Western Slope, Denver near agreement on water deal

A pending deal five years in the making and involving nearly 30 parties seeks to ensure Denver Water’s ability to divert additional Colorado River water while helping resolve Western Slope concerns.

The agreement is expected to require Denver Water to invest in river-restoration projects. It also would address pending project applications and long-term operations of the river in Colorado.

“I think this is a huge accomplishment from both the West and East Slope’s perspective,” said Chris Treese, a spokesman with the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which participated in the negotiations.

Parties to the deal plan to speak to its details in a news conference Thursday in Grand County. Treese said it won’t be a signing ceremony because negotiations on the agreement still are ongoing.

“There’s a lot of detail yet to be worked out,” he said.

Treese declined to provide specifics about the proposed agreement before Thursday, but he addressed some general points in response to recent news reports about the deal.

He confirmed that under the agreement Western Slope organizations wouldn’t challenge Denver Water plans to divert more water from the Winter Park and Dillon areas. Nor would they fight how Denver is using water from the Blue River, a Colorado River tributary. Treese said the Western Slope previously has taken issue because Denver expanded the service area where the water has been used beyond what originally was authorized.

In return, Treese said the deal would address water quality and quantity on the Colorado River, and the cumulative impacts of water projects and the river’s critical current and future needs.

A key element is designed to resolve concerns surrounding the Shoshone Power Plant water right in Glenwood Canyon. That senior right helps ensure river flows through the canyon and downstream, and it reduces the need for holders of senior water rights at Cameo downstream to exercise a water call that affects those with junior water rights.

Mely Whiting, an attorney with Colorado Trout Unlimited, said she hasn’t been a party to the negotiations but has been briefed by some participants. She said the deal reportedly tries to address problems that could arise when the power plant is down for maintenance, and the threat that Xcel Energy could sell it and the plant’s call could be inactivated.

Resolving the power plant concern “is a very positive thing,” she said.

More generally, she understands the agreement may contain some restrictions on Denver’s future use of Colorado River water and encourage water reuse.

“It’s hopefully just in general a new way of doing business,” she said.

But Ken Neubecker, executive director of the Western Rivers Institute, a Carbondale nonprofit organization, said he is skeptical of the deal, based on what he has heard about it so far, including at various water meetings.

“It seems to me that there’s an awful lot of money included but not that much water. It’s still a huge net loss of water in the headwaters, and unfortunately what the river needs is water,” he said.

He also is concerned that the deal doesn’t involve the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which he said takes “a huge amount of water” from the Colorado River.

The deal doesn’t address the expansion of Northern Colorado’s Windy Gap project, or the expansion of the Moffat water-diversion project.

Treese said those expansions are in the permitting process, when mitigation of impacts will be considered.

In a prepared statement, Denver Water Manager and Chief Executive Officer Jim Lochhead said the proposed agreement “embraces a partnership to manage water for the benefit of the state as a whole — developing new water supplies in a responsible and cooperative way, preserving existing supplies, and working together to preserve watersheds and the environment.”

Lochhead, a water attorney, until recently was a longtime resident of Glenwood Springs in western Colorado.


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