Denver Water manager says it’s no longer ‘evil empire’

Denver Water and its longtime Western Slope adversaries are close to resolving a series of disputes in ways that will make it easier for water to flow out of faucets on both sides of the Continental Divide.

Both sides at the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s annual water seminar at Two Rivers Convention Center outlined a broad-stroke “roadmap” to the settlement of water disputes that long have separated Denver and the Western Slope.

“Denver Water was certainly at one point the evil empire,” Denver Water General Manager Jim Lochhead told about 200 people at the seminar. “We live in a much different time today.”

Denver Water, however, and the Western Slope face increasing water demands and pressing court dates in long-lasting litigation.

Likewise, River District General Manager Eric Kuhn said, “We’re under pressure from the federal court to do something.”

Attorneys for Denver Water and other water organizations won a weeklong stay Wednesday in the beginning of a trial on a case in federal court in which Denver Water’s handling of its Blue River decree is at issue.

That litigation could be set aside next week once an affidavit attesting to the progress of the parties is filed under seal in the court, River District spokesman Chris Treese said.

Denver Water also wants to get about the business of expanding Gross Reservoir near Boulder, Lochhead said.

The agency, which serves 1.3 million people and is the state’s oldest and largest water utility, needs the flexibility to move water around its system. It’s looking to the settlement to offer Denver Water the kind of flexibility it needs to manage its system, Lochhead said.

In addition to completing the Blue River decree, which refers to the stream that fills Dillon Reservoir, one of Denver’s largest water supplies, the agreement would limit the size of the Denver Water service area. It also would offer the Western Slope assurance that Denver Water would take no action to obtain more water without cooperation from the Western Slope.

Once it’s complete, “This will be one of the most comprehensive agreements that’s ever been negotiated in the state of Colorado,” Lochhead said. “I’m looking at this agreement to forge an entirely new paradigm” in relations between the Front Range and Western Slope.

Lochhead was a Glenwood Springs water attorney until earlier this year, when Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper tabbed him to succeed Hamilton “Chips” Barry, who planned to retire. Barry died before his retirement, however.

The agreement will give the Western Slope, primarily the River District, a greater voice in the operations of the Shoshone Power Plant.

The Shoshone plant generates 14 megawatts of electricity from turbines spun by the Colorado River, and its 1902 water right ensures water will flow from the headwaters of the river to Glenwood Canyon and below.

If Shoshone was unable to call water downriver, the Grand Valley’s domestic, agricultural and industrial needs, as well as those of four endangered fish species, would have to be met by other sources, notably the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers. They join above Glenwood Springs, and those waters flow into the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs, below the Shoshone plant. Plateau Creek in De Beque Canyon also could be called down to meet the Grand Valley requirements, leaving some of those junior water rights to go unfilled.

Exactly how the Western Slope protections afforded by the Shoshone Plant’s water right can be continued indefinitely wasn’t immediately clear. Those negotiations are confidential, Grand Junction attorney Mark Hermundstad said.

Details of the agreement eventually will be included in court filings, and several agencies will have to sign off on them, Kuhn said.


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