GRAND COUNTY, Colorado - What's being hailed as a historic water agreement between Colorado's east and west slopes got a big bump from Gov. John Hickenlooper Thursday. The governor called the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement "a new way of doing business when it comes to water" as representatives from Summit, Grand and Eagle counties were on hand to endorse the deal. Hickenlooper said he hoped the collaborative process resulting in the agreement would be extended to other "areas of water conflict" in the state.
There's still plenty of work to do between Denver Water and 28 or so Western Slope entities that are part of the deal, but the agreement may herald the beginning of the end of the water wars that have plagued the state for decades. Years in the making, talks heated up in 2009, according to Summit County manager Gary Martinez.
"The big thing is it represents peace in our time between the east and west slopes," said Martinez, who represented Summit County's interests during much of the negotiation period.
Martinez - along with Breckenridge Town Manager Tim Gagen and Silverthorne Town Manager Kevin Batchelder - hailed the agreement as a welcome change from the years of contentious litigation and bad feelings that have characterized water negotiations in the state. Instead of so many Western Slope interests negotiating separately, the formation of the "water forum" to hash out differences and come to a more global agreement benefits all parties, they said.
While Denver Water wins by clearing the way for the addition of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of mountain water, Martinez said Summit County benefits in a number of ways. There is money - about $11 million - to be used for local water projects, but more important is the guarantees that Denver Water won't drop Dillon Reservoir below 9,012 feet in summer unless in the case of a water emergency (defined as when Denver Water users are prohibited from watering their lawns).
Also a plus for Summit County and other Western Slope communities is the assurance that neither Denver Water nor other metro area water providers will take on any additional water projects in the mountains unless they're done cooperatively. Denver Water also will agree to significantly step up its conservation efforts and also start re-using mountain water.
Given the level of acrimony that's characterized water negotiations between Denver and the Western Slope in the past, it's remarkable a deal of this scope and size was reached. Even Trout Unlimited - a conservation and advocacy group that looks to protect rivers for recreational use - is enthusiastic about the proposal.
"We think the agreement is a great deal that does a lot of good for the Colorado River and is sort of a model for the way we ought to be dealing with water issues in this state going forward," said Drew Peternell, director of Trout Unlimited's Colorado water project. But, he added, there are "some holes." One of those is the fact that the agreement did not include the Northern Water Conservancy Project - a provider of water in northeastern Colorado and, as Peternell said, the largest diverter of Colorado River Basin water.
Ken Neubecker with the river conservation group Western Rivers Institute, said he remains skeptical of the deal, saying there's simply too much water being diverted from mountain streams. Also, he said the deal doesn't address other big diversions such as Colorado Big Thompson and Windy Gap.
Along with reservoir level and stream flow assurances, a bit of cash and promises of conservation and cooperation, another key benefit of the deal for Summit County is greater flexibility in doing water exchanges through Dillon Reservoir.
There's also language that better defines what an "emergency" is as it relates to stream flow, in addition to more precise definitions of Denver Water's service area.
Yet another part of the deal relates to the sale of water outside Denver Water's service area - to those south metro areas, for example. A portion of that money would go into a Western Slope fund for things such as forest health projects, environmental and aquatic improvements and other things. Martinez said it could add up to a lot of money over time.
Ultimately, Martinez said, the view across the state that's starting to prevail is that we're all in this together, and as Gov. Hickenlooper has pointed out, there's a lot of value for Denver to having healthy streams in the mountains.
Also weighing in on the agreement Thursday was Sen. Mark Udall, who highlighted the stakes for Colorado.
"With our state's population set to double by 2050 and water supplies already stretched thin, Coloradans must work creatively and collaboratively on our shared water challenges," Udall said. "I commend the Western Slope water users and Denver Water for working together. Their process sets a new tone for water conversations across the state by seeking cooperation and not litigation."