Water officials in Grand County and on the Front Range are heralding a “new area of cooperation” with protecting water resources, but not everyone is on board.
At a celebration lunch on April 24 at Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Tabernash, representatives from Denver Water, the Colorado Governor’s Office, Grand County and Trout Unlimited spoke in favor of the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement. Nearing its one-year anniversary this September, the agreement coordinates efforts between 18 interest groups to both protect West Slope watersheds while providing future water supplies to Denver customers. The celebration came in the wake of the latest development in the proposed Moffat Collection System, Denver Water’s latest trans-mountain water project.
“(Our) overall goal is to protect the watershed and economies in the Colorado River Basin and help provide additional water security for those who live, work and play on the West Slope and (for) the customers of Denver Water,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO and Manager of Denver Water, at the lunch celebration.
The Colorado River Cooperative Agreement helps protect river flows in western watersheds, including the Fraser River, through projects and permitting. Past trans-mountain diversions in Grand County and other West Slope communities have reduced flows in rivers and streams, impacting water clarity and aquatic life.
Denver Water will pay out $1.95 million in Grand County for watershed, water treatment and river habitat improvements. It will send another $2 million to Summit County. The agreement is being called “historic” for its unprecedented work in bringing together a wide range of interests throughout the state and for its “learning by doing” program of adaptive water management.
“Working together, we were able to resolve historic conflicts through a holistic approach to resolving Colorado water disputes,” Lochhead said.
According to John Stulp with Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office, the unprecedented water cooperation will also be used as a model for the statewide Colorado Water Plan, set to be ready by December 2014.
“Part of the concerns we have, and why we need a water plan, is based on many of the same principles you had in this cooperative agreement,” Stulp said at the lunch. “Important … building blocks that went into this cooperative agreement (are) having good people with a broad vision of the future beyond their own community.”
Some not convinced
Still, the agreement hasn’t eliminated all controversy. Part of the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement negotiations is that West Slope parties must agree not to oppose any permits for the Moffat Project, the latest trans-mountain diversion plan to move water from the Fraser watershed to the Denver-metro area.
“The bottom line is, the Moffat Project will remove even more water out of the headwaters of the Colorado River and the Fraser (River) in Grand County,” said Gary Wockner with the Save the Colorado River Campaign. “You can’t make a river healthier by taking water out of it.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its final Environmental Impact Statement for the Moffat Project last week. It’s a massive document — the table of contents alone is over 60 pages and Wockner said it has around 11,000 pages total. So far, however, he said he hasn’t seen anything in the study to address the negative impacts to river systems in Grand County. Other environmental interests have also said even with the environmental impact statement, the Moffat Project is “far from a done deal.”
“This project should not be approved unless the long-term health of the river is assured and our nation’s environmental standards are met,” said McCrystie Adams, a Denver-based attorney with Earthjustice, in a press release. “We and our partners are committed to keeping the Colorado River flowing.”
Geoff Elliott, an earth scientist with the local firm Grand Environmental Services, said Denver Water presented bad data to begin with, stacking the numbers in its favor.
“Their data is skewed to show more water in the Fraser Headwaters than now exists,” he said. “My problem is no one is doing math. Denver gets out with everything it wants.”
Elliot said according to his analysis so far, the Moffat Project’s proposals compared with U.S. Geological Survey data on actual water flows means it could take 90 percent or more water out of the Fraser.
“Now, we get hit by a 12,000-page Final EIS that requires an army to review,” he said. “This is Big Brother Denver Water hitting Grand County hard, and we are told we should be happy with vague platitudes, scraps of water and lawyerly agreements for more closed-door meetings.”
The public comment period for the EIS is open until June 9, but Wockner, Elliot and others with the Save the Colorado River Campaign will ask for an extension so they can conduct a full review.
“I expect this controversy to drag on for a long time into the future,” Wockner said.
Instead of more trans-mountain water diversions, both Elliot and Wockner said they’d like the Front Range to focus on its local water supplies through water conservation, water reuse and water sharing agreements with farmers.
“We can’t fix the problem by creating another problem by draining our rivers,” Wockner said.
Leia Larsen can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603.