This transmountain diversion in the headwaters of the Fryingpan River is one of many that currently send water from the West Slope to the East Slope.
This transmountain diversion in the headwaters of the Fryingpan River is one of many that currently send water from the West Slope to the East Slope. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

GLENWODD SPRINGS – The Colorado River Basin Roundtable last week pushed back against a perception that Western Slope interests have reached an agreement about a conceptual transmountain diversion, as indicated by a draft of the Colorado Water Plan and recent remarks by James Eklund, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB).

“It is important that nobody oversells this as a done deal and a clear-cut pathway to a new transmountain diversion,” said Jim Pokrandt, the chairman of the roundtable and the communications director at the Colorado River District. “It is a way to talk about it.”

Pokrandt was referencing a seven-point draft conceptual agreement put out in June by the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) that is now included in the state water-plan draft. The 15-member committee includes representatives from the state’s nine basin roundtables and six other appointees.

The first of the committee’s seven points is that “the East Slope is not looking for firm yield from a new transmountain diversion project and would accept hydrologic risk for the project.”

Or, as Ken Ransford, the secretary of the Colorado roundtable, put it in the group’s October meeting, “This means that the East Slope will take less or perhaps no water in low-snow years instead of drying up a West Slope river.”

An article in The Denver Post on Nov. 11 fueled the perception, some roundtable members said Nov. 24, that an agreement on the concept had already been reached.

“The reality is the Western Slope is seeing available water in wet years for the Front Range to bring over,” Elklund, head of the CWCB, told the Post. They are OK with that as long as there is mitigation or compensatory storage.”

Eklund also told the Post, “Most people I talk with, even in the intense water community, view themselves as Coloradans first and members of river basins second.”

Pokrandt called Eklund’s comments “unfortunate.”

Eklund’s remarks conflict with the view of the roundtable’s executive committee, which said in a recent draft memo that “there is no water remaining from the Colorado River than can reliably be developed for Front Range use without putting Western Slope agriculture and recreation at peril and risking the certainty of current water users.”

On Nov. 19, the CWCB’s board of directors, which oversees both the committee and the nine roundtables, unanimously approved the draft water plan, including the committee’s draft conceptual agreement, which was highlighted in a chapter called “Interbasin Projects and Agreements.”

“Once finalized, these points of consensus may serve as the foundation for any new future transmountain diversion projects seeking state support,” the draft water plan says about the committee’s seven points.

But Louis Meyer, who represents Garfield County on the Colorado River Basin Roundtable and is the CEO of the engineering firm SGM in Glenwood Springs, said Nov. 24 that it was too soon to roll out the committee’s seven points.

He said they did not have “public buy-in,” they were “exceptionally vague” and agreeing to the points “would result in unintended consequences.”

“How can we go back to all the folks we represent, our constituents, and tell them we support these seven points when we don’t know what it means?” Meyer said.

Eric Kuhn, who sits on the Interbasin Compact Committee and also is director of the Colorado River District, said the seven points were “intentionally vague” and that in hindsight, he wished the committee had not called them a draft conceptual agreement.

“This is not an agreement,” Kuhn said. “It’s really a list of discussion topics.”

Stan Cazier, who represents the roundtable on the IBCC and supported the seven points being released, said the first point — where the Front Range accepts there may not always be water to divert — could actually be favorable to the Western Slope.

“This is the only thing that I understand is in the Colorado Water Plan, which basically doesn’t give a green light to the other basins to develop anything they want to,” Cazier said. “This kind of puts the brakes on, possibly, what they could do in the future.”

The IBCC’s draft conceptual agreement, or, if you prefer, its list of discussion topics,” will be on the agenda at a meeting in Grand Junction on Dec. 18, when the Colorado, Gunnison, Yampa/White and Southwest basin roundtables are slated to come together as the West Slope Roundtable.

Editor’s note:
Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this article on Monday, Dec. 1, 2014.

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...