Water war erupts over Green Mountain Reservoir
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Western Slope water interests are suing the federal government for denying them their full amount of water stored in Summit County’s Green Mountain Reservoir.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District, and five other major Western Slope water districts, filed suit Thursday against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, owner and operator of the reservoir.
The alleged water denial came when the Bureau of Reclamation stopped water releases last year for fear that taking the reservoir to its dead pool would encourage an ancient landslide on the hillside above Heeney.
The Western Slope group charges the Bureau denied it water while favoring water held for the benefit of the Front Range.
Green Mountain Reservoir was built in the 1930s to protect Western Slope water users from the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which takes Colorado River headwaters and diverts them across the Continental Divide to communities such as Fort Collins, Greeley and Boulder.
The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District operates the Colorado-Big Thompson Project (CBT).
Water levels became an issue in Green Mountain because of demands caused by the most severe drought in the state’s history. In normal years, water would not be drawn so low as to trigger landslide fears. The Bureau believes water helps hold back the land.
The lawsuit says that by protecting Front Range interests, the Bureau “directly contradicted congressional mandates on the operations of the reservoir,” according to river district spokesman Peter Roessmann.
The Bureau of Reclamation is charged by Congress to operate Green Mountain Reservoir in a fair and efficient manner, he said. But during the drought of 2002, the Bureau arbitrarily decided to impose restrictions only on Western Slope water, not all water stored in the reservoir.
The water lost to the reservoir’s “compensatory pool” is a crucial source of water for many Western Slope farms, ranches and municipalities, Roessmann said.
In a statement, the River District said, “This illegal and inequitable imposition of the full burden of lost yield on the West Slope cannot be accepted by Western Slope water users.”
The CBT annually diverts an average of 250,000 acre-feet of water from the headwaters of the Colorado River, or enough water to supply roughly half a million homes, or about 2 million people, according to the River District.
Congressional authorization requires Green Mountain Reservoir to hold 152,000 acre-feet of water. The contents of the reservoir are divided into two “pools.”
The first pool of 52,000 acre-feet is designed to insulate the Western Slope from upstream diversions by the CBT Project.
Water in the replacement pool makes up for the large volume of water taken in CBT diversions that would otherwise have been available to Western Slope water users had the project never been constructed.
The remaining 100,000 acre-feet in the reservoir are the “compensatory pool” that provides water for present and future needs on the Western Slope as compensation for the removal of water from the Colorado River’s headwaters.
Meanwhile, the Bureau continues to study what to do about the Heeney landslide and has announced it will again impose restrictions on the reservoir this year.
That means less water will be available for release during the Western Slope irrigation season.
Joining the lawsuit are agencies representing some of the oldest and most senior water rights on the river and include the Grand Valley Water Users Association, Grand Valley Irrigation Co., Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, Palisade Irrigation District and the Middle Park Water Conservancy District.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District is a state-chartered agency designated to protect the water resources of the Colorado River Basin.
Fifteen counties make up the district, including Summit County.
The others are Mesa, Rio Blanco, Moffat, Routt, Grand, Eagle, Pitkin, Gunnison, Garfield, Delta and portions of Montrose, Sagauche and Hinsdale counties.
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