Drought unearths a water dinosaur

Colorado's Front Range reaches for a share of the Colorado River

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    Diane Sylvain

Ralph E. "Butch" Clark is the unlikely author of what some view as the most preposterous water idea ever conceived in Colorado: a 200-mile pipeline with a 10-foot girth that would carry water from the Colorado River near the Utah border east along Interstate 70, over the Continental Divide, eventually spilling into Denver's swelling suburbs. When Clark, an environmental planner from Gunnison, Colo., presented the idea to the Denver Water Board in 1988, it was promptly thrown on a heap of similarly impossible, mega-hydro-engineering projects.

Even Clark, at the time, admitted his idea should be undertaken only " ... if all other alternatives to new transmountain diversion are exhausted."

Now, 12 years later, it's back. This summer, Grand Junction water attorney Greg Hoskin dusted off Clark's proposal, retitled it "The Big Straw," and presented it to a surprisingly responsive group of Colorado politicians. The timing is right as the entire state grapples with dwindling water sources and a growing population during an extended drought (HCN, 8/19/02:The Great Western Apocalyps). In July, Gov. Bill Owens announced he would ask the state Legislature for a half-million dollars to study the feasibility of Clark's dream.

But not everyone thinks it's a great idea.

"Before we invest billions of dollars in old-time solutions to water problems, we need to figure out whether that's the right answer," says David Getches, a law professor at the University of Colorado and former director of Colorado's Department of Natural Resources.

Regardless of the opposition - past or present - The Big Straw is very much alive. Some say it has opened the door to other projects that were once deemed too big, too damaging to the environment or too costly for serious consideration. Others wonder if the feasibility study may have the opposite effect: The plan's audacity could steer officials away from expensive water projects toward more practical solutions, such as conservation.

Enter the Straw

Butch Clark developed The Big Straw, hoping to end the water battles between Colorado's west and east slopes with an environmentally friendly alternative to the high-impact water projects then on the drawing board. It was also a bit of a bluff, Clark says, meant to show officials that their only alternative to changing water-use behavior was sensational and unaffordable.

"In 1988, Western Colorado's Gunnison River was targeted for three transmountain diversion proposals," Clark says. "I was trying to suggest that there were a lot of other, cheaper alternatives: conservation, conjunctive use ..."

But the Front Range and its politicians wanted a faster solution than conservation. About 85 percent of Coloradans live east of the Continental Divide, mostly in Denver and its suburbs. But at least 75 percent of the state's moisture falls west of the divide, where, in the Colorado River, some of the state's last unclaimed water remains.

For years, Front Range cities and suburbs have tried to get at this water through diversions from high mountain valleys. The most ambitious of these plans was the Two Forks project, which would have diverted Colorado and South Platte river water into a 25-mile-long reservoir southwest of Denver. But in 1990 it was vetoed - surprisingly - by the head of the Environmental Protection Agency under the first Bush administration (HCN, 11/20/00:Water pressure).

That veto forced Denver to rely entirely on existing water supplies, with the city's suburbs left to face an uncertain future. Today, the pinch is most acute in the thriving communities built around Colorado's information-technology industry, which depend on two main aquifers that, at current rates of depletion, could go dry in as little as 40 years. As officials with the Denver Water Board consider drilling new wells in this finite water source, at an estimated $1 million a well, the climate is perfect to seriously consider Clark's proposal.

After all, The Big Straw addresses much of what Two Forks would have: It would annually take about 280,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water from the Utah border, respecting existing Colorado water users who draw from the river as it moves west across the state. The stream flows in the Colorado and its tributaries would remain untouched, preserving wildlife - down to the state line. And, finally, the pipeline would be built along Interstate 70, so the construction impact would be negligible.

The big, long draw

But regardless of The Big Straw's appeal, it's extremely expensive and environmentally dubious.

Bar-napkin estimates peg the costs of a pipeline along I-70 to Dillon Reservoir, Denver's Western Slope reservoir, at up to $5 billion. And costs could run even higher, because new reservoirs at one, the other, or both ends of the pipeline may be necessary to regulate the release of water.

"Everybody seems to think this is some kind of environmental panacea," says Brent Uilenberg, with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, "but in fact, it has some potentially disastrous consequences." The endangered Colorado pikeminnow, for one, could be devastated by the diversion - a fact that would most certainly surface during the feasibility study.

Still, after a summer of severe water restrictions in the suburbs, dead rivers and strained livestock, Colorado politicians are under the gun to do something. Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which monitors water use on the Western Slope, says he fears "a political minefield" when state legislators convene in January, intent on returning home to constituents with "The Answer" to their water woes.

Some members of the Owens administration concede an ulterior motive: If the state doesn't claim its water allocated under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, California may eventually lay claim to it.

Greg Walcher, director of the state's Department of Natural Resources, predicts quick action. "Within the next year or two, we're going to begin building water projects and new storage."

Even those who are skeptical of The Big Straw hope the study will introduce more productive discussion of the state's water needs. "My own impression is that the economics may be distressing news to people," says Chips Barry, manager of the Denver Water Department, "but until the study, anybody's off-hand guess - including mine - is probably not of great value."

As for the idea that The Big Straw is simply a political Band-Aid for drought-worried Coloradans, Barry disagrees.

"All old and semi-dormant water projects get new life in times of drought," he says. Barry says there's plenty of room for conservation, but adds that the Front Range will ultimately need a new water source, drought or no drought. With the state's exploding population, he says, even the most outrageous projects deserve a second look.

Allen Best is a writer for The Vail/Beaver Creek Times.

You can contact ...

  • The Denver Water Board, [email protected];
  • Colorado River Water Conservation District,www.crwcd.org, 970/945-8522.
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