Irrigated crops on Colorado's eastern plains.
Irrigated crops on Colorado's eastern plains. Credit: Allen Best / Mountain Town News

Many of the members of Colorado’s Interbasin Compact Committee, or IBCC, risked icy roads and snowy weather to get to their state-level water meeting in Golden on December 4. And when they got there – to talk about water for the state’s growing population – they didn’t find the going any easier.

The IBCC includes representatives from the state’s nine river basin roundtables. And as it convened, it did so knowing the Colorado River Basin Roundtable had just drawn a line on the Continental Divide in a position paper, telling the IBCC that “new transmountain diversions projects, if any, should be the very last ‘tool’ out of the box.’”

“Everybody knows the new supply will come from the Colorado River basin, except those of us in the Colorado River basin,” Stan Cazier of Grand County, who represents the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, told the other members of the IBCC.

Today, nearly three-quarters of the water in the upper Colorado River is sent east before the river reaches the Grand County seat in Hot Sulphur Springs. In all, 450,000 acre-feet to 600,000 acre-feet of water is moved each year from the Western Slope to cities along the Front Range and farms on the eastern plains.

But faced with a growing population, representatives of water interests on the Front Range want to plan for additional diversions, or “new supply,” from the Western Slope. Still in doubt is whether that water is available.

“If we wait to pursue new supply until we have all the answers – we will never have all the answers,” said Eric Wilkinson, executive director of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and a member of the South Platte Basin Roundtable, at the IBCC meeting.

Gov. John Hickenlooper is expecting to find answers in the Colorado Water Plan, which is due on his desk in a year. The IBCC is expected to give its input on the plan to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which oversees the work of the IBCC and the basin roundtables, and is charged with drafting the water plan and sending it to the governor.

The statewide water plan is supposed to respond to a looming scenario. The state’s population will double to 10 million by 2050, and 80 percent of the people will live on the Front Range. And they will require 500,000 more acre-feet of water. Meanwhile, 80 percent of the state’s water will still originate in the mountains of the Western Slope and tries to flow via the Colorado River to the Sea of Cortez, or at least to Lake Powell.

In its white paper, the Colorado River Basin Roundtable insists that “the notion that increasing demands on the Front Range can always be met with a new supply from the Colorado River, or any other river, [is] no longer valid.”

However, Wilkinson, of the South Platte Basin Roundtable, wants to keep planning as it could easily take 20 years to approve and build a new water project.

“Neither the South Platte Basin nor I am saying that we’re going to start the bulldozers of implementation tomorrow,” Wilkinson said.

Taylor Hawes, Colorado River Program director for The Nature Conservancy, sees the future differently. She wants conservation and efficiency fully explored before additional water projects are considered.

“It’s premature to talk about a big project on the Western Slope, because we don’t know what problem we’re solving,” said Hawes, who is one of the governor’s appointees on the IBCC to represent environmental viewpoints. “Depending upon the problem, the solution may look different.”

Complicating the planning is an emerging issue that highlights the doubts about how much water remains available for development.

An aerial view of a relatively full Lake Powell.
An aerial view of a relatively full Lake Powell. Credit: Steve Skinner

The Lake Powell hydro problem

New concerns have arisen that there may be too little water in Lake Powell in the near future to generate electricity at the Glen Canyon Dam. If so, that could send ripples back upstream and through the state’s water system. And it could also reduce how much water gets sent under the Continental Divide.

Representatives of the seven states in the broader Colorado River basin have been meeting since June to develop strategies in case this winter delivers thin snow, and hence meager flows into Lake Powell, said John McClow of Gunnison, who represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

The reservoir beyond Glen Canyon Dam is already low, as inflows during the last two years were 25 percent and then 47 percent as compared to the rolling 30-year average.

The drought years from 2001 through 2003 were near as bad, but with a difference: before the drought, in 1999, Lake Powell had been full. As of early December, Lake Powell is only at 43 percent of its capacity.

While this winter has gotten off to a snowy start, computer models project a 5 percent to 7 percent chance of a “dead pool” in Lake Powell – which means there will be too little water to generate power next summer. Glen Canyon’s eight turbines this year will generate enough power to run 320,000 homes, according to the Western Area Power Administration.

This issue is about more than electricity. It’s about money.

The $150 million in annual revenues from Glen Canyon electricity sales is primarily used to buy down the cost of building the dam, which was completed in 1966. The revenue is also used to subsidize other projects, including salinity control efforts in the Paradox Valley west of Telluride and water for endangered fish on a 15-mile stretch of the Colorado River between Palisade and Grand Junction.

Money and electricity aside, why not just forego electrical production at Glen Canyon Dam when there is not enough water? That’s an option, but it could result in the federal government stepping in to create a solution in the upper Colorado River basin that Colorado and other states don’t like.

“These are possibilities, not probabilities,” says James Eklund, executive director of the Colorado River Water Conservation Board, the state’s primary water policy agency. “But you have to plan for that contingency.”

To keep the turbines at Glen Canyon Dam humming, state water officials are developing potential responses to a low-flow spring.

The first could be to release more water from two federal reservoirs on Colorado River tributaries — Navajo Reservoir on the San Juan River and Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River – to augment Lake Powell with more water and allow continued electrical production.

Other options include curtailing transmountain diversions, drying up ag land, stepping up cloud seeding, and working to remove thirsty tamarisk plants from riverbanks.

Whatever strategies are adopted, McClow stressed, Colorado alone is not responsible for the answer to the Lake Powell hydropower production problem. Other basin states will have to be part of a solution.

The Lake Powell situation, however, applies directly to the disagreement in Colorado about additional diversions. The state faces two questions: What are the measures of risk and when do they apply if more water is desired for the Colorado River?

The risk of uncertain snowfall on the Western Slope must be contained in the state water plan. From his perspective in Gunnison, McClow sees a system of a variety of small reservoirs and not just a few big diversions.

A conceptual view of a way to move water from the Yampa River to the Front Range. Source: 2009 CWCB report, Strategies for Colorado's Water Supply Future.
A conceptual view of a way to move water from the Yampa River to the Front Range. Source: 2009 CWCB report, Strategies for Colorado\ Credit: Source: CWCB

Of straws and pipelines

Instead of small, scattered reservoirs, major transmountain projects have been in the headlines since 2002.

Most prominent has been the idea of a pipeline, or “big straw,” from Flaming Gorge Reservoir across Wyoming and down along the Front Range. That idea has not yet died, as two groups continue to explore it.

Also discussed have been new pipelines. One would draw water from the Gunnison River, from below Blue Mesa Reservoir, and the other from the Yampa River west of Craig.

The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District commissioned a conceptual study in 2007 of the economic and financial feasibility of the Yampa River idea. The pipeline would draw water at Maybell, just upstream of where the river enters Dinosaur National Monument, and distribute it to customers, probably in Boulder, Fort Collins and Greeley.

Wilkinson, the executive director of the Northern district, believes the economics for such a project will only improve. Prices for urban water use have reached $40,000 per acre-foot, he says. The result of that robust market is the drying up of farms in the South Platte River valley.

Below is a map from a 2009 CWCB report,”Strategies for Colorado’s Water Supply Future,” that shows a concept to pump water from the Colorado River near Loma back to higher elevation locations to the east.

A map of the concept to divert water from the Colorado River at Loma and pump to locations to the east. Source: 2009 CWCB report on Strategies for Colorado's Water Supply Future.
A map of the concept to divert water from the Colorado River at Loma and pump to locations to the east. Source: 2009 CWCB report on Strategies for Colorado\ Credit: Source: CWCB

Below is a map from the 2009 CWCB report that shows the route of pipelines from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to the east.

A map from the 2009 CWCB report, Strategies for Colorado's Water Supply Future, that shows pipelines from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir to points east.
A map from the 2009 CWCB report, Strategies for Colorado\ Credit: Source: CWCB

And below is a map that shows the route of a conceptual pipeline from the Gunnison River at Blue Mesa Reservoir, along with the Yampa and Green river pipelines.

A map from a joint statement of the South Platte, Arkansas and Metro roundtables. It shows pipelines in different colors from the Green (red line), Yampa (green line) and Gunnison (blue line) rivers.
A map from a joint statement of the South Platte, Arkansas and Metro roundtables. It shows pipelines in different colors from the Green (red line), Yampa (green line) and Gunnison (blue line) rivers.

The conservation approach

Working another angle of the water gap, two separate ideas are being put forth to undercut that demand for more municipal water by mandating greater efficiency and conservation across Colorado.

Denver Water, the public utility that delivers water to one of every four Coloradans, has been pushing mandatory water-saving technology for all Coloradans for years. New legislation proposed by the organization would require all retailers in Colorado to stock new toilets, showerheads and other fixtures after existing inventories have been depleted.

Greg Fisher, manager of demand planning for Denver Water, said these new EPA-approved WaterSense fixtures could yield 40,000 acre-feet annually in savings, enough for 100,000 homes.

“It’s not the whole answer to our water problems, but it’s a significant piece,” he said.

A similar proposal — tied primarily to toilets — previously died in the state legislature.

Crimping water use for residential lawns can save even more water than mandating more efficient fixtures. Residential lawn water use is responsible for 50 percent of municipal demand in Colorado, and many cities have met such demand by buying water rights from agricultural operations, usually in distant locations, and shifting use of the water. It’s known as “buy and dry.”

Proposed legislation discussed at last week’s meeting would trigger mandatory reductions in outdoor water use. If a new real estate development resulted in a buy-and-dry water transfer from irrigated lands, the law would restrict the amount of lawn area in a subdivision to no more than 15 percent of the total area of all the residential lots. Such a restriction could reduce the consumption of water on new lawns by one-third, proponents say.

Chris Treese, external affairs manager for the Colorado River District, says two state senators, Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, and Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, have asked to be primary sponsors of such a bill.

“If we can’t do something on conservation, the rest will be so much harder. This should be the low-hanging fruit,” said Hawes of The Nature Conservancy.

Editor’s note: Reporter Allen Best’s work can also be found at Mountain Town News.

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...

One reply on “Water demands grow on both sides of the Continental Divide”

  1. Do we currently require gas drillers to recycle the billions of gallons of water used in hydraulic fracturing operations?

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