High Country trying to deal with Front Range water needs | PostIndependent.com

High Country trying to deal with Front Range water needs

Janice Kurbjun
Summit County Correspondent
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

Front Range residents and industry are expected to need 1.06 million acre-feet of water annually by 2050 – an increase of 365,000 acre-feet over today’s needs – and several conservation organizations think there are better ways to get it than by building transbasin diversions.

Conservation organizations Western Resource Advocates, Trout Unlimited and the Colorado Environmental Coalition released a report Tuesday that claims “Colorado can chart a new innovative path forward that protects our rivers, streams and local communities.”

The report comes just prior to the governor’s Interbasin Compact Committee’s statewide meeting about how to best meet the state’s needs.

The report combats utility company planning efforts that lean toward dams, diversions, pumps, pipelines and other traditional measures to provide the much-needed water and instead suggests using technology and creativity to solve the water shortage problem.

The report, titled “Filling the Gap: Commonsense Solutions for Meeting Front Range Water Needs,” uses a four-pronged approach to building a portfolio that meets the needs while protecting environmental resources. Through acceptable planned projects, water conservation, reuse and voluntary water sharing in the agriculture sector, the report’s authors predict the Front Range’s needs will be more than met by 2050 – for potentially less money than a diversion.

“None of these are without costs, but we think they’re comparative and are certainly less than big pipeline projects,” Long said.

Population projections for the 11 Front Range counties show growth of 2.5 million people between 2008 and 2050, totaling about 5.8 million residents by 2050. It’s about 70 percent of Colorado’s population that abides on the eastern side of the state.

Yet most of the water resources are west of the Continental Divide, Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project director Drew Peternell said.

And those water resources are particularly pertinent to the livelihood of Western Slope communities like Summit County, which have become year-round resorts primarily because of the rivers.

“The snow we ski on is what waters Denver’s lawns,” said Jim Shaw of the non-advocacy Blue River Watershed Group. “Rafting and fishing will suffer” from diversion projects that deplete already scarce resources – some data shows that proposed projects could bring the Upper Colorado River to 20 percent of its historic flows.

Tourism accounts for vastly more state revenue than agriculture, said Becky Long of the Colorado Environmental Coalition.

“It’s huge,” she said. “We need to make sure we have water for tourism.”

One proposed project is Denver Water’s plan to increase Boulder County’s Gross Reservoir capacity by 18,000 acre-feet per year – it would hold 114,000 acre-feet instead of the current 41,811 acre-feet. The water would come from the Fraser and Williams Fork river systems on the other side of the Continental Divide. The state Wildlife Commission is scrutinizing the proposal for impacts to wildlife and ecosystems, but the conservation groups think it could be an acceptable project, as long as it’s designed and implemented appropriately.

Acceptable planning means projects like reservoir reallocations and enlargements such as the Gross Reservoir project could be permissible if designed and implemented pursuant to the group’s seven smart principles.

But, is it possible to minimize impacts with these types of projects?

“Yes and no,” Shaw said. “Ecosystem development is based on natural flows. But, the natural variation is great enough that if we take water in high flow periods, impacts are far less than taking water from low-flow periods,” which can result in even lower flows and warmer stream temperatures.

“You can do it better or worse, but you can’t do it perfectly,” he said.

Which seems to be the case with other measures, like cooperation between agriculture and urban water uses. The group proposes enhancing municipal supplies by granting financial benefit to the agriculture community through various measures such as water leasing.

Shaw said reducing agriculture water consumption by 15 percent could create enough water to satisfy needs through 2050.

“But with water law, that’s easier said than done,” he said, referring to the “use it or lose it” mentality that currently exists.

“How we deal with agriculture is at least as important as dealing with Denver or Aurora Water,” he said.

One main component of the approach is conservation – something both Front Range residents and mountain folk can be doing simultaneously, Long said.

The report states that a 34 percent reduction in per-capita demand would result in a reduction of 362,000 acre-feet of water demand annually by 2050, some of which can be applied to new water demands.

It would take some effort from the utility companies, but it’s potentially the cheapest and most effective way to find water, Long said.

“Conservation has not been played out completely,” Shaw said. “We can have a decent quality of life and use less water.”

He added that the fourth approach, water reuse, is also underplayed.

And the challenge isn’t technical, it’s cultural.

“There’s not enough people ready to drink [treated] wastewater,” he said, though it’s what happens for anyone downstream from the headwaters areas anyway.

In any scenario, there are winners and losers, Shaw said.

“Whatever we do, there will be tradeoffs,” he said. “We can’t make everybody happy. There’s just not enough water.”

In conservation, there will be folks who want green lawns who will be ticked about any limitations to their supply.

Sharing water must be beneficial for agricultural enterprises.

The wastewater-to-drinking-water qualms need to be quelled.

But Shaw said, in most cases, win-win situations are possible.

But, “there is no clean answer,” Shaw said. “If there was, we wouldn’t be fighting about it.”

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