Central Colorado Water Update

Brief by John Orr

Water – June 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

Aurora water storage and exchange contract not popular with everyone

The city of Aurora owns extensive water rights on the Arkansas River and often uses exchanges to manage its water assets. But Aurora is on South Platte drainage, so sometimes the city’s plans conflict with the desire of water officials on the Arkansas River who are working to keep water from being moved out-of-basin.

Earlier this year Aurora and the Bureau of Reclamation proposed a 40-year storage contract in Pueblo reservoir. Combine that with an exchange for Fry-Ark project water upstream from the Otero Pump Station north of Buena Vista, and Aurora may have a sustainable extra 10,000 acre feet per year for its customers.

In April, the Bureau’s Environmental Assessment “Finding of No Significant Impact” helped bring such a contract closer to reality. Although the comment period is open until June 4th, most observers seem to think its a done deal, since Aurora owns the water, and its storage is on an available basis only (being the first to spill if Pueblo reservoir fills).

As an out-of-basin entity, Aurora will pay more for the storage than in-basin entities would. The projected payments total about $45 million and will be used to pay off the original costs of the Fry-Ark project.

The Bureau of Reclamation apparently doesn’t foresee any event or information that will derail issuing the contract. But before the EA was printed, objections were heard from those who want a more comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement. An EIS would add significantly to the timeline for approval of the storage contract, and those who want the EIS propose that it include Colorado Springs’ planned “Southern Delivery System,” and the “Preferred Options Storage Plan” for Pueblo Reservoir, along with impacts on downstream users.

Objectors to the storage contract cite water quality concerns, which will be exacerbated by diminished flows in the Arkansas upstream from Pueblo Reservoir and between the reservoir and the river’s confluence with Fountain Creek. Also worrisome to objectors are the below-market costs for Aurora and questions about whether it is the Bureau’s place to allow Fry-Ark water to move out of basin. Underlying such objections, of course, is the desire to prevent out-of-basin water transfers.

Colorado Congressman John Salazar questions the legality of the deal and has now requested a full EIS. He maintains that the Bureau and Aurora are afraid of impacts that may turn up during the EIS process. Colorado representatives Mark Udall and Marilyn Musgrave added their voices to Salazar’s in April. The Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District is considering a lawsuit if the contract is signed and is also on record asking for an EIS. Kansas has likewise weighed in on the assessment; the Kansans are worried that the agreement may affect water quantity and quality on the Arkansas.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

National Park stream flow

Last year federal judge Clarence Brimmer overturned the 2003 agreement between Colorado and the Department of Interior for stream flows in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The 2003 deal left the park with junior rights, compared to the 1933 priority date for water to serve park purposes, which harks back to when Black Canyon was designated a National Monument.

With the 2003 deal overturned, it still has to be decided how much water the park will get. So the parties went to work on an out-of-court settlement, which will be reviewed by the court on June 29th. If the parties can’t come up with an acceptable agreement, the matter will go to trial. And so the parties were negotiating, when Attorney General John Suthers office filed objections to 106 stipulations designed to protect irrigators using Gunnison River Basin water.

Eight Colorado legislators wrote Attorney General Suthers complaining of a “direct affront” to state law and that the filing was abetting a “massive federal water grab.”

The AG’s office explained that they were just making sure that they filed, in time, so as not to give up their right to object.

But Rep. Bernie Buescher, D-Grand Junction, threatened to stall funding for Colorado Water Conservation Board projects, until “we get answers about why the Attorney General intervened in this case that we thought was settled.”

Suthers’ office withdrew its objections at the end of April. But the issues are still far from settled.

Elk Creek water and

the Tanglewood subdivision

Water issues can stir up rancor like nothing else. The Will-O-Wisp Metropolitan District has applied for a permit to increase capacity to serve the Tanglewood subdivision west of Pine Junction. The “1041 Permit” is required in an effort to address impacts associated with water developments.

At last month’s hearing of Park County’s Board of County Commissioners it was standing room only, with both speakers and interested parties overflowing the hearing room and spilling into the halls. Citizens complained about the minimal time alloted for each speaker and because participants were not allowed to donate their time to others.

The district claimed that three questions from an earlier hearing had been answered. First, “Is the water demand forecast of 175 gallons per day per household adequate?” The district claims that it is, due to covenants that don’t allow outside irrigation, and because the district’s contract with the developers limits use to 200 gallons per day.

Second, “Does the metro district own sufficient water rights to provide water to Tanglewood?” Mountain Mutual Reservoir company states that they have sufficient water to augment water from Elk Creek. A water court finding will be necessary to determine the legality of the Glassman Ditch diversion point.

Third, “Can impacts from the project to Elk Creek be mitigated?” The Colorado Division of Wildlife has weighed in on the necessary water, after performing an R2Cross analysis on March 2nd. Agreements have been reached to reduce the water taken out of Elk Creek during low flows based on the minimum flows established by DOW to maintain the fishery and riparian environment.

There were many objectors to the granting of the permit, including the Center of Colorado Water Conservancy District. They maintain that the permit is being rushed, without adequate public input. Other concerns revolve around the economic and social impacts, a baseline for water quality and that a drought plan was not submitted.

Three lawsuits have been filed over the issue. The first claims that the Woodside subdivision covenants restrict the subdivision to residential use only. The second lawsuit is a condemnation case filed by Will-O-Wisp to construct an access road, water pipeline, pumping station and related facilities. The third case has been filed over the title to a 1913 water right by Drayton and Vera Dunwody. They claim title to the 1913 decreed one cubic-foot-per-second water right, the Glasmann Ditch and its headgate (the diversion point on Elk Creek).

Water Roundtables

The Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act set up roundtables in each basin to chart the murky waters of water projects and other water issues in the state. Earlier in 2007 it was uncertain if newly elected Governor Bill Ritter would support the process, given the slow start to the roundtables. Harris Sherman, Director of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), announced recently that the process would continue and that it is, “our unique way of solving Colorado’s water issues.”

With funding from the legislature ($40 million over 4 years), Eric Hecox the DNR’s manager of the Roundtable and Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) process maintains that the process will heat up this year.

For those of you eager to participate, your attendance at the roundtables is encouraged. Check out the DNR website for details. One priority of the roundtables this year will be to determine the non-consumptive needs for each basin. This should interest paddlers, fisherman and environmentalists alike.

Short takes

Congratulations to residents of the San Luis Valley for winning the Environmental Protection Agency’s Friends of Environmental Protection Award. They’re working to ensure the safety and cleanliness of the water from their household drinking water wells.

If you’re over in Palisade stop at the recently dedicated memorial to favorite son Wayne Aspinall.

Blue Mesa reservoir is not expected to fill this year.

Plans for Fairplay’s new treatment plant are in a mild state of unrest, waiting for a new design, regulatory approval and financing. Situation normal.

A couple of entrepreneurs are proposing the use of potato slurry to help with the cleanup at the Summitville mine.

Governor Ritter signed HB 07-1132 into law. Water court judges are now empowered to consider water quality and environmental impacts of large water transfers (10,000 acre feet or more).

Please send links and story ideas to jworr [AT] operamail [DOT] com.

John Orr follows Colorado water and other issues at coyotegulch.net.