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2005 Prize Winning Series

Part 2 – Grand County: Grand's Last Stand
Growth is taxing county's water supplies

By Jerd Smith and Todd Hartman
Rocky Mountain News, Oct 2, 2004


GRAND COUNTY – The mighty Colorado River is born here, delivered by the icy tundra of Rocky Mountain National Park and the wind-hammered peaks overlooking the Fraser Valley.

It nearly dies here, too.

Dozens of the river's tributaries abruptly stop cascading down the mountainsides, captured by simple dirt or concrete ditches gouged into the steep terrain. These remote structures send the water far away, through dark tunnels and open canals heading east, leaving the Colorado's main stem to wait in vain for a bounty that never comes.

It's been that way for decades, as the parched cities, cornfields and corporations of the northern Front Range drained Grand County of 60 percent of the Colorado River's headwaters. Still, the river hung on.

Then, with the new century, came drought, and strained streams fell to trickles. Flows in Grand County's Fraser River, a tributary of the Colorado, dropped this year to levels never before recorded, as Denver, desperate to refill reservoirs, allowed even less to get by its mountain water traps.

Now, Colorado's two largest water utilities, pressured by relentless growth, plan to take even more water from still-reeling Grand County.

They are seeking new water diversions that will push as much as 80 percent of the county's headwaters to the Front Range, precipitating a crisis in this Western Slope community.

Denver Water and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District want to firm up unused water rights – legal claims staked out decades ago. The extra water is crucial to meeting customer demand, they say.

Denver Water says just one dry year could bring the utility dangerously close to running out of water for customers on the north side of the metro area – as it nearly did in the record-shattering drought year of 2002.

Meanwhile, the Northern water district, which serves Greeley, Fort Collins, Boulder, Broomfield and other towns, says it's under pressure to come up with new supplies quickly.

"Some of our participants needed this water yesterday," said Brian Werner, a spokesman for Northern.

But both utilities face a daunting hurdle: how to take the water from Grand County without further damaging the delicate environment and the region's economy, which is fueled by tourists who expect to play in the very water the Front Range wants to take.

"If you ruin the reason people like to live here and the reason people like to come here, you're just shooting yourself in the foot," said Sarah Clements, executive director of the Grand County Water Information Network, a new organization tracking the region's many water challenges.

Grand County is staring at a harsh irony: One of the most water-rich areas of Colorado, home to popular ski areas and fresh mountain streams, faces a shortage that could leave rivers, developers, fish, anglers and wastewater treatment plants without the water they need.

Already, poor snowfall in recent years and transmountain water transfers have taken a sweeping toll.

In Winter Park, water district officials have denied a developer's request to double the density of his luxury housing project, from 250 to 500 units, citing lack of water to supply it.

In the Colorado River, near Kremmling, water levels dropped so low this summer that intakes for irrigation pumps were left high and dry. Ranchers couldn't water their fields, so the Northern water district had to build small dams in the riverbed to raise water levels.

Treating wastewater has grown costlier because streams have less water to dilute the effluent discharged into them. Without more thorough treatment, the sewage would contaminate the streams.

Hazards to fish and other aquatic life have increased because low flows and shallow water have raised stream temperatures. Low flows have also cut access to river habitat for fish, which need diverse environments to feed, rest and reproduce.

Residents also complain that sediment is filling scenic Grand Lake, Colorado's largest natural lake. They argue that Northern's system for moving water to the Front Range is pulling the sediment into the lake – a claim Northern questions.

A recent study of Grand County and neighboring Summit County concluded that neither has enough water for predicted growth if Denver and Northern take what they want, and the study didn't consider a severe drought. It relied on data from 1947 to 1991, taking into account two drought periods – neither as bad as 2002.

"The participants of the study realize that the current 2002-03 drought may present conditions even more severe than past droughts," the study said.

Should the utilities succeed in taking more water, locals throughout Grand County fear they would end up with, in effect, a permanent state of drought – anemic, insufficient streams even in years with average snowmelt and rainfall.

And if real drought persists or returns, which history says is inevitable, they fear the effects could be far worse.

"This (drought-like condition) is going to be an every-year deal," said Bill Thompson, 53, a rancher near Kremmling since he was a youngster.

"The Colorado River has never been this low before in my life. There's just too much water going east."

Cursed by a blessing
In a way, Grand County is a victim of the gifts Mother Nature bestowed upon it.

Grand is home to the headwaters of the famed Colorado River – the river that begins as a million melting snowflakes and goes on to roar through the Grand Canyon and bring water to five other arid Western states. This headwater county also loses more water to the Front Range than any other county in the state.

By an accident of geography, Grand County backs up to the Continental Divide in a way convenient to the most populous stretch of Colorado, bookended by Denver on the south and Fort Collins on the north.

Most of the dozens of towns and hundreds of farms in between derive a portion of their water from Grand County. The water arrives via ditches, tunnels and pipelines that travel across or have been bored through the mountain peaks separating West Slope from East Slope.

In what appears to the naked eye as a gravity-defying feat, these conveyances seem to move water uphill. When water should be flowing west, toward the Colorado River, it flows east instead.

Credit skillful engineers who designed the century-old ditches to start high in the west and end lower in the east, employing techniques dating to the aqueducts of Rome. Later, more sophisticated technology allowed tunnels and pipelines to transfer more water.

On average, all these diversions move a whopping 305,000 acre-feet per year from the Fraser, Colorado and Williams Fork rivers – all headwaters of the Colorado's main stem.

That's more water than resides in Denver Water's gargantuan Dillon Reservoir in Summit County. The diversions amount to 60 percent of the water that would otherwise flow through most of Grand County, according to the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.

But Denver and Northern want more.

Denver wants to pipe an average of 10,000 additional acre-feet a year – enough for up to 20,000 households annually – through the Moffat Tunnel to meet what it describes as growing demand. The move also will take pressure off its southern delivery system, which carries 80 percent of the utility's supply.

Northern wants to bring an average of 30,000 acre-feet more through the Adams Tunnel each year to "firm up" existing water rights connected to its Windy Gap project. That system, completed in the mid-1980s, collects water from the confluence of the Fraser and Colorado rivers and pipes it to Lake Granby.

Most water rights held by Front Range interests were claimed decades ago – long before environmental concerns might have put the brakes on or required leaving more water in the streams.

Even the U.S. Forest Service, which was alive and well in the 1920s and '30s, didn't raise a finger to stop Denver from capturing water with a 100-mile ditch and pipe system that rims the Fraser Valley.

And there was hardly a local constituency to protest.

"Nobody expected the second-home buyers and the skiers back then," said Bruce Hutchins, manager of Grand County Water and Sanitation District No. 1, the largest water provider in the Fraser Valley, supplying the equivalent of 2,500 single-family homes.

But making use of those long-held water rights won't be so simple today.

Denver Water and Northern will need federal environmental permits.

And counties have more protections against water grabs than they once had.

A 1974 state law says water utilities, even when they have water rights, can't lay down a massive project without locals getting a say in how and where it's built.

Denver and Northern, however, don't appear to need any more construction in Grand County to take additional water. Both can store it in new or expanded reservoirs on the Front Range. That takes away Grand County's best tool for combatting or controlling the projects.

"Obviously," said Grand County Commissioner James Newberry, "we're going to have to fight for our water."

Just an expression
Newberry, though, is speaking metaphorically.

Denver Water and Northern are desperate to avoid a legal fight. Wrangling in court could tie up their water rights for years, perhaps a decade – with no guarantee of the outcome.

"The easiest thing to do is fight," said Dave Little, Denver Water's manager of resource planning. But, "once you're in a court battle, there's no cooperation."

And Grand County officials have no stomach – or money – to take on Denver Water or Northern.

"We can't fight Denver," said Thompson, the Kremmling rancher. "They've got 25 lawyers on staff."

Instead, all parties seem willing to cooperate.

"We're trying to make this work for all of us," Newberry said.

Crafting compromise is crucial.

The planned diversions would leave Grand County's towns and water districts with a combined shortfall of up to 2,300 acre-feet annually once the counties are built out in the coming decades, though planners have no firm estimate of when that will be.

That 2,300 acre-feet shortage relates only to expected needs of homes and businesses. It doesn't include a predicted shortfall of about 8,000 acre-feet needed for streams to support fish and recreation. That water, like the water needed for development, could all be swallowed by Front Range transfers.

And those figures don't take into account the kind of shortages that could occur in an extremely dry year such as 2002.

Meanwhile, Grand County continues to boom. The county is among Colorado's fastest growing, with 12,884 permanent residents as of the 2000 Census, up nearly 5,000 from 1990. It had an average annual growth rate of 4 percent over the past decade.

Western Slope water officials say mountain counties may face stark choices between streamflows for fish or water for more condos and homes – choices some water districts already are facing in Grand County.

"We could probably figure out a way to serve the people at full build-out, but there wouldn't be any water in the stream, and no outdoor water use," Hutchins said.

The study of water needs in Grand and Summit counties, called the Upper Colorado River Basin Study, or UpCo, found many areas of potential water shortfall if Denver and Northern follow through on their plans.

Among them:

  • Streamflows in the Fraser River above the town of Fraser would be at or below the minimum levels recommended by the Colorado Water Conservation Board during the winter and often during summer. The minimums are needed for the health of fish, wildlife and the stream ecosystem.

  • Streamflows in the same stretch of river would often be too low for wastewater from the Grand County Water and Sanitation District No. 1 to comply with health standards.

  • Flows in the Fraser River below Fraser would often be below the recommended minimum levels for fish and wildlife for October through January.

  • Flows in the Colorado River below its confluence with the Fraser River would fall below minimum levels for fish and kayakers during some summer months. The stream would drop below minimum flows for August through March.

People who make their living off recreation – fishing suppliers and rafting guides, for example – say they're alarmed by the prospect of yet more water moving east.

"It could threaten the industry," said Art Krizman, owner of Raven Adventures, based in Hot Sulphur Springs in central Grand County.

Krizman said reduced flows in the Colorado already lengthen trips because the river moves slower with less water in the channel. A trip that once took five hours now takes six or seven hours.

"It's still a fun, beautiful place," Krizman said, "but nothing like we used to see just a few years ago."

Krizman acknowledges drought is partly to blame, but he also points a finger at the Front Range, where people "abuse water on green lawns, washing their sidewalks and act like there is no drought."

Falling water levels have also caught the attention of environmentalists with the technical knowledge to challenge the movement of more Western Slope water to the Front Range.

One group, Trout Unlimited, has raised detailed objections to the projects and submitted its concerns to the Army Corps of Engineers. The agency, in consultation with dozens of other agencies and interests, must decide whether to provide a federal permit for the work to go forward.

Among Trout Unlimited's demands: a better explanation of why the water is needed and whether both utilities can find other ways to address future needs.

"We've already got significant temperature issues below (the Fraser-Colorado confluence) because of low flows," said Melinda Kassen, an attorney for Trout Unlimited. "In this case, we're talking about exacerbating an existing problem."

During the 2002 drought, Kassen said her organization talked to a rancher who took water temperatures in the Colorado where he rents waterfront property for fishing.

"He just put his thermometer in the river, and it was 80 degrees. Trout can't live in 80 degrees," Kassen said. "The potential for continued elevated temperatures which will hammer the fishery is significant."

Almost a solution
Both Denver Water and Northern had originally proposed reservoirs for Grand County that would solve certain problems for locals and the utilities.

Denver Water had its eyes set on a site midway down the Fraser Valley to build Ranch Valley Reservoir, a 25,000 acre-feet storage pond. That reservoir could help both Denver and the Fraser Valley. Under one plan, Denver – instead of capturing water on the mountainsides – would let more water flow down the Fraser River for use in the valley. Then, that water would collect in the Ranch Valley Reservoir. When Denver needed it, water could be pumped from the reservoir into Denver Water's collection system and sent to the Front Range.

Northern had hoped to build 36,000 acre-feet Jasper Reservoir just west of Lake Granby to store water from Windy Gap.

But both proposals have run into trouble. Environmental surveys revealed both sites contain rare peat-forming wetland areas called fens.
Federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Fish and Wildlife Service, told the utilities to look somewhere else.

The news came as a blow and has sent planners scurrying for other options, none of which is likely to be as affordable or workable as their first choices.

"Everything else is not as good," said Little of Denver Water. "It's depressing."

Both parties are intent on closing a deal, however, and are looking at other possibilities.

Denver and Grand County, for example, could work out an agreement in which Grand County would pay to construct a Front Range reservoir. In wet years, Denver Water could fill the reservoir. In dry years, Denver would draw from the reservoir and take less from the Fraser Valley.

Northern has an interest in building a large Front Range reservoir, Chimney Hollow, near Carter Lake southwest of Loveland, to hold more than 100,000 acre-feet.

As for helping to ease the blow in Grand County, Northern officials note that they made all their concessions – or provided "mitigation," in the parlance of water wonks – when the Windy Gap project was built in 1985.

At the time, Northern pitched in $10 million toward Wolford Mountain Reservoir, also in Grand County, so the Western Slope could store water in wet years to supplement streamflows in dry years. Northern also provides 3,000 acre-feet of water annually to the Middle Park Water Conservancy District, which supplies water to about 30 small utilities in Grand and Summit counties.

Even so, Northern is willing to consider other steps to preserve flows in the region, said spokesman Brian Werner.

"We haven't drawn a line in the sand and said, 'Nothing else,'" Werner said. "What we hope is we can reach some middle ground. If we can do X, we'll give you Y."

But before any deal can get done, Denver and Northern need buy-in from water interests throughout Grand County, as well as the Army Corps, the Bureau of Reclamation and other state and federal agencies.

Grand County locals are nervous. They know Denver and Northern probably have good legal standing to take their water. Some are skeptical that anything can be done to preserve water for the county known as the birthplace of the Colorado River.

They point to a Denver Water diversion high on the Fraser River. Early this summer, an aging steel gate was directing almost the entire flow of the river that day into a pipe that ultimately carried the river through Moffat Tunnel to the Front Range.

The flow left over – a single cubic foot per second, about the same amount sprayed from a 1 3/4-inch firefighting hose – was all that stayed in the river.

It was all perfectly legal – the legacy of water rights claimed decades ago, long before local objections and environmental concerns might have stopped the virtual eradication of a mountain stream.

That historical backdrop, and the sheer political power of two utilities that serve a combined 2 million customers, has Grand County wondering just how much water might be left for its future.

"We're just guppies swimming in the tank with sharks," said Hutchins. "The only reason they don't eat us is they don't even see us."

They also know that this could be the last opportunity to negotiate whatever benefits they can before the Front Range squeezes out the last drop of the headwaters.

Lane Wyatt, a water specialist with the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, agrees.

"Whether it's the last drop, I don't know, but Grand County sees this as the last chance to negotiate something with these guys."

previous page | continue to part 3

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