Four years after the defeat of Denver's proposed Two Forks Dam, water development in Colorado has changed drastically. No longer is Denver the imperialistic leader of Front Range urban development. And no longer are environmentalists a fringe influence, forever fighting the good fight against dams and forever losing.
The change is visible at three major
water powers: the Denver Water Department, the Northern Colorado
Water Conservancy District and the Colorado River Water
* The Denver Water
Department has a new board, a new manager, new middle management
and a new, clearly articulated policy;
Northern has a new manager and an evolving board, and is slowly
developing a new policy; while
* the River
District, with the same manager and no new water policy, has lost
its position as the West Slope's leader in water matters. Some in
western Colorado see the outfit, which is charged by charter with
protecting Colorado River water, as a traitor.
These changes would have occurred eventually. But they came about
sooner because Colorado's environmental community, organized as the
Environmental Caucus, chose to work within the Two Forks permitting
process during the 1980s.
Rather than stand firm
against any water development, the caucus accepted the
inevitability of some development but chose to seek the least
damaging, least expensive path. After years of participation, the
caucus built a case that the ecologically and environmentally
expensive Two Forks wasn't needed if conservation and water
transfers were implemented and a few small projects were
In the end, the caucus convinced the head
of the Environmental Protection Agency, Bill Reilly, and he
convinced President George Bush. The dam was rejected in 1990, and
Denver's build-build-build policies were swept away when the
advantages of a soft-path approach to water development became
Nothing fails like
The change in the Denver Water
Department was on display in late August when its new leader, Chips
Barry, came to the rural West Slope to tell a group of farmers and
that belonged to the environmental fringe in the 1960s have become
mainstream values today." So the Denver Water Department has shed
"its earlier adolescent personality. We're now a more mature
"We have a
different board, a different manager, and very different conditions
and financial constraints. The opportunities for future water
development in the entire state, and especially on the Front Range,
are very difficult."
It is unlikely that
Barry's predecessor, Bill Miller, would have met with a bunch of
ditch company board members and heads of small utilities. There
would have been no point, since the old Denver Water Department saw
the West Slope as a collection of rivers waiting to be diverted to
the growing Front Range. That diversion was always done
unilaterally, without consulting the water's former
But nothing fails like failure, and
Denver's attitude began to change as the agency, under Miller and
former attorney Glenn Saunders, suffered reversals in its search
for additional water out of the Colorado River
Small defeats were followed by an immense
defeat in 1990, when Denver and 40 or so suburban allies, having
spent $40 million to obtain permits for the $1 billion Two Forks
Dam, were turned back at the 11th hour by President Bush. (Some of
the affected suburbs have sued the EPA, trying to force approval of
Two Forks, but Barry considers the appeal futile and not worth
The crushing setback reworked the
department and sent Denver on a search for peace and new allies
that brought Barry to Grand Junction to talk about his
organization's changing policy.
Denver has done
more than talk. It has acted to get its water consumption under
control. It has adopted universal metering, changed rates to
encourage conservation, and promoted use of water-thrifty
appliances and desert-type landscaping.
said the results were visible this year. In the hot, dry summer of
1986, Denver had peak uses of 586 million gallons per day. During
this year's hotter, drier summer and with more customers, Denver
never topped 500 million gallons per day. In addition, per capita
use has dropped steadily from about 900 gallons per household per
day in 1970, to about 750 gallons today. Much of that drop came in
the last six years.
Looking ahead, Denver is
limiting its responsibility for Front Range growth. In the past,
Denver used its water system, its expertise and its political
muscle to help surrounding suburbs grow.
Denver's desire for growth may not have changed (it now builds
airports instead of dams), but it no longer exerts itself to supply
the water for new development.
Barry told the
Grand Junction group, "We won't solve the water supply problem for
the Front Range. North Douglas County (Castle Rock, Parker, et al)
doesn't have a water supply, and we're not going to provide one."
Denver has supply contracts with 80 towns and
water districts around it. Many contracts, Barry said, are
"open-ended. They say, "We'll serve you, Littleton, no matter how
big you're going to get." "
Now, Barry said,
Denver has gone to all 80 entities "with new contracts that limit
our obligation by limiting" the area Denver is committed to serve.
Barry said Denver has renegotiated about one-third of the
contracts. He estimates that Denver's present water supply of
215,000 acre-feet needs another 40,000 to 80,000 acre-feet to meet
present and future commitments. Some additional water would come
from new dams and reservoirs; some would come from reuse of waste
water, conservation and the like.
has also changed its approach to water politics. Until recently,
urban and rural water developers might fight over a particular
right but were united on general policy. However, in 1992, Barry
said, the Western Urban Water Coalition, a relatively new
organization made up of Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and other
Western cities, testified in Washington for Rep. George Miller's
water reform bill.
That bill, enacted over
fierce opposition from California irrigators, will send water from
California's Central Valley farms to cities and back into streams
and river deltas to aid fish and wildlife.
said, "The driving force is that the old alliance of urban entities
and irrigation is not as useful in the 1990s as it was in the old
days." Barry said that irrigation interests cannot afford
economically to meet the nation's new environmental standards. He
foresees alliances with environmentalists because "urban interests
have the money to accommodate environmental interests. I see
environmentalists and cities lining up in ways they didn't before.
And irrigation interests and cities won't line up as they did
If what Barry says is true, the
Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District is in double trouble.
Denver is the best-known diverter of water out of the Colorado
River, but it siphons only 110,000 acre-feet under the Continental
Divide to the Front Range. By comparison, Northern, through its
Colorado-Big Thompson project, takes 220,000 acre-feet of water out
of the Colorado River to water the farms of northern Colorado. It
also takes substantial amounts of water out of the South Platte
River, which flows off the east slope of the Rockies onto the
Diversions of this scale
inevitably involve environmental problems, but thus far Northern's
diversions have not attracted the attention that the California
Central Valley Project's did. Northern's new head, Eric Wilkinson,
says there is no comparison with the Central Valley because
Northern diverts its water in a responsible way.
In any case, environmental reform is not
Northern's immediate challenge. Right now, Northern is up against
geography. It presides over an irrigated agricultural empire just
to the north of the thirsty Front Range. Northern distributes water
to about 3,000 farmers, who irrigate land that added about $340
million to Colorado's economy in 1993.
If any of
that land is to be dried up for urban development, Northern wants
the water to go to cities within its boundaries, such as Loveland,
Fort Collins and Greeley.
Some suburbs around
Denver, now blocked from West Slope water, covet Northern's water.
Even before Two Forks collapsed, Thornton, a city north of Denver
and near Denver International Airport, bought up half a ditch
company in Northern's district.
In 1994, almost
a decade after the purchase, Colorado water judge Robert G. Behrman
ruled that Thornton could divert 33,000 acre-feet of irrigation
water. Of the 21,000 acres of farmland that Thornton bought, 18,000
will be dried up.
It will be expensive water.
Two Forks would have been costly, and Thornton's water is expected
to cost perhaps four times as much. In part that is because
Northern opposed Thornton's diversion in court, and the court
granted Thornton less water than the city had
Although Northern says that it will
fight all water raiders, Wilkinson also says the district has
agreed to the Southern Pipeline, which will send some of Northern's
Windy Gap municipal water south to several Denver-area
Northern is also part of a larger
cooperative venture. It and the cities within its boundaries are
members, with Denver and its suburbs and environmentalists, of the
Metropolitan Water Supply Investigation, which is attempting to
solve Front Range water needs into the next
A rural district in
On the surface, the Colorado River
Water Conservation District has been least affected by the Two
Forks debacle. The River District is still led by its long-time
Secretary-Engineer, Rolly "H2O" Fischer. The board is largely the
same, and if the River District has changed policy, that change has
not been articulated.
Nevertheless, Two Forks
hit the River District hard.
From its formation
in 1937 until 1986, the River District fought all diversions of
water out of the Colorado River Basin. In addition to fighting
defensively, the River District filed on streams and reservoir
sites with the hope that the West Slope's economy would eventually
allow it to build dams for use within its territory.
Perhaps despairing that that day would ever
come, and perhaps because its culture required that it finally
build a dam, in 1986 the River District signed a peace treaty with
Denver. That treaty, which included Northern, gave the River
District the money to build a dam. The money came from Northern, as
compensation for its latest project, the Windy Gap municipal
diversion out of the Colorado River basin, and from Denver.
In return for the money from Denver, the River
District agreed to lease water out of its reservoir to Denver until
Two Forks came on line. At that point, the River District would own
the entire reservoir. In addition, the River District agreed that
it would not oppose Two Forks. To Denver's traditional leaders, the
treaty must have seemed to seal their quest for a federal permit
because they had neutralized Denver's long-time enemy.
But the River District's neutrality was barely
noticed as the West Slope's new players - led by ski towns such as
Vail - lined up with the Environmental Caucus to beat Two Forks.
The allies beat Two Forks using weapons the River District would
have been uncomfortable with: environmental protection, endangered
species and low-cost solutions to water needs.
Before the defeat of Two Forks, the River District's Fischer was a
very public representative of traditional rural water policy,
alternately railing at Front Range cities seeking Colorado River
water and attacking environmentalists for attempting to keep water
in streams. In the wake of Two Forks, Fischer has vanished from
In the past, the River District was
run by and for traditional West Slope interests led by irrigated
agriculture. But in recent years the River District has been most
effective working with the high-elevation counties to provide ski
towns and recreation areas with relatively small amounts of water
for snow-making and high-altitude city dwellers. In addition, the
district has all but abandoned its Juniper-Cross Project, which
would have put a major dam on the undammed Yampa River. Finally, it
is possible that River District water rights must go to protect
endangered Colorado River fish - unthinkable in the
At the moment, the River District is
putting the finishing touches on the Wolford Mountain Reservoir.
But Denver no longer has a lease on the water in Wolford. It now
permanently owns 40 percent of the reservoir's capacity, with the
River District owning the other 60 percent. The 40 percent
ownership will yield Denver 10,000 acre-feet per year through an
exchange process. Denver will draw 10,000 acre-feet of additional
water out of the Blue River, near the Continental Divide, while
Wolford Mountain will release the same amount of water lower down
on the Colorado River to meet the long-term water rights of
irrigators in the Grand Junction area.
Slope irrigators, who met with Chips Barry in Grand Junction in
late August, said they would like to sue the River District and
Denver to stop the diversion, but they couldn't afford the legal
fees. They object to the saltier water they will get out of the
Wolford Mountain Reservoir, as compared with the high-quality water
that now flows down to them out of the Blue River. The irrigators
were somewhat placated by Denver, which worked out a compromise on
water-quality monitoring and the timing of releases from Wolford
Mountain that the irrigators felt they could live with.
Although there will be no lawsuit, there are
strained feelings. Greg Trainor, head of utilities for Grand
Junction and an organizer of the meeting between Barry and the
irrigators, said, "On the Colorado River, the River District has
compromised its ability to adequately defend us."
Trainor said the River District levies a tax on
$4 billion of West Slope property to defend West Slope water, and
then "builds a dam to supply Denver with water."
Can it happen
The irrigators and utility managers at
the Grand Junction meeting with Barry left suspicious. Denver has
several additional projects on the drawing boards, and its peace
treaty with the River District provides for cooperation on future
West Slope reservoirs. As a result, the West Slope fears that
Denver intends to take additional water out of the Colorado
Recent history, however, indicates that
it is harder than ever for cities to raid rural areas for water.
After Two Forks was defeated, American Water Development Inc. tried
to divert water out of Colorado's San Luis Valley to urban areas. A
coalition of that valley's farmers and environmentalists, financed
by a special property tax, beat back the attempt even though the
valley is one of Colorado's poorest areas.
an attempt by Aurora, a Denver suburb, to divert water from the
Gunnison River was turned back by a coalition of ranchers,
recreation interests, vacation homeowners and
Farther afield, the West's
most dynamic city, Las Vegas, was beaten when it tried to drain
groundwater out of rural areas of northern
The near-completion of Wolford Mountain
Reservoir indicates that diversions of modest size aren't
impossible. But Dan Luecke, a key member of the Environmental
Caucus in the 1980s and a staff member of the Environmental Defense
Fund in Boulder, doesn't think the West Slope has more
water-diversion projects to worry about.
said Front Range environmentalists didn't oppose Wolford Mountain
because they had agreed to it as one of the replacement parts for
Two Forks. Without help from environmentalists, Western irrigators
and towns couldn't block the 60,000-acre-foot
Luecke said Wolford Mountain isn't
likely to be repeated. "There aren't any more deals like that out
Ed Marston is
publisher of High Country News.