Upper Colorado River, Front Range water resources threatened

Some water experts warn the upper Colorado River is an endangered species if current residential growth patterns and water consumption patterns continue along the state’s Front Range, and they’re increasingly concerned proposed energy production on the Western Slope will accelerate its demise.

Poudre Canyon (Jim Frazier, cc Flickr)

Poudre Canyon (Jim Frazier, cc Flickr)

Ken Neubecker, president of the state counsel of Colorado Trout Unlimited and a member of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, points out that already 64 percent of the upper Colorado River above Hot Sulfur Springs in Grand County is diverted across the Continental Divide to the Front Range population centers of the state.

With the State Demography Office forecasting Colorado’s population to jump 50 percent over the next 25 years from current levels of around 5 million to more than 7.6 million, Neubecker and others say there needs to be a major shift in land-use planning, water conservation efforts and energy policies to head off looming disaster for the Colorado and other state rivers.

Drought by a thousand cuts

“In the long run, especially if you’re going to take the climate change thing seriously, the fossil fuels have got to just come to an end,” Neubecker said of commercial oil shale production and its potential impacts on the Colorado River basin. “[Former Vice President] Dick Cheney made the comment that the American way of life is not negotiable. Well, in a hundred years it’ll be drastically negotiated if we don’t do something now.”

Residential development alone has dramatically impacted the upper Colorado, Neubecker said, referring to a plan by the Denver Water Board to divert even more of the Fraser River in Grand County through the Moffat Tunnel to the Front Range. A key tributary of the Colorado, the Fraser already sees about 60 percent of its flow diverted east of the Continental Divide.

“They’re sort of making light of the true nature of the cumulative impacts on the whole Colorado basin,” Neubecker said. “Essentially, the whole upper Colorado, from Dotsero up, is suffering a death from a thousand cuts, and everybody who makes a cut says, ‘Oh, mine won’t hurt; mine’s too small to be significant.’”

But all the cuts are condemning the river to a permanent drought-year status that adversely impacts riparian areas, degrades aquatic habitat and results in too much sediment building up in the river’s channel, Neubecker said. Couple those impacts with contamination from natural gas drilling and other industrial and agricultural uses, and the Colorado and other Western Slope rivers are in big trouble, others say.

People get to drink that stuff

“That’s one thing in this whole oil and gas industry that kind of gets short shrift is these drinkable or potable aquifers,” said Bob Elderkin, a biologist and retired oil and gas specialist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management who now lives near Silt.

“When something happens and you have [a chemical spill] — and you’re going to have it because we’ve got people involved with [drilling] and people are fallible — that aquifer is polluted with a bunch of stuff, and unless they’re required to go in and pump that out and mitigate the problem, that stuff stays in that aquifer until it eventually surfaces wherever it’s going to surface.

“Most of that stuff either ends up in the White River or the Colorado River, and either way a lot of people are going to get to drink it.”

Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger, whose northwestern Colorado county sits at the epicenter of any future oil shale boom, applauds Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for recently tightening Bush administration research and development leases and requiring more accountability.

Oil shale and nuclear industry water gulpers

He said residents of impacted communities and Americans in general need to know if oil shale is economically and environmentally realistic. The former president of Colorado Counties Inc. has his doubts.

“I hope America can’t come here and trash out my country here to support the current industry,” Monger said of existing oil shale technology, which requires between three and five barrels of water per barrel of oil. “They talk about 500-megawatt power plants to commercially extract this oil shale with Shell’s technology, and all of the rest of the water out of Yampa and White river systems, as well as some further water out of the Colorado River system, which basically obligates all of the rest of the water in the Colorado Compact that we have.”

The 1920s Compact that Arizona Sen. John McCain last year so famously — and disastrously — suggested should be renegotiated, dictates Colorado must send 3.88 million acre feet downstream a year no matter how the state divvies it up for local use. Oil and gas companies have been snapping up water rights in the Colorado basin since the 1940s, but the big knock on oil shale has been how much power it takes to extract petroleum from shale rock and sand.

Some have suggested nuclear reactors could solve the energy demands of full-scale commercial oil shale production, but Neubecker scoffs at that notion.

“[Nuclear] uses twice the water [of fossil-fueled-based power plants], and I don’t think Sen. [Mark] Udall gets it, because he’s a big proponent for nuclear power,” Neubecker said. “I’m all for nuclear power east of the Mississippi because they have the water, just so long as they have to store the waste in their own backyard, not ship it out here for storage. We’re not the country’s trashcan.”

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About the Author

David O. Williams

David O. Williams is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy,
environmental and political issues for the Colorado Independent since
2008, delivering impact journalism on a wide range of topics. A former
editor for the Vail Daily and Vail Trail, Williams’ work also has
appeared in numerous publications since 1988, including the New York
Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He appears periodically as a
guest on Rocky Mountain PBS and David Sirota’s show on 760 AM in
Denver. Williams is the founder, part owner and editor of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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