Water wars may intensify
The Colorado drought of 2002 showed what is at stake in the war for water between the Western Slope and the Front Range. It succeeded in sharpening a vision of the future, one in which water is in higher demand as the population grows along the urbanized Front Range.The 2002 drought and the resulting fires drove cities to seek new sources – most pointedly from farms and mountain streams – as well as reduce consumption through improved conservation. All talk about water on the Front Range impacts the Western Slope, just like every faucet leak and water sprinkler does as well.But although the 2002 impacts from the drought were enormous, the real changes have been small.The first attempt to deliver a silver bullet was Referendum A, the proposal by Gov. Bill Owens to use the state’s bonding authority to back $2 billion in unspecified water projects. In a November 2003 vote, it failed even in the suburbs south of Denver that would have most likely benefited. Taxpayers don’t like buying a pig in a poke.One shot, one blank.Where’s the surprise? The second shot fired was the so-called “Big Straw” study. The premise was that Colorado allows large amounts of water to flow downstream to California. The purpose of this $500,000 study was to peg the cost of pumping the water from Grand Junction, Meeker and Craig to the spine of the Rockies for use on the Front Range. The study’s conclusion – a price of $3.8 to $15 billion compounded by huge on-going electrical costs – did not surprise experts. At that cost, cities are more cheaply served buying existing farms in Eastern Colorado for their water, something they have already done for decades, while also instituting conservation programs.Two shots, two blanks.
A third much-heralded response to the drought was the Statewide Water Supply Initiative. Often shortened to SWSI, it’s a study that delivered tons of data – 79 megabytes worth – if you care to download the full report from the web site of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The goal was to take a measured, methodical look at water supplies and demands expected in the year 2030.Again, the study yielded no surprising conclusions. Colorado’s population will continue to surge, causing cities to steadily seek more water. Even now, almost no surpluses exist. Somebody has a legal claim to almost every drop. All this was previously well-known. In fact, water officials from Silverthorne to Grand Junction say all the basin-by-basin information previously existed, though it may never have been compiled into one voluminous report. But the $2.4 million SWSI was also a process intended to achieve some consensus or identify conflict about water use in Colorado. In doing so, it has certainly delivered headlines. As well, roundtable meetings were held earlier this year.Wars cooling or heating?What consensus has SWSI yielded? A daily newspaper in Denver would have you believe SWSI caused lions and sheep to become bedmates. With a big front-page headline that sounded like a press release from the office of Gov. Bill Owens, the paper announced: “Water wars cooling.”That news was stale, and arguably wrong. The rapprochement is 10 to 15 years old. After the defeat of the Homestake II project in Eagle County and the Environmental Protection Agency’s veto of Two Forks, both in the late 1980s, a new dialogue began between the headwater counties of the Western Slope – including Summit County-area interests – and Front Range cities that own water rights here.Those conversations yielded a collaborative Denver-Western Slope reservoir called Wolford Mountain. Vail-led interests in the Eagle Valley negotiated releases from the Aurora and Colorado Springs owned Homestake Reservoir as part of a giant quid-pro-quo. In all these cases, each side gives up in order to gain. Modest success is better than nothing.
Meanwhile, discussions continue on an almost weekly basis in Summit, Eagle and Grand counties to help define the middle ground.”Water waters heating” may have in fact been the better headline. In part because of the drought, tensions were rising anyway. With its attention to the growth pressures, SWSI may have added to growing suspicions of the motives of Republican politicians on Denver’s Capitol Hill. Keep in mind, the axis for Colorado state government during the last several years has been in Denver’s southern suburbs, a place of great recent affluence borrowed against tomorrow.On the Western Slope, there’s a particularly acute concern that headwater streams will be further sacrificed on behalf of Highlands Ranch, Parker and other southern suburbs of Denver.While not mentioning this south metro area, a letter signed by members of the Headwaters Forum, a group representing jurisdictions from Winter Park to Aspen, expresses the apprehension. SWSI, says the letter, may be “used by some to rationalize the sacrifice of the economy and environment of one area of the state to meet another area’s growth-related water demands.”Even blunter in his assessment of SWSI is Frank Cleaver, executive director of the Ute Water Conservancy District. His Grand Junction-based district serves about 70,000 people from DeBeque through Fruita. “I think it was a waste of taxpayers’ money,” he says. “I don’t know that it has increased tension, but it hasn’t reduced them. I don’t see how it could. There was no substance.”Water providers such as his districts, he says, should have been consulted – behind closed doors. They would not want to spill their plans in front of environmentalists, he said.Not one more drop
A counter to these perspectives comes from Russell George, the state’s top official for water matters. SWSI tried to dampen the inflammatory rhetoric, he said.”SWSI says we need to be talking,” he said after the public unveiling of the report in November. In SWSI, he sees state government fostering a broad give-and-take among basins of the state, he said. George, a Harvard-educated lawyer, has impeccable Western Slope credentials. He grew up on a farm near Rifle, became speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, and is now executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. He has a reputation for being both politically savvy and honest. Avoiding the shrill and simplified, he is known for constantly searching for middle ground.Absent dialogue, the default position – digging in heels to say no more transmountain diversions and no loss of farms – is a doomed one, he said. Water is considered a property right under Colorado law and hence subject to the free market. As such, whether it’s from mountain streams or farms, water will inevitably find its way to the Front Range, where 80 percent of Colorado’s population is located. Still, some activists insist the only answer is for Front Range cities to stop growing. Steve Glaser, representing the Crested Butte-based High Country Citizens Alliance, makes this point insistently. “We cannot manipulate the ecosystem and expect the ecosystem not to respond negatively,” he said.Hearing that protest and a few others like it, George responded: “What I want to say to the not-one-more-drop crowd is, ‘Are you sure you can sustain that? You have so far. But can you sustain that? Or is there something you really want of certainty?'”In other words, do the Western Slope headwaters counties wants dams of their own, much as were negotiated at Green Mountain and Ruedi reservoirs? Those dams have aided fishermen and boaters and, of course, ski areas and peach growers.In all this, George urged attention to efforts to negotiate collaborative outcomes, as the Eagle Valley has been doing with Aurora, Colorado Springs and Denver. “It’s a good model. If we have lots more of those conversations going on, it will be a good thing,” he said.
Western Slope warySWSI during the last 18 months specifically avoided contemplation of additional transmountain diversions, but that may come next. This time, it’s a Democratic Legislature that must consent. If it does, George said, he foresees the state facilitating discussions between basins – such as between the Colorado River with the South Platte, for example. Those individual basins must cut their own deals, because the needs of each basin are different. “That’s why I think basin-of-origin protection bills never quite get to the finish line – because no two basins are alike,” George says.Not least, George foresees a role for state government in facilitating money for water projects. “Part of the state’s role is to move some money around, and that’s best if you know what you’re going to use it for,” he said.This slower, methodical process, of which the statewide study represents the first step, is a much better way that gnashing of teeth that was the first response after 2002, George said.Still, suspicions remain. The big water providers – both on the Eastern Slope and Western Slope – think the state is getting involved where it is not needed. And there is also some thinking that in merely trying to foster dialogue, state government may actually be trying to force the outcome. “We’re interested in seeing what (Russell George) wants to put together,” said Karen Shirley, district manager of the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District. That said, her district remains distrustfulOn the Eastern Slope, Denver’s director of water planning, Ed Pokorney, said he remains hopeful that SWSI will, given this foundation-building data-collecting process, yield constructive negotiations.So are the water wars heating or cooling? “I don’t know that you’re always going to have one big happy family,” Pokorney said. “And I don’t think you ever had. There are ups and downs, even in the best of families.”Three bullets, two blanks, one shot still in the air.
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