Show Ute Water’s woes with EPA to Congress, manager says

The Grand Valley’s largest water supplier’s frustrations in expanding a small reservoir on Grand Mesa would make a strong case study for Congress, the manager of the Ute Water Conservancy District said.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., on Tuesday said he would ask for a congressional hearing about hindrances to water development in the West.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Ute General Manager Larry Clever said Wednesday.

Congress should hear about the difficulty Ute, which serves 80,000 customers, has had in expanding Hunter Reservoir from 1,000 acre-feet to 1,300 acre-feet, Clever said.

“We’ve been working on Hunter for eight, nine years,” and Ute has spent more than $1 million so far on the project without turning a shovel, Clever said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Once he is cleared to expand the dam, construction will cost between $2 million and $3 million, Clever said.

The difficulty has been in obtaining environmental clearances from the Environmental Protection Agency, for work in fens, or wetlands-like areas, he said.

Grand Junction, on the other hand, has had few difficulties pursuing maintenance and expansion work atop the mesa, said Greg Trainor, the city’s utilities manager. None of the projects, however, have been as large as Ute’s Hunter expansion, he said.

If a project has had potential conflicts with wetlands of endangered plants, “We undertake mitigation, and, depending on how reasonable it is, figure that it’s the cost of providing water,” Trainor said.

The last major expansion the city undertook was the 1977 expansion of Juniata Reservoir from 2,000 to 6,000 acre-feet, and a small, 300-acre-foot expansion more recently went smoothly, Trainor said.

Smaller projects are most likely to be the norm in water development in the West because all of the easy, large projects have been done, observers said.

Major obstacles to water development include a lack of water, too little money and too many regulations, said Mesa County Commissioner Steve Acquafresca, a member of the Colorado River Water Conservation District board.

The federal government doesn’t have the money it once did to help such projects, and agriculture, electricity generation, municipal and industrial uses are similarly strapped, Acquafresca said.

While major projects remain on the drawing boards, several small projects are under way, said Hannah Holm of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University.

“So it’s not as if water storage has ground to a halt,” she said.

The future of western water development seems likely to center on small projects or the renovation of existing ones, Acquafresca said.

If Congress takes up the issue, it should look at water-saving measures as well, said Frank Smith of the Western Colorado Congress.

“Conservation and efficiency might be the lowest-hanging fruit versus building expensive new dams,” Smith said.

“Anything you can conserve, you don’t have to buy, treat or store,” and thereby save money, Trainor said.


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