Regional water leaders discuss potential transmountain diversion

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Water in the Gunnison River flowing west.

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Water in the Gunnison River flowing west.

Pipeline concepts

DENVER TECH CENTER — There is a cliche in Colorado that “whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.” But in Colorado, especially this week, water is for meeting.

This week, about 500 water professionals, including engineers, attorneys and water district managers, many of whom would readily concede that they are “water wonks,” are meeting at the Hyatt hotel in the Denver Tech Center at the annual Colorado Water Congress.

And concurrent with this statewide gathering was also a meeting Wednesday of a high-level group of close to 30 influential veteran members of Colorado’s water community or, as they are often called, “water buffaloes.”

These buffaloes are members of a group called the Interbasin Compact Committee, or IBCC, which meets under the auspices of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, a state agency charged with finalizing a statewide water plan by December that describes how Colorado can meet its future water needs.

Wednesday marked the IBCC’s 50th meeting since its first meeting in February 2006, and 10 of its members have served on the committee since the beginning.

The IBCC includes two representatives from each of the state’s nine regional river basin roundtables as well as several appointees by the governor and representatives from the state Legislature.

“We felt that if we didn’t have everybody in the conversation, somebody was going to get hurt,” said Russ George, a former state legislator who helped shape the law that created the roundtables and the IBCC and today sits on the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

For about the past year or so, the members of the IBCC have been wrestling with a draft conceptual agreement or, as they agreed on Wednesday to call it, a “conceptual framework for discussion,” about a potential new transmountain diversion that would move more water from the Western Slope to the booming Front Range.

Released in June and debated and discussed since then in various regional roundtable meetings, the IBCC’s conceptual framework is an attempt to spell out how a new transbasin diversion might be made acceptable to community leaders on the Western Slope.

A meeting of the minds on the Colorado River.

Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

A meeting of the minds on the Colorado River.

Roundtable update

At Wednesday’s IBCC meeting, the representatives of the various roundtables told the larger group what the members of their various roundtables think about the IBCC’s draft conceptual framework.

The members of the South Platte, Arkansas and Denver Metro roundtables think there has been enough talk about a new transmountain diversion and it is time for action, while the members of the Colorado, Gunnison and Yampa/White roundtables still want more definitions of the terms being used in the conceptual framework.

“I think the South Platte wants to get to moving,” said Eric Wilkerson, general manager of Northern Water, which provides water to 880,000 people in eight Front Range counties.

“There needs to be a determination as early as possible if indeed a transbasin diversion is possible and, if so, under what conditions,” Wilkerson said. “That’s probably going to be the most difficult discussion that can be had. We all know that. We’ve spent 11 years trying to get to this point, and I think we’ve gotten to a good point now.”

Wilkerson said the South Platte roundtable members are comfortable with the existing language in the conceptual framework and their sentiment is, “Let’s get going.”

But Jeff Devere, a representative from the Yampa and White River basin roundtable, said folks in the northwest corner of Colorado aren’t quite as ready to move.

“The devil is in the details,” Devere said. “We need to refine and define the concepts.”

Devere also suggested a new transmountain diversion should be looked at in the same way as bypass surgery is viewed by doctors treating an ailing heart patient.

Before doctors agree to a bypass, Devere said, they want to see a patient go on a diet, which is akin to water conservation. They want the patient to get more exercise, which in Colorado water is akin to fallowing agriculture and improving water system efficiency.

And they want the patient to stop smoking and drinking alcohol, which is akin to putting limits on residential growth and development.

Devere told the IBCC members that the people may well agree someday to a new transbasin diversion or bypass, but they might also say, “If you haven’t dieted, exercised and stopped drinking and smoking, I don’t know that I can agree.”

Stan Cazier, a member of the IBCC and the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, said many members of the Colorado roundtable feel they’ve already sent enough water to the east.

“The Colorado River Basin is the basin that is the donor basin,” Cazier said. “We are already severely impacted by transbasin diversions. We’re not looking forward to any more and, obviously, we have major concerns about impacts on the environment and recreation and other items. We’re uncomfortable at this point in time without firming some of this stuff up.”

Several hours into Wednesday’s IBCC meeting, the members discussed the formation of five new subcommittees to tackle stubborn issues, including one to work on the language in the conceptual framework for discussion.

They also discussed the agenda for a March 12 statewide meeting of the nine basin roundtables as, after all, one long water meeting deserves another.

A difficult to reach location in the upper Colorado River basin.

Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

A difficult to reach location in the upper Colorado River basin.

The conceptual framework for discussion

Below is the IBCC’s orginal “draft conceptual agreement,” now dubbed a “conceptual framework for discussion” by the IBCC.

1) The East Slope is not looking for firm yield from a new TMD project and would accept hydrologic risk for that project.

2) A new TMD project would be used conjunctively with East Slope interruptible supply agreements, Denver Basin Aquifer resources, carry-over storage, terminal storage, drought restriction savings, and other non-West Slope water sources.

3) In order to manage when a new TMD will be able to divert, triggers are needed.

4) An insurance policy that protects against involuntary curtailment is needed for existing uses and some reasonable increment of future development in the Colorado River system, but it will not cover a new TMD.

5) Future West Slope needs should be accommodated as part of a new TMD project.

6) Colorado will continue its commitment to improve conservation and reuse.

7) Environmental resiliency and recreational needs must be addressed both before and conjunctively with a new TMD.

(A July 2015 memo from Jacob Bornstein at the CWCB seeks to put the “seven points of light” into context).

Roundtable responses

In November, the Colorado River Basin Roundtable unanimously passed a resolution regarding the “draft conceptual agreement.”

In January, the Gunnison River Basin Roundtable issued an expanded version of the “conceptual framework for discussion,” in an attempt to clarify aspects of the seven points.

The roundtable suggested that instead of a “conceptual agreement,” the seven points should be called “Guidance for interbasin negotiations regarding future Colorado River development.”

The Gunnison roundtable’s version was referenced at Wednesday’s IBCC meeting, but not discussed in detail.

Addition insight into the Gunnision roundtable’s position can be found in a memo from IBCC member Bill Trampe to the members of the Gunnison roundtable in January.

Trampe, a longtime rancher in the upper Gunnison River valley who has been a member of the IBCC since it was formed, was given the Wayne Aspinall “Water Leader of the Year Award” by the Colorado Water Congress On Friday, Jan. 30, 2015.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Friday, Jan. 30, 2015.

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