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Doubts cloud water study

Dennis WebbGlenwood Springs correspondent

Insertion of the “Big Straw” and other transbasin diversion projects into discussions about Colorado’s future water needs has stirred up Western Slope anxieties that the study has a hidden Front Range agenda.The project manager for the State Water Supply Initiative already is backtracking over the issue, postponing discussion on the projects until the initiative’s first phase is completed in November. But suspicion lingers among people involved in water issues on the Western Slope that the true agenda of the initiative is to get behind new water projects that would take Western Slope water.”I can’t believe they’re going to do the study and not talk about specific water projects,” said Louis Meyer of Schmueser Gordon Meyer, a Glenwood Springs-based engineering firm that helps municipalities meet their water needs.Rick Brown, who is heading up the SWSI project, agrees that transbasin diversion projects have to be made part of the discussion at some point in the process. That was his intention in July when he first broached the topic of transbasin projects with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which spearheaded SWSI.But he said he raised the projects only at a conceptual level, and only as part of a wide-ranging consideration of options available for addressing the water demands of the state in coming decades.”We were trying to give some examples,” said Brown.One of those examples, the so-called Big Straw, would involve pumping Colorado River water from the Utah border back upstream. The others include pump-back projects that would divert water from Ruedi Reservoir and Blue Mesa Reservoir to the Arkansas River, from Green Mountain Reservoir to Dillon Reservoir, and from the Yampa River to the North Platte River and eventually the South Platte River.Brown said that after identifying those projects, he almost immediately began hearing concerns from Western Slope water interests. One concerned group is the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, which represents counties in the headwaters of the Colorado River. Taylor Hawes, an attorney for that organization on water issues, said identification of the projects only reinforced concerns about the real motives of SWSI.”You just kind of wonder, is this being used to justify a way for the state to consider a big water project?” she said.Hawes said participants in the Colorado River Basin have feared from the beginning that the state would use its findings to make the case for a big, statewide project, “by saying, well, look, there’s all this extra water in the Colorado River Basin.”Dave Merritt, chief engineer for the Glenwood-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, agreed.”This was something we thought was coming when this whole project was started – that it ultimately would lead to a large, transbasin diversion.”Brown said those involved in the SWSI have had to work since its start to fight the perception that it had a hidden agenda. He said the CWCB isn’t trying to advance solutions through the water study, but only is trying to stimulate discussion.”What I think we’re all challenged with is what are some of the solutions we can all think about,” he said.Last year, Brown worked to assure Western Slope interests that SWSI wasn’t linked to a state water initiative on that fall’s ballot.Voters defeated that measure, partly because it failed to identify specific projects it would fund. Hawes said Brown’s identification of conceptual projects this summer raised suspicions that the SWSI report would be used by the Front Range to seek passage of another ballot measure with more specific language about projects that might end up in diversions from the Western Slope.Hawes said discussion of specific projects wasn’t supposed to be a part of the first phase of the SWSI initiative. Brown said he plans to recommended to the CWCB board in September that any further conceptual discussion of projects wait until after release of the first SWSI report in November. That will prevent the discussion from being hurried, and also keep it from being a continuing distraction from the current focus of SWSI on water needs and possible solutions within each river basin, he said.SWSI’s findings so far have bolstered Western Slope concerns about possible new attempts at water grabs by the Front Range. It is projecting that Colorado’s cities and industrial users will need an additional 708,000 acre-feet of water by 2030, as the state population grows from 4.3 million in 2000 to an estimated 7.1 million people. An acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons.Water managers say they think current plans for boosting supply and conservation can meet most of that need, but the SWSI study found a shortfall of 66,600 acre-feet remains.Randy See, a water organizer for the Western Colorado Congress citizens group, said he thinks that’s too small of a shortfall to warrant discussion of projects such as the Big Straw, which would produce about five times as much water – at tremendous expense. He said some experts believe the SWSI study underestimates the role conservation can play in making up the shortfall. He also favors improving and enlarging existing water storage facilities over building new ones.Some other solutions the SWSI has identified include reuse of existing water, cooperative efforts between water interests, and transferring water rights such as those used in agriculture.Even without consideration of new water projects, Brown notes that the Colorado River Basin still will be affected when the Front Range completes previously approved water projects within the basin.And he said that at some point in the SWSI process, transbasin issues have to be reconciled with those within individual basins.Merritt appreciates Brown’s decision to push back consideration of transbasin issues until the next SWSI phase. He said this should provide time before final completion of the process next June for discussions to occur between basins about possible water projects.”We’re going to have to discuss them at some point. It’s the elephant in the room; we try to ignore it,” he said.


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