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Central Colorado Water Update

Column by John Orr

Water – January 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

Arkansas and South Platte Roundtables Combined Meeting

The Arkansas, South Platte and Metro roundtables recently held a combined meeting. Harris Sherman, the Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, was the keynote speaker. He is now a cheerleader for the roundtable process after overcoming his skepticism earlier in the year.

He says he sees the roundtable process as one of the keys for preventing additional dry up of farms in the state. Sherman is hoping to find a better way to provide sustainable water supplies for development.

One goal for the roundtables is to discuss strategies for dealing with water shortfalls in the next 25 years. As reasons for action, Mr. Sherman listed the 2.8 million new residents who are expected to move to Colorado and shortages predicted by the Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI). He also mentioned the potential for oil shale development which would impact water supplies.

He acknowledged that agriculture is a $16 billion a year boost to the state’s economy but pointed out that the metro area, Denver and its suburbs, provides the backbone of the state’s economy and generates two thirds of the sales tax. The metro region’s needs must also be met, he said.

Sherman sees the future for expanding water resources as cooperative agreements between cities and farmers. It will also require cooperation between basins. “The era of forced trans-basin exchanges in Colorado is over,” Sherman said. But Sherman is unsure whether the state has enough water to maintain agriculture and see the cities grow. He says the state must consider the future growth of Western slope communities, too, and not err in sending all available water to the Front Range.

Members of all three roundtables are becoming impatient with the pace of the roundtable process. They are particularly interested in a study of the feasibility of bringing more Colorado River Basin water to the Eastern slope. Pressure is mounting from the three roundtables to move projects forward while at the same time they realize that consensus from the Western Slope would be desirable. Most agree that any project should include a benefit, for example, new reservoirs, for the Western Slope.

The latest report on SWSI lists five potential pumpback projects: Green Mountain; Colorado River Return (similar to the Big Straw from years past); Flaming Gorge (Aaron Million’s project); Yampa Pumpback; and Blue Mesa pumpback. Western Slope providers and irrigators are united in their opposition to any trans-basin project until available water in the Colorado River system is quantified.

RGWD’s first groundwater management sub-district

The Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s management plan for their first groundwater management sub-district, in the closed basin area of the San Luis Valley, has been approved and is now moving through court. They’re also coming to terms with the fact that the district may not get approval in time to start collecting fees this year. Valley counties need to have the fee structure in hand in early December to get the fee on the 2008 tax rolls. The purpose of the district is to reduce pumping to protect the aquifers in the valley along with senior rights holders.

Objectors have raised several issues regarding the sub-district, including statutory violations and worries over protecting senior rights holders. The judge in the case will likely consolidate the objections filed in water court, with those filed in district court, into one case.

Great Outdoors Colorado Legacy Grants

The San Luis Valley scored $7.4 million for open space from Great Outdoors Colorado. The money will help the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust preserve 5,360 acres of private land along the river in four valley counties through voluntary conservation easements. In addition to keeping the ranches and farms along the river in operation the trust plans to preserve open space and wildlife habitat.

Short Takes

* The Colorado Supreme Court heard arguments in December on the Division 3 Water Court decision on the State Engineer’s confined aquifer rules for the Rio Grande Basin. A decision should be forthcoming in spring of 2008.

* Officials are nearing completion on a project to enhance fish habitat on a 2.3 mile stretch of the Rio Grande in the Coller State Wildlife Area. The project involves forming structures and includes adding 300 boulders in various clusters.

* Creede is looking for federal help (and money) for the cleanup in their mining district. The efforts are stymied by the Clean Water Act’s rules around point source pollution. Currently anyone who tries to clean up a point source assumes the liability for bringing it into compliance.

* Crested Butte plans to spend over $3 million for upgrades to their wastewater treatment plant.

* Members of the water community across western Colorado said goodbye to attorney Anthony Williams in December. One of his many accomplishments was winning a case that established a second-fill decree for Taylor Park Reservoir, helping kill the proposed Union Park Reservoir, a project that would have transfered water from the Gunnison watershed to the Front Range. Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District called Mr. Williams the “First line of defense” for Western Slope water.

* Residents in Lake County are celebrating the shiny new $23 million water treatment plant at the Climax mine. The new plant is one of the first steps towards a planned re-opening of the mine in 2010.

* Saguache, Hinsdale. and Gunnison county residents are eligible to participate in the Colorado River District’s annual grant program. Funds can be used for many types of projects including improving water quality and water-use efficiency. Applicants can get a request form from They are due by January 31.

* Congratulations to Dick Wolfe the newly appointed Colorado State Engineer and to Jennifer Gimbel who takes over for Rod Kuharich as Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

* Congratulations to Bob Senderhauf who was recently re-appointed as an at-large board member on the Upper Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District.

John Orr follows water issues at Please send story ideas and links to jworr [AT] operamail [DOT] com