WESTERN SLOPE – The water wars that have for decades divided the rural Western Slope of Colorado from the urban Front Range have shifted a little toward civility and cooperation, according to Andy Mueller, recent past president of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
Mueller, an attorney with the Tisdel Law Firm in Ouray, updated the Ouray Board of County Commissioners Tuesday regarding a groundbreaking deal, which has been in the works for years and was formally announced April 28. It involves behemoth water utility Denver Water (which provides water to 1.3 million people in the city of Denver and surrounding suburbs) and 33 other entities, including counties in the Upper Colorado River Basin which provide much of the water diverted beneath the Continental Divide for Denver’s use.
The so-called Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, if ratified – and that’s a big if, Mueller said; the complex deal must be described as tentative – would bring benefits to both sides of the divide, and to the state as a whole. In fact, the statewide perspective, lacking for so many years in water negotiations, was a cornerstone of Denver Mayor, now Governor, John Hickenlooper’s push for an agreement.
Moving ahead to address looming water shortages could not be done without a new collaborative framework, Hickenlooper told The Denver Post.
"This state has to realize, people in metropolitan Denver have to realize, that their self-interest is served by treating water as a precious commodity, and that its value on the Western Slope is just as relevant as its value in the metro area," he said.
"Certain parts of this water may be legally Denver's water, or Aurora's water. But it's all Colorado's water."
Negotiations began four years ago, Mueller told the commissioners, when Denver Water and the CRWCD were forced into mediation by stalemated lawsuits.
In the deal, Denver would need approval from Colorado River Basin counties and river managers before diverting more water under the Continental Divide. West Slope parties would stop opposing Denver's proposed Moffat project to move 18,000 acre-feet of river water to an expanded Gross Reservoir west of Boulder.
Denver would also be required, and this was important to Hickenlooper’s vision, to institute conservation measures, including the reuse of significant quantities of water. It would then share its treated wastewater with groundwater-dependent south-metro suburbs, with the condition that the suburbs abstain from diverting Colorado River Basin water on their own.
Denver also would impose a 12.5 percent surcharge on wastewater sales and use some of the proceeds for a $25 million contribution to Western Slope communities for improved irrigation facilities and environmental restoration.
Summit and Grand counties (home to the Dillon Reservoir and the Moffat Tunnel respectively) would get $11 million each. Denver would be “investing,” Mueller said, “in wetlands and instream flows on the Western Slope.” In exchange for diverting more water, Denver would give some of its water rights to Grand and Summit counties in the form of water releases the communities could use for snowmaking, say, or recreation or river ecosystem health. Eagle and Garfield, and other “main stem” counties could also be compensated in the deal.
In a key compromise, Denver Water would promise, for the 25-year life of the agreement, not to “go over” to the Western Slope. That is not seek new water rights from Colorado River basins, without the cooperation of Western Slope counties, Mueller said. “It’s a very different model than anybody on the Front Range has ever used. They used to just say, ‘We need the water, we’re taking it.’”
As for impacts to Ouray County, Mueller said, “For us over here – we seem so far away, several valleys away from the main stem. Nobody’s going to put a tunnel over here.” But, he said, there are important conditions in the agreement regarding Blue Mesa Reservoir, on the Gunnison River. A much-discussed diversion called the Blue Mesa Pumpback would, for the 25-year period of the agreement, be off the table.
That’s good for our region, Mueller said. And good for the state as a whole. Any major new diversions to the Front Range, he said, be it from Flaming Gorge in Utah or the Blue Mesa Pumpback, “would hasten the dreaded call” by Lower Basin states, like California. Should there be even the threat of a call – given a scenario of decreased water supply due to a warming climate, coupled with increased demand – Mueller said, “it’ll shut off our ag users first.”
So, with increased storage on the Front Range and serious water conservation on Denver’s part, combined with co-operatively agreed-upon diversions and improved water management on the West Slope, Mueller hopes that Colorado can avoid the “dreaded call” for many years to come.
Getting the agreement ratified will not be easy, though. Many of the 34 entities, from the Bureau of Reclamation to the “main stem” counties to the various utilities, will have to hold public hearings on the settlement. Deals will have to be worked out with the state and with Xcel Energy, too. But Mueller said, “As an optimist, I think it could be signed and implemented in about five years. As an optimist.”
He concluded with more kudos to then-mayor Hickenlooper. “He said: ‘For Denver to do well, we have to have thriving mountain communities.’ He helped develop a trust that was not there before.”
Commissioners were most interested in talking with Mueller about water projects in Ridgway and Ouray, but after the meeting, Commissioner Lynn Padgett sent this reaction:
“Ouray County is not one of the 35 parties that crafted the agreement. However, if the agreement really states that Denver Water will employ conservation measures on the East Slope, pay to provide irrigation infrastructure that allows for better water management and conservation for some irrigation districts on the West Slope, and that water will not be diverted from the West Slope to the East Slope beyond the provisions of this agreement, [that is] without consultation and agreement from stakeholders and the affected counties – that all sounds good.”