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Know the West

Will a Colorado compromise end a water tug-of-war?

A controversial deal for diverting water across the Rockies faces scrutiny.


In  2003, when Denver Water first proposed diverting more water from the Fraser River and its tributaries, officials in Grand County, Colorado, balked. Every year, billions of gallons are piped out of the Western Slope’s rivers, bound for the cities and suburbs that sprawl along the dry eastern side of the Rocky Mountains. Grand County contributes the most — 60 percent of its water is sent eastward — and after years of watching their rivers shrink, many locals were less than thrilled at the prospect of losing more water.

It could have been the start of another lengthy court battle, a routine occurrence in Colorado, where east and west have fought over water for decades. But after Denver Water promised to help the Fraser recover from years of depletion, Grand County reconsidered and agreed to let the utility siphon another 18,700 acre-feet (equal to 15 percent) from the river through the existing Moffat Tunnel. When the deal was signed in March 2014, proponents lauded this new collaborative approach to managing Colorado’s dwindling — and contentious — water supply. It proved, they said, that the state could meet future water needs without destroying ecosystems. On July 1, the $360 million project celebrated a major milestone in the approval process when it received a key permit from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The final decision rests with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But meanwhile, threats of an environmental lawsuit are growing — raising questions about the future of other collaborative agreements over water.

“It was hard for people to believe that giving away more water was in our best interests,” says Lurline Underbrink Curran, the former Grand County manager and a lead negotiator with Denver Water. But in the end, she says, the decision to compromise offered a better outcome: “Instead of endless court battles, we accepted more water will be diverted out.”


The Moffat Water Tunnel brings water from Grand County, Colorado, to the Front Range of Colorado, diverting flow from the Fraser River, which is becoming depleted.
Mark Conlin / Alamy Stock Photo

For Denver Water, Colorado’s largest and most powerful water utility, brokering a deal with Grand County was part of a new business strategy. In 1990, environmentalists killed Denver Water’s bid to build the massive Two Forks Reservoir on the South Platte River, ending the utility’s dreams of doubling its storage capacity. “In the good old days, Denver Water would just roll over people and not care about the implications,” says Jim Lochhead, the utility’s CEO. But the Two Forks debacle showed that new forces were coming into play, including growing public opposition to more dams.

A new approach was needed, says Lochhead. “So we went to Grand County and asked how we could develop it (Moffat) with their support.” Negotiations began in 2007 and eventually included 18 other Western Slope water providers and municipalities. The end result was two major agreements that pave the way for new Western Slope water development — development that is badly needed, says Lochhead, to bolster Denver’s supplies against future drought and climate change.

Both agreements include the usual measures required by law to address the impacts of diversions. But they also include “enhancement” measures that Denver Water proposed to improve the health of the Fraser, which suffers from excessively warm temperatures and sediment-clogged streambeds that have decimated cutthroat trout and other coldwater species, such as sculpin fish and stoneflies.

Still, it seemed like a long shot: How could conditions improve if more water was taken? Curran was initially skeptical, but she changed her mind when Denver Water offered to help compensate her county for the impacts caused by previous water diversions. Accepting the deal, she decided, might be Grand County’s only chance to secure that help.

Under the agreements, Denver Water will monitor the Fraser on an ongoing basis, tracking temperatures in key streams. When readings spike, the utility will release additional flows to cool the water. In addition, diversions will largely occur during peak runoff season, and not at all during severely dry years.

For critics, however, any deal, no matter how good, is yet another blow to the larger Colorado River system, which is already suffering from overuse. “We don’t get involved in compromising,” says Gary Wockner, director of the advocacy group Save the Colorado and one of the lawyers preparing a lawsuit. “Further draining the river is not doing things in a new way.”

Geoff Elliot, a local watershed scientist, believes that the deal is based on negotiation instead of on science. Taking more water from the Fraser, he warns, will bring the river’s ecosystem to the “brink of collapse.” No one knows, he says, whether the proposed mitigation measures will be enough to account for all the potential damage. More water diversions could dry up vast swaths of wetlands, for example, but that possibility was omitted from the project’s environmental impact statement.

Lochhead believes that the amount of monitoring in the deal addresses such concerns. “We’re not looking to develop a water supply that kills the river,” he says. “That would be like shooting ourselves in the foot.” Still, the deal-making bothers environmentalists — the notion that you can take as much water as you want from a system and then negotiate about how much you’ll give back later.  “That isn’t the way ecology works,” Elliot says. “That’s the way politics works.”

Correspondent Sarah Tory writes from Paonia, Colorado, and covers water issues.