WESTMINSTER – The prospects for a potential new transmountain water diversion that would bring more water to Colorado’s growing cities on the Front Range appeared to brighten recently during a meeting of about 300 Colorado water leaders.
At the meeting, held in Westminster on March 12, members of the state’s nine river basin roundtables responded in near unanimity to a straw poll regarding a “draft conceptual framework” that outlines how to keep discussing, and planning for, a new transmountain diversion, or TMD.
Today in Colorado, between 450,000 and 600,000 acre-feet of water is diverted under the Continental Divide from the west to the east slope. To put that in context, Ruedi Reservoir holds about 100,000 acre-feet of water and the total annual flow of the Roaring Fork River is about 900,000 acre-feet of water.
All but five of the approximately 300 people gathered in a Westin hotel ballroom gave a thumb’s up to a list of statements regarding ways to look at a potential new TMD.
“We have consensus on all of these points, but not necessarily that they’re fully encompassing,” said Jacob Bornstein, a program manager at the Colorado Water Conservation Board who has been helping to develop the draft conceptual framework and who lead the straw poll exercise.
And a follow up question:
A paradigm shift?
Often referred to as “the seven points,” the conceptual framework has been the subject of much discussion over the past six months among members of the nine basin roundtables, who came together on March 18 for a “statewide basin roundtable summit.”
“As you’ve heard from every corner of the state, everyone has at least begun to consider the usefulness of this conceptual framework,” said John McClow, a CWCB board member who also sits on the Gunnison River basin roundtable. “I think we’ve heard from all of them that it might need some definition, it might need some refinement, but that it will provide us with a framework that we can utilize to evaluate a future TMD.”
However, roundtables on the West Slope, especially the Gunnison, Yampa-White and Colorado river basin roundtables, are still voicing concerns and questions about the conceptual framework and the harm a new TMD might cause.
Despite the concerns from the West Slope, James Eklund, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the state’s water-planning agency, opened the roundtable summit on a bullish note.
“Whether you call them the draft conceptual framework, or the seven points of consensus, or the conceptual agreement, or the guidance on interbasin negotiations, or my personal favorite, the seven points of light, the work of our leaders in this room and on the Interbasin Compact Committee demonstrates the new paradigm in East-West discussions,” Eklund said.
The CWCB’s 27-member Interbasin Compact Committee includes representatives from each of the roundtables, as well as members appointed by the governor and legislative representatives.
The group unanimously endorsed the conceptual “seven points” last July.
The enviromental perspectives
Melinda Kassen, an attorney who specializes in environmental issues, has served as a governor-appointed environmental representative on the IBCC since 2005.
“So, I think I was asked to come up here to justify my having raised my thumb on this, when we did this last summer,” Kassen said as she addressed the crowd in Westminster.
Kassen said she could support the framework because of its seventh point, which states, “Environmental resiliency and recreational needs must be addressed both before and conjunctively with a new TMD.”
“The reason that this point is so important is the way it’s written,” said Kassen, noting the point about the environment was last on the list, but not least.
“It doesn’t say we will address environmental and recreational needs in the context of some big new transmountain diversion,” Kassens said. “It doesn’t say we’ll do mitigation and that’s how we’ll deal with the environment. What it says is, we will make our environment resilient now. We will protect our recreation economy now. And then, if at some point in the future if there’s another big project, we will also do mitigation for that project.”
The Front Range perspective
Jim Lochhead, the CEO and General Manager of Denver Water, also spoke at the roundtable summit.
“In terms of a future transmountain diversion, that is an option that needs to be preserved for the future, if we need to do it,” Lochhead said. “But what this conceptual framework does is articulate some principles that we can agree to, that allows us to move forward when and if that time comes.”
Lochhead also stressed the importance of entities on the West Slope and Front Range working now on the things it can agree on, instead of just listing long-standing disagreements.
“Let’s be more efficient,” Lochhead said. “Let’s work on re-use (of water). Let’s work on capturing and using local water supplies as efficiently as we possibly can throughout the entire state, across all sectors, before we begin talking about big infrastructure projects that, hopefully, we either don’t need or we need at a much smaller and refined scale in the future. But when and if we do need those, they will be developed in partnership across the entire state.”
He also stressed that the seven points need to be viewed as a whole package.
“There’re not in any kind of order,” Lochhead said. “They are not even individual pieces, they are a package. They need to be viewed as a whole, because they are a part of a whole. And they are part of a commonality, I think, that we agreed on, and that we should agree on, in terms of where we’re going as a state.”
The view from the roundtables
After Kassen and Lochhead spoke, the CWCB’s Bornstein took the room through the straw poll, where members could vote thumbs up, down or sideways.
As he went through a reversed, and re-worded list of the seven points (see below), there was not one “thumbs down.”
Then Bornstein put up a slide referring to all of the seven points, or statements, which read: “These previous statements encompass the major issues a conceptual framework on a new TMD should address, although more detail may be needed.”
“We’ve got … five people in the room, out of about 300, that think these are not the major issues,” Bornstein said.
After that, a panel of representatives from four roundtables shared the current view of their respective roundtables about the seven points.
Joe Frank, the general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, is serving as the new chair of the South Platte River basin roundtable.
He said the members of the South Platte roundtable had previously voted unanimously to support the “seven points.”
And on March 10, the South Platte roundtable also agreed to include a “straw man” TMD in the its basin implementation plan, so that a theoretical new TMD – such as a pipeline to move water to the Front Range from Flaming Gorge Reservoir – could be freshly analyzed in the context of the seven points.
“The framework is in a good spot, but moving forward past that we need to get a straw man and discuss these difficult topics,” Frank said.
The South Platte roundtable is also strongly in favor of building new water reservoirs in the state and it wants storage discussed in the forthcoming final Colorado Water Plan, which is open for public comment until May 1.
“We just believe that storage needs to be front and center when we start to talk about Colorado’s water,” Frank said. “We’ve heard it a lot that conservation needs to be the beginning of the conversation, we also believe that storage needs to be in the beginning of that conversation.”
The Arkansas roundtable’s view
James Broderick, the executive director of the Southeastern Water Conservancy District, sits on the Arkansas River basin roundtable.
He said the Arkansas roundtable also believes new storage should be an integral part of the state’s water planning efforts, and that the Arkansas roundtable supports the seven points as written.
“From an Arkansas perspective, we’re not sure what all the controversy was about,” Broderick said.
The west slope’s view
The views presented at the statewide summit by two West Slope roundtables were quite different, however.
“We think the framework has questions that need to be answered before there can be something called an agreement, particularly about any transmountain diversions moving forward,” said Jon Hill, a Rio Blanco County commissioner who sits on the Yampa-White basin roundtable.
Hill said it was important to the Yampa-White river basins that an understanding be reached that sets aside some level of future water development in the region, which remains largely undeveloped.
“As long as we can work it in that we have some increment of future use, that is going to be reserved, or however you want to call it, then we can start getting along on this and that,” Hill said.
Michelle Pierce, the chair of the Gunnison River basin roundtable, said that while she feels the seven points represent a breakthrough of sorts, they shouldn’t be included in the state’s forthcoming water plan.
“I was at that meeting where these seven points were brought up and developed, and I did think it was a huge breakthrough in this process,” Pierce said. “It’s taken, up to that point, nine years to even talk about transmountain diversion. So I thought that was huge.”
However, Pierce went on to say, “the Gunnison basin doesn’t believe that the conceptual framework is ready for inclusion in the state plan. If it is determined that it will be included in the state plan, we would like to see a big disclaimer with that, something that would say, or highlight the fact that it is still under discussion, it still needs refinement, and that there is no real agreement statewide as to what those terms mean.”
A Colorado River basin view
A representative from the Colorado River basin roundtable was not included on the same panel at the March 12 summit with the representatives from the Gunnison, Yampa-White, Arkansas and South Platte roundtables, but the Colorado roundtable is on the record as opposing the inclusion of the seven points in the water plan.
On March 5, at a public meeting of the Roaring Fork Watershed Collaborative, Louis Meyer, a veteran Colorado roundtable member and a principal engineer with SGM, an engineering firm in Glenwood Springs, strongly criticized the seven points.
“I think that these were written on behalf of the Front Range, not the West Slope,” Meyer said. “I think if the West Slope’s four basin roundtables wrote them, they would be very, very different.
“There is no extra water in the state of Colorado,” Meyer said. “What we’re talking about is a reallocation of the water we already have. So, what is this re-allocation going to be? It is going to be a reallocation of water from agriculture and healthy rivers to rooftops and nonnative turf grass on the Front Range. I believe that the result will be flat rivers, the loss of agriculture, and escalating water costs.”
Here are the seven points as presented by the CWCB’s Jacob Bornstein during a straw poll at the statewide roundtable summit.
Bornstein said this list, which differs in order and in the wording from the official version of “the seven points,” also listed below, was “a bit of a deconstructed look at the conceptual framework.”
“Because I’ve been going to every roundtable, almost, and helping to explain this, I’ve sort of learned how to not have the eyes cross when you are talking about some of these concepts,” Bornstein said, noting he now simply calls them “The 7.”
1. We need to address environmental resiliency and recreational needs, including the recovery of imperiled species, with or without a new transmountain diversion (TMD).
2. If a new TMD were to be built, the proponent should involve non-consumptive, environmental and recreational partners upfront, so that the project is designed with environmental and recreational needs in mind, incorporates benefits, and mitigates impacts.”
3. Colorado should continue its commitment to improve municipal conservation and allowable reuse, statewide, with or without a new TMD.
4. If a new TMD were to be built, West Slope needs should be accommodated as part of a package of projects and processes that benefit both East and West slopes.
5. Colorado should develop a collaborative program aimed at preventing a (Colorado River basin) compact curtailment issue from occurring, while protecting existing users from involuntary curtailment (e.g., eminent domain or strict administration).
6. The collaborative program (in point 5) should be voluntary, such as a water bank and other demand management programs, and aimed at protecting current Colorado River water users, and some increment of additional use yet to be defined, but NOT uses associated with a new TMD.
7. If a new TMD were to be built, it would not guarantee delivery of a certain amount of water annually, but instead operate as part of a flexible optimized system, diverting only when water is available, based on triggers Colorado establishes in advance, and relying on East Slope sources of water when not diverting.
At the end of the meeting, Bornstein put up one more statement, which read: “If the feedback from today is incorporated into the conceptual framework, then it is headed in the right direction.”
“No thumbs down,” Bornstein said after surveying the room. “So wonderful, thank you.”
The “original” 7 points
Here are the seven points as originally endorsed upon by the IBCC last year:
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.
For more on the seven points, see memo from Jacob Bornstein dated July, 16 2014.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent are collaborating on coverage of water and rivers. The Times published this story on Saturday, March 28, 2015. The Post Independent published a shorter version of the story on Sunday, March 22, 2015.