Rural Colorado can’t afford to lose more water to Denver

Is diverting water through the Gross Dam-Moffat Tunnel project still necessary?


It’s no secret that the Colorado River is the lifeblood of the Southwest, supplying water to 40 million people across seven states and Mexico. The river is also the economic engine for Colorado’s rural high country, the heart of the state’s $13 billion outdoor recreation industry. The booming Front Range, however, is scheming to divert even more of the Colorado’s headwaters from Grand County, population 14,000. 

In 2003, Denver Water, the water provider for 1.4 million people in Denver and its neighboring suburbs, proposed the Gross Dam-Moffat Tunnel project, which would divert an additional 15,000 acre-feet per year from the Fraser and Williams Fork rivers, tripling the height of the existing dam to triple the capacity of its reservoir.

With this project, the Gross Reservoir near Boulder will expand.
Denver Water

With final federal environmental reviews looming, it’s time to ask: Is this project needed, are its impacts justified, and are there better alternatives? 

Well, more water is not needed. In 2014, Denver’s water use was the lowest in 40 years despite the city having 350,000 more people than in 1984. Water demand plateaued in 2002 and has not approached peak 1990s levels since. Water use is no longer increasing with population growth in Denver, and across the Southwest, conservation is working. We’re channeling the frontier spirit by living within our means.

The Moffat project is really about lawns. According to Grand County, “over half of (Denver’s) residential water use goes to keep Kentucky bluegrass thriving in a high plains desert.” Moffat is only “needed” to keep lawns lush during extended droughts. Meanwhile, scientists are sounding the alarm that the Colorado has nothing left to give. Downstream of existing diversions, federal experts have found that fish populations in at least 15 tributary streams are already past, near, or on the brink of the “ecological tipping point,” and fisheries in 10 streams are “collapsed” or “near collapse.”

Healthy rivers depend on flow regimes and temperatures within natural ranges to maintain habitat integrity and water quality. In the Upper Colorado, increased diversions caused by the project will lop off spring flushing flows. Less water means increasing sediment, higher concentrations of metals and wastewater effluent, endangered native fisheries, and further compromise to the once-legendary water clarity of Grand Lake. 

In Gross Reservoir, the larger dam will elevate methylmercury concentrations throughout the food chain and make fish unfit for consumption. Construction would also flood Forsythe Falls, inundate scenic canyons and displace a migratory elk herd.

In South Boulder Creek, freezing flows below the dam would compromise nutrient production and trout habitat above Eldorado Canyon State Park. This is because Denver insists on releasing the coldest water from the very bottom of the new dam, instead of installing a “Multi-Level Outlet Works” to mitigate these impacts.

Boulder County would bear 100 percent of the environmental impacts on the Front Range while reaping zero benefits. Does Denver expect Boulder to betray its constituents and sacrifice its environment – to shy away from addressing climate change and wasteful consumption? 

Grand County officials have endorsed a “Learning By Doing” mitigation package with Denver Water that candidly admits the drafters don’t know what they’re doing. According to state water quality experts, this large-scale science experiment is untested “in a real-life situation.”

Conservation-minded Coloradans prefer healthy rivers to Chemlawn trucks. We would rather spend our summer weekends floating currents or breathing fresh air along the banks of a free-flowing mountain stream than mowing lawns and plucking dandelions. 

Federal law requires the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny the dam permit if Moffat is not the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative.” It isn’t. Conservation works. It worked after the Two Forks veto blocked a destructive dam in 1990. Conservation and continued innovation to make the most of existing supplies will work for Denver. 

With Lower Colorado reservoirs Lake Mead and Lake Powell at record low levels, and California facing a record drought, grabbing more water out of the Colorado seems just plain crazy. Why spend $380 million on damaging diversions when investing in conservation and greener alternatives would reap far better returns?

Moffat is gross, unnecessary, wasteful and will probably be found unlawful. Across the continent, dams are coming down. Why not put Moffat to a vote on both sides of the Continental Divide? Let citizens choose between another 20th century dam and the 21st century solutions inspired by conservation.

Mike Chiropolos is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is an environmental attorney representing Save the Colorado and The Environment Group of Coal Creek Canyon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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