Opponents of Grand Lake diversions muddy water plan
July 12, 2010
GRAND LAKE – Front Range authorities poised to divert more western Colorado water to the east face opponents rallying around the mountain lake.
With current diversions already suspected by some of mucking up Grand Lake’s water, any new water removals – such as those proposed by Denver Water and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District – could degrade the lake intolerably, opposition groups and Grand County officials contend.
“I know (Front Range residents) want to take showers, but we have to co-exist. They can’t destroy the beauty here – which is probably part of why they came to Colorado in the first place,” said Pat Raney, 66, one of a dozen or so volunteers who test water quality.
Lying on her belly on the deck of a rocking pontoon boat on the lake, Raney lowered a disc used to measure underwater visibility: “7 feet 4 inches,” she reported to fellow volunteers. “Color is brown.”
That’s less one third of the 30-feet visibility documented in 1941 before diversions here began.
“Data will help by proving that the lake is being degraded,” said Raney, who’s been taking weekly summertime water clarity readings for 15 years.
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Federal government overseers are poised to intervene as the conflict over water intensifies.
Front Range water authorities argue that new water is crucial to help 2.1 million customers endure droughts. Opponents point to a litany of unsolved environmental problems they link to water diversion, including increasing algae and warmer water temperatures caused by having less water in rivers leading to the lake.
“We understand that the Front Range has purchased this water, but if they divert it without helping us mitigate the impacts, we will have further degradation to streams and lakes,” Grand County Commissioner James Newberry said. “That’s the basis for our life and economy on the Western Slope.”
Water authorities sweeten deals
The environmental problems here have emerged gradually since the 1930s, when government agencies began pumping westward-flowing water back eastward through the Adams, Moffat and other tunnels under the Continental Divide – to sustain urban growth on the semi-arid eastern side of the Rocky Mountains. Today, more than 500,000 acre feet a year is diverted. (An acre-foot can sustain two urban families of four for a year.) The new diversions for which Denver Water and Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District are seeking federal permits would divert 27,000 to 48,000 acre-feet more water – to be stored in new and expanded reservoirs.
While Grand Lake residents opposed to diversions tested water last week, Northern Colorado water district officials (who conduct their own water-clarity tests) were leading two busloads of Front Range residents on a moving seminar aimed at highlighting the need for new water.
Front Range water authorities contend that rearranging nature’s plumbing is not the only factor making Grand Lake water murkier.
Residential and commercial development around Grand Lake may lead to septic system, lawn fertilizer and other contamination of water, Denver Water project manager Travis Bray said.
The Front Range authorities now are trying to sweeten their proposals. They’re offering to improve the town of Fraser’s water-treatment plant – easing stress on that river.
A cleaner Fraser flow into the Colorado would mean “no net change in the nutrient levels” in Grand Lake, Northern project manager Jeff Drager said.
Northern would team with Denver Water to improve the facility, he said. “We’re talking maybe $4 million.”
The water providers also have offered to manage river flows in a way that ensures additional water to sustain fish.
Grand County residents still aren’t satisfied. “There’s no question the diversions are having a detrimental impact on Grand Lake, and Shadow Mountain Reservoir as well,” said Katherine Morris, Grand County’s water-quality specialist, who regularly tests lake waters for toxins produced by algae.
“The diversions are expected to exacerbate the problems that already exist . . .” Morris said. “There’s frustration that new projects are in the works without any improvement of the already-compromised conditions – especially in Grand Lake.”
Residents continue “battling”
Grand County leaders proposed that the federal Bureau of Reclamation take a look into the Grand Lake clarity situation. They offered to pay $50,000 to launch a study – if Northern would do the same.
But Northern officials said their contribution would depend on Grand County officials agreeing not to oppose the proposed water diversion.
Residents are bristling at that quid pro quo.
“It isn’t right,” said Steve Paul, a retired airline pilot serving as president of the Greater Grand Lake Shoreline Association.
His group of residents favors a pipeline bypass of Grand Lake to keep its water clean – costing at least $15 million.
“Yeah, we are battling,” Paul said, out on the boat beneath a 12,007-foot peak, gazing at the mouth of the tunnel that moves water under the mountain to cities.
“But we need to keep working with each other. We need a win-win solution,” he said. “We’re a little bit stymied right now.”
Bruce Finley: 303-954-1700 or firstname.lastname@example.org