Local water advocacy group asks Summit County officials for guidance on a slew of water-related projects
There are at least 74 water projects in the works or proposed in Summit County. Some of those will need to be prioritized, the Blue River Watershed Group told county commissioners.
At least 74 water-related projects are currently in the works or have been proposed in Summit County, according to the all-volunteer nonprofit Blue River Watershed Group, which presented an overview of ongoing water initiatives during a Summit Board of County Commissioners meeting Tuesday.
That number of projects, while relatively high for the size of the county’s water basin, is still lower than neighboring areas such as Grand County, according to Blue River Watershed Group Vice President Peggy Bailey.
As some projects remain at a conceptual phase while others move to implementation, Bailey said it will be important for county officials to help the group identify and support high-priority projects.
“Summit County’s watershed generates about 300,000 acre-feet of water a year,” Bailey said, meaning it produces enough water to cover an 300,000 acres of land about 1 foot deep. “At least it used to. That’s probably going down now.”
As part of the Colorado Water Plan, first formed in 2015, the state’s nine watersheds — which include urban and rural regions — are tasked with completing projects “that provide multiple benefits to the state’s diverse water users,” according to the plan’s website.
That work is supported by the Colorado Water Conservation Board — which compiles a database of projects in various watershed areas and provides some funding for initiatives — as well as more regional and local entities.
The Colorado Basin, one of the nine watersheds, is divided into seven subregions — of which Summit County is one. The water projects in this basin are supported in part by the Colorado Basin Roundtable as well as more hyper-local groups, like the Blue River organization.
Bailey said some of the Colorado Basin’s main focuses are on mitigating water shortages, which she said affect everything from endangered species to water supply.
“When we talk about water supply that also affects the ski industry, fishing and summer tourism, agriculture,” Bailey said.
Grand County, another subregion, is leading the pack when it comes to most projects that are ongoing or have been introduced, with 175. The subregion known as Middle Colorado — which includes the cities of Glenwood Springs and Rifle — comes in second with 98 while Summit County is third with 74.
“We’re not far behind for the size of the basin that we are,” Bailey said.
Those projects include ones already completed such as restoring more than 2 miles of the Swan River Valley — a roughly $10 million county-led initiative — which Bailey said was called “one of the best restoration projects we’ve ever seen” by state officials.
Others are in an implementation phase, such as the town of Breckenridge’s irrigation plan, while some are still being planned, such as the mammoth undertaking to allow further diversion and storage of water from the Continental-Hoosier raw water collection system.
But the costs of those projects vary widely.
The Continental-Hoosier project, for example, is the most expensive known project of the 74 plans at $140 million. The project will be a mainly joint venture between Summit County and Colorado Springs — which receives 13% of its drinking water from the Continental-Hoosier system. Other project costs are much lower, such as the three-phase rehabilitation of the Goose Pasture Tarn Dam south of Breckenridge — estimated to cost $40,000.
Bailey said securing funding for these projects can be an “enormous lift,” especially for one’s spearheaded by local groups like Blue River.
Commissioner Tamara Pogue said it will be incumbent on the Colorado Basin Roundtable and Blue River group to “decide feasibility versus resources” but said issues around housing should be included in water conversations.
“There is no issue that doesn’t amount to water,” Pogue said. “So many projects right now are being held up … with your list of priorities, how do we add housing to that list?”
Pogue said better water infrastructure investments will be crucial for allowing certain areas to be developed for housing, especially units that supports the county’s workforce.
Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence said the combined cost of the projects made her “a little overwhelmed” and added there are areas of “low-hanging fruit” which can be addressed for much lower cost whilst still having an environmental impact.
One of those would be to adjust county codes to remove requirements for sodded grass — which can be major water-guzzlers. As an example, Lawrence pointed to the state legislature’s 2022 Turf Replacement Program which allowed the state to finance the voluntary replacement of irrigated turf in an attempt to “incentivize water-wise landscapes.”
“It would be helpful if all of our communities here in the county adopted those measures,” Lawrence said, “as we build out infrastructure and housing and commercial that we do away with having to have everything perfectly manicured, irrigated, sodded.”
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