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River district board authorizes litigation to correct C-BT problems

The Colorado River Water Conservation District board voted Thursday to sue the federal government and a Front Range water agency over allegedly illegal use of transmountain water diversions.

The River District contends that water diverted from the headwaters of the Colorado River is being used in a giveaway program and to fill reservoirs that should be capturing Front Range runoff.

Unless some resolution can be reached soon, the River District plans to sue the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District over their use of water diverted through the Colorado-Big Thompson project, said River District spokesman Peter Roessmann.



The River District is a 15-county water policy agency charged with protecting the Colorado River and its tributaries for use by the Western Slope. It is headquartered in Glenwood Springs, and Thursday’s action came during the agency’s regular quarterly board meeting.

The Colorado-Big Thompson project, built in the 1930s over the objections of Western Slope political leaders and irrigators, draws as much as 300,000 acre-feet of water a year from Granby Reservoir in Grand County to augment farm and city water supplies in northeast Colorado.



After an extensive engineering and legal investigation, the River District alleges that Colorado-Big Thompson project operators have failed to use native East Slope water when it has been available and instead diverted water from the headwaters of the Colorado River.

River District engineers allege that the Colorado-Big Thompson project is being used to import as much as 20,000 acre-feet of extra water from the Colorado River headwaters to fill up Carter Lake and Horsetooth Reservoir on the East Slope.

Such operations violate U.S. Senate Document 80, the Colorado-Big Thompson project’s Congressional authorizing legislation, Roessmann said.

Additionally, the Bureau of Reclamation violated its own policies by diverting water from the Western Slope and giving it away through its “non-charge” or “free water” program.

“These actions remove water from the Western Slope that should be available for Western Colorado’s use,” Roessmann said.

By giving away water, the Colorado-Big Thompson project is violating federal laws that govern Bureau of Reclamation projects, Roessmann said. Federally subsidized water projects are not permitted to provide water for free to users without contracts and without repayment for the cost of a project’s construction, operation and upkeep.

“In the year 2000 alone, over 58,000 acre-feet of free water, the equivalent of the annual water needs for almost 300,000 people, was removed from the West Slope and given away on the East Slope,” Roessmann said.

He noted that the River District board is not objecting to legitimate use of Colorado-Big Thompson project water by Eastern Slope farmers and cities that hold contracts for project water.

The Colorado-Big Thompson project is the largest diverter of water from the West Slope, removing over half the water produced by the headwaters of the Colorado River in Grand County. It diverts more than three times the water that Denver Water takes through the Roberts Tunnel.

The original intent of the Colorado-Big Thompson project was to provide farmers on the eastern plains with supplemental irrigation water, but the water now flows mostly to Front Range cities.

“Much of the Western Slope is growing at the same pace as the booming Front Range communities,” Roessmann said. “Water is increasingly needed on the West Slope for human consumption, recreation, maintenance of fish habitat, agriculture and the recovery of endangered fish species.

“The perceived surplus of water on the Western Slope is rapidly vanishing,” he added.

The River District will ask the state water court to order Colorado-Big Thompson project operators to manage the system in line with its authorizing legislation and to end unnecessary transmountain diversions of Colorado River water.


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