Grand County hopes to benefit from Front Range water-firming projects
January 15, 2010
One citizen needed further clarification.After about two hours listening to a panel of 15 people who represent Grand County in Denver Water Moffat Firming Project negotiations, one individual went to the microphone and asked point blank:”As a county, are we for this? …Or we against this?”The answer was not as black or white as the question.The bottom line was: What choice do we have?Denver seeks a firm yield of 18,000 more acre-feet out of the Fraser River – deemed already on the brink of ill health – which would leave an estimated 20 percent of the river’s native flows. About four years ago, in preparation for upcoming firming projects, the state’s largest water users started asking Grand County want it wants in return for the firming projects.”It’s really a question of trade-offs,” said Grand County Manager Lurline Underbrink Curran.She was speaking as one of the panel members in a well-attended meeting called “Understanding the Moffat Firming Project/ NEPA Process” coordinated by the county and held on Tuesday at the SilverCreek Convention Center in Granby. “What the EIS is proposing to do is take the flows off of the rising level of the hydrograph, and in our wettest times of the year, what our enhancements are proposing to do is to give us water back when our flows are the lowest. Is that an acceptable trade?” she asked.”There’s skepticism out there, there’s a feeling out there that Grand County has this back-room deal going on,” said Grand County Commissioner James Newberry at the start of the meeting. “And the more I thought about this, yeah. We do. We really do. It’s a separate negotiating process.” On its team, the county has assembled water attorneys, engineers, NEPA and Clean Water Act specialists and a professional negotiator to aid in deals and to advise on what to ask for.The county has spent some $2.8 million on water protection since 2003. In the past year alone, county representatives have attended 65 meetings with the Northern Water Conservancy District, Denver Water and West Slope partners regarding water issues, according to county officials.”We’re going to be much better off than before the project happened,” Newberrry said, optimistically. But success is not guaranteed, at which point the county is prepared to litigate. “And even that is not a guarantee,” he said.The county has stated it has better legal footing against the Northern Colorado Municipal Subdistrict’s Windy Gap Firming Project – concurrently being proposed – than it does Denver’s.Grand County’s takeThe Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the Moffat Project, officials say, is thin when it comes to measures that will help to address future impacts to the river.County officials urged audience members at the meeting to make comments on the draft EIS, and to encourage the Army Corps of Engineers – the lead agency that holds the card for approval – to consider the county’s $1 million river-water study called the Grand County Stream Management Plan. The plan analyzes 80 miles of river, including the Fraser and Colorado, and four tributaries per river. The study concentrates on the health of fish and the aquatic habitat, analyzing 27 different sites. Flow regimes were studied, and according to Stream Management Plan consultant Peggy Bailey, senior project manager for the engineering firm Tetra Tech, due to “highly altered conditions in Grand County, (the river) is not getting the flushing flows it needs.” “We already have a river that is on the brink,” said Mely Whiting, senior attorney for Trout Unlimited. “Is this incremental 20 percent going to push us over the brink?”It’s a question that has been subjected to modeling, charting and graphing in countless studies.But Jon Ewert, Division of Wildlife area biologist, said even with the most esteemed modeling, biology is really unpredictable.”There are cascading effects that can take years, if not decades to unfold,” he said.Both Denver Water and Northern have endorsed the science behind the Stream Management Plan, county officials say, although those water users may not agree on the implementation of it.It’s in the arena of “enhancements” – being negotiated on the side – where the Fraser River may benefit, but those nuggets of promise come with the firming projects.An estimated total of 14,400 less acre-feet annually would exist at the confluence of the Blue River and Colorado River if Denver’s preferred alternative of increasing storage at Gross Reservoir were to come to fruition, with enhancements, compared to 12,100 acre-feet less flow at the confluence if Denver’s diversions stayed as they are – with zero enhancements.And what about these enhancements? What enforcement would Grand County have that the large water authorities would follow through?A contract between the county, Denver Water and the Colorado River District would be enforceable by any of them in District Court, said Grand County Water Rights Counsel David Taussig of White & Jankowski, Denver. Ideally, the agreement would be attached to an issued permit, he said. Attorney Mely Whiting of Trout Unlimited stressed along with county officials that any allowance for Denver to take more water from the river should be tied to a “reopener clause,” in which stakeholders would revisit the project if degradation of the river reached beyond what was predicted in the NEPA process.”Our resource is at a critical tipping point,” said Manager Underbrink Curran. “We should all argue that if the predictions that are made in the EIS are not good, and are not solid and do not work out like is being predicted, people have to come back and re-look at it. And we, and Denver and the Corps and everyone needs to sit down and say: How are we going to fix this resource? This is critical, not only to Grand County, but to the state of Colorado.””This is a grave situation,” said County Commissioner Nancy Stuart. “In my opinion, it’s the life and death of our rivers. So we really need to think about the statements that we make, and I’m putting faith in the Corps that they will listen.”Denver water has not managed to push a project through of this scale since construction of the Dillon Reservoir in 1963, according to a recent report by the Denver Post. In 1990, the EPA shut down Denver’s proposed $1 billion Two Forks Dam.- Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.