatures climb.
The Colorado River Basin has already experienced more than a decade in which more water has been pulled out of rivers and streams for farms and cities than has come back in through rain and snow. As a result, water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell have begun to approach critical levels. For Mead, that means dropping too low to reliably meet demands. For Powell, that means dropping too low to generate hydropower and meet downstream obligations.
One of the efforts to head off this looming crisis is the System Conservation Pilot Program, which pays for voluntary, temporary water use reductions. This program, funded by major cities and other water suppliers that rely on Colorado River Basin water, was initiated in 2014 to test the feasibility of voluntary, compensated measures to curtail water use in order to prop up water levels in lakes Powell and Mead. Details on the program can be found at http://bit.ly/1UUSbIC.
Farmers and ranchers in western Colorado are among those who have participated and are considering participating in the program. Agricultural approaches tried so far include foregoing irrigation for part of a season, fallowing ground, leasing water and converting to lower water use crops. Some of these farmers recently met with program funders, researchers and supporters to discuss how the program is working.
The group included representatives of Denver Water, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado Division of Water Resources, the Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, the Colorado River District, Colorado State University and Colorado Mesa University.
On the positive side, being paid to temporarily fallow land or reduce water use can provide money and time to upgrade aging headgates or other irrigation infrastructure, improve soil health or explore alternative crops.
Some farmers are hoping to use the program to receive income while transitioning ground from conventional to certified organic production, a three-year process that can lead to long-term economic benefits for the farmer. Farmers also like the opportunity to take the lead in figuring out how they could get by with less water, since there is concern that they may have to do so in the future. State law provides that participants in approved conservation programs will not have their water rights diminished as a result.
On the other hand, the first year of the pilot revealed many logistical hurdles to increasing flows into Lake Powell by paying farmers and ranchers to use less water. One major problem is how to ensure that saved water makes it to Lake Powell without being picked up by another water user that was previously short.
A related issue has so far hobbled attempts to lease water under the program. How can you lease water to an undefined recipient for an undefined use? According to some interpretations, this doesn’t square well with Colorado water law.
How to recognize the full value of agricultural water was also discussed. In addition to the need to compensate producers for forgone crop sales, concern was expressed about the impact of reduced production on farmworkers, implement dealers and the community at large. And how can you make sure that temporary water use reductions to get through a crisis really stay temporary, and don’t just permanently transfer that use elsewhere, from farms to cities? The fact that some cities are also participating in the program by reducing their water withdrawals or treating and returning wastewater helps address this concern, but doesn’t eliminate it.
The amount of water saved through the system conservation program so far is miniscule in relation to the amount needed to significantly reduce the risk of the reservoirs hitting critical lows. With all the issues involved with implementing the program and the growing demand for water, a major concern is whether this mechanism will ever be able to move enough water to really make a difference. Meeting participants noted that resolving the legal and logistical challenges, as well as building community understanding and acceptance of the program, are preconditions for scaling it up.
Avoiding critically low levels in Lakes Mead and Powell will require either significantly more action to reduce water demands or a lot more snow in the mountains. As of March 1, the 2016 water year inflows into Lake Powell were forecast to be 83 percent of average. That’s not terrible year, but it’s also not good enough to take the pressure off water users to control demand.