December 22, 2014

Draft conceptual diversion deal presented to West Slope water interests

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Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism |

A diversion structure that ends the natural path of Sawyer Creek, a tributary of the Fryingpan River. There are 15 major transmountain diversions in the headwaters of the Colorado RIver, and most of them are made up of collection systems that tap smaller tributaries.

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism | A diversion structure that ends the natural path of Sawyer Creek, a tributary of the Fryingpan River. There are 15 major transmountain diversions in the headwaters of the Colorado RIver, and most of them are made up of collection systems that tap smaller tributaries.

A informational graphic shown at a Western Slope Roundtable meeting in Grand Junction on Dec. 18, 2014.

Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

A informational graphic shown at a Western Slope Roundtable meeting in Grand Junction on Dec. 18, 2014.

GRAND JUNCTION – A draft seven-point framework that lays out conditions for a potential new transmountain diversion in Colorado was explained Thursday in Grand Junction to the members of four Western Slope water-planning roundtables.

About 75 members of the four roundtables heard Bruce Whitehead, a member of the Interbasin Compact Committee, describe in relatively plain terms a “draft conceptual agreement” the committee reached in June on how to possibly move more water from the Western Slope to the Front Range.

“This is conceptual,” said Whitehead, who serves on the Southwest Basin roundtable. “We haven’t sold the ranch, and I don’t think, intend to. It was really to set up a dialogue about, yes, go ahead and say it, transmountain diversions. What are the pros? What are the cons? How do we meet Colorado’s gap in the future?”

Whitehead said the seven-point framework had moved the discussion about a new transmountain diversion past the water-planning euphemism “new supply.”

“The term ‘new supply’ had been used a lot,” Whitehead said. “And folks on the Western Slope, obviously, are a little sensitive about new supply. I’ve heard it stated that it might be new supply to somebody else but it’s not really a new supply.”

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism | A diversion structure that ends the natural path of Sawyer Creek, a tributary of the Fryingpan River. There are 15 major transmountain diversions in the headwaters of the Colorado RIver, and most of them are made up of collection systems that tap smaller tributaries.

Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism |

A diversion structure that ends the natural path of Sawyer Creek, a tributary of the Fryingpan River. There are 15 major transmountain diversions in the headwaters of the Colorado RIver, and most of them are made up of collection systems that tap smaller tributaries.

The 7-Points, in the draft water plan

The 27-member Interbasin Compact Committee serves as something of an executive committee for the nine basin roundtables. Its mission includes developing new water storage and providing a framework for negotiations between the roundtables.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state agency charged with planning for the state’s water needs, oversees both the committee and the roundtables.

On Dec. 10, the agency presented a draft Colorado water plan to Gov. John Hickenlooper. The plan includes the committee’s seven-point “draft conceptual agreement.”

Whitehead explained that the committee members were polled at a meeting in June using a clicker system, and all of them endorsed the statement, “I agree that the draft conceptual agreement is ready to go the water conservation board for consideration while we continue to get feedback from our roundtables and constituencies and the public.”

“So it is not a done deal,” Whitehead said. “And I know there’s even been some things in the newspaper here recently that agreements have been cut, that a deal’s been done, and that’s not the case.”

Members of both the Colorado River Basin and the Gunnison River Basin roundtables recently expressed dismay that a perception had been created that an agreement on a new transbasin has been reached.

“Our last roundtable meeting in November was a very emotional, heartfelt meeting where we discussed the seven points,” said Louis Meyer, a member of the Colorado roundtable. “We are the donor basin. There are currently 15 major transmountain diversions diverting between 450,000 and 600,000 acre-feet out of our basin.”

At their November meeting, the Colorado roundtable members unanimously adopted a motion stating that “it would be premature and inappropriate” to include the seven points in the Colorado water plan.

“We’re not saying they don’t belong in Colorado’s water plan; we’re saying they are not ready yet,” Meyer said at Thursday’s meeting, which also was attended by another 75 or so members of the public and Colorado’s professional water community. “They need a lot more discussion.”

The first and perhaps most significant of the seven points states that “the eastern slope is not looking for firm yield from a new transmountain diversion project and would accept hydrologic risk for that project.”

“I think the (Interbasin Compact Committee) has acknowledged that in high-water years, and at high levels of storage, there is probably some water left to develop in the Colorado River system,” Whitehead said of the first point. “In very low years, as in the previous 14 or 15 years we’ve just seen, there may not be.”

Whitehead said the third point, concerning “triggers” that might force a new transmountain diversion to divert less water, was about managing a potential “compact call” from California and other lower-basin states. Such a call could force junior water-rights owners in Colorado and other upper-basin states to stop diverting water.

“If it looks like we’re going to be headed toward compact curtailment of some kind, then they shouldn’t divert and increase that risk,” Whitehead said of a new diversion. “What those triggers are hasn’t been fully defined.”

The fourth point calls for an “insurance policy” for existing junior water rights, and raises the question of how much more water should be diverted from the state’s west-flowing rivers in the face of a looming compact call.

“Obviously, any development is going to increase the risk,” Whitehead said. “In my mind, 2 acres of irrigation on the Animas River that has a fairly small depletion is a bit of a different animal than a 100,000 acre-foot diversion. So how do we handle that? Is there a de minimus amount that we could agree to that would allow for some future uses on the Western Slope while trying to minimize that risk?”

Most of the basin roundtables are set to meet in January, and the Interbasin Compact Committee, which has not met since June, is slated to meet Jan. 28. A final version of the Colorado water-supply plan is due in December 2015.

Editor’s note:
Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Monday, Dec. 22, 2014.

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