It’s a popular old saying in the West, “whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting,” but Grand County is working to join to a new era of water cooperation.
Chief among local water achievements are the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, a contract that protects communities throughout the West Slope and could effectively eliminate more Denver trans-mountain water diversions. More specific to Grand County, however, is the 13-page Moffat Tunnel Collection System Project Mitigation and Enhancement Coordination Plan, an agreement struck in March.
Explaining the agreement’s logic, however, becomes twisted as it winds through tortuous state water laws dating back to the Civil War era.
“People ask ‘you’re going to take more water, but you’re also going to make the river better?’” said County Manager Lurline Underbrink Curran, who has spent years negotiating with Denver Water and others to bring the MECP to fruition. “When you say that, it doesn’t compute.”
Denver Water currently uses the Moffat Tunnel to funnel water to the Front Range, storing it at Gross Reservoir in Boulder County. An estimated 60 percent of the Fraser River’s native flows are currently diverted east. New proposals will triple the size of Gross Reservoir and siphon even more water away from the Fraser River.
Despite the environmental degradation it causes in points west, Grand County has soggy legal ground to stop the project.
“Denver operates under full compliance with Colorado water law. It’s legal for them to kill the river, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” said Kirk Klancke, a Fraser Valley resident and president of the local chapter of Trout Unlimited.
Klancke has also spent the better part of the last decade trying to keep Denver from further depleting the already starved Fraser River.
“We quit fighting all the nitpicky details and said, ‘OK, you need to be part of adaptive management,” Klancke said. “Which means you help us pay for stream monitoring, you help us pay for the solutions if we find problems. Because you know we’re going to find problems.”
After a long-established reputation for stubborn aversion to West Slope water needs, and sometimes outright hostility, Denver Water his finally come to the negotiating table. It’s not clear what brought the shift. Some say it’s because of the juggernaut’s progressive new board members. Others say failed projects like the Two Forks dam, which the Environmental Protection Agency denied, have made Denver Water nervous. It could also be the result of growing public distaste for the damage Denver’s diversions have done to the West Slope so far. Or, it could be the result of years of discussions between East and West which finally hit a tipping point. Regardless, the political waters seem to have shifted.
“We’ve had a common goal with Grand County for quite a few years now to figure out how the Moffat Collection System is better for the river than without it,” said Dave Little, Denver Water’s director of planning. “Our board has a commitment to be good stewards of the resource.”
While it may take years for Denver to finish work on its proposed Moffat Project expansion, the mitigation-enhancement plan may mean protections for the Fraser River can start now.
Even though Denver will ultimately be taking more water from the Fraser watershed, Grand County will be able to work with its complex system of pipes and diversions to benefit the river’s most troubled waters. It will provide water, money and most importantly, flexibility to help Grand County improve river health.
“(Denver Water) can pick and choose where they take water, and they can give a break to streams that are having problems,” said Mely Whiting, legal counsel with Trout Unlimited.
The mitigation side of the plan agreement provides water to deal with potential temperature problems in the Fraser River as more water is sucked away. Less water means warmer temperatures for fish and other aquatic life, which can quickly become deadly. Through the agreement, Denver will provide up to 250 acre-feet of water each year to cool streams and drop river temperatures if they get too high per state standards.
Even if those flexible flows don’t work, Denver Water has also agreed to a couple million dollars to plant shade trees and shrubs to help keep water temperatures down and help the river function with less water.
Denver Water will also mitigate with flushing flows to help clean the Fraser and its tributaries from sediment. Too much sediment means murky waters, which can kill bugs, fish and other aquatic life.
A promising side of the Plan might be in its enhancement half. It’s where the adaptive management comes in, which the Plan partners are calling “Learning By Doing.” Together, Denver Water and Grand County governments will provide funding for a team of scientists to monitor the river ecosystem. Denver Water will contribute around $9 million to a variety of programs benefiting the Colorado River and its tributaries in the county. When things take a turn for the worse, Denver Water and county officials will respond and adapt. Mutually funded scientists will look at everything from aquatic insects to fish to temperatures to what changes are happening on the ground, in real time, instead of trying to predict them.
“It’s not just to prevent impacts put improve them,” Whiting said. “With Denver’s operational flexibility, we can move water around, change where they divert water and help streams we detect are having problems.”
The plan agreement would have more teeth than other water agreements, including the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, because Grand County and Trout Unlimited want it tied to Denver Water’s 1041 permit from the Army Crops of Engineers. Without that permit, Denver can’t expand Gross Reservoir and the planned system fails. Once it’s tied to the permit, if Denver Water violates any of the mitigation-enhancement plan agreements, the Army Corps can pull the permit or put it in review. According to Klancke, Denver Water is on board for asking the permit be tied for the mitigation-enhancement plan for as long as they divert.
“I’ve been fighting for this for years, never believing I’d see it,” Klancke said.
Drying up leverage?
Still, not all environmental interest groups are happy. Many continue to point to measures in the Moffat Project’s environmental impact statement, or EIS, which grossly underestimate impacts to the Fraser and Colorado Rivers as well as downstream communities depending on those water supplies. They argue Grand County should, instead, fight for “every last drop” and force the Front Range to look at conservation measures instead of more intermountain diversions to water more East Slope lawns.
“What if Denver loses and we have 18,000 acre-feet to work with?” said Geoff Elliott, earth scientist in Grand Lake with a concentration in restoring river-riparian hydrology. “70,000-plus acre-feet including Blue River. Dare I say, what about being smarter with what we have right now?”
Elliott says he has not yet seen “real evidence on how the mitigations would work, how many streams would benefit, and how reshaping channels would work.”
The draft EIS received thousands of negative comments from Grand County and other Colorado residents, claiming Denver Water wasn’t looking at all the adverse impacts. The final EIS was released late last month, which the Army Corps of Engineers will use in making its final decision.
By entering into the mitigation-enhancement plan with Denver Water, some of these interests say Grand County is drying up its leverage on the issue.
“The environmental impact statement is full of misinformation, it’s true,” Klancke said. “But we could spend the rest of our lives attacking each point where it is wrong, and we have for years.”
County officials and Trout Unlimited say all that contention is counter-productive. Meanwhile, the Fraser is slowly dying from current diversions.
“We could keep fighting the project, maybe we could kill it, or hold it up for years and years and years with litigation,” said County Commissioner James Newberry. “But what is that ultimately doing to save the Fraser River? Absolutely nothing.”
Newberry admits there will inevitably be losses with Denver’s plan to siphon more water, including some dried-up tributaries in the Fraser Basin. The mitigation-enhancement plan means the county could jump in with work to improve the Fraser’s overall health now, instead of spending more time and resources fighting the inevitable.
“If you look at the greater good of the entire system, that’s what we’re working for,” he said. “We might be proven wrong, and the whole thing falls apart, but what else is anyone else offering the river?”
While the county, Trout Unlimited and some other environmental groups are calling the plan a major victory, they acknowledge water law remains as controversial as ever in Colorado.
And even if tied to the 1041 permit, the mitigation-enhancement plan could still fail if Boulder County decides to reject expanding Gross Reservoir.
“If people have questions, I hope they’ll call the commissioners, and I’d be glad to answer questions, too,” Underbrink Curran said. “The one thing I’d want to emphasize is, if for some reason the Moffat Project is not approved, Grand County is the biggest loser.”
Grand County and Trout Unlimited representatives are urging the Army Corps of Engineers to make the mitigation-enhancement plan be a stipulation of the 1041 permit. The public can make similar comments and requests during the Final EIS comment period, which lasts until June 9.
“Send comments to the Corps saying ‘adopt this in the permit,’ and the river has its best chance of surviving,” Klancke said. “If you want to save Fraser River, that’s our best possibility.”