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Kumbaya on the Colorado River?

A proposed agreement between Denver Water and the West Slope could provide more certainty for Dillon Reservoir levels.

Proposed water deal addresses long-standing disputes between Front Range and West Slope

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Gov. John Hickenlooper will join West Slope officials and water managers from both sides of the Continental Divide this Thursday (April 28) to announce a water deal that could — if adopted — end decades of bickering over Colorado’s most precious resource. Read about the announcement at the Colorado River Water Conservation District website.

The agreement is described as an unprecedented step toward addressing water supply challenges for Denver Water and the Metro area, as well as water supply and environmental and recreational water demands on the West Slope. It was reached after five years of negotiations and a mutual promise not to sue over unresolved water issues. But some questions remain outstanding, including future impacts from proposed new diversions in Grand County, conservation groups said in advance of the announcement.

The detailed version of the proposed deal will be released Thursday in tandem with the press conference in Grand County, but a few details have already come to light, thanks especially to persistent reporting by long-time Colorado journalist Allen Best, who published a story on his Mountain Town News website last week. The agreement will also be discussed at the upcoming State of the River meetings, including May 3 in Frisco.

According to Best and other sources, the agreement firms up Denver Water’s right to divert another 15,000 acre feet from the headwaters of the Colorado River in Grand County and Summit County, with much of that water to be stored in an enlarged Gross Reservoir, located near Boulder. Essentially, the West Slope counties affected would promise not to contest Denver Water’s proposed Moffat collection system expansion project and the Windy Gap firming project, on the Upper Colorado River. Both those projects are currently under review at the federal and state level.

Denver Water would agree to a tight cap on its service area and commit to increased conservation and use of recycled water, along with paying some big bucks for  improvements to West Slope streams and rivers that have been hammered hard — some would say to the brink of non-functionality — by decades of diversions.

Another key element is an adaptive management approach to the operation of the Upper Colorado’s plumbing system — learning by doing,  as Best describes it in his story.

The goal of adaptive management is, among other things, to try and ensure healthy aquatic ecosystems on the West Slope, a tall order especially in Grand Country, where tributaries like the Fraser River have been ravaged by low flows, leading to an accumulation of sediments and increased water temperatures that have pushed fish populations to the edge of survival.

The same holds true for the mainstem of the Upper Colorado. It’s not easy to understand how conditions can be improved  when more water is being taken during the runoff season, when high flows are critically needed to flush sediment out of stream beds.

At the other end of the spectrum, during the lowest autumnal flows of the year, ski resorts will apparently win the right to use even more water for snowmaking, drawing from streams that, in some cases, are already dropping to levels that threaten spawning brown trout. The cumulative impacts of those simultaneous snowmaking diversions from many major Colorado River headwaters tributaries have never been properly studied and disclosed.

Whether or not the deal can improve those conditions remains to be seen, and it’s also unclear as to who will decide what constitutes a healthy ecosystem — especially since conservation groups apparently did not have a full-fledged seat at the table during the negotiations.

It’s also unclear what would happen — if, as most reputable studies predict — there is less water in the Colorado River Basin due to climate change in the coming decades. Most research suggests drought will become more intense and widespread in the Southwest, which could increase demand for Colorado River water from the states lower in the basin, including Arizona, and especially California.

Nevertheless, stakeholders like Trout Unlimited have expressed cautious optimism. Based on what they know about the deal, they say it’s a solid first step toward collaborative water management, which to many people is better than fighting.

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