Diverse views on framework for future transmountain diversions

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Letters sent to the Colorado Water Conservation Board in September about the draft Colorado Water Plan reveal a range of opinions about potential new transmountain diversions and the merits of using a “conceptual framework” to evaluate them.

Various Front Range water providers and interest groups told the CWCB that the conceptual framework should not be included in the water plan, should not be a regulatory requirement, and should not apply to transmountain diversion projects already in the planning and approval stage.

“Even with wording changes, the basin roundtables recommend that the CWCB not adopt the framework as it is a work in progress that may be modified as dialogue continues,” wrote the S. Platte and Metro basin roundtables, two of nine regional water-supply groups that meet under the auspices of the CWCB, in a combined Sept. 17 comment letter.

But a number of organizations based on the Western Slope or that focus on the Colorado River basin say the framework is a good step forward.

Officials at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado Boulder, for example, gave an enthusiastic endorsement of the framework.

“This is a revolutionary document and a quantum leap forward in Colorado water history,” Lawerence MacDonnell and Anne Castle, both of the Getches-Wilkinson Center, wrote in a Sept. 17 letter to the CWCB. “The conceptual framework is a critically important part of the Colorado Water Plan and should be formally adopted in the plan and by the CWCB, not just monitored.”

The final water plan is expected to be approved by the CWCB board of directors at their meeting on Nov. 19 at the History Colorado Center in Denver.

The conceptual framework includes seven principles “to guide future negotiations between proponents of a new TMD and those communities who may be affected were it built.”

The concepts covered include a recognition that there may not be water to divert in dry years, that new diversions should not increase the likelihood of a compact call from California, that municipal conservation should also be pursued and that environmental needs must be addressed.

Brent Newman, a program manager in the water supply planning section of CWCB, said Friday that the framework is going to be included in the final water plan and will be called “Colorado’s Conceptual Framework.”

“Folks may not agree with every single principle, or even with discussing the concepts of a transmountain diversion out loud, but it represents a historic milestone in Colorado water policy that’s a long way from ‘Not One More Drop’ or ‘We’ll See You in Court,’” Newman said, citing the long-held positions of the Western Slope and the Front Range, respectively.

A diversion structure in the upper Fryingpan River valley.

Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

A diversion structure in the upper Fryingpan River valley.

Range of views

Comments on the second draft of the water plan were due Sept. 17 and water-focused organizations filed more than 50 substantive letters.

It’s not hard to pick up on the differing views in the letters about the framework, which was developed over the last two years by members of the Interbasin Compact Committee, or IBCC, or IBBC, which serves as an executive committee for the CWCB’s nine basin roundtables.

Those who don’t think new transmountain diversions are a good idea tend to support the framework. But those who see new diversions as necessary diminish the framework’s authority and reject its potential restrictions.

Castle and MacDonnell of the Getches-Wilkinson Center clearly support the framework, but they see big problems with taking more water from the upper Colorado River basin.

The pair told the CWCB that “development of significant new Colorado River supplies increases the risk of future curtailment to all existing, post-1922 Colorado River water users, reduces the production of renewable hydropower at Colorado River Storage Project reservoirs, and could ratchet up unwelcome and counterproductive political dynamics among the Colorado River basin states.”

But officials at Colorado Springs Utilities, while aware of potential issues with downstream water users in other states, see new TMDs as a likely necessity.

M. Patrick Wells, the managing engineer for water resource planning for CSU, told the CWCB in a Sept. 17 letter that the draft water plan “consistently overlooks the fact that one or more new TMDs will ultimately need to be constructed to address Colorado’s water supply gap.”

As such, Wells said the final water plan “should contain a definitive statement that a new TMD will be constructed, even if no formal concept has been proposed.”

Wells also said CSU has “a significant concern” that adhering to the framework will become a regulatory requirement of new water projects.

The utility said it “strongly requests” that language be added to the water plan to “make it abundantly clear that the conceptual framework is not a statement of state policy, and is not in any way to be interpreted or construed as a basis for any conditions or requirements in any water court case, state or federal permitting process, or contract negotiation.”

The members of the Front Range Water Council agree with Colorado Springs Utilities on this point.

In its Sept. 15 letter, the council pointed to recent remarks about the framework made by John McClow, a CWCB board member from the Gunnison River basin.

“As board member McClow stated in his remarks at the summer Colorado Water Congress convention, the framework has no regulatory force or effect,” the council wrote. “Rather, it is guidance, the implementation and use of which will depend on the positions taken by the parties who engage in good faith negotiations on the construction of future specific proposed projects.”

The council includes Denver Water, Aurora Water, Colorado Springs Utilities, Northern Water, the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., and the Board of Water Works of Pueblo.

The Twin Lakes Reservoir in Twin Lakes, Colorado plays a key role in moving water from the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers to cities on the Eastern Slope.

Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

The Twin Lakes Reservoir in Twin Lakes, Colorado plays a key role in moving water from the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers to cities on the Eastern Slope.

More water east

A few organizations have told the CWCB that the framework should apply to both potential new transmountain diversions and the “firming” of existing transmountain water supplies.

Today, about 600,000 acre-feet of water a year is sent east under the Continental Divide and over 500,000 acre feet of that is diverted from headwaters in Grand, Summit, Eagle and Pitkin counties.

And another 120,000 to 140,000 acre-feet of water could be sent east after changes are made to existing transmountain diversion systems, according to the Colorado River basin roundtable.

Included in that 140,000 acre-feet figure is 20,000 acre-feet more from the Windy Gap project in Grand County, 18,000 acre-feet more from the Moffat Collection System above Winter Park, and 20,000 from the Eagle River MOU project, which potentially includes an expansion of Eagle Park Reservoir at the Climax Mine and a new dam and reservoir on lower Homestake Creek.

In addition to those, the water quality and quantity committee of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments told the CWCB that there are other projects in the works that could send more water east, including “future Dillon Reservoir diversions, firming in the upper Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers, and Colorado Springs Utilities expanded diversions from the upper Blue River.”

In the language of the Colorado Water Plan, these projects already on the books are called IPPs, for “identified projects and processes.”

The Pitkin County commissioners, in a Sept. 15 letter, told the CWCB that the county “wholeheartedly endorses” the framework but “strongly believes” the framework’s core principles need to be “expanded in scope to apply equally to the various IPPs that involve trans-basin diversions.”

The Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board, a tax-funded organization dedicated to leaving more water in the Roaring Fork River and its tributaries, feels the same way.

“The IPPs are the result of simple community canvassing to obtain information as to any potential plans or processes that are being contemplated around the state,” the board wrote in a Sept. 17 letter. “The IPPs have not been vetted and vary widely in size, impact and feasibility.”

A water wheel on the upper Colorado River, now lost to high water.

Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

A water wheel on the upper Colorado River, now lost to high water.

Some plain language

Trout Unlimited, which has been paying close attention to the development of the water plan, said it supports the framework.

But it also gave the CWCB some plain-language criteria it thinks should be used to judge new TMDs.

“These transmountain diversions of water can cause severe economic and environmental damage to the areas of origin,” wrote Richard Van Gytenbeek, the Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator for Trout Unlimited, in a Sept. 17 letter to the CWCB.

As such, Gytenbeek told the CWCB it “should reject all new TMDs” unless the project proponent is already “employing high levels of conservation,” can show “that water is available for the project,” and “makes commitments that guarantee against environmental or economic harm to the basin of origin.”

The Colorado River District, which has board members from 15 Western Slope counties, said it supports the framework.

The river district’s general manager, Eric Kuhn, has been instrumental as a member of the IBCC in developing many of the framework’s key concepts.

“Admittedly, there are elements of the framework that we would prefer to edit but recognize there are others who would address those same edits in an opposite fashion,” the River District told the CWCB in a Sept. 17 memo.

However, the River District said the framework “represents a ‘way forward’ for constructive discussion about possible development of Colorado River basin water resources for out-of-basin use.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Post Independent and The Aspen Times and on coverage of statewide water issues. The Post Independent published this story on Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015.

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