River district chief defends water study

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — The head of the Colorado River District is defending an ongoing water study from Front Range concerns about its intent and possible regional bias.

Eric Kuhn, the district’s general manager, says while Front Range water interests view the project as a water supply study, that’s not the case.

“It was a how-should-we-be-prepared-for-another-drought study,” he said Monday in providing an update to the Colorado Basin Roundtable water group.

The first phase of a study undertaken by the four Western Slope river basin roundtables, with the leadership of the river district and Southwestern Water Conservation District, found that another severe drought such as the one in the early 2000s could cause enough of a drop in Lake Powell to jeopardize Glen Canyon Dam’s ability to generate electricity. It also could create a risk of Colorado and other Upper Colorado River Basin states being unable to meet their downstream water delivery obligations under a 1922 interstate compact and under guidelines established in 2007. That could result in a cutback in Upper Basin water uses.

The Western Slope is now planning a second phase of the study that would cost about $90,000. The goal is to further quantify the drought risks to water users in the state by looking at use-reduction scenarios for making up for a deficit of water in Powell.

Four Western Slope roundtables are asking the Colorado Water Conservation Board for $10,000 apiece, or $40,000 total, for the study’s second phase, with the river district and Southwest district splitting the difference. But Jim Lochhead, chief executive officer and manager of Denver Water and president of the Front Range Water Council utilities group, has written a letter arguing that such a study would be best conducted at a statewide or Upper Colorado River Basin level, “with all interested water users represented, rather than by particular sub regions or individual roundtables.”

Some of the proposed involuntary water-use curtailment alternatives in the study’s second phase “potentially favor limited special interests,” Lochhead wrote, stressing the need instead for a state-led discussion that considers all interests.

He also voiced the council’s concern that assumptions used in phase one “may be creating biased impressions regarding the amount of the remaining developable water” in the Colorado River Basin, and that phase one may be viewed by some outside the state “as representative of the State of Colorado’s position on remaining developable water.”

How much of that water remains to be developed is a sensitive issue for the Western Slope, where most of Colorado’s water originates, and for the Front Range, which diverts a substantial amount of Colorado River water and wants to divert more.

Kuhn says the study is simply intended to contribute toward developing a collaborative program for avoiding Colorado River compact problems for existing uses and some reasonable amount of new uses on the Western Slope. Collaboration aimed at heading off such curtailments on use due to interstate obligations was identified in the new state water plan as one of seven principles for guiding any discussions of new transmountain diversions out of the river basin.

The CWCB’s director, James Eklund, has agreed to head up meetings aimed at resolving Front Range concerns about the study and its funding. Kuhn said he sees the result being that the state has a bigger say in the study’s scope of work, not that it takes over the study altogether.


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