Considering the Denver region is growing by an average of 4,500 new residents per month, a large sector of the population likely doesn’t remember the catastrophic 2002 drought. The most severe water shortage since the Dust Bowl, snowpack and soil moisture were at all-time lows, and we remained in a dry period until 2006. Luckily, with water restrictions in place, we never actually ran out of water—we just got really close.
“We realized that we had an immediate need to correct a vulnerability in our system,” Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead says. That’s when Denver Water started planning the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project, and after more than a decade of negotiations, the project (which was recently endorsed by Gov. John Hickenlooper) is underway.
But will it be enough? The short answer is yes—as long as Denverites work on strengthening their water conservation practices. Lochhead was pleased to note that when a storm comes through the Mile High City, there is a noticeable drop in outdoor water use, because well-informed residents are turning off their sprinkler systems. Denver residents have managed to reduce water consumption by more than 20 percent in the last 15 years, even with a 15 percent increase in population, according to Lochhead.
The decrease is not enough to mitigate the risk of drought, however. As Colorado’s largest water utility, the Denver Water system is made up of two collection systems—the Northern and the South Platte—and they are incredibly imbalanced. About 80 percent of the water comes from the south system, leaving the north very vulnerable to low rainfall or wildfires. During the notable dry years of 2002 and 2013, clients in the north end were lucky their taps continued to flow.
“We were literally only one drought away from a major problem in our system,” Lochhead says, noting that as recently as 2013, the system was virtually out of water in the north-end.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
A proposal to divert Colorado River water to Denver recently has won the endorsement of Gov. John Hickenlooper and the approval of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
But Denver Water’s Gross Reservoir expansion project may be just as notable for its general lack of opposition west of the Continental Divide. That’s thanks to a wide-ranging agreement, effective in 2013, in which Denver Water obtained concessions including a promise that numerous Western Slope parties to the agreement wouldn’t oppose the expansion project. In return, Denver Water made a number of commitments to the Western Slope.
Now Western Slope interests are working on a similar agreement with Northern Water and others on what’s called the Windy Gap Firming Project, which would store Colorado River water in a proposed Boulder County reservoir.
These approaches represent a far cry from how the Western Slope used to respond to transmountain diversion proposals.
“This is the new paradigm. It’s not the old school. In the old school it was like … we’ll see you in court,” said Jim Pokrandt of the Colorado River District, a party to the 2013 Denver Water deal.
For Denver Water, what’s called the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement provided greater certainty for its customers through means such as resolving longtime disputes regarding West Slope water. For the Western Slope, the deal meant dozens of obligations by Denver Water, such as millions of dollars in monetary payments to various entities, protections of Colorado River flows and water quality, a commitment to further water conservation and reuse efforts by Denver Water customers, and a provision aimed at helping assure maintenance of historic flows in the Colorado River even when the Shoshone Power Plant in Glenwood Canyon is not operating. That hydroelectric plant has a senior right helping control flows in the river.
Another key point in that deal is a promise that Denver Water and its customers won’t try to further develop Colorado River water without agreement from the river district and affected counties.
The cooperative agreement has 18 signatories but more than 40 partners, primarily West Slope governments, water conservation and irrigation districts, and utilities. Among them are the Ute Water Conservancy District and multiple irrigation districts in Mesa County.
Pokrandt said the 2013 deal is a win-win for both sides of the Continental Divide.
“That said, yes, more water would be moving east” if the Gross Reservoir project proceeds, he said.
The project, also sometimes called the Moffat Collection System Project, would nearly triple the capacity of the Boulder County reservoir. Denver Water is targeting water in the Fraser River, a tributary of the Colorado.
“Right now there are some periods of time when Gross Reservoir is full at its current size and their water rights are in priority but they can’t take any more water,” Pokrandt said.
The project has an estimated cost of $380 million, and Denver Water hopes to obtain the remaining major permits by the end of next year. CDPHE in June certified that the project complied with state water quality standards, and Hickenlooper endorsed it last week.
“The state’s responsibility is to ensure we do the right thing for Colorado’s future, and this project is vital infrastructure for our economy and the environment,” Hickenlooper said in a news release. “The partnerships and collaboration between Denver Water, the West Slope and conservation organizations associated with this project are just what the Colorado Water Plan is all about.”
That recently adopted plan in some respects took its lead from the Denver Water/Western Slope deal in seeking to address the state’s future water needs in a cooperative rather than confrontational manner statewide.
Pokrandt conceded that not everyone loves the Gross Reservoir proposal…
Trout Unlimited takes a more positive view of the Gross Reservoir project, pointing to its inclusion of a “Learning by Doing” program requiring monitoring of the health of the Fraser River and adjusting operations as needed. The Gross Reservoir proposal envisions drawing water from the Western Slope in wetter years and seasons, but providing the Colorado River watershed with extra water during low flow periods and investing in restoration projects.
“Moreover, Denver Water has entered into partnerships on the Front Range to ensure that the project alleviates chronic low-flow problems in South Boulder Creek. Both sides of the Divide benefit,” David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited, said in a news release…
Denver Water Chief Executive Officer Jim Lochhead said in a news release, “The Denver metropolitan area is tied to the economic and environmental health of the rest of the state, and Denver Water is committed to undertake this project in a way that enhances Colorado’s values.”
Pokrandt said Western Slope water interests face the reality that under the state Constitution the right to appropriate water shall not be denied if the water can be put to beneficial use and a party can obtain the necessary financing and permitting.
“There’s not a legal stance to say no, so that’s why the river district was even formed in 1937, was to negotiate these things, because no is not an answer in the legal arena because of the Colorado Constitution,” he said.
When it comes to water rights, Pokrandt said, “in the Colorado Constitution, the Continental Divide doesn’t exist.”
This formal backing completes the state’s environmental reviews for the Moffat project, 13 years in the making, clearing the way for construction — if remaining federal permits are issued. Denver Water and opponents from Western Slope towns and nature groups reached a compromise aimed at enabling more population growth while off-setting environmental harm.
It is a key infrastructure project that will add reliability to public water supplies and protect the environment, Gov. John Hickenlooper wrote in a letter to Denver Water manager Jim Lochhead.
It “aligns with the key elements of Colorado’s Water Plan,” Hickenlooper wrote. “Denver Water and its partners further our shared vision for a secure and sustainable water future while assuring a net environmental benefit in a new era of cooperation.”
Denver would siphon 10,000 acre-feet a year, on average, more water out of Colorado River headwaters, conveying it eastward under the Continental Divide through a tunnel for more than 20 miles to an expanded Gross Reservoir southwest of Boulder. By raising that reservoir’s existing 340-foot dam to 471 feet, the project would increase today’s 41,811 acre-feet storage capacity by 77,000 acre-feet — more than doubling the surface area of the reservoir…
For more than a decade, Denver Water has been seeking permits, including federal approval for construction affecting wetlands and to generate hydro-electricity at the dam.
“During dry years, we won’t be diverting water. It is a relatively small amount of water. … It is a water supply that Colorado is entitled to develop,” Lochhead said in an interview.
The increased storage capacity “allows us to take water in wet times and carry it over through drought periods. It gives us operational flexibility on the Western Slope. … Having this additional storage enables that flexibility.”
Colorado leaders’ formal endorsement follows a recent Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment decision to issue a water quality permit for the project, certifying no water quality standards will be violated. Hickenlooper has directed state officials to work with federal water and energy regulators to expedite issuance of other permits. Denver Water officials said they expect to have all permits by the end of 2017, start construction 2019 and finish by 2024…
…Trout Unlimited and other conservation groups call the project a realistic compromise considering the rapid population growth along Colorado’s Front Range.
“If the state needs to develop more water, they need to do it in a less-damaging, more responsible way — as opposed to going to the pristine headwaters of the South Platte River, which is what the Two Forks project was going to do,” TU attorney Mely Whiting said.
“We’ve put things in place that will make Denver Water be a steward of the river,” Whiting said. The agreement hashed out between Denver Water and conservationists “does not specifically say they have to tweak the flows to help the environment. It does say they have to monitor, for water temperature and macroinvertebrates. And if there’s a problem, they are responsible for figuring out why and they need to do something about it. It does not say exactly what they have to do but they have to fix any problem.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper has officially endorsed a project to expand Boulder County’s Gross Reservoir, a move he hopes will improve Colorado’s water capacity for the next several decades.
The endorsement was considered a formality; Hickenlooper wrote to President Barack Obama four years ago, asking for the president’s help in speeding up the process for Gross and other water projects.
Colorado is predicted to face a gap of more than one million acre-feet of water by 2050, according to a 2010 estimate that many believe may be on the low end. One acre-foot of water is the amount of water it would take to cover the field at Mile High Stadium from endzone to endzone with one foot of water. That’s 325,851 gallons of water. The average family of four uses about half an acre–foot of water per year.
Hickenlooper couldn’t give his formal okay for the expansion of the reservoir, which is northwest of Eldorado Springs, until the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment had completed its review that certifies the project would comply with state water quality standards.
At 41,811 acre feet, Gross is among the state’s smallest reservoirs. It’s operated by Denver Water, supplied by water coming from the Fraser River on the west side of the Continental Divide through the Moffat Tunnel.
The expansion would allow the reservoir to collect another 18,000 acre-feet of water, enough to supply 72,000 more households per year. The estimated cost is about $380 million, which includes design, management, permitting, mitigation and construction.
The Gross expansion has been in the works for more than 13 years, with its first permits applied for in 2003. If all goes according to plan, the permitting process will be completed in 2017,with construction to begin in 2019 or 2020. The reservoir could be fully filled by 2025, according to Denver Water spokesman Travis Thompson.
In his letter to Denver Water, Hickenlooper called the Gross project key to serving more than 25 percent of the state’s population. It will “add reliability to our public water supply, and provide environmental benefits to both the East and West Slopes of Colorado,” he said.
Aye, there’s the rub: the Western Slope, whose residents fear that anything that will divert more water from the Western Slope to the Eastern Slope will cut into their water supplies. They also worry that more diversions of Colorado River water will make it more difficult to satisfy multi-state compacts with southwestern states that rely on water from the Colorado River, of which the Fraser is a tributary.
But Jim Lochhead, head of Denver Water, told The Colorado Independent that any further diversions will require buy-in from folks on the Western Slope.
It’s part of an arrangement between Denver Water and 17 Western Slope water providers that has been in development for the past six years, Lochhead said. “We’ve worked extensively with the West Slope to develop the Colorado River cooperative agreement,” which will make the environment and economy of Western Colorado better off, he said.
The agreement addresses impacts of Denver Water projects in Grand, Summit and other counties, all the way to the Colorado-Utah border.
Lochhead hopes the Gross Reservoir project will be a model for cooperation, with benefits for both sides of the Continental Divide.
And the cost? The budget for the agreement starts at $25 million and goes up from there. That first funding goes to Summit and Grand counties for enhancement projects, which includes improved water supply for Winter Park, Keystone and Breckenridge ski areas. Lochhead said the locals will figure out exactly how to spend the money, and that Denver Water isn’t dictating what those counties will do with it beyond setting some parameters for protection of watersheds, the area of land that drains to a particular body of water.
Denver Water has also committed to making improvements to the Shoshone Power Plant on the Colorado River near Glenwood Springs, and improvements to wastewater treatment plants all the way to the western state line to enhance area water quality.
“We have an extensive list of commitments to partner with the Western Slope, to do the right thing,” Lochhead said.
The Gross Reservoir expansion is critical to Denver Water’s future needs, as Lochhead sees it, because its improved capacity will allow the water utility to operate its system with more flexibility. That’s most important for Denver Water’s attention to environmental concerns, both on the Western Slope and for South Boulder Creek, which flows out of Gross Reservoir.
“The state’s responsibility is to ensure we do the right thing for Colorado’s future, and this project is vital infrastructure for our economy and the environment,” Hickenlooper said in a statement today. “The partnerships and collaboration between Denver Water, the West Slope and conservation organizations associated with this project are just what the Colorado Water Plan is all about.”
Added Lochhead in a statement Wednesday: “The Denver metropolitan area is tied to the economic and environmental health of the rest of the state, and Denver Water is committed to undertake this project in a way that enhances Colorado’s values.”
People can register to participate in a June 11 Boulder County Parks and Open Space water tour that’s to highlight the 150th anniversary of the Left Hand Ditch Company.
The 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. tour will begin at the Plaza Convention Center, 1850 Industrial Circle, Longmont, and start with presentations on water law, the orientation of the overall Left Hand basin and the history of the Left Hand Ditch.
Tour buses will then visit stops at sites in the Left Hand Ditch system before returning to the Plaza Center. The water tour, which will include a light breakfast and lunch, will cost $20 per participant.
Boulder County Commissioners Elise Jones and Deb Gardner signaled their support Thursday for a $53.8 million package of road, bridge, transit and trails spending, and equipment and vehicle purchases, that the county Transportation Department has proposed for this year.
Transportation Director George Gerstle spent much of his presentation of that overall 2016 capital improvements program focusing on the $29.9 million expected to be spent by the end of the year on the latest set of repairs and replacements of roads and bridges destroyed in the September 2013 floods.
“Road and bridge flood repairs are dominating the program in 2016,” Gerstle said.
Officials have estimated that flood damages to Boulder County’s transportation network amounted to $120 million, and work on emergency, and then temporary, and then permanent, repairs has been underway for more than 2 ½ years.
If things proceed as planned the rest of this year, by the start of 2017, Boulder County should have completed or at least started construction on between $50 and $70 million worth of transportation flood-recovery projects, Gerstle said.
Already, during the first quarter of 2016, about $11 million in such flood-recovery transportation projects are being constructed, Gerstle told the commissioners.
The Board of County Commissioners is expected to formally vote to adopt the Transportation Department’s Capital Improvement Program during one of the board’s regular business meetings next Tuesday or Thursday.
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.
Eldorado Springs, Colorado, has won the top prize for U.S. tap water at an international tasting contest.
The judges gave out two gold medals for Best Municipal Water on Saturday at the 26th annual Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting in West Virginia. They awarded the top prize among U.S. entries to Eldorado Springs, while Clearbrook, British Columbia, won first place for best in the world.
The award for best purified water went to Bar H2O of Richmond, Michigan.
An entry from Karditsa, Greece, Theoni Natural Mineral Water, won the top prize for bottled water, while the best sparkling water was awarded to Tesanjski Kiseljak of Tesanj, Bosnia.
Ten judges tasted and selected from among dozens of waters from 18 states, seven Canadian provinces and five foreign nations.