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Drought watch: Planning for the future

Summit County looks ahead …

Summit County’s Straight Creek.

By Karn Stiegelmeier and Gary Martinez

The reality of a drought here in Summit County, the State of Colorado and now nationally may make County residents wonder what is being done locally to ensure the availability of water supplies. Fortunately, the summer monsoon weather cycle has brought much needed rain over the last several weeks and temporarily reduced the fire danger and water demands for some uses.

However, water policy planning, water rights acquisition and resource development take years to implement, requiring political will and significant financial commitments that go well beyond whatever current weather pattern we might be experiencing.

The Board of County Commissioners works in the water arena in two major ways. First, to provide water locally to certain residential, agricultural and commercial customers, and for other projects that benefit the public generally such as the hospital development, environmental restoration, and stream flow enhancement for environmental and recreational purposes.

The County has a long tradition of appropriating and acquiring water resources to meet the current and future needs of its citizens. It has built an extensive water rights and water storage portfolio and has adjudicated a county-wide augmentation plan that provides a legal water supply for out-of-compliance or new residential wells and other water needs.

County water and storage rights in various reservoirs can be used as a replacement source for water used locally when more senior rights must be made whole. A majority ownership in the soon to be completed Old Dillon Reservoir will significantly add to the County’s water rights portfolio. These water rights have assisted agricultural and ranching activities in the Lower Blue River Valley, the construction of accessory dwelling units to address critical housing needs, residential development, stream flow releases during low flow periods, the ongoing Swan River restoration project, and snowmaking that can be critical to local ski areas and our local economy.

The Summit County Environmental Health Department. protects surface and subsurface water quality through monitoring, testing and inspection programs.

Secondly, the County Commissioners take a variety of measures to protect local water resources from further diversions outside the County.  Approximately 30 percent of Summit’s native water is diverted east through the Continental Divide for use by Front Range water providers; Denver Water and Colorado Springs Utilities claimed and developed these water rights years ago.

Summit County has been a leader in efforts to curtail the further exportation of water as well as efforts to address the impacts of these diversions. This has included years of litigation and negotiation with a variety of water interests throughout the State.  Several agreements have been negotiated with water diverters. Most recently, the the historic Colorado River Cooperative Agreement directly involves 43 parties, primarily from Western Colorado, and Denver Water.

The agreement ends decades of fighting with numerous benefits for local agencies including more 1,700 acre feet of water for use in Dillon Reservoir, renewed efforts to maintain water levels in Dillon and stream flows in the Blue River below the dam, $11 million for environmental enhancements and local water supplies, water quality and waste water treatment plant projects, and Denver‘s commitment to not undertake any future local water development activities without the approval of Summit County.

Summit County continues to pursue further water development plans that will benefit residents, commerce and the environment for a sustainable future.

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