The Blue and the Snake are in trouble.
These two Summit County rivers are part of the Upper Colorado River Basin, which was named the second most endangered river in the country Wednesday by American Rivers, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit focused on river advocacy.
“If you want to have healthy rivers and a recreational economy and agriculture on the West Slope, there really is nothing left to take,” said Ken Neubecker, associate director of the organization’s Colorado River project.
According to the America’s Most Endangered Rivers report, a call to action to save rivers at critical tipping points, the basin is most threatened by Front Range interests considering more diversions from its rivers as part of the Colorado Water Plan.
That plan will be handed to Gov. Hickenlooper by the end of the year.
The nonprofit’s biggest fear is a new diversion, Neubecker said, because taking a lot of water out of the Colorado anywhere would have serious repercussions.
American Rivers and other conservation organizations say the Colorado Water Conservation Board, charged with creating the state water plan, should make sure it prioritizes river restoration and protection, increases water efficiency and conservation in cities and towns, improves agricultural practices and avoids new transmountain diversions.
Rivers on the Western Slope are already drained and damaged, Neubecker said. He called it wrong to divert more water instead of focusing on alternative methods to meet the gap between water supply and demand.
Right now, he said, details on a new diversion project have been vague, but Front Range proposals have considered developing the Yampa, Flaming Gorge and Gunnison and taking more water out of the Blue, Eagle, Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers.
Though 80 percent of the state’s population live on the Front Range, 80 percent of Colorado’s precipitation falls on the Western Slope, mainly in the Upper Colorado River Basin.
The Colorado River and its headwaters are home to some endangered fish species. They support wildlife, agriculture and multi-billion dollar tourism industries.
And they provide some or all of the drinking water for the resort areas of Breckenridge, Vail, Aspen, Steamboat Springs, Winter Park and Crested Butte and most of the urban Front Range.
To meet its customers’ water needs, Denver Water is focused on Gross Reservoir enlargements as well as conservation and forest health efforts, said CEO Jim Lochhead Thursday.
Colorado’s largest water provider has no current plans to construct a new transmountain diversion, he said, but the state as a whole should consider that option.
A new diversion is “probably inevitable at some point,” he said. “We want to do that in partnership with the West Slope.”
And after signing the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement last year, the utility has to.
The agreement does not allow future water development without the permission of all parties, including Western Slope representatives. Lochhead said, it “establishes a framework where we are really working together as partners instead of the old framework of East Slope versus West Slope.”
But the push is not coming from Denver Water.
“They’re really not the ones that are after a new diversion,” Neubecker said. “They got what they want.”
Pressure for more water from new or existing transmountain diversions comes mainly from north and south of Denver, the Arkansas and South Platte basins and especially Douglas County, he said. Those areas should look at conservation efforts more seriously, he said, and “pay attention to land use policies that basically encourage wasteful water use.”
“Don’t try and preserve the status quo and your rate of growth on the back of Western Slope rivers,” he said.
Basin roundtables have been working on state water issues for the last nine years, said Neubecker, who sits on the Colorado Basin roundtable as its environmental representative.
One solution, he said, would be policies that promote agricultural interests to lease their water more freely to cities.
This year’s most endangered rivers report listed the San Joaquin River in California as No. 1. In Colorado, the other river in the top 10 was the White River at No. 7.
In 2013, the entire Colorado River, which flows southwest feeding seven states and Mexico, was No. 1 on the list. American Rivers hoped to bring attention to issues with damns and Lake Powell and Lake Mead losing water. The Upper Colorado River Basin was also on the endangered rivers list in 2010, and the Fraser, a Colorado River tributary, was listed in 2005. This puts the Colorado River Basin on the endangered list at least four times in the last 10 years.
“We’ve got to start thinking about rivers as rivers” instead of engineering conduits for delivering water, Neubecker said, and “understand that we may think that growth should be infinite, but the resources like water that support the growth are not.”
Neubecker encouraged the public to get involved now and make concerns known.
It’s important to act now, he said, because in 2050 it will be political suicide to tell four million new residents on the Front Range that the big project planned to supply them with water won’t work.
“What are you going to do in 2051? What are you going to do in 2100?” he said. “We’ve got to learn to live with what we have.”
For more information about the listing, visit www.americanrivers.org/uppercolorado. Learn more about the Colorado Water Plan and submit comments at www.coloradowaterplan.com.