Water pressure

A valiant veto defeated Two Forks Dam; will Denver's sprawl bring it back?

  • Dam Buster: EPA Administrator Bill Reilly stands near ananti-dam sign during a 1990 visit to the Two Forks damsite.

    Gordon Binder
  • Dan Luecke, Environmental Defense

  • Diane Sylvain
  • Saved, For Now: Colorado writer John Gierach fishes alonga stretch of the South Platte that would have been lost to TwoForks Dam.

    Stephen Collector
  • The Denver Post

Note: Denver Water Department head Hamlet 'Chips' Barry, Former Colo. Gov. Dick Lamm and Colorado River Water Conservation District head Eric Kuhn give their own perspectives in three sidebars to this story.

DENVER, Colo. - Ten years ago this month, the George Bush administration killed a massive Denver-area dam called Two Forks.

Dams had been defeated in the past, but not by a Republican president elected with strong support in the Rocky Mountains. Stopping Western dams usually required national campaigns. But the South Platte River and its gold-medal trout fishery in Cheesman Canyon didn't have a national constituency. And even if it did, Congress couldn't stop it, because Denver and its 40 or so suburban partners were going to pay the $1 billion cost of the 550-foot-high dam out of their residents' pockets.

All the dam builders needed from the federal government were regulatory permits.

In 1989, after six years and $25 million, the Army Corps of Engineers had completed an environmental impact statement, and was poised to issue the key permit. Only a signature from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was needed.

Denver got the signature, but it was at the bottom of a veto.

How did this stunning defeat happen? And what has the blockage of a major new source of drinking water meant for metro Denver, which added almost 500,000 residents during the 1990s, and is projected to add another 1 million persons to its 2.3 million population by 2020?

An environmental hero

The first answer is easy. The veto was the work of William K. Reilly, President Bush's newly appointed head of the EPA. He initiated the veto over objections from his top staff and the powers that be in Colorado. Then, after 19 months of political pressure, he turned his intent to veto into a veto.

How the metro area will continue to cope without Two Forks is a harder question. Metro Denver skated through the 10 years following the veto. Conservation performed especially well. In 1990, Denver served 890,000 people within Denver and its surrounding suburbs. In 1999, it served an additional 95,000 people with the same amount of water.

Denver can continue to take care of itself and its inner suburbs. The fast growth is at the sprawling, ever-expanding edge in the counties to the south and east of Denver. Think of metro Denver as you think of the universe in the wake of the big bang: the farther from the center, the faster the expansion and the thinner the population.

Thus far, the outer suburbs have been drilling wells and buying up farmers' irrigation water to supply their new subdivisions. But aquifers get pumped out, and there's just so much available agricultural water. Back in 1990, Monte Pascoe, who was then head of the Denver Water Department, opposed Reilly's veto and still believes it was a mistake.

Pascoe recalls that when Reilly called him the day after Thanksgiving 1990 to say he had just vetoed the project, "I told him: "This makes it easier for the Denver Water Department. Now taking care of the people (in Denver's outer suburbs) is the EPA's job.' " With the defeat of Two Forks, Pascoe was telling Reilly, Denver was no longer taking responsibility for the outer suburbs' water needs.

Pascoe remembers that the phone conversation was not pleasant; Reilly, he says, "got testy."

A time to celebrate

There was no testiness on Oct. 27, 2000, when Reilly came to Denver to talk to a celebratory crowd of 100 at a dinner put on by Environmental Defense - a group that was at the center of the anti-dam effort. Activists from the veto fight, dressed in jeans, mixed with high donors, consultants, a Colorado Supreme Court justice, a former governor and others at the downtown Oxford Hotel. The crowd, many of whom had not seen each other in years, was hungry, but not for food, and for awhile it seemed people would never stop talking and sit down to eat.

Reilly's welcoming remarks added to the mood: "We should savor our victories. Life doesn't have that many."

Reilly opened his after-dinner speech by saying: "I have never talked about Two Forks before. It was in the courts through 1996. The proponents alleged I came to office prejudiced. But I came to the office with complete ignorance."

Nevertheless, after only six weeks on the job, he set the veto process in motion. The paperwork he immersed himself in had been done under the Reagan administration, and its political appointees were still his top staff. When an assistant realized Reilly was going to dig into the project, she told him: "Your timing is bad." Reilly replied: "No. Your timing is bad." If the eight-year process had been a few months faster, Two Forks would have been approved by the time Reilly came to office.

The first person Reilly called to discuss the project was Colorado's former three-term Democratic Governor, Richard Lamm, who told him: "It's not a good project, but I will understand if ... you don't stop it. I know what happens when you're identified early on as an opponent of growth."

Lamm's successor, and the then-current governor, Democrat Roy Romer, told Reilly the metro area didn't need water from Two Forks, but it needed the economic boost construction would bring. The end of the energy boom in the early 1980s had left 25 percent of Denver's office space empty.

The environmentalists whom Reilly called stressed the damage Two Forks would do by removing more water from the Platte River, further threatening the whooping crane in central Nebraska. Just as bad, environmentalists said, some of the Two Forks water would come by tunnel out of the upper Colorado River basin, further threatening that river's endangered fish, like the pikeminnow. The environmentalists also had some good news. Reilly, they said, could safely stop Two Forks because there were cheaper, less damaging ways to provide Denver with water.

A long permit

In weighing the pros and cons, Reilly told the audience he was impressed by Gov. Romer's economic argument until he realized Denver was asking for 18 years to complete the project, which didn't indicate plans for quick construction. He also questioned the project's population projections. And he learned that Denver, with high per-capita water use, was serving 88,000 unmetered homes and had not met earlier commitments to conservation. Finally, he said, he didn't accept the proponents' argument that Two Forks "was none of my business."

Reilly also indicated he was taken aback by a callousness about the Platte River's Cheesman Canyon and its trout stream. "I never heard the Two Forks proponents acknowledge that we had an exquisite natural resource at stake. They didn't try to justify the loss."

In the end, Reilly decided Two Forks would violate Section 404C of the Clean Water Act. That was the straightforward part, he said. Much harder was divining the politics. Could he veto the project without being reversed by President Bush or inciting Congress to revoke the Clean Water Act?

Finally, "I asked myself: Why did the president choose the head of the World Wildlife Fund to run EPA?" He decided that Bush had meant it when he campaigned as the "environmental President," and had appointed Reilly to turn that promise into a reality.

That "gave me confidence. I told the White House the project was questionable. I told (John) Sununu (Bush's very aggressive chief of staff): Stay out of it. Blame me. Say it was my solitary decision."

Reilly got his wish. Sununu held Reilly responsible for angering Colorado's Republican congressional delegation. So there followed a stream of Colorado heavyweights to Washington, all ushered into George Bush's office by his chief of staff to lobby against the veto. Reilly said Republican Sen. Bill Armstrong told Bush that a Two Forks veto would mean the end of Denver as a "green city."

Reilly also got support. Public hearings in April 1988 were packed with Two Forks opponents. Letters to the White House ran seven to one for the veto. One writer was a part-time Vail, Colo., resident and former president, Gerald Ford. Vail was for the veto; the western Colorado ski town would suffer dry stream channels if Two Forks were built.

During those 19 months, Reilly never heard from the one man who could have reversed him - George Bush. All he got were encouraging signals in the form of invitations to state dinners at the White House. So on the day after Thanksgiving 1990, with both Sununu and the Colorado congressional delegation out of town, the final veto order was signed by an EPA official; Two Forks was dead.

The veto was challenged in court by most of the water utilities and by those interested in land development, including the Colorado Cattlemen's Association. But a transformed Denver Water Department, with a new manager and a changing board, did not join the appeal. The litigation ended in 1996, when the judge threw out the case, saying that even if Denver had joined the case, the plaintiffs would probably have lost. The suburban water providers decided not to appeal.

Laying the groundwork

Reilly could make his initial veto decision in six hectic weeks because a major chunk of Colorado's environmental community had spent six years collaborating in the elaborate public process intended to pave the way for a Two Forks permit. They had met monthly with Denver and the suburban water providers, they had done economic and hydrologic analysis, and they had produced a low-impact alternative to the Corps of Engineers' preferred solution: the 1.1 million acre-foot, 25-mile-long Two Forks reservoir.

Environmentalists were in a position to give Reilly an alternative because of Lamm and the 30-person Governor's Metropolitan Water Roundtable he had created. Like Reilly, Lamm, in 1981, had gone against some of his advisors, who warned him to stay clear of water. That was conventional wisdom. Colorado did not then and does not now have a state water plan. Each river basin, each drainage, each city, each ditch company, each shovel-wielding farmer, is so jealous of their water that no governor or legislature has dared create a plan for the state.

Among Lamm's 30 appointees were two environmentalists: Dan Luecke, then and now head of Environmental Defense's Rocky Mountain office, and Bob Golten, then an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation. Behind them stood the Colorado Environmental Caucus, a statewide coalition of environmental groups that met monthly. Although the environmentalists were outnumbered, the group, with Lamm chairing every session from 1981 to 1986, operated by consensus, which gave everyone a veto.

A strategy of cooperation

The environmentalists had not come to the table to help build a large dam on the South Platte River. They were looking for a forum at which to present alternatives to dams. According to Luecke, the alternatives they hoped to present did not include stopping water development in order to stop growth: "The mythical link between water and growth doesn't exist. You can't stimulate growth with lots of water, or stop it by depriving an area of water."

Instead, the environmentalists wanted to provide the water needed for growth in the least damaging way. But to create alternatives, they first had to understand the details of the metro-area water system: Which utilities could be hooked together to share resources? How many homes and businesses were wasting water because they were unmetered or paying a flat or declining rate? How much water did each diversion take out of a stream? How much water could be pumped from underground?

One player had data, teams of specialists and lawyers and a computer model that could take the data and run out different water supply scenarios. But the Denver Water Department wasn't about to share its data or its model. Luecke recalls, "They told us in so many words: We're the experts. You're little environmentalists. Get out of the way" - and let us build a major dam on the South Platte.

When Luecke and Golten wouldn't let the Governor's Roundtable reach consensus by joining the other 28 members in support of a large dam on the South Platte, Luecke says, "They called us obstructionists and tried to convince Lamm to remove us. To his credit, he didn't. But to prove that we weren't obstructionists, we said we'd come up with a plan to supply water, and it would have a reservoir on the South Platte."

They made that promise in spring 1982. By October 1982, they had their plan. It would provide 140,000 to 170,000 acre-feet of water a year from a small South Platte River dam, conservation, sewage reuse, a mixing of groundwater and surface-water sources, and other means.

They created the alternative with the help of a computer model of the metro water system that Luecke wrote and hydrologist Lee Rozaklis loaded up with numbers: the size of reservoirs, their evaporative losses, the ability of the Roberts and Moffat tunnels to convey water beneath the Continental Divide to the Denver area, stream channel capacities, likely precipitation, aquifer yields, and so on.

The model got nowhere with the Roundtable. Luecke says, "I don't see how we ever thought we could convince most of them of anything." But he believes the model helped convince the EPA staff and eventually Bill Reilly that there were alternatives to Two Forks.

The aftermath

Was Reilly right to veto Two Forks? So far, it looks like a good decision. Hamlet "Chips" Barry, who was appointed to head the DWD after the veto, gives full credit to Reilly's veto for transforming his department's culture and operation. He told a rural, western Colorado audience in 1994, "Beliefs that belonged to the environmental fringe in the 1960s have become mainstream values today." As a result, the Denver Water Department has shed its "earlier adolescent personality."

For starters, the once-imperial organization now cooperates with two of its traditional enemies: rural western Colorado and environmentalists. With the support of both, Denver has built a small reservoir in western Colorado. And it is about to adopt another environmentalist suggestion and build a large project to reuse some of its sewage to provide water for several large projects within Denver, including the redevelopment of the former Stapleton Airport.

Barry says, "We can't re-plumb the whole city. But we can use it (the reclaimed sewage) in new construction. This reuse will provide about 15,000 acre-feet of water. Two Forks was only going to provide us with 20,000 acre-feet." The other 80,000 acre-feet per year were to go mainly to outer suburbs.

The veto didn't hurt Denver in part because the water out of Two Forks was never the city's main concern. Instead, Two Forks was about the city's place in the metropolitan region. Until the 1970s, Denver had seen itself as the undisputed leader of the area, annexing surrounding land whenever it wanted to grow and providing all who wanted it with water diverted from the Colorado River Basin. That future was shattered in 1974, when Colorado voters passed the Poundstone Amendment, locking the city within existing boundaries. Suddenly, Denver saw itself sharing the fate of other cities, with an aging infrastructure and disproportionate numbers of poor, elderly and disabled residents.

And so Denver, armed with its formidable water system and its future claims on the Colorado River, came to the Governor's Roundtable with a non-water agenda. Luecke remembers, "They would bring in lists of the people who were using its emergency rooms," or going to the main Denver library or museums. And half of these users, Denver's representatives told the Roundtable, were from the suburbs. Out of its diminished resources, Denver was subsidizing suburbanites. Luecke continues, "They weren't at the Roundtable just to build this dam. There was a larger agenda. They were aggrieved."

Denver hoped that by welding together an urban-suburban partnership based on Two Forks, it would begin to solve some of the urban problems caused by the metro area's political divisions.

In the end, Denver didn't get its dam, but it did get some of the cooperation it had been after. Monte Pascoe, head of the Denver Water Board at that time, recalls: "One of the good things about the Two Forks discussions was that it created cooperation. That was when we got the cultural facilities tax passed, and a large number of other cooperative arrangements."

The statewide picture

Denver and the 80 entities around it, the close-in suburbs and water companies it supplies with water, are cooperating and have water for the future. But that is not true of the new, prospering, sprawling outer-ring suburbs. It is here that the downside of the Two Forks veto is most visible, especially because what seemed like outlandish population projections 10 years ago, now look much closer to the mark.

Parker, Erie and Cherry Hills Village are the kinds of places that Pascoe told Reilly were now the EPA's responsibility, or at least they were no longer Denver's responsibility. The booming of this ragged ring of outer suburbs has led the Washington, D.C.-based Fannie Mae Foundation to recently name Denver as the fourth-worst case of urban sprawl in the nation, after Atlanta, Miami and Detroit. Perhaps Reilly's knowledge of this growth and his memory of Pascoe's remark 10 years ago led him to also tell the celebrating audience in downtown Denver: "There is no final resolution of this issue."

Eric Kuhn, who heads the Colorado River Water Conservation District, agrees with Reilly. The district's job is to protect the water of the west side of the state and the Colorado River from the Front Range to the east, and from California and Arizona and Nevada to the southwest.

"The veto changed the point of attack rather than the ultimate outcome," Kuhn says. The south metro area is over here in western Colorado, looking for large transmountain diversions. The veto set up a situation of haves and have-nots. Denver and the inner suburbs it serves don't need more water. But the suburbs around it are still hanging onto the notion that a billion-dollar project is the answer to their future."

The environmentalists who helped defeat Two Forks foresaw this, and have been working for the past decade to drive yet more stakes through the heart of Two Forks. Luecke said that after Reilly's veto, "We asked ourselves: What could cap future diversions out of the Colorado River and prevent Two Forks from rising again?"

The answer, they decided, was the federal Endangered Species Act, and endangered fish like the pikeminnow (formerly called the squawfish) in the Colorado River near the Utah line. And so Environmental Defense, this time with The Nature Conservancy's Robert Wigington as partner, participated in years of tortuous, low-profile negotiations and maneuvering with water developers and with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This work culminated in 1999, when the Fish and Wildlife Service issued an opinion governing water flows in a 15-mile stretch of the Colorado River between DeBeque and Grand Junction.

This federal document limits future takes out of the river to an initial total of 60,000 acre-feet. If the fish thrive in the face of this depletion, then another 60,000 acre-foot depletion would be allowed, with the 120,000 total acre-feet to be split between the fast-growing West Slope and the faster-growing Front Range.

But Two Forks was only going to be partially filled with diverted Colorado River water. The rest of its 98,000 acre-foot per year yield was to come from the South Platte River. Here, too, the Endangered Species Act comes into play. A memorandum of agreement between the three states and the federal government bars any additional net depletions of the river to protect the whooping crane in central Nebraska. The Platte River Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust and Environmental Defense participated in these negotiations (HCN, 2/1/99: Saving the Platte).

Would-be water diverters are also blocked to the south. Congress just elevated the Great Sand Dunes National Monument to a national park. And the law creating the park will ban water diversions out of the Rio Grande in the San Luis Valley to the Front Range.

Eric Kuhn of the River District says it appears that the federal government has done what several generations of Colorado elected officials refused to do, or couldn't do: "Federal law is basically creating a state water plan." And that plan appears almost to have been designed to prevent the metro Denver area from taking much more water out of the three large rivers that originate in its mountains.

Not so fast

Former Gov. Lamm, who now runs a public policy center at Denver University, and who attended the Oct. 27 celebration, isn't ready to celebrate.

"There is no greater force on earth than thirsty people. Where is the metro area going to get its water? When water interests on the Front Range get thirsty, I don't think the Endangered Species Act and its minimum stream flows will keep them from knocking on western Colorado's door."

He predicts the outer suburbs will use the Denver Water Department to do that knocking. Lamm calls Denver Water Department head Chips Barry "an unsung hero." But Lamm worries about what happens after Barry and the current Denver Water Department. "Denver has the water rights and infrastructure to supply the outer suburbs, and the economic interests that run Colorado will use the Denver Water Board to get additional water."

Kuhn, sitting in the district's headquarters in Glenwood Springs on the Colorado River, agrees with Lamm, although he sees the suburbs using a different weapon to get their water. Kuhn suggests that if the outer suburbs get thirsty enough, they may move against the doctrine of prior appropriation itself. The doctrine is the fundamental law of water use in Colorado and in most of the West. It allocates water to those who first put it to use.

So when it comes to claiming water, population is not a factor. Miners, farmers and older cities like Denver have the most senior claims on the West's water. Newer cities, and the suburbs which grew up later, have had to make do with what was left. First-comers get to use the steady base flows out of a river or a stream. Late-comers who want dependable water supplies have to build reservoirs to store spring runoff for later use. Users who come after them are generally out of luck.

Western water use generally goes 80 percent or more to agriculture, with urban areas using a relatively small amount. The saying is that "water runs uphill towards money," but it is also true that it is expensive and time-consuming to make it do so. And in some cases, it is impossible.

For example, twice now corporations with lots of money have sought to divert the Rio Grande out of the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado. And each time, the poorest county in the state turned the developers back.

In the past, environmentalists have been the major critics of the doctrine of prior appropriation, as they seek to return water to streams for fish and wildlife. Now, Kuhn predicts, the doctrine has a new enemy: "If anything will cause prior appropriation to break, it will be the new suburbs' thirst for water."

If Lamm and Kuhn are correct, then the shape of the next Two Forks battle is already visible. It will pit the outer suburbs against Denver and the West Slope, with traditional water law and control of Denver's water system as the prizes.

Lamm hopes such a struggle can be avoided because he knows who usually wins. "I turned 65 recently, and looked back, asking: What did I do wrong? I kicked my way in the door by helping to stop the Olympics, and then won the governorship because of Watergate. I thought I had a mandate (to stop growth). But I didn't. I should have come to an understanding with the dominant economic interests." Instead, Lamm fought them and, more often than not, lost. "I almost got impeached for saying that instead of the C470 highway, we should build mass transit. If we had mass transit, I'd be more impressed with the argument that we can add growth by infilling. As it is, I think all the Two Forks veto did was buy us 20 years.

"All of the land north and south of Denver has been spoken for - north to Fort Collins and south to Colorado Springs. It's platted and zoned. There's tremendous momentum in that. Stopping growth is like stopping an automobile. You need time. You need braking distance."

If Lamm is right, Colorado has 10 more years before water once again becomes a hot topic. In control, for the moment, is a new old-guard. The Denver Water Department under Chips Barry is a progressive force. Environmentalists are key participants within Colorado and federal water planning negotiations. And the metro area has a plan for meeting metro-wide water needs, prepared over the last few years by Hydrosphere, a consulting firm whose principals cut their water teeth by fighting Two Forks.

But the power of sprawling growth was shown on Nov. 7, in Colorado and in Arizona, where the two states trounced initiatives that would have confined development within urban growth boundaries.

If the fight over water returns to Colorado, it will make Two Forks look like a warm-up act.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

  • Environmental Defense's sprawl report is available at www.environmentaldefense.org/pubs/reports/denversprawl, or a copy may be ordered for $20 at 303/440-4901;
  • A copy of the Metropolitan Water Supply Investigation is available from the Colorado Water Conservation Board for a nominal fee, at 303/866-3441.

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