Looking up the Colorado River, left, toward the confluence of the Colorado and the Roaring Fork River, right. The bridge over the Colorado is a pedestrian bridge. The bridge over the Fork is a railroad bridge.
Looking up the Colorado River, left, toward the confluence of the Colorado and the Roaring Fork River, right. The bridge over the Colorado is a pedestrian bridge. The bridge over the Fork is a railroad bridge. Credit: Jeremy Wallace / The Aspen Times

The Front Range cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs are urging the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to deny an application from the city of Glenwood Springs for water rights tied to three proposed whitewater parks on the Colorado River.

Attorneys for the two cities claim Glenwood Springs is asking for too much water to run over six wave-inducing structures to be embedded in the river along 3.5 miles of river above and below Glenwood Springs.

“Glenwood must prove through robust evidence and a rigorous engineering methodology all the elements of its proposed recreational in-channel diversion, i.e., that the flow it seeks is the minimum amount actually needed, for the recreation experience it seeks to provide, and that the recreation experience is reasonable, in that it will provide substantiated benefit to the applicant,” attorneys for Aurora and Colorado Springs told the CWCB in a June 4 memo.

Under Colorado water law, only local government entities, such as cities and counties, can apply for recreational water rights, and the CWCB must review them and approve limits on them before a water court can then grant such a right.

Glenwood Springs submitted an application to Division 5 water court in 2013, and now the court is awaiting the outcome of the review by CWCB.

The city wants the right to call for 1,250 cubic feet per second of water from April 1 to Sept. 30, for 2,500 cfs for up to 46 days between April 30 and July 23, and for 4,000 cfs for up to five days between May 11 and July 6.

The parks, each with two wave-producing structures, are proposed at No Name and Horseshoe Bend, which are both upstream of Glenwood Springs proper, and at upper Two Rivers Park, which is just above the confluence with the Roaring Fork River.

All three proposed features are upstream of the Glenwood Wave in West Glenwood, which produces a popular kayaking and surfing wave, and does so without an official water right of its own.

The CWCB has scheduled three-and-a-half hours at its July 16 meeting in Ignacio to review Glenwood’s application, including hearing testimony from attorneys and hydraulic experts on behalf of Aurora and Colorado Springs.

The two Front Range cities say the recreational in-channel diversion rights that Glenwood Springs is seeking “would dramatically and adversely affect the future of water use in the Colorado River drainage.”

Aurora and Colorado Springs own existing water rights on a number of transmountain diversion systems in the upper Colorado River basin, including in the Busk-Ivanhoe system on the Fryingpan River headwaters, the Independence Pass system in the Roaring Fork River headwaters, and the Homestake diversion on the Eagle River headwaters.

One criteria the CWCB is charged with reviewing is whether a proposed recreational right would limit the state’s ability to build new water supply facilities as allowed under the Colorado River compact.

Aurora and Colorado Springs say the proposed Glenwood recreational right would create such limits “by shepherding half the volume of the Colorado River to the bottom of the basin.”

The cities point to state estimates that there is up to 1 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to still be developed in the state, with 600,000 more acre-feet each year that could be developed in the Colorado River basin upstream of the proposed Glenwood whitewater parks, and 150,000 acre-feet below them.

If the Glenwood recreational water right has the effect of limiting upstream development, primarily by restricting how much could be diverted during two months of high spring flows, then the state won’t get all it’s potentially entitled to under the compact, the two cities told the CWCB.

“This will result in further ‘buy and dry’ of agricultural water rights, and could in addition motivate West Slope users to make trans-basin diversions from other river basins, such as the Yampa and Gunnison,” Aurora and Colorado Springs told the CWCB.

The two cities also say that a new recreational water right in Glenwood would interfere with cooperative efforts to send water downstream from various reservoirs for any number of reasons, including keeping enough water in the river near Palisade for endangered native fish.

“Such a large appropriation of half the flow of the Colorado River will put pressure on upstream consumptive users to fully develop their existing senior rights, instead of reaching flexible cooperative arrangements,” attorneys for Aurora and Colorado Springs said.

The Front Range cities further argue that most of the recreational traffic on the Colorado River above and below Glenwood Springs occurs when the river is running at lower flows, between 1,000 and 2,000 cfs, and so asking to hold elite whitewater competitions at 4,000 cfs is not “reasonable,” especially as such high flows are only likely to occur once every three years.

“Current use indicates that the bulk of recreational demand in the Glenwood area is for family-oriented recreational experiences rather than for higher-level experiences,” the two cities said. “Glenwood has not substantiated either an actual demand for intermediate and elite level experiences, or an economic benefit from such recreational experiences.”

Aurora and Colorado Springs make a number of other arguments against the Glenwood RICD, including that “the installation of artificial, manmade structures to effectuate the recreational in-channel diversion could produce an unnatural, engineered feel that would impair the scenic beauty of Glenwood Canyon.”

That “engineered feel,” they said, could have a “negative economic impact” on tourism.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of rivers and water. The Post Independent published this story on July 10, 2015.

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...