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.
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.
Jim Lochhead, the CEO and manager of Denver Water, said Tuesday that building new dams in the Colorado River basin is not at the top of his to-do list. Nor, for that matter, is drying up farms to provide water for Colorado’s growing cities.
But he says Colorado still needs to have hard conversations about how to flexibly manage its water. In particular, he wants farmers to be able to share water with Denver and other cities without worrying that they may lose their water rights.
Speaking at the annual Western Water Symposium at Colorado State University, Lochhead credited the 2015 Colorado Water Plan as being a useful “compendium of the issues” but said it highlighted relatively easy solutions without fully addressing the harder challenges.
“I don’t think the solution is $20 billion of new water projects for Colorado, but that’s an easy thing to go look for,” said Lochhead, head of the state’s largest water utility that supplies 1.4 million people, and stores nearly 40 percent of its water in Summit County’s Dillon Reservoir.
A coordinated plan is needed, Lochhead said.
“We’re not there yet with the state water plan to develop any kind of coordinated principle vision for the future, much less how to get there,” he said.
Lochhead, who took the helm of Denver Water in 2010, described Colorado’s historical approach to water as a zero-sum game where there had to be a winner and a loser.
That zero-sum game lost its moorings in the second half of 20th century as a result of new federal and state laws, court decisions and political fights, Lochhead said.
He said that two decades have brought more collaboration between diverse interests, including those on both sides of the Continental Divide, and it is reflected in such projects as Wolford Mountain Reservoir near Kremmling.
Both Denver Water and the Colorado River Water Conservation District have an interest in Wolford Reservoir, with Denver Water on track to soon own 40 percent of the water in the reservoir. The water has many benefits, among them providing late-summer water to meet needs of four endangered fish species in the Colorado River near Grand Junction.
Another collaborative effort has been launched in the Winter Park area. There, Denver plans to increase diversions from the Fraser and Williams Fork rivers, but is doing so with the blessing of local authorities, thanks to a collaborative “learning by doing” effort in Grand County that seeks to reduce streamflow impacts from both new and existing diversions.
But Lochhead believes Colorado must still dramatically change its water allocation methods as it faces population growth. Demographers project that Colorado’s 5.4 million population will double within a few decades. If we seek to provide the water for the additional residents the way we provided for the first 5 million, he said, “we won’t like the outcome very well.”
The river itself
A second challenge is the Colorado River itself, the fountain that supplies at least part of the water for 40 million people, from corn farms in northeastern Colorado to San Diego. And despite some good snow years, the two big reservoirs on the lower Colorado River, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are both low enough to keep a ballroom full of water experts up at night.
It could get worse. And, according to projections of climate models, it likely will.
Laurna Kaatz, an in-house climate expert at Denver Water, recently told the Metro basin roundtable it’s still not clear if it will be hotter and drier, or hotter and wetter in Colorado in the future, but there is little doubt it will be hotter.
More major dams on the Colorado River are not the solution, Lochhead said. Evaporative losses would result in more loss than gain, he said, although he did allow for the possibility of relatively small dams.
Denver Water is, however, studying the potential for putting water into aquifers beneath the city, creating underground storage — storage that could, in theory, hold water from the Western Slope.
And Denver Water is looking to store up to an additional 15,000 acre-feet of Western Slope water in an expanded Gross Reservoir, southwest of Boulder. The $360 million project seeks to raise the elevation of the dam by 131 feet, which would increase the capacity of the reservoir by 77,000 acre-feet, bringing it up to 119,000 acre-feet.
Lochhead said that Colorado needs more flexible water management options that allow for greater sharing of the resource.
About 85 percent of water in Colorado is used by agriculture and ranchers and farmers tend to have the oldest and most senior water rights.
Water rights are private, said Lochhead, “but you can’t really do anything with that property right except what you are currently doing with it unless you go to water court. And by going to water court you put that entire water right at risk.”
In Colorado’s water courts, objections to changes in uses of water rights are often filed. The process can be lengthy and expensive for those seeking to make changes.
“You need a safe process where you don’t have to put your water right at risk, and you understand that you don’t have to spend years negotiating,” he said.
And Lochhead thinks Colorado also needs another conversation about conservation, where the emphasis is not about sacrifice but about innovation.
Denver Water intends to demonstrate what is possible as it redevelops its 35-acre headquarters campus along Interstate 25 near downtown Denver. There, planners think they can reduce demand for potable water by more than 50 percent.
In water reuse, said Lochhead, Colorado is “way behind the curve” as compared to some world cities, including Amsterdam and Sydney.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on the coverage of water and rivers. The Daily News published this story on Friday, July 29, 2016.
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.”
Here’s the release from Denver Water (Stacy Chesney/Travis Thompson):
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has officially endorsed Denver Water’s proposed Gross Reservoir Expansion Project as a model for achieving a balanced approach to environmental protection and water supply development through an inclusive and collaborative public process.
The endorsement follows the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s issuance of a Section 401 Water Quality Certification on June 23, 2016, which ensures compliance with state water quality standards. The certification confirms that Denver Water’s commitment to extensive mitigation and enhancement measures for the project will result in a net environmental benefit.
“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,” said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. “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.”
The Gross Reservoir Expansion Project — also known as the Moffat Collection System Project — will strengthen Denver Water’s system against drought and climate change by nearly tripling the capacity of Gross Reservoir, located in Boulder County.
“Colorado is a growing and dynamic state,” said Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead. “Denver Water has the critical responsibility to sustain over 25 percent of the state’s population and the majority of our economy for decades to come.”
Since 2003, Denver Water has been involved in federal, state and local permitting processes to evaluate the proposed project and develop ways to not only mitigate identified impacts, but also to enhance the aquatic environment and the economy of Colorado. The 401 certification — one of the major regulatory requirements — recognizes and builds upon other existing Denver Water agreements such as the landmark Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, Learning by Doing cooperative effort and the Grand County Mitigation and Enhancement Coordination Plan.
“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,” said Lochhead.
Denver Water expects to secure all of the major permits for the project by the end of 2017. The estimated cost of the project is about $380 million, which includes design, management, permitting, mitigation and construction.
Visit http://grossreservoir.org to read more about the project and http://denverwaterblog.org for videos with voices from a few of the many project supporters including, Gov. Hickenlooper, Western Resource Advocates, Trout Unlimited, Colorado Water Conservation Board and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Click here to go to the website. Here’s an excerpt:
The Grand County Learning By Doing Cooperative Effort (LBD) is a unique partnership of East and West Slope water stakeholders in Colorado.
LBD emerged from the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, a five-year negotiation that became effective in 2013 and will be fully implemented with the successful construction of the Moffat Collection System and Windy Gap Firming Project. The agreement establishes a long-term partnership between Denver Water and Colorado’s West Slope, including several water utilities, nonprofit organizations and government agencies.
A Governance Committee oversees the LBD activities, with one voting member from each of these organizations:
Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Colorado River District
Middle Park Water Conservancy District
Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District
A Technical Committee, made up of representatives from the Governance organizations, as well as government agencies, regional water utilities and other partners, advises on LBD efforts and activities.