Colorado: Summit, Grand counties sign deal with Denver Water

Dillon Reservoir, Denver Water
Denver Water will try to maintain water levels for marina operation on Dillon Reservoir under a historic Colorado water agreement.

Historic agreement hailed as start of a new collaborative era

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — A major water agreement aimed at ending decades of feuding and litigation between the Front Range and the West Slope moved one step closer to completion this week, as Denver Water, Summit County and Grand County representatives inked the deal at a ceremony in Hot Sulphur Springs.

Along with being hailed as a model of collaboration by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, the deal also gives all the parties some certainties as to the future management and disposition of the state’s most precious resource.

Against a backdrop of an intensifying mountain drought, Hickenlooper said this year’s dry conditions magnify the need for cooperative solutions and highlight the fragility of the state’s rivers in the face of possible climate change impacts and increasing demand from a growing population.

“Some of our watersheds are reporting the driest conditions in our recorded history … this puts Colorado on a better footing, with more secure water sources both for headwaters counties and Denver,” Hickenlooper said.

Most importantly for Denver Water, Summit and Grand counties agree not to oppose a plan to expand diversions from the West Slope through the Moffat Tunnel Collection System, a project that, in its present form, is still bitterly opposed by conservation and river advocacy groups.

In return, the headwaters counties get some assurances on flows, as well as money for mitigation and enhancements. All the agreement documents are online at the Colorado River District website. Denver Water also agrees not to expand its service area and to increase water recycling and storage for reuse.

More benefits for headwaters counties:

  • Denver  Water  will  pay  $11  million  for  projects  such  as  nutrient  loading,  aquatic  habitat,  the   Berthoud  Pass  sedimentation  pond,  Windy  Gap  pumping  costs  for  environmental  purposes  and   Learning  by  Doing.
  • Denver  Water  will  make  available  1,000  acre-­‐feet  of  water  each  year  from  its  Fraser  River   Collection  System  for  environmental  purposes  in  Grand  County,  at  times  and  locations   requested  by  Grand  County.  This  water  otherwise  would  have  been  diverted  to  the  East  Slope.     This  water  will  be  matched  with  an  additional  1,000  acre-­‐feet  from  Williams  Fork  Reservoir   under  specified  conditions  that  also  will  be  released  at  the  request  of  Grand  County.
  • Denver  Water  will  limit  its  existing  right  to  reduce  bypass  flows  to  times  when  it  has  banned   residential  lawn  watering  (estimated  to  provide  3,000  acre-feet and  to  manage   spills  from  its  Fraser  River  Collection  System  to  provide  environmental  benefits.
  • Denver  Water  will  provide  250  acre-­‐feet  of  water  without  charge  for  use  in  districts  and  towns   in  Summit  County.
  • Denver  Water  will  use  best  efforts  to  maintain  the  water  level  of  Dillon  Reservoir  at  or  above   9,012  feet  in  elevation  between  June  18  and  Labor  Day.
  • Denver  Water  will  provide  1,493  acre-­‐feet  of  water  to  various  Summit  County  water  users  and   ski  areas.
  • Denver  Water agrees not to exercise  its  existing  right  to  reduce  bypass  flows  from  Dillon   Reservoir  into  the  Blue  River  during  droughts  to  below  the  amount  of  inflow  to  the  reservoir   unless  it  has  banned  residential  lawn  watering  in  its  combined  service  area.

More details in a six-page summary of the deal on our feed.

“This agreement honors the recognition that protecting water resources and tourism in our headwaters counties also protects the entire state of Colorado’s economy,” said Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier.

Read this Summit Voice story for more on the benefits to Summit County.

Despite concerns about additional diversions from the Fraser River, Grand County signed the agreement because its the best that can be done for both sides of the Continental Divide, according to Grand County Comissioner James Newberry. Since there’s no real legal basis for blanket opposition to increased diversions under Colorado water law, a cooperative approach will at least enable some of the money that would otherwide be spent on lawsuits to go toward protecting and enhancing the Fraser and the Colorado River.

“Our goal today was to make sure Grand County is better off, and not rely totally on the permitting process,” Newberry said, referring to the ongoing federal review of the Moffat project. “This is a new way of developing water in Colorado,” Newberry said. “Only through cooperative effort can we do the right thing for the resource.”

But not all issues have been resolved. Key pieces of the puzzle include the operation of Green Mountain reservoir, critical both to Denver Water and the West Slope, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation still needs to approve those terms. And farther downstream, the question of how to manage flows with regard to the Shoshone power plant still hasn’t been answered completely.

The entities also signed on to the “Learning by Doing” process, by which Denver Water, Grand County, the Colorado River District, the Middle Park Water Conservancy District and others will use the flexibility in Denver Water’s water system to manage flows for the benefit of the environment in Grand County.

In addition to today’s signatories, the agreement has been signed by Eagle County, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority and Eagle Park Reservoir Company. Other West Slope entities are expected to sign in the near future.

Denver Water commissioner Penfield Tate said he hopes the deal marks a new era for the state, with water forming the basis for “vibrant, enduring communities.”

“There’s a better way of doing business than lawsuits … it’s better to have an agreement and certainty,” Tate said, asking all the state’s residents not to take water for granted.

“It doesn’t belong to me or to you, it belongs to the planet; it’s for the entire state … This isn’t a one-shot deal, we’ll be working statewide on an ongoing basis to develop additional supplies and work on reuse and conservation,” Tate concluded.

For the headwaters counties, it’s also important that Denver Water agrees not to pursue any additional water development projects without agreement from the basin of origin.

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