Colorado Water: Transmountain diversion framework endorsed by water planners
KEYSTONE – A milestone in state water planning was reached Tuesday in Keystone as members of the state’s Interbasin Compact Committee unanimously endorsed the latest version of a “conceptual framework” to guide discussions between East and West Slope interests about a potential new transmountain diversion.
“It’s not perfect, but I think we’re in general agreement this is a good starting point, and if ever there is a transmountain diversion, there will be, no doubt, additional negotiations,” said John Stulp, the chair of the Interbasin Compact Committee.
Today in Colorado, between 450,000 and 600,000 acre-feet of water is diverted each year from the West Slope.
The conceptual framework, tweaked Tuesday regarding statewide water conservation goals, will now be forwarded to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for inclusion in the final Colorado Water Plan, which is to be delivered to Gov. Hickenlooper by Dec. 10.
“I would be surprised if it would change significantly from where we’re at today,” Stulp said of the conceptual framework.
The committee is made up of two members from each of the state’s nine basin roundtables, six governors’ appointees and two members of the state legislature.
Since 2013, the committee has been working on the seven core principles in the framework, which spells out under what terms a new transmountain diversion might be acceptable to the West Slope.
For example, a new project should not increase the likelihood of a call from California for more water under the Colorado Compact, or preclude future growth on the West Slope.
And it “should avoid, minimize or mitigate adverse environmental impacts where possible” and address the concept of “environmental resiliency.”
“I think the conceptual framework is a pretty good deal, and we should take it and move on,” said Melinda Kassen, who represents environmental interests of the Interbasin Compact Committee.
Bill Trampe, a rancher in Gunnison County and a member of the Gunnison River Basin Roundtable, also supports the framework.
“For future transmountain diversions to occur, according to the framework, the proponent is going to have to go through a bunch of hoops,” Trampe said.
The conceptual framework, however, is not legally binding, as Colorado water law still allows for a water provider to propose a new transmountain diversion. But it is seen as a way for Western Slope communities to review a proposed diversion against publicly adopted parameters.
“I think that this gives us protections that otherwise we don’t have,” said Karn Stiegelmeier, a Summit County commissioner, during a July 27 meeting of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, shortly before that roundtable endorsed the conceptual framework.
But during the same meeting, Ken Ransford, who represents recreational interests on the Colorado Roundtable, voted against the framework.
“This agreement doesn’t have teeth,” Ransford said. “It’s not enforceable. It gives us no legal rights. And the Front Range has said they are still willing to come over here and purchase agricultural water rights as necessary to protect their existing diversions. So I keep asking myself, what are we getting out of this?”
But after Tuesday’s meeting in Keystone, Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River District, which represents 15 West Slope counties, said the framework — if deployed correctly — could help protect West Slope interests.
“The West Slope is better off under the conceptual framework if, and it’s a big if, we follow through and have the discussions that are contemplated by the framework,” Kuhn said. “If it just sits on the shelf, it’s worthless for us.”
The first of the seven principles in the framework states “East Slope water providers are not looking for firm yield from a new transmountain diversion and the project proponent would accept hydrologic risk for that project.”
That means that a Front Range water provider who proposes a new transmountain diversion must understand that there may not be water to divert every year, depending on snowpack, weather and the amount of water stored in Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
“It’s not just is there enough water, it is whether there is enough reliable water,” Kuhn said of the core principle. “If you are a community, and you are providing water to people, it’s not good enough to have water three out of four years. People want water four out of four years.”
Which may mean, Kuhn said, that a big new diversion project is not worth pursuing.
But to water interests on the Front Range, a new transmountain diversion is seen as an important tool to meet growing water demands, and getting the conceptual framework into the Colorado Water Plan is seen as a victory.
“It seems to me we’ve got a tremendous opportunity,” said Sean Cronin, the executive director of the St. Vrain & Left Hand Water Conservancy District in Longmont, during an Aug. 11 meeting of the South Platte Basin Roundtable in which he urged the roundtable members to endorse the conceptual framework.
“We have been clamoring for a transmountain diversion since the very first day of the roundtable,” Cronin said. “We now have a transmountain-diversion framework sitting in a statewide water plan that’s nearly to the point of being approved and adopted.”
After Tuesday’s meeting, Interbasin Compact Committee member Wayne Vanderschuere, who oversees water planning for Colorado Springs Utilities, said a new transmountain diversion “needs to be in the cards,” especially to slow the practice of buying water from agricultural operations to meet growing municipal demands.
“The Colorado River has its own unique challenges irrespective of transmountain diversions, that everyone needs to take ownership of,” Vanderschuere said, referring to the state’s obligations under the Colorado Compact. “So we need to address that. But we also have an obligation to responsibly develop our portion of the compact entitlement, and to the extent we can do that, we should pursue that.”
The full text of the conceptual framework is included in chapter eight of the second draft of the Colorado Water Plan, which can be viewed at http://www.coloradowaterplan.com.
Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times on coverage of water and rivers. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.
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