Sides agree to innovative Fraser River deal to help slake Denver Water thirst

FRISCO, Colo. — Ranchers, anglers and big-city water bosses raised a white flag in Colorado’s long-running water wars this week by setting aside bullying and threats of lawsuits and permit appeals.

Instead, Grand County and Trout Unlimited have agreed to let Denver Water siphon another 18,000 acre feet from the headwaters of the Colorado River — but only under a strict checklist of requirements designed to ensure the Fraser River recovers from decades of depletion.

The deal announced Tuesday could make the Fraser the most-watched river in Colorado – and maybe in the West. It sets out an innovative, science-based plan that seeks to balance increasing urban needs for water with an imperative to restore crucial habitat for river trout.

Countless studies have documented the biological decline of the Fraser, which is fed by runoff from the mountains around Winter Park and eventually courses into the Colorado. There’s little doubt that, as an ecosystem, the river is on the brink of collapse.

Denver Water – Colorado’s biggest and thirstiest water provider — currently diverts more than half the Fraser River’s flow to keep toilets flushing, dishwashers running and sprinklers spouting along the Front Range. The dispute started in 2003 when the utility applied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the permit it needs to divert more water from the river — as much as three-quarters of its average annual flow — to keep up with growth in the Denver metro area.

A draft environmental study issued in 2009 spurred hundreds of public comments urging the protection of the Fraser and its fish against increasing draws from the city. The U.S. EPA and the Colorado Division of Wildlife also identified critical impacts to the environment in the draft plan. Community and environmental advocates who are determined to keep the river flowing and protect its ecosystem have long threatened to appeal the permit or file a lawsuit that could have delayed the project for years.

This week’s pact seeks to honor Denver Water’s longstanding river rights while ensuring the Fraser will be protected no matter how much more water is diverted for urban use. The restoration plan will use real-time data to track critical temperature increases in key streams caused either by Denver Water’s seasonal diversions or the long-term effects of climate change. When temperatures spike, additional flows will be released to cool the water when needed.

In good water years, the deal will give Denver up to 18,000 acre feet of additional water, which will mostly be tapped during the peak spring runoff season. The timing of the diversions is a key part of the utility’s promise to improve the Fraser.

“We’re not going to be diverting water all the time. We won’t divert water in critically dry years, and we’ll only divert water during spring runoff. At other times of year, we’ll put water back into the river and improve conditions,” said Jim Lochhead, Denver Water’s CEO and manager.

The agreement also will require shifts in the timing of the water harvest. High flows are needed in the spring to help flush sediments that gunk up habitat for trout and aquatic bugs.

Fraser Brook Trout

Water attorney Mely Whiting tenaciously advocated on behalf of the conservation group Trout Unlimited for preserving key habitat for river trout. It’s “a breakthrough,” she says, to have secured a commitment by Denver Water that, if initial efforts toward preservation falter, additional measures will be taken to keep water temperatures steady and the habitat healthy.

 “We’re going to have a locally based effort to oversee the future of the river, to make sure it’s going to be healthy,” said Whiting, who dreams of a time when the Fraser’s tributaries – now fragmented by diversion structures — are reconnected and swarming with splashy rainbows and big brown lunkers hiding in shady holes.

The Army Corps of Engineers’ final environmental study is due in late April, with a formal decision on the proposed diversion project expected in early 2015.

This week’s pact minimizes the likelihood of a permit appeal or a time-consuming lawsuit by conservationists. That’s important for Denver Water, which is eager to dig its shovels into the ground as soon as possible. Some of the extremely dry years in the early 2000s — especially 2002 — already have put the water giant’s delivery system to the test.

The deal also gives Grand County some assurances that the Fraser will remain a vibrant part of its outdoor recreation economy. Anglers from throughout the state and country visit Grand County to wet their lines in a river that was favored by President Dwight Eisenhower.

The additional water will help Denver Water balance its supplies. Currently, the utility gets about 80 percent of its water through the southern portion of its collection system, from the Blue River in Summit County via the Roberts Tunnel and a chain of reservoirs along the South Platte River. Lochhead says increased diversions from the Fraser River will make urban water supplies less vulnerable to extreme events such as forest fires, which are expected more frequently because of drought and climate change. The ability to pump more water out of the Fraser when needed would give Denver a much-needed back-up plan in case of another massive blaze like the 2002 Hayman Fire in a key watershed.

Born of the snowy, crenulated Continental Divide, the wildlife-rich Fraser drainage has helped sustain indigenous cultures from the Stone Age. Change came quickly in the 1800s as scouts, trappers and miners exploited the river’s resources.

Soon after, ambitious and visionary engineers re-plumbed the Fraser, along with a slew of other western rivers. Completion of the Moffat Tunnel in 1927 enabled vast expansion of urban and rural Denver. But it also marked the transition to unsustainable water use  in Colorado — a problem made even more urgent by climate change. Coloradans have been using water at a rate that can’t be replenished, and it’s likely that changing climate is going to further tip the balance.

The improvements Denver Water is promising could, over the long-term, nudge the needle back toward the sustainable side of the scale, all sides now agree. With millions of dollars in long-term restoration commitments codified into the permit, “We don’t have to worry so much what a Denver Water Board might look like 20 years from now,” said Colorado Trout Unlimited director David Nickum.

“With this, we can stop thinking about a battle over permits, but focus on how to collectively tackle protection and improvements,” he added. “We’re all in this for the long haul … It gives Denver Water a long-term stake in the river.”

If the approach is successful in balancing urban water demand with the protection of natural resources, it will be used in other river basins as a model for 21st Century water use.

On paper, the plan looks dreamy. But some river advocates are skeptical about the final outcome. After years of proclamations about collaboration and smart water use, increased diversions from the Fraser are yet another blow to the larger Colorado River system, which faces much bigger problems, including an extreme drought in California.

West Slope water managers acknowledge Denver Water’s legal rights. But they question whether any new trans-divide diversions are needed, claiming that Front Range communities could easily meet existing and future needs with more efficient use of the water the utility already is diverting over the Continental Divide. Under any plan,  they say, drawing more water from any Colorado River tributary will have ripple effects felt far downstream, from endangered Colorado River fish near Grand Junction to lettuce growers in the salty deserts near the Mexican border.

[ Photos of Fraser River water pipeline and Fraser Brook Trout by Bob Berwyn. ]


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