Ripples grow when a dam dies

  • Chips Barry, Denver Water Department


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 Conservation District.

* 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 built.

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 apparent.

Nothing fails like failure

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 utility managers:

"Beliefs 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 organization.

"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 users.

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 Basin.

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 joining.)

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.

Barry 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.

Irrigators threatened

Denver 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.

Barry 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 before."

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 Colorado Plains.

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 expected.

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 towns.

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 century.

A rural district in disrepute

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 public view.

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 past.

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.

The West 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 again?

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 River.

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.

And 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 environmentalists.

Farther afield, the West's most dynamic city, Las Vegas, was beaten when it tried to drain groundwater out of rural areas of northern Nevada.

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.

Luecke 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 reservoir.

Luecke said Wolford Mountain isn't likely to be repeated. "There aren't any more deals like that out there."

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

The following sidebar article accompanies this essay: On Friday, the fish took some of it back

High Country News Classifieds
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
    Remodeled home with the opportunity to work off part of rent. Renter(s) must be available to help with lifting, irrigation & outdoor chores, 15-40 hrs...
    YOUR POSITION WITH TNC The Indigenous Landscapes & Communities Program is part of the North America Region's Conservation Collaboration team. The Conservation Collaboration team works...
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...