August 22, 2014

Governor thinks new major dam project ‘unlikely’

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The spillway at the Ruedi Reservoir dam.

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The spillway at the Ruedi Reservoir dam.

Diversion headstones

SNOWMASS VILLAGE – Gov. John Hickenlooper told members of the Colorado Water Congress on Thursday that he thinks it’s “unlikely” that public opinion in the state has shifted in favor of a new major dam project being built in the state, even in the face of population growth and drought.

He said he has found more support around the state for the idea of increasing the height of existing dams by 5 or 10 feet, which he said can dramatically increase the amount of water stored in a reservoir.

“I think we have a lot of opportunity in those projects, many of which are underway,” Hickenlooper said.

But, he added, “I’m not sure we have enough capacity just doing those projects for all the water we’re going to need.”

He also called for increased water conservation in both the state’s cities and its fields.

The governor spoke on the second day of the Colorado Water Congress’ annual summer convention, which is being held at the Westin hotel in Snowmass Village through today.

Former Congressman Bob Beauprez, who is running against Hickenlooper for governor, is slated to speak this morning at the water conference.

Hickenlooper had the full attention of the members of the water congress on Thursday, as his call for a draft Colorado Water Plan to address the state’s future water needs is supposed to be on his desk by Dec. 10, and the planning process has kept many in the state’s water community busy.

The governor noted that the nine different river-basin roundtables have held over 850 meetings to discuss water policy and projects. The Colorado River Basin Roundtable meets monthly in Glenwood Springs, and its next meeting is Monday, Aug. 25 from noon until 4 p.m.

Those individual basin plans are now being sifted and sorted to create the draft statewide plan, which Hickenlooper said was met with skepticism when he first proposed it.

“What we kept trying to say is, the most important part of this water plan is the process we use to create it,” Hickenlooper said. “It’s not going to be a small group of people in Denver trying to make decisions on how water should be allocated for the rest of the state. And I think what we’ve seen is that this plan is going to be created by a broad cross section of people from across the state.”

Hickenlooper also called for cooperation among often-warring factions in Colorado’s water world, be they Front Range water providers trying to deliver water to a growing urban population, Western Slope ranchers and farmers working to preserve their rural way of life and the future value of their private water rights, or river-lovers on both sides of the divide fighting to keep water in rivers for fishing, boating or nature’s sake.

“Water can either divide us, or unite us,” Hickenlooper said. “In the end, it’s our choice. I think in this state, we generally choose to collaborate and work together to try and find compromises and make sure that it doesn’t divide us.”

He said that by working together and taking a “calculated and conservative” approach to water planning, the state’s various water factions are, in fact, moving forward.

“While this collaboration isn’t as sexy or glamorous as the bare-knuckled water brawling that we see sometimes in our neighboring states, and sometimes here in the past, this cooperation is effective and I think very productive,” Hickenlooper said. “Collaboration can bear fruit that otherwise would be unobtainable.”

Jim Pokrandt, the director of communications at the Colorado River District in Glenwood Springs and the chair of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, said it was hard to say if the roundtable members around the state had faith in the emerging water plan.

“Some won’t be happy unless it calls out a project,” Pokrandt said. “Others will always think it is a stalking horse for a project no matter how it handles that issue.”

Pokrandt said the draft plan will at least identify many local water projects and statewide needs.

Then, he said, “the real work begins.”

A final water plan is to be complete by December 2015.

And it remains to be seen how well the governor and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is in charge of developing the draft water plan, will collaborate with the state legislature.

Last year, state Sen. Gail Schwartz, formerly of Snowmass Village and who now lives in Crested Butte, co-sponsored a bill that would require the Colorado Water Plan to be approved by the legislature, and not just the governor.

However, the bill was watered down to require the state’s interim legislative committee on water to hold nine public hearings in the state on the plan this summer.

The hearing in the Colorado River basin was held Thursday evening at the Glenwood Springs library, with 10 state legislators who sit on the interim water committee in attendance, along with over 50 citizens.

Pokrandt, as chair of the Colorado basin roundtable, gave an overview of the group’s draft plan.

He said a key finding was that another transmountain diversion was not in the best interest of the state at this time, especially as pending projects are already likely to divert an additional 140,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado basin to the Front Range.

Today, between 450,000 and 600,000 acre feet of water is sent from the basin to the east each year.

A chief finding of the basin’s plan is that “high conservation, (water) reuse and linking water supply to land use” are in the best options for the state.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of local and regional water issues. The Daily News published this story on Friday, Aug. 22, 2014.

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