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2005 Prize Winning Series

Part 3 – Summit County: Siphoning the Summit
Dillon Reservoir faces more ups and downs

By Jerd Smith
Rocky Mountain News, Oct 4, 2004

FRISCO - The Blue River feeds Dillon Reservoir, lures anglers and kayakers, and fuels snowmaking at Keystone and other ski areas. But a new study predicts that Summit County will run short of water in the next 25 years as its own population booms and Denver Water takes more of the Blue's flows.

At 10 p.m., just off-shore at Dillon Reservoir, fireworks light the cold, night sky. With each display, thunderous echoes bounce off the surrounding mountains, offering a heavenly drumbeat to accompany the annual Fourth of July extravaganza.

Aboard a flotilla of sailboats, spectators watch the show from the middle of the lake, whistling and clapping, happy to be afloat even as a late-night storm sweeps rain across the decks of their sleek J-80 racing boats.

Though half the boats on the reservoir are registered to metro-area residents, it's a safe bet that few of their owners are aware of other water storms brewing over Dillon's glorious shores.

Many who use Dillon each weekend don't yet realize that Denver Water will begin taking much larger gulps from its largest storage pond, raising and lowering its levels dramatically.

Nor do many know that the utility plans to increase by 77 percent the amount of water it diverts from the Blue River, the lifeline for the reservoir and Summit County.

That means about half of the Blue River's crisp, clear native flows will come to the Front Range in the next 25 years, up from about 25 percent now, according to the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.

Because of this and Summit's spectacular growth, unless more water is stored for local water users, the county known as Colorado's playground will end up significantly drier. At times, the county could run short of water for snowmaking, golf courses and trout fisheries, according to a 2003 study known as the Upper Colorado River Project.

"It's a huge amount of water, and it's a huge problem in the county," said Bob Weaver, a water consultant who has examined long-term supply issues in Summit and other headwater counties.

Denver owns the rights to millions of gallons of additional Blue River water that it has not needed in the past 40 years. In Colorado, water in streams is a private property right and is often owned by someone other than those who live along the stream.

Summit officials, deeply worried that their bustling tourist-dominated home is in jeopardy, hope to rein in Colorado's largest municipal water supplier, even as they acknowledge its legal right to the water.

With a December deadline looming to keep both sides out of court, Denver has made an offer it has never made before: to permanently cap what it takes from the Blue River as part of a new collaborative approach to working with mountain counties.

"(Our) effort is to reduce the points of friction and to bring as much common understanding as we can, recognizing that our interests will never be the same," said Denver Water Manager Chips Barry.

Ticking clock
Rules on how Denver can use Blue River water and Dillon Reservoir were set up in a series of 1950s-era agreements known as the Blue River Decrees.

Questions about the agreements have always dogged Denver's relationship with Summit County, Barry said, but the drought and Denver's plans to take more water from the Blue put the two at loggerheads two years ago.

Summit County water users began raising serious legal questions about whether Denver's plans would comply with the decrees. They made clear they weren't going to let the water go easily without getting something in return.

Among their requests: the right to participate in setting guidelines for Dillon Reservoir levels, help with Summit's rising water treatment costs, and more water for streams and snowmaking.

"2002 (the worst year of the current drought) was a wake-up call to us," said Sue Boyd, assistant county manager who oversees water issues.

The debate was so heated in that blistering summer that the two sides agreed to a sort of legal cease-fire.

But the cooling-off period ends in December.

"That's the clock that's ticking," said Dave Little, Denver Water's manager of water resource planning. "If we can find a way to meet all their needs, there will be no reason to fight. We think there are solutions out there. We're searching for common ground. We're hopeful, and we're committed."

Denver has its own motivation to deal. Its long-term planning documents show that demand will outstrip supplies in 12 years, by 2016, assuming the utility maintains a 30,000 acre-foot backup pool mandated by its board in the mid-1990s.

Denver takes, on average, 66,000 acre-feet of Blue River water through the Roberts Tunnel each year. That's almost a fourth of what Denver Water customers use each year. It plans to boost that to 117,000 acre-feet, Little said. How quickly the jump in diversions will occur isn't clear.

At least a portion of the new Blue River supplies could begin coming across the mountains by 2011 to help Denver expand its supplies to the north metro area, Little said.

Still, with customers using less water because of the drought, the utility may be able to slow the new diversions from the scenic river.

"I think we have a little bit of time," said Denver Water Board member Denise Maes. "But I think we have a hell of a lot of work to do, and we need other communities to help us get it done."

Summit will see its own water demand more than double by 2030 to about 21,100 acre-feet a year, up from 11,000 acre-feet in 2000, according to the Statewide Water Supply Initiative study.

Those numbers pale in comparison to Denver's, but it's still water the ski resorts and towns of Summit County don't have.

Summit County has already seen water shortages crop up, thanks to the drought. Some subdivisions were on watering restrictions this summer. Frisco's water treatment plant may have to be rebuilt because water levels in Dillon are often too low to support the plant's old operating system, Summit County Commissioner Tom Long said.

The legal questions
Summit County has raised could have serious consequences for Denver.

Among the issues are whether Denver has the legal right to store more Blue River water on the Front Range, whether the water can be used to help suburbs within Denver's service area, and whether the utility's 1.2 million customers should be forced to drink recycled water before more Blue River water is diverted.

In exchange for a promise from Summit not to sue over those issues, Little said, Denver has offered to permanently cap the average amount of water it takes out of the Blue River at 131,000 acre-feet a year.

But Summit officials aren't ready to call a truce. Such legal questions give them critical leverage with the utility, whose $227 million budget for 2004 is more than four times the size of Summit County's entire $51 million annual spending plan.

One of Summit's biggest complaints is that it doesn't think Denver recycles enough water.

"The decree says that Denver has to re-use the water (multiple times)," Long said. But until Denver launched its new recycled water plant this year, it hadn't recycled any Blue River water. Now it recycles the water only once, treating it enough to use on parks and open space but not for drinking.

Denver, however, argues that it uses Blue River water efficiently enough to comply with the decrees.

If Summit County prevails in the negotiations or wins in a court battle, then some experts think metro-Denver residents could be forced to drink recycled water as part of a multiple-use program. That's never occurred before in a metro area that prides itself on its high-quality, sparkling mountain water.

But that doesn't bother Long. If city dwellers drink recycled H2O, "It would free up a lot of water for the Front Range without taking more water from us," he said.

Patti Wells, Denver Water's chief legal adviser, declined to comment on the Summit County negotiations, saying only that her agency was in compliance with the decree.

A legacy of tension
Friction between Summit and Denver Water dates back more than 50 years, when Denver began acquiring land to build Dillon Reservoir.

Using condemnation or the threat of it, the utility bought some of the county's most scenic ranches. It relocated the town of Dillon, moving schools and cemeteries. Later the agency sold parcels acquired through that process, something that still rankles locals, such as rancher Grady Culbreath.

"Seeing them turn around and sell some of that off, well, they shouldn't be allowed to condemn stuff and then sell it. That's all there is to it. Some of that land up around Dillon is worth per square foot what they gave for it per acre," Culbreath said.

Wells takes exception to such criticism, saying her agency has never profited improperly from land sales or disposed of land against the wishes of local government.

"When we have disposed of land, we have only done so in cooperation with the local land-use agency," Wells said.

George Beardsley, a Denver developer and Denver Water Board member appointed in February, has owned a ranch in Summit County for 20 years.

"I'm sort of the new kid on the block," he said. "But people in Summit know me, and they want to know what Denver's going to do. This is difficult. The asset (Dillon Reservoir) is Denver's, but there are ways to be sensitive to (Summit County's) concerns."

Denver Water has been under direct orders from its board to go out and collaborate ever since it failed in 1989 to win public and political support for Two Forks, a massive proposed reservoir on the Front Range.

Erasing memories of old water feuds, however, is never easy.

"When issues are this emotional, the hard thing is to keep people focused on things they can do," said David Robbins, a water attorney who spends about 30 weekends a year in a second home overlooking Silverthorne.

"Personally, I think it's hard to get aggravated with Denver for building a reservoir. There would be no Silverthorne if there weren't a Dillon Reservoir. But we're all under stress. We have 10 to 15 times more people living in Summit County now than we did 50 years ago, and they have completely different expectations."

Working on good will
Denver Water, well aware of the animosity Summit County residents feel, insists it has worked to cooperate with Summit and other counties. It has, for example:

  • Helped pay to develop the $385,000 UpCo study showing exactly where Summit county's towns and ski areas would need water in the future as Denver siphons out more.

  • Helped Silverthorne reshape channels in the Blue River to make it appear fuller in times of low flows.

  • Spent nearly $3.5 million in 1992 to help purchase Clinton Reservoir on Fremont Pass, providing about 3,500 acre-feet of water for snowmaking to Keystone, Breckenridge, Winter Park, Copper Mountain and Vail ski resorts.

  • Recently donated the 160-acre Roberts Peninsula to the town of Dillon as part of an open-space package.

But Denver Water officials, frustrated as the negotiations drag on, say nothing they do is ever enough.

"We sometimes think good will - up there - lasts about a half-hour," said Barry, the utility's manager.

Glenn Porzak, a water attorney who represents Vail Associates, Keystone and Breckenridge, said it's critical that Denver Water and Summit resolve their differences.

"Everyone knows if they go to court, it will be there for years," Porzak said.

Barry said his agency is trying hard to apply salve to old wounds and to find ways to avert future water shortages in Summit and other headwater counties.

"We are their best hope for solving their water problems," he said. "We're the only entity up there with the resources, with the pipes and infrastructure - with the water - to help."

previous page | continue to part 4

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