Front Range wants dibs on river water

A coalition of Front Range water utilities is calling in a letter for assurance that a new transmountain diversion project will be a part of a state plan aimed at filling the anticipated future gap between demand and supply.

That desire by the Front Range Water Council is unsettling others who question whether the Western Slope has any more water left to give.

It “brings out the worst fears of the Colorado Water Plan process, that it will devolve into a massive water fight attempting to drain and destroy the Colorado River to slake the never-ending growth of cities along Colorado’s Front Range,” the Save the Colorado River Campaign said in a news release issued by campaign coordinator Gary Wockner.

The letter to the Colorado Water Conservation Board was written by James Lochhead, chief executive officer and manager of Denver Water. Other utilities also on the council are Aurora Water, Colorado Springs Utilities, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the Pueblo Board of Water Works, the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.

It says that the planning process “should begin with an assurance, and not simply a hope,” that a new project involving Colorado River water will be a fundamental part of the package for meeting the state’s future water needs.

Roundtable groups around Colorado, including in the Colorado River Basin, are preparing proposals that the conservation board will consider in trying to come up with a statewide plan.

The Front Range Water Council’s concerns center on meeting notes from a March 17 conference call involving chairmen of the roundtable groups. The notes include a reference to a goal of giving water providers “an indication that there is hope for new supply” if the providers do their part. They went on to refer to various conservation and other milestones that would have to be met prior to an agreement for new supply being reached.

Jim Pokrandt of the Colorado River Water Conservation District is chairman of the Colorado River Basin roundtable and sits on the Interbasin Compact Committee. He described the conference call conversation as a “schematic on how to talk about diversion, illustrating how the discussion might go” in the state planning process.

“It was purely contemplative but it had stuff in there that could be taken out of context and that’s what the Front Range Water Council got excited about … but they’re reacting to something that doesn’t exist,” he said.

That said, Pokrandt questioned how the utilities can expect a new diversion to be a sure thing.

“They’re looking for more than hope and I don’t know how there can be hope when you don’t know if there’s enough water, you don’t know if all the other conditions can be answered, if the public will go for it and finance it, if you can get permits,” he said.

Western Slope water officials long have worried that a statewide plan would simply be a means of paving the way for further diversions of water to the Front Range.

However, the Interbasin Compact Committee now envisions that the plan won’t identify a specific diversion project, but will lay out conditions under which one could be pursued.

In an interview, Lochhead said no one can currently say what a new diversion project would look like, where it would be located, or how much water will be involved.

“But we need to all agree that that is an option that needs to be secured and preserved and not just kind of put out in the future for some future discussion,” he said.

Pokrandt said he thinks the Colorado River Roundtable’s position will be that it doesn’t think any more water is available to support more Front Range diversions.

He said the group is willing to study the idea, but there’s no guarantee enough water exists for a diversion and the outcome can’t be preordained to meet the Front Range utilities’ desire for an assured project.

“I don’t know how you get more than hope with all the questions out there,” he said.

For years, the focus in terms of filling Colorado’s water gap has involved what officials call a four-legged stool involving conservation/reuse, completion of projects already in the planning process, transfers of agricultural water, and new diversions.

“That’s been the most difficult thing to talk about,” Pokrandt said of the diversion concept.

Said Lochhead, “The option of the development of that leg needs to be preserved.”

He said he thinks it’s premature for the Western Slope to say there’s no water available. New supply needs to be part of the strategy and there needs to be a discussion of how and when it should occur, and what the Western Slope benefits can be, he said.

Mesa County Commissioner Steve Acquafresca has been keeping an eye on what the Colorado River roundtable group has been preparing and thinks it is doing a good job of articulating the region’s best water interests.

That includes the possible conclusion about the lack of more water for diversions in part because of Colorado’s water obligations to downstream states under an interstate compact.

“I think the Colorado River roundtable really makes a good case,” he said.

He expects the water conservation board to receive conflicting plans from western and eastern roundtables.

“It’s going to be really interesting to see how the CWCB manages these diverging views as they integrate them together into some statewide water plan,” he said.

Lochhead noted that the letter he signed is from a group of utilities, and when it comes to Denver Water alone, it has a new agreement with Western Slope entities that would require their buy-in for any future diversions by that utility. He said it remains committed to that agreement.

But speaking for Front Range utilities more generally, “If the (Western Slope) position is there’s no water to be developed, what that says is there’s no room for discussion. We need to move beyond platitudes and politics and parochialism and move toward actual discussion,” he said.

At the same time, Lochhead conceded the potential for discussions to start to fall apart when parties start engaging in letter-writing.

“I’ll plead guilty to that here,” he said.


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