Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
RIFLE — James Eklund, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, invoked his Western Slope heritage at a “Summit on the Colorado Water Plan” hosted Saturday in Rifle by the Garfield County commissioners.
“The mantra I grew up with in Plateau Valley was not one more drop of water will be moved from this side of the state to the other,” said Eklund, whose mother’s family has been ranching in the Plateau Creek valley near Collbran since the 1880s.
Eklund was speaking to a room of about 50 people, including representatives from 14 Western Slope counties, all of whom had been invited by the Garfield County commissioners for a four-hour meeting.
The commissioners’ stated goal for the meeting was to develop a unified voice from the Western Slope stating that “no more water” be diverted to the Front Range.
“That argument had been made, probably by my great-grandparents, my grandparents and my parents,” Eklund said. “And I know there are a lot of people who still want to make that argument today, and I get that. But it has not done us well on the Western Slope.
“That argument has gotten us to were we are now, 500,000 to 600,000 acre feet of water moving from the west to the east. So I guess the status quo is not West Slope-friendly. We need something different. We need a different path. And these seven points provides that different path.”
The “seven points” form the basis of a “draft conceptual framework” for future negotiations regarding a potential transmountain diversion in Colorado.
The framework is the result of the ongoing statewide water-supply planning process that Eklund is overseeing in his role at the CWCB.
Eklund took the helm two years ago at the CWCB after serving as Gov. John Hickenlooper’s senior deputy legal counsel, and he’s been leading the effort to produce the state’s first water plan, which is due on the governor’s desk in December.
The second draft of the plan includes the seven points, even though the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, which meets monthly in Glenwood Springs under the auspices of the CWCB, is still on the record as opposing their inclusion in the water plan. That could change after its meeting on Monday.
Not legally binding
The “seven points” seeks to define the issues the Western Slope likely has with more water flowing east under the Continental Divide, and especially how a new transmountain diversion could hasten a demand from California for Colorado’s water under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
“The seven points are uniquely helpful to Western Slope interests because if you tick through them, they are statements that the Front Range doesn’t necessarily have to make,” Eklund said in response to a question. “If these were legally binding, the Western Slope would benefit.”
Under Colorado water law a Front Range water provider, say, can file for a right to move water to the east, and a local county or water district might have little recourse other than perhaps to fight the effort through a permitting process.
But Eklund said the points in the “conceptual framework” could be invoked by the broader Western Slope when negotiating a new transmountain diversion.
As such, a diverter might at least have to acknowledge that water may not be available in dry years, that the diversion shouldn’t exacerbate efforts to forestall a compact call, that other water options on the Front Range, including increased conservation, should be developed first, that a new transmountain diversion shouldn’t preclude future growth on the Western Slope, and that the environmental resiliency of the donor river would need to be addressed.
“We’re just better off with them than without them,” Eklund said of the seven points.
A cap on the Colorado?
Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River District, which is based in Glenwood Springs and represents 15 Western Slope counties, told the attendees that three existing agreements effectively cap how much more water can be diverted from the upper Colorado River and its tributaries above Glenwood Springs.
The Colorado Water Cooperative Agreement, which was signed in 2013 by 18 entities, allows Denver Water to develop another 18,000 acre-feet from the Fraser River as part of the Moffat, or Gross Reservoir, project, but it also includes a provision that would restrict other participating Front Range water providers from developing water from the upper Colorado River.
A second agreement will allow Northern Water to move another 30,000 acre feet of water out of the Colorado River through its Windy Gap facilities, but Northern has agreed that if it develops future projects, it will have to do so in a cooperative manner with West Slope interests.
And a third agreement known as the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding will allow Aurora and Colorado Springs to develop another 20,000 acre feet of water as part of the Homestake project in the Eagle River basin, but will also provide 10,000 acre feet for Western Slope use.
“So effectively these three agreements, in effect, cap what you’re going to see above Glenwood Springs,” Kuhn said.
The Moffat, Windy Gap and Eagle River projects are not subject to the “seven points” in the conceptual agreement, and neither is the water that could be taken by the full use of these and other existing transmountain projects.
“So when you add all that up, there is an additional 100,000 to 150,000 acre-feet of consumptive use already in existing projects,” Kuhn said.
But beyond that, Kuhn said Front Range water providers desire security and want to avoid a compact call, just as the Western Slope does.
“We’ve been cussing and discussing transmountain diversions for 85 years,” Kuhn added, noting that the Colorado Constitution does not allow the Western Slope to simply say “no” to Front Range water developers.
“So, the framework is an agenda,” Kuhn said, referring to the “seven points.” “It’s not the law, but it is a good agenda to keep us on track. It includes important new concepts, like avoiding over development and protecting existing uses.”
Vet other projects too?
Rachel Richards, a Pitkin County commissioner, told the attendees that she would like to see more water projects than just new transmountain diversions be subject to the seven points.
As part of the state’s water-supply planning efforts, state officials have designated a list of projects as already “identified projects and processes,” or IPPs, which are not subject to the seven points.
“We would like to see the same environmental standards, and community buy-in standards, applied to increasing existing transmountain diversions or IPPs,” Richards said, noting that the “IPPs” seem to be wearing a halo.
“They need to go through just as much vetting for concern of the communities as a new transmountain diversion would, and we’re probably going to see a lot more of them first,” she said.
At the end of the four-hour summit on the statewide water plan, Garfield County Commissioner Mike Sampson said he still had “real concerns” about the long-term viability of Western Slope agriculture and industry in the face of growth on the Front Range, but he offered some support for the seven points.
“I think the seven points is probably a good starting position,” Sampson said.
He also said Garfield County would make some edits to a draft position paper it hopes will be adopted by other Western Slope counties.
On Saturday, the draft paper said “the elected county commissioners on the Western Slope of Colorado stand united in opposing any more major, transmountain diversions or major changes in operation of existing projects unless agreed to by all of the county(s) from which water would be diverted.”
But Sampson was advised, and agreed, that it might be productive to reframe that key statement to articulate what the Western Slope would support, not what it would oppose.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times on coverage of rivers and water. The Post published this story online on July 25, 2015.