East Slope-West Slope water agreement aims for ‘peace in our time’
In the valley of Devil’s Thumb, where legend has it the Ute and Arapaho Indian tribes once resolved differences after years of battle, East and West Slope water negotiators announced their own historic peace treaty. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who as former mayor of Denver helped to instigate Colorado water talks, praised negotiators for their efforts during a roll-out event at Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Tabernash on Thursday morning.”Collaboration can move mountains, and move water wars,” the governor said. “We are interconnected in a way that demands this type of approach.”Hickenlooper said he first became aware of the value of the state’s water as a restaurateur in Denver, in the making of beer.The water compromise – heralded by a panel of Colorado River District representatives, county commissioners and other leaders – can be compared to “looking at the state budget,” the governor said.”No one is going to be perfectly happy. No one gets everything that they want. But you end up with an agreement that has lasting significance.”
The long talked-about list of “enhancements” to protect West Slope rivers was officially rolled out after five years of negotiations among as many as 34 parties, including those with agreements with Denver Water, those tied up in litigation with the utility, water users and permitters.Negotiations were made possible with the help of professional mediator John Bickerman of Washington, D.C., who is also mediating negotiations between the West Slope and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, with its pending Windy Gap firming project in Grand County. The Denver Water-West Slope “Colorado River Cooperative Agreement,” if signed by all parties involved, creates protections for the Fraser and Blue Rivers, certain tributaries and the upper and middle rivers of the Colorado River to the Grand Valley (Grand Junction).The deals hashed out in this 50-plus page agreement are an “all or nothing” proposition, according to Grand County Manager Lurline Underbrink Curran. And all of it is contingent on approval of the Moffat Collection System expansion permit sought by Denver Water. Thursday was the first time the public had the chance to see this side proposal, which had been kept confidential due to the sensitivity of court cases. One lawsuit involves Denver Water and its use of the Blue River and Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs. “This became a mechanism to settle those issues without having to litigate,” Underbrink Curran said.”Coloradans of the West Slope have watched our water flow uphill, flow toward money, flow to the Front Range,” said Summit County Commissioner Thomas Davidson, during his speech at the event. “As leaders on the West Slope, we’ve had lots of times when our constituents have come to us and asked, ‘what are you doing about it?’ I think it’s really important to say to all the folks on the West Slope: With this agreement, we’ve really done something about that.””This is the start,” said Grand County Commissioner James Newberry, adding a lot of loose ends still need to be sorted “to ensure implementation.””I think it’s too good of a thing to let die on the vine,” he said.
The pending West Slope agreement with Denver Water aims to address “past sins” that created river deficiencies from a long and checkered history of trans-mountain diversions. Experts agree the Fraser and Upper Colorado rivers have been severely depleted and damaged by this history.In its obligation to serve 1.3 million users and visitors in Denver, said Denver Water CEO / Manager Jim Lochhead during the event, Denver Water “also needs to put that obligation into a context. We have an obligation to the rest of Colorado, including our neighbors on the Front Range, on the West Slope and to the environment.”Seeking to address many environmental and water supply challenges on the Western Slope, the agreement throws money at some of the problems. But perhaps most importantly, the agreement creates a framework for continued West and East Slope relations – a management plan termed “Learning by Doing.” Committees comprised of scientists and water leaders would be bound to take stake in the health of the rivers on an annual basis, Underbrink Curran said. The county manager is most proud of the “global” solutions the document introduces.”There are three pretty enormous things, that, over time, I believe will become more and more important,” she said. (See first three proposals listed in the side bar.)For the water utilities in Winter Park and Fraser, the proposed agreement outlines minimum flows at the Fraser headwaters that can be counted on, according to Mike Wageck of the Winter Park Water and Sanitation District. The deal could answer the question: “How much do we really have to take from the river to provide for customers and the community if we don’t know if Denver can play around with it?” he said. The deal would also provide 1,000 acre-feet of bypass flows from Denver’s yield used to improve the quality of the river, allows use of Denver’s infrastructure to move water owned by ditch shareholders such as Grand County, and provides 375 acre feet of water for the towns of Winter Park, Fraser and Granby. In all, $11 million would be put toward rivers in Grand County for aquatic environment, nutrient loading and other projects that would benefit the Fraser River. Another $11 million would be directed to Summit County. “The package is actually better than the alternative, in my opinion,” said Bruce Hutchins, manager of Grand County Water and Sanitation District No. 1. “Otherwise, it would be business as usual, and that is unacceptable.”Aside from the Colorado Cooperative proposal, still coming down the line as part of the Moffat Collection System permitting process are separate fixes that may become conditional to the official permit, such as those recommended from the Colorado Wildlife Commission.
Many recognize the deals may work out several contentious and emotional water conflicts in Colorado. “When we started this five years ago, (then-Denver Mayor) John Hickenlooper had several appointments to make to the Denver Water Board,” Grand County’s Underbrink Curran said. “He appointed people that certainly understood what Denver needs, but also had environmental concerns and were willing to step in and say, ‘these are statewide issues.’ It was a huge philosophy shift, and it allowed us to step in.”Denver Water repeatedly expressed the need to create “peace in our time” -or freedom to operate the projects without fervent opposition from the West Slope, the county manager said. “Over time, I think everybody that was in it was very dedicated to making something good happen, but it was not a process that was not without pain or fright,” she continued.”I’ve never been in negotiations this big, that lasted this long, that had this many players that were very skilled at all levels.” The Grand County government budgeted for water experts and the drafting of the Stream Management Plan, a scientific river health document that may become a guiding document for future decisions as part of “Learning By Doing.”Yet even though Denver Water’s proposed Moffat project would take water predominantly in peak times, no matter which way one slices it, there will still be “a limited supply of water,” in the river, Hutchins said. “Is it enough water?” Wageck said. “No. It’s never going to be enough water.”Opposition to the negotiations have called for a “not-another-drop” mentality, a bolder stance from the West Slope that might ultimately persuade Denver Water to find its future shortfall in water conservation rather than a pursuit of more.Although Underbrink Curran said such a perspective is “valid,” she pointed out that such a stance would mean rivers would continue to suffer from current problems, the cost of taking on Denver Water would be an unknown, and so would the outcome.
Kirk Klancke, president of TU’s Colorado Headwaters chapter in Fraser, praised West Slope stakeholders for their push for river protections. “They realized that a healthy river is the basis for healthy communities and local economies,” he said. “They realized that if we don’t save our rivers, we’ll lose the heart and soul of this magnificent place.”But the overall outlook of Colorado’s Trout Unlimited is cautious.”Some have called this deal a ‘global solution,’ but it certainly isn’t global in scope, as it does not address the future impacts of the pending Moffat and Windy Gap expansion projects,” said David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited, in statements released on Wednesday. “Nor does it involve the single largest user of Upper Colorado River water -the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.””Windy Gap needs to be a team player in all this,” said Jim Polkrandt of the Colorado River District, “that’s the missing element.”Negotiations with the Front Range utility’s northern municipal subdistricts are ongoing, according to Underbrink Curran, and talks are “going well.” Northern is keeping a close eye on how the West Slope talks with Denver Water are playing out, she said.The result of Northern negotiations should paint a clearer picture of what other West Slope benefits could be made specific to the endangered Upper Colorado stretch from Windy Gap to Kremmling.Yet many still worry about the prospect of resuscitating rivers, when a projected 80 percent of flows might be diverted to the Front Range by both the Moffat and Windy Gap/Big Thompson systems. Cooperation may help the area’s “flatlined” rivers, said Ken Neubecker of the Western Rivers Institute and a member of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, “but what the river really needs are high flows in the spring.”The river advocate hopes negotiators never lose sight of pronounced environmental deficits. “We’re still getting a net major loss out of the Fraser,” he said.”A river is a living thing. If we don’t have the water and seasonal rhythms, it’s not going to be much of a river anymore.”- Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext.19603
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