PUEBLO — Two members of a committee dedicated to the “equitable division of the state’s waters” from the Arkansas basin want to talk about moving more water from Western Slope rivers to thirsty towns and farms east of the Continental Divide.

“I think the discussion needs to be pushed,” said Jeris Danielson, who is director of the Purgatoire River Water Conservancy District in Trinidad and a former Colorado state water engineer.

Danielson is one of two representatives from the Arkansas basin roundtable on the 27-member Interbasin Compact Committee, set up by the Legislature in 2005 (HB 05-1177) to bring together stakeholders representing all the state’s river basins to talk about the “equitable division” of water in Colorado.

Jay Winner, the other Arkansas roundtable member on the IBCC, also spoke about his desire to keep transmountain diversions on the table when the committee meets next.

“I think it’s time we have that hard conversation,” said Winner, who is the director of the Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District.

Winner and Danielson made their comments at an Arkansas roundtable meeting in Pueblo on Feb. 10.

After the meeting, Winner said the IBCC was set up to talk about transbasin and transmountain diversions— where water is collected in one drainage and sent underneath a ridge of mountains to another — and should use its recently drafted “conceptual framework” to do just that.

The framework spells out the conditions a new transmountain diversion would have to meet to gain support on the Western Slope, including not increasing the risk of a compact call from states on the lower Colorado River.

“My take on the IBCC was that it was to have those difficult conversations for the benefit of Colorado,” Winner said. “And it seems the IBCC at times has turned into a coffee and donuts club. We sit around, talk about a lot of warm and fuzzy stuff. But the IBCC is about that adult conversation.”

Many IBCC members may feel they just had the “adult conversation” as they spent the last two years talking about transmountain diversions while developing the conceptual framework. (See related story).

But Winner is not fazed.

“We’re supposed to be talking about water, we’re not the finance guys,” said Winner. He was referring to the fact that the next IBCC meeting, in Broomfield on Feb. 23, is slated to focus on funding options for new water projects in Colorado.

The IBCC includes two members from each of the state’s nine basin roundtables, plus six governor’s appointees, two legislative representatives and one director of compact negotiations, also appointed by the governor.

High country diversion

Water to the east

When two IBCC members from the Arkansas roundtable say they want to talk about transmountain diversions, it’s worth listening, especially for the Roaring Fork River watershed.

Each year an average of 57,000 acre-feet of water is taken out of streams in the Hunter Creek and upper Fryingpan River basins via 16 diversion structures. The water is collected and sent east through the Boustead Tunnel, the core of the Fry-Ark project, to Turquoise Reservoir near Leadville.

And an average of 41,000 acre-feet of water from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork is sent each year through a tunnel under Independence Pass, to Twin Lakes Reservoir and beyond.

An increasing amount of the water from the Fork and Pan is owned by and used in cities, including Aurora, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Pueblo West. But most of it is still used on fields stretching east of Pueblo on either side of the Arkansas River.

On the way down the Arkansas, the water also helps float the basin’s rafting and fishing economy.

The 2015 Arkansas basin implementation plan makes it clear that “new transbasin diversions” are on the table.

“The unmet demands for both municipal and agricultural future demands will have to be met from better management of existing supplies including reuse of transbasin water supplies to the maximum potential along with consideration of new transbasin diversions from an IBCC approved project,” the Arkansas plan states.

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.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

Checking with Southeastern

Jeris and Winner, during their brief IBCC committee reports at the Arkansas roundtable meeting, did not go into specifics about what they wanted to discuss.

And James Broderick, who sits on the Arkansas roundtable executive committee with Jeris and Winner, said he wasn’t sure what the two IBCC members were referring to.

“My guess is they are referring to transmountain diversions globally, not specifically,” said Broderick, who is also the executive director of Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which controls the water rights tied to the Fry-Ark project.

Southeastern holds conditional water rights in the upper Fryingpan basin on Lime and Last Chance creeks, in what the district called in a 2010 plan the “unbuilt portions of the Northside Collection System.”

Asked if Southeastern was working on developing those conditional water rights, Broderick said, “We’re looking at our conditional water rights, as we do all the time. Those are pieces that were originally negotiated and are still viable.”

Southeastern’s strategic plan for 2010 to 2015 does include as objectives “maximize Fry-Ark diversions to the limit of Southeastern’s water rights” and “ensure conditional water rights are absolute.”

The cover of the Arkansas Basin Roundtable's Basin Implementation Plan, completed in April 2015. Each of the basin roundtables developed a "BIP," but the Ark's is one of the most in-depth and complete.
Credit: Source: Ark RT

A plan with a man

The Arkansas roundtable is now the first of the nine basin roundtables to secure a state grant to hire a professional water manager for a year.

It received the $98,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board in September and asked Gary Barber, an experienced Arkansas basin water developer and manager, to work on projects included in the 2015 Arkansas basin implementation plan.

An appendix to the plan includes 576 possible project description sheets, but the plan itself refers to “over 200 projects. “

It also declares that “new, interbasin supplies are a potential alternative to long-term agricultural dry-up” and that “new storage vessels are needed to meet all demands.”

But Winner said that Barber has not been directed to work on new transbasin projects.

“He’s not working on any transmountain diversion,” Winner said. “He is just working on what’s in the basin implementation plan and trying to get these smaller projects put together.”

“We have a lot of these aging infrastructure projects,” he added. “They could help meet the gap if they could actually fix their problems. Our big problem is finding the dollars to fix problems.”

Holding water. The Ruedi spillway and dam on the Fryingpan River above Basalt.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

So, uh, TMD?

Asked if he had a specific new transbasin diversion project in mind that he wants to discuss with the IBCC, Winner said, in a bit of curveball, “I do not believe there will ever be another transmountain diversion.”

“I remember Fryingpan-Arkansas,” said Winner. “I remember the protesting going on back then, in the ‘70s. It was ugly. What would it be like today if you tried to do a transmountain diversion? But I do believe the IBCC can start looking at projects.”

Winner suggests, for example, that a new dam on the lower South Platte River to store East Slope water would be beneficial to the state.

“I don’t think we need a transbasin diversion, but I think we need to better utilize what we have running into the state of Nebraska,” Winner said. “So I’d like to see the IBCC put their minds together and figure out a big project that could possibly solve problems that we have here in the state of Colorado.”

Winner also said he understands the West Slope’s perspective on transmountain diversions.

He went to high school in Kremmling and worked for three summers laboring to build Ruedi Reservoir, as his father was a manager on the Fry-Ark project, which was built between 1964 and 1981.

“I lived in Aspen when Aspen was nothing but a hippie town,” Winner said. “I understand what happened on the Western Slope. Not that long ago, the East Slope came to the West Slope and ran everybody over. We need to get past that. And we need to look at what’s going to be the best benefit for the state of Colorado.”

“And although the West Slope would love to say, ‘We got ours, leave us alone,’ the West Slope still needs the East Slope,” Winner added. “A lot of the dollars come from the East Slope.“

And even before Winner lived in Aspen, that sentiment was heard in the community.

In an editorial on June 9, 1961, The Aspen Times came out in support of the Fry-Ark project, after railing against it for years.

This was at a stage in the project when a large compensatory West Slope reservoir was to be built on the Fork just east of Aspen, not up on the Fryingpan as Ruedi Reservoir is today.

“We in Aspen are not living in a vacuum,” concluded the editorial, which was either written by Bil Dunaway as editor or George Madsen as assistant editor. “We enjoy the benefits of many government projects. We are also sensitive to the welfare of the state as a whole. It would be selfish to oppose the Fry-Ark project because it results in more benefits to others than it does to us. But we feel the benefits to us, both direct and indirect, would be considerable.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of water and rivers in Colorado. The Daily News published this story on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016.

Brent Gardner-Smith

Brent Gardner-Smith

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...