Judge leaves Front Range cities mile-high and dry

  • Dave Miller, president of Natural Energy Resources Co., will continue his fight for the Union Park Reservoir near Lake City

    Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post

For more than 20 years, a private company has wanted to move water from Colorado’s Western Slope to sprawling Front Range cities hundreds of miles to the east. Now, a judge has put a kink in those transmountain water diversion plans.

In 1984, a state water court granted Natural Energy Resources Company conditional rights to 325,000 acre-feet of water from the Gunnison River headwaters. The court stipulated that the company would build a new hydropower plant to help prevent blackouts across Colorado.

Instead, the company drew up a new plan: building not just a power plant, but also what would have been the state’s largest dam, on Lotus Creek, a tributary to the Taylor River. The Union Park Reservoir would have stored 1.2 million acre-feet of water, allowing the company to deliver both water and electricity to Denver and Colorado Springs. A Colorado Supreme Court judge shot down the proposal in 1998, saying that the Upper Gunnison’s water was already over-allocated to cities and agriculture (HCN, 8/3/98: Western Slope Wins Water Wrestle).

Because conditional water rights must be renewed every six years, the company filed last year to keep its hydroelectric right. On Aug. 3, Division Four Water Court Judge J. Steven Patrick, in Montrose, Colo., cancelled the company’s water right.

Karen Shirley, Upper Gunnison River Water Conservation District manager, calls the ruling a victory. But the fight over transporting water from the Gunnison to the Front Range is far from over.

Dave Miller, president of Natural Energy, says "water in a drought is liquid gold" that cities can always afford to buy. His company plans to appeal the decision this month.

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