City Council must exercise its authority to protect water

On the southeast corner of Veterans Memorial Park in Palisade there’s a monument to former U.S. Rep. Wayne Aspinall. The inscription memorializes his lifetime of work on water issues in our part of the world.

“In the West,” it says, quoting the longtime congressman from Palisade, “when you touch water you touch everything.”

The Grand Junction City Council and other local, state and federal officials should heed that admonition as they consider the potential impacts of drilling in or near two of Mesa County’s most precious assets, the watersheds extending down the Grand Mesa that fill the taps, water the lawns, supply the businesses and otherwise have been so vital to the past, the present and the futures of the towns of Palisade and Grand Junction.

Grand Junction first acted to reserve high mountain water supplies more than 100 years ago. Water rights were acquired, reservoirs were built and pipelines constructed to the treatment plant on Orchard Mesa. Since then, the city has acquired the Summerville Ranch, other lands and the accompanying water rights in the headwaters of Kannah Creek and its tributaries. This forward thinking has stood the test of time as continual improvements have been made to reservoirs and pipelines.

The three drainages, Kannah Creek, North Kannah Creek and Whitewater Creek, comprise one of the most reliable and high-quality water sources in Colorado. They provide high mountain “first use” water, cheaper to treat than other used and reused water in the rivers that flow through the valley floor. The historic and senior water rights also guarantee reliability. During the drought of 2002, when other Colorado communities were rationing or otherwise restricting water use, city reservoirs held an 8-month supply of readily available water.

Grand Junction has a storied history of fighting for this water. In the early 1900s city fathers, recognizing Kannah Creek was the ideal source of pure and dependable water for a growing pioneer town, won in court the ability to condemn water rights. That was the first and until recently the only time that a Colorado municipality used that power to acquire necessary water.

Citizens of Grand Junction, in 2006, also demonstrated their strong support for protecting their water. As drilling was being proposed in the Kannah Creek area, petitions containing thousands of signatures prompted then-City Council members to approve a Watershed Protection Ordinance.

It wasn’t an unusual step. Dozens of other Colorado towns and cities ranging in size from Denver to Alma and including Palisade, Rifle, Parachute, Craig, Steamboat Springs and other Western Slope communities, have either similar ordinances or have established watershed protection districts. Others of similar size include Fort Collins, Greeley, Longmont and Loveland. Their authority has been consistently upheld by courts, including the Colorado Supreme Court. Federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service have a long history of working with municipal watershed protection ordinances and districts in Colorado.

Current Grand Junction leaders, in the spirit of predecessors who unsuccessfully tried to buy watershed drilling leases at a 2006 federal auction, must exercise the authority given them by the Watershed Protection Ordinance as the Bureau of Land Management re-evaluates a proposal by Fram LLC to drill 108 wells near the watershed.

The ordinance, which is not limited to drilling activity, prohibits “any measureable increase” in pollution within the watersheds and extends city authority for five miles upstream of any city water structure or diversion. It requires monitoring wells, paid for by the operator but under city control, in the vicinity of reservoirs and well pads and also regulates grading, construction and traffic activities associated with drilling while carefully avoiding conflicts with state and federal oversight.

In addition to federal and state permits, the ordinance requires any use with the potential to cause “significant degradation” of water quality in a primary watershed to also obtain a city watershed permit. It also requires of proponents of several named activities (including drilling) “a detailed description of any reasonable alternative to the proposed land use activity which may result in less of an impact to the City’s water works and primary watersheds.”

We hope that the Grand Junction City Council and staff recognize our ability to grow and prosper depends on a clean, reliable source of water and utilize fully their independent oversight authority under the Watershed Protection Ordinance while working with the BLM, USFS, Fram, county commissioners and other local officials to protect irreplaceable water supplies city residents have relied on for more than a century.

Gregg Palmer, a former mayor and council member in Grand Junction and longtime local business owner, served on the City Council that enacted the Watershed Protection Ordinance. Former Mayor Jim Spehar, a council member at the time, also represented Western Slope municipalities on the board of directors of the Colorado Water Congress during his two terms.


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