New water deal may ease some concerns, but picture still bleak for Upper Colorado

By David O. Williams
Real AspenJune 14, 2011
Chances are, if you live or recreate in Grand County, you're worried about the future of Upper Colorado River tributaries like Ranch Creek and the Fraser River. And if you live anywhere near the Colorado River Basin, you're probably also a little concerned by a report issued last week by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the state of Colorado and six other states along the river citing global warming concerns.

But a unanimous decision late last week by Colorado Wildlife Commission endorsing fish and wildlife mitigation plans for two trans-mountain water projects may ease some of those fears – at least as far as Grand County is concerned. Then again, local worries about the impacts of Denver Water's Moffat Collection System project and Northern's Windy Gap Firming Project are likely to persist.
“Is it perfect?” Wildlife Commission Chairmain Tim Glenn asked of Thursday's deal. “No. But staff has evaluated it inside and out and I'm confident that it's better than where we are.”

Commissioners were generally still worried about the “unintended consequences for the Upper Colorado, Fraser and Williams Fork rivers” but felt the revised mitigation plans – including greater temperature and flow protections for aquatic life, more funding for river restoration and a contingency fund for unanticipated impacts – were a lot better than previous plans.

“It has always been Denver Water's goal to go beyond mitigating the project impacts to make the river better than it is today,” Denver Water's director of planning Dave Little said: “We look forward to working with stakeholders on mitigation for the project and the significant enhancement plan also accepted by the Commission that will improve aquatic habitat in the Upper Colorado River Basin.”

The fish and wildlife mitigation plans still must be approved by federal regulators. Also on Thursday, Denver Water provided a statement on the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation report that includes one scenario in which water levels in the Colorado River decrease by 10 to 20 percent by the middle of this century as a result of global climate change.

“Denver Water recently announced the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, a historic proposed agreement with 35 partners stretching from across Colorado that will change the way water is managed in this state,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO/manager of Denver Water, referring to a pending deal announced in late April.

“That agreement achieves greater certainty for our present and future supplies,” Lochhead added. “Given the potential impacts of climate change and drought throughout the Colorado River Basin, we need to work actively toward a similar collaboration for the entire Colorado River Basin.”

Denver Water gets about half of its water supply from the Colorado River, which is governed by the Colorado River Compact that dictates water use in the seven stakeholder states of Colorado, Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

“The Colorado River's impact, not only on the state but the entire Southwest United States, is so extreme that all parties must work together to find solutions to future water shortages,” said Mark Pifher, director of Aurora Water, which gets about 25 percent of its water from the Upper Colorado. “Aurora and Denver have led the way for cooperative efforts among Colorado entities and we look forward to developing strategies that will be beneficial to the entire region.”

While the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement has been hailed as a model of “cooperation over litigation,” it is still far from being finalized, and trying to develop similar collaboration among the seven states along the Colorado River, as suggested by Denver Water's Lochhead, would take a herculean effort among many stakeholders with disparate interests.

During the 2008 presidential race, Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain took serious political heat when he suggested “the compact that is in effect, obviously, needs to be renegotiated over time amongst the interested parties …” He later rescinded those remarks, but not before the damage was done in many states in the Southwest.

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