Denver, Western Slope reach sweeping water pact

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Waters leaders from Denver and several Western Slope organizations have reached a broad if still unsigned agreement described by one of the participants involved as a peace pact, with consequences that extend from Grand Junction to several Denver suburbs.

The agreement pledges that the Western Slope organizations won’t fight Denver Water’s current plans for additional diversions from the Winter Park and Dillon areas, but also places limits on future diversions by both Denver and key suburbs.

The agreement also obligates Denver to provide some of its existing water in Summit County for use by local jurisdictions and obligates Denver to keep Dillon Reservoir nearly full except in specified drought conditions. The agreement also requires Denver to provide cash for water projects in Summit and Grand counties.

Few details have been announced, as negotiators were sworn by court-ordered mediation to confidentiality. But Mountain Town News has pieced together most elements of the deal during the last several months.

Perhaps the single most important component is a provision that would allow Denver to sell recycled water from its Western Slope diversions to suburbs in the South Metro area. The suburbs served by 15 agencies and districts, mostly in Douglas County, are between 75 and 100 percent on non-renewable water from several Denver Basin aquifers.

The wells have been diminishing in their productivity, requiring greater pumping costs or more wells to be drawn from. While there is no evidence the wells will go dry soon, water leaders in the South Metro have long fretted about the need to acquire surface flows. Castle Rock, for example, is 90 percent dependent on wells, but the city council there wants to lessen that to 25 percent even as the city expects to grow from 48,000 to 104,000 people in coming decades.

The deal now being pursued by Denver Water with the 15 South Metro water providers would allow Denver’s treated water to be pumped from near Brighton through a new pipeline for storage in a reservoir near Parker or for injection into wells.

Frank Jaeger, manager of the Parker Water and Sanitation District, calls it the biggest news in Colorado since the federal government’s veto of the controversial Two Forks in 1990.

“If you look at the number of people who would benefit from this along the Front Range, it’s the biggest thing we’ve been party to,” says Jaeger.

As part of the new settlement, participating Western Slope water organizations remove potential legal opposition to this reuse project. But, by accepting recycled water from Denver, the South Metro water agencies would have to agree that they would not seek to divert water from Grand Junction east to the headwaters in Summit and Grand counties.

That leaves open the possibility of future diversion attempts from the Gunnison and Yampa rivers or even the Green River in Wyoming or Utah, as has been proposed in two separate ventures.

One public official on the Western Slope, speaking on condition of confidentiality because of the legal ban on public comment, said that the agreement has some elements that might be regarded as odious to the Western Slope. That, said the official, is true of any compromise.

One of the most sensitive areas is in Grand County, where Denver already takes an estimated 60 percent of the water from the Fraser River. The city wants to take an additional 10,000 acre-feet annually from the Fraser and the adjoining Williams Fork Valley – and it has the backing of key Grand County entities, who say the agreement will actually improve water conditions, despite the loss of water during springtime. The Colorado Division of Wildlife also contends the package of river modifications and specific water allocations devoted to ecological functions could restore sculpin, a native fish now rarely seen in the river between Granby and Kremmling.

Lurline Curran, the Grand County manager, describes the negotiations as a “monumental task for all those involved.” But Ken Neubecker, a water activist with the Western Rivers Institute, who has reviewed certain details of the agreement, says he’s skeptical that the settlement provides enough water to restore already imperiled ecological functions of streams and rivers.

Allen Best is editor and publisher of Mountain Town News.

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