Water Lines: Transmountain diversions in Colorado connect us all
Special to the Free Press
I recently attended the Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s tour of Transmountain Diversions to the Arkansas Valley. Transmountain diversions take water from one side of the Continental Divide and move it to the other.
The tour was timely because of ongoing conversations about the Colorado Water Plan (currently under construction) and how the state will address growing demand for a diminishing supply of water around the state.
Because my employer, the Water Quality and Quantity Committee of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, works to address environmental (and resulting economic) impacts from transmountain diversions, the best part of the tour for me was gaining a better appreciation for how interconnected the state is through transmountain diversions.
The Arkansas Valley is the recipient of water that is diverted through complex tunnel systems, or simple diversion ditches, from the western side of the Continental Divide to population centers on the Front Range. The tour focused primarily on the benefits that historic transmountain diversions have provided to the Eastern Slope. Chaffee County Commissioner Dennis Giese even thanked the West Slope for the water that makes their recreation and ranching economies thrive — a touching gesture that does not happen enough in dialogue across the divide.
We saw Colorado’s oldest still-used transmountain diversion, the Ewing Ditch, and walked along the .75-mile ditch from the diversion point to the point it crosses the Continental Divide. The Ewing Ditch was constructed in 1880 and transfers water over Tennessee Pass from Piney Creek, a tributary of the Eagle River, to Tennessee Creek, a tributary of the Arkansas River.
We saw transmountain diversions of a much larger scale, too, watching water blast from the side of a mountain, bringing water from Homestake Reservoir in the Eagle River basin through a five-mile tunnel to Turquoise Reservoir and the Arkansas River Basin.
We met business owners and state land managers in Salida and Buena Vista who praised the Voluntary Flow Program, under which water agencies time releases from upstream reservoirs to provide flows to benefit rafting and angling in the Upper Arkansas basin. These releases are captured downstream in Pueblo Reservoir to meet urban and agriculture demands. The program, initiated in 1990, has helped make the Arkansas River the most rafted river in the country.
But long before the Voluntary Flow Program existed, transmountain diversions were bringing water to the Arkansas Basin for farming and ranching and for drinking water for Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Aurora, and other Front Range communities. Early transmountain diversions provided these benefits without adequate environmental protections for West Slope rivers.
We did not trek to the West Slope because, simply, there was not enough time in a two-day tour to squeeze it all in.
But the Colorado Water Plan does have the time and space to really delve into both sides of the transmountain diversion conversation. The Water Plan should highlight not only the benefits from transmountain diversions, but the historic environmental damage from those same diversions. Painting a picture of both sides of the Divide will capture the interconnected economies and community on both sides of the mountains, which will help set the Colorado Water Plan on a path forward to benefit the whole state.
To learn more about Colorado’s transmountain diversions, check out the Citizen’s Guide to Transbasin Diversions on the Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s website (under “Online Store): http://www.yourwatercolorado.org.
To learn more about the Colorado Water Plan, go to http://www.coloradowaterplan.com.
To see the blog of the Water Quality and Quantity Committee of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (where an earlier version of this article first appeared), visit http://www.nwccog-qq.org. Information on the committee is also available there.
Torie Jarvis is co-director of the Water Quality and Quantity Committee for Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.
This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at Facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or Twitter at Twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.
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