Understanding water fears on both sides of Colorado’s divide

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A request, on the lawn outside of the Benedict Music Tent in Aspen.

Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

A request, on the lawn outside of the Benedict Music Tent in Aspen.

GRAND JUNCTION — Russell George, who represents the Colorado River basin on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, says interest has been high in the state water plan since it was submitted to the governor Dec. 10.

“Everyone wants to think about, ‘OK, now what? What’s next? What battle lines are we going to draw?’” George told a crowd of about 150 people gathered Thursday in the Ute Water Conservancy District’s conference room for a meeting of four Western Slope water-planning roundtables.

“The basic history of water in Colorado is ‘It’s mine, leave me alone,’” George told his audience, most of whom own or manage water rights on the Western Slope. “Of course, that never worked. And it doesn’t work today. And if you don’t know it, you must. It isn’t going to work in the future. It can’t be that way.”

A final version of the state water plan is due a year from now, and the state’s nine roundtables are working to sharpen basin-specific water supply plans, due to the CWCB in April. Those basin plans are supposed to inform the water plan, which currently lacks a list of specific projects endorsed by the state.

Meanwhile, the Interbasin Compact Committee, which includes two members from each of the basin roundtables, is also working on a framework for discussing a big potential transmountain diversion to help meet growing water demands in Front Range cities.

George, a former speaker of the Colorado House from Rifle whose leadership helped create the roundtables, said water interests on both sides of the Continental Divide are now working to better understand the other side’s perspective.

“We haven’t always done that,” he said. “The other side hasn’t always looked at our point of view and tried to put themselves in our place. And I doubt that we’ve done our duty in trying to put ourselves in their place.”

John Stulp, the head of the IBCC, sounded a similar theme Thursday before George took the podium.

“We really need to put ourselves in each other’s shoes as we look to the future with the water supply that we anticipate,” Stulp said.

And Stulp said he was encouraged by a meeting of the South Platte basin roundtable in Longmont on Dec. 9.

“I came away from that meeting with a positive feeling that there is going to be some intense, but some very fruitful and beneficial discussions, not only among the roundtables, but at the IBCC level,” Stulp said.

At the Dec. 9 meeting, Eric Wilkinson, the general manager of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, and an IBCC member, told the South Platte roundtable members there is a growing understanding at the IBCC level of what Western Slope water interests want, and fear, regarding a transmountain diversion.

In part, they fear that a new transmountain diverter will come in and insist on their full legal right to divert water, Wilkinson explained.

Such an action could eventually help trigger a “compact call” by California and other states in the lower Colorado River basin. And a call could shut down diversions for all junior water rights holders on the Western Slope.

“When somebody said, ‘Well, what I understand you saying is that you want any new transbasin diversion to subordinate and be junior to any existing and future West Slope water development,’ it was like somebody just took the blanket off the elephant in the room, and the discussion started,” Wilkinson said.

And that understanding then led to the first of seven points in a “draft conceptual agreement,” which is now included in the draft Colorado Water Plan and refers to the East Slope accepting “hydraulic risk” as part of a new transmountain diversion.

Wilkinson said the draft conceptual agreement came about after “finally understanding what the West Slope was trying to say, and what their fears were.

“And the reality is, as much as we’d like to think it isn’t, you are not going to move a West Slope transbasin project forward without support on the West Slope,” Wilkinson said. “Trust me.“

In reaching the seven points in the draft conceptual agreement, Wilkinson also said he was “thoroughly convinced” that “the East Slope gave up far more to get these seven points than the West Slope did.”

“We tried to solve, practically, if we could, the fears and concerns of the West Slope, and we went a long way from the traditional East Slope position to do that, because that’s the new reality,” Wilkinson said.

Editor’s note:
Aspen Journalism, The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Post Independent published this story on Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014 and the Times published it on Friday, Dec. 26.

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