River stories float past environmental threat posed by energy production

A pair of articles on the future of two very different Colorado rivers this week in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and the Denver Post surfed right past the very real environmental concerns presented by ongoing energy development.

The Sentinel looked at how Xcel Energy’s Shoshone 14-megawatt hydroelectric power plant on the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon could become a bargaining chip in the seemingly endless tug of war between Front Range and Western Slope water users.

Denver Water and Xcel control the senior right pumping Colorado River water through Shoshone’s turbines, but Western Slope stakeholders, in the form of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, would love to have more say in how the facility is managed. Denver Water wants more certainty in terms of future water supplies for residential growth.

The elephant in the room is all the conflicting uses along the high-profile Colorado River – the main source of water for much of the southwestern United States. Energy companies for decades have been buying up senior rights along the river, planning for increased development of natural gas and someday maybe oil shale.

But those are very thirsty endeavors that don’t jibe well with increasing demands for residential growth along the Front Range and on the Western Slope, agricultural needs, or outdoor recreation demand in the form of fishing, boating and snowmaking for winter sports.

The ongoing water wars are putting more and more pressure on the Colorado and its headwater tributaries, with trickle-down water-quality and riparian habitat impacts all the way to the Gulf of California – the currently less-notorious gulf on the other side of Mexico.

A coalition of seven corporations and foundations has launched the “Save the Colorado” campaign – backed by New Belgium Brewing and the Clean Water Fund – that will donate money to “environmental non-profits in the Colorado River basin working to promote water conservation and protect the river.”

The seven companies and foundations include Fort Collins-based New Belgium, Patagonia, the Environment Foundation in Aspen, Kenney Brothers Foundation in Denver, National Geographic Maps in Evergreen, Environment Now in Santa Monica, Calif., and OARS in Angels Camp, Calif. Save the Colorado will distribute a total of $500,000 over three years, and is accepting applications for the first granting cycle between June 1 and June 30.

The Denver Post this week explored the little-known Dolores River, where water diversion for agricultural and industrial purposes in the Cortez area has reduced flows on the 250-mile river by about 40 percent, or 100,000 acre-feet a year.

Flowing out of Colorado’s scenic San Juan Mountains in the southwestern corner of the state, the Dolores joins the Colorado in eastern Utah northwest of Moab. That area for years has been a hotbed for the mining of uranium and other toxic metals, and given the promise of a new “nuclear renaissance” to reduce fossil-fuel consumption, uranium speculation in the Dolores basin is on the rise. Environmental groups are battling in court to slow those impacts to what the Post dubs the state’s “forgotten river.”

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About the Author

David O. Williams

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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