Vail streams benefit from a recent water lawsuit settlement
EAGLE COUNTY If you can imagine Vails Gore Creek ever being too dry tofish in, thats how much water was at stake in a recent settlement betweenDenver Water and Eagle County water managers.For decades, Denver Water held rights to much of the water flowing throughthe valley, including millions of gallons of water in Gore Creek and theUpper Eagle River. They had rights to water in all those small tributariesyou see while hiking, like Turkey Creek, Pitkin Creek and Booth Creek.Denver Water, which serves more than a million people in the metro area, hadplanned to someday use this water for future Front Range customers. But in alegal agreement reached recently, Denver is abandoning most of those rights.In total, it will be leaving 5,750 cubic feet per second of water in ourlocal streams and 40,000 acre feet of water in Piney Reservoir, whichtranslates to millions of gallons of water.Caroline Bradford, a longtime watchdog of water issues in the valley, saidmany of the streams and rivers we take for granted would have been suckeddry had Denver ever exercised its water rights. Having Denver abandon thoserights is a remarkable accomplishment for Eagle County, she said.It would have been a horrible thing, Bradford said. There would hardly beany water left for us.
Heres a look at how local streams would be affected if Denver ever hadstarted diverting water to the Front Range.Gore Creek, the picture-postcard stream running under the covered bridge inVail Village, would be heavily impacted if Denver started taking water out.Visually, it would be a striking difference, and people who dont usuallynotice water levels would surely be shocked. Gore Creek is known for goodfishing, and if there were only the bare minimum of water in Gore Creek,fishing would be pointless, Bradford said.Many of the streams are well known only to hikers and backpackers. BoothCreek and Pitkin Creek both follow highly popular hiking trails. If waterwere diverted from these waterways, hikers would likely miss out on some ofthe dynamic waterfalls that make the trails special.Turkey Creek follows Shrine Pass Road on the way to Red Cliff, and is alsoRed Cliffs drinking water supply, Bradford said. Lime Creek and WearymanCreek, which would have also been affected, are tributaries to Turkey Creek.Big Horn Creek and Spraddle Creek are familiar to Vail residents, and theytoo would have been reduced to a mere trickle.The diminished water would also be noticed by hiker, campers, horsebackriders and fishermen in the popular Piney River area. Meadow Creek, FreemanCreek, Dickson Creek and Moniger Creek would have all suffered as well.Denver also gave up more than 40,000 acre feet of water in the PineyReservoir.Some of these creeks have protected minimum stream flows, which means theyare guaranteed a certain amount of water will always be flowing. But, thoseminimums arent much, Bradford said.Denver also gave up water at State Bridge Pump Plant and the Eagle RiverPump Plant in Wolcott.Overall, securing water in all these streams is important to thetourist-based economy that drives the area, said Glenn Porzak, attorney forthe Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and the Upper Eagle RegionalWater Authority.
The settlement came just before lawyers went back to court to finish a trialthat began this summer. Eagle County water managers were challenging thewater rights held by Denver Water.Leaders with the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and the UpperEagle Regional Water Authority were confident they could have won thelawsuit, but decided working with Denver on a settlement would be better forfuture relations.In the agreement, Denver does keep some water rights in Eagle County, andalso would have the right to participate in a possible reservoir project inWolcott.The settlement also comes while negotiations continue between several wateragencies across the state to solve a number of complex water issues anddecide how both the Front Range and the West Slope will have enough waterfor the future.This favorable outcome is representative of the value of our mediationefforts and sets the stage for more collaboration around water issuesstatewide, said Dave Little, Denver Waters director of planning.
Decades ago, the city and county of Denver bought up water rights on theWestern Slope, including hundreds of thousands of water acres in EagleCounty. To keep water though, you have to use it or at least prepare touse it in the future. Hoarding unneeded water isnt allowed in Colorado.Every six years, Denver goes through the paper shuffle of water court toprove its being diligent in using the water in some way or another. This isalso a chance for someone to challenge those rights.The Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority and the Eagle River Water &Sanitation District pounced on that opportunity in 2002, arguing that Denverdoesnt need the water and hasnt done enough to keep those water rights.Instead, that water should stay in Eagle County, they said.A trial began in June 2006 to decide if Denver should keep its rights.Denver argued in the trial that the water rights are part of its long-termvision for providing water to residents. They said people who dont planthat far ahead are caught without water and that water projects in metroareas take a long time to finish often citing a water right purchased in1902 and developed in the 1980s as an example.The big question was if Denver has done enough in 35 years to prove that itcan and will use the water rights in Eagle County. Porzak argued thereslittle to show for their planning meaning they havent shown diligence indeveloping uses for the water.Local water officials also said Denver wouldnt need that much water andwill be in fact hoarding a valuable commodity. They argued that Denver wasspeculating with the water rights and may sell the water to developingcommunities near Denver, for which they arent responsible.
Denver Water not only wouldnt build what was needed to bring our water tothe Front Range, it literally couldnt, attorneys argued.Porzak made the case that it would be impossible for Denver to obtain thenecessary permits to complete their projects, especially a U.S. ForestService permit and a presidential exemption to work in the protected EaglesNest Wilderness.He also showed how piping water to Denver would actually put DillonReservoir over the legal limits of phosphorus, which also would end theproject.Leaders with the district and authority have acknowledged they were making astrange case arguing both that taking all that water out of Eagle Countywould be devastating and that taking water out of Eagle County was nearimpossible.It ends up being about security, Bradford says. Who knows for sure ifsomeday that Denver wouldnt find a way to make it all happen?Why not stop it now, instead of leaving it for our grandchildren to dealwith? Bradford said.
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