A question of rights, water and who gets it
July 21, 2006
A law that governs water use in the state could be headed for a stretch of rapids if an agreement between Xcel Energy and the Denver Water Board is ratified by voters in November.
Colorado’s water use is often referred to as use by right, with senior water rights holders getting to take their share first.
Under a utility franchise agreement from the city of Denver, Xcel would lease part of the water it uses to run the Shoshone hydroelectric plant in Glenwood Canyon just east of Glenwood Springs, under certain conditions related to the amount and rate of snow melt-off. That would enable Denver to store more water from the Colorado River in upstream reservoirs, namely Green Mountain and Dillon.
The Shoshone right or “call” is the oldest in the state, dating from 1902, said Jim Pokrandt of the Colorado River Water Conservation District in Glenwood Springs.
Xcel would not give up its senior right but would take less than it is entitled to, giving Denver a chance to fill its reservoirs during spring runoff, Pokrandt said. Denver in turn would compensate Xcel for the lost revenue and make some of its extra stored water available later in the year.
Such a relaxation of Xcel’s water right or call was first exercised in 2003. During the severe drought of 2002, both reservoirs were seriously depleted. The following spring, Xcel agreed to take less than its allotted water out of the Colorado River to help fill the two reservoirs.
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At the time, people worried that it would open the door for Denver to grab more water from the Western Slope and the upper Colorado River Basin, a growing concern as Front Range communities continue to grow and clamor for more water.
The new agreement “does enshrine what wasn’t supposed to be a precedent,” Pokrandt said.
Reduced flows during runoff could have an effect on the rafting industry, as well.
“We would be concerned about it,” confirmed Kevin Schneider, owner of Rock Gardens Rafting in Glenwood Springs.
During 2003, the reduced flows from Xcel’s relaxed call lasted from March to May 21, ending just before the start of Colorado River rafting’s high season on Memorial Day weekend.
If stream flows were affected during the summer, rafting could be affected as well, Schneider said.
In 2003, when the call was first relaxed, rafting companies that use the Colorado River were not opposed to the arrangement because Denver agreed not to use the extra water beyond Memorial Day, Schneider said.
“We don’t care if the water goes to a good cause, but once the tourist season starts, we want to make sure there’s water in the river for us,” he said. “If it goes into June, July and August, you’d have a lot of people fighting to keep that water in the river.”
Any effect on the rafting industry would also have an affect on the area’s economy. Schneider said rafting business brings in about 60,000 people annually to Glenwood Springs, which also means business for hotels, restaurants and others.
The deal is not yet set in stone, however.
Pokrandt pointed out that the agreement must be approved by Denver voters on Nov. 6.