On the Ground – Quo vadimus?

by George Sibley

After my really grumpy column last month, I’ve put in some serious thought time trying to think of something positive to write about this month. In a nation confronted daily with the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the bottomless pit of Iraqistan, the corruption of governance by money, et cetera, it’s not easy to have positive thoughts about anything other than the beautiful weather we’ve been having in the valley. Dry, droughty, it’s true – but we expect that in June; maybe even live for it.

But then Monday June 7 rolled around, and the Gunnison Basin Roundtable and the Arkansas Basin Roundtable had a joint meeting about interbasin water issues. I wrote about this a couple months ago in these pages and I will say now that, my fears expressed then notwithstanding, the meeting gave even a realist/pessimist like myself a sense of cautious hope for the future of intra-Colorado discourse about water.

The meeting’s setting deserves mention. We had the meeting in the Salida Steamplant Event Center, an old power plant down on the Arkansas River that has been restored beautifully – mostly, I think, by cleaning out the old power equipment from the big room, cleaning up the walls and floor, and letting the building say what it has to say. It’s an old industrial building with intimations of America’s more optimistic times – a time when most commercial and public buildings had a sense of the “monumental” about them. Not “monumental” meaning huge or vast, but “monumental” in the sense of “like a monument” – to some idea or ideal, however crassly opportunistic or materialistic the idea or ideal might have been. Today, most commercial and public buildings seem built only to be cost effective, trying to impress with sheer bulk – just big interchangeable functional buildings full of interchangeable functional people, no effort to be inspirational, maybe because we’ve forgotten what “inspiration” is.

But I’m digressing – suffice it to say, it’s a good building for meetings. Especially a water-related meeting, with the door open to the background sound of the Arkansas River rolling by in full spring flood.

And another, briefer digression. I don’t believe in the idea of the “spirits of the departed” hovering around things, blessing them, et cetera. But it was a meeting in the spirit of one recently departed who deserves mention whenever possible; Chips Barry, for 20 years the general manager of Denver Water. He died in May, in a tractor accident on a farm in Hawaii where he was planning to retire this year.

Prior to 1990, it would have been unthinkable to hear anyone from anywhere in non-metro Colorado praising a Denver Water general manager. But Barry took over Denver Water right after the utility had been told by the EPA that it couldn’t build its Two Forks Project southwest of Denver because it had not sufficiently addressed conservation. Almost immediately, Barry began to work toward what he called (at the 2005 Water Workshop at Western State College) “the new paradigm” for Colorado water managers. I won’t go into all the details, but the new paradigm’s first edict was “cooperate rather than litigate.” And it included a charge to “help other communities and water utilities with their water problems … (because) like it or not, we are all in this together.” He walked that talk for two decades. He was a savvy and formidable negotiator for Denver Water, but in programs like the Headwaters Forum and the UPCO Project in the upper tributaries of the Colorado River, things are being worked out that help both sides of the Divide meet water needs. We were in Salida in that same spirit, and I am probably not the only one at the meeting who thought about Chips there.

To the meeting itself. Precipitating the meeting was an exchange of letters to or through Colorado’s still somewhat untested Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) for working out Barry-type solutions to statewide water problems. I described those letters in this column in the May edition of Colorado Central, and will not go into them in detail again. In essence, the Arkansas Basin’s letter complained to the IBCC about the lack of Gunnison Basin participation in solving state water problems, while they were experiencing loss of agricultural water to Front Range Cities. Meanwhile, the Front Range metro area “Big Six” – urban water suppliers from Fort Collins to Pueblo – sent the IBCC a letter complaining about the slowness of the IBCC process in identifying projects they needed to begin working on. This involved planning, permitting, and funding to meet water demands for Colorado’s projected population doubling by 2050.

Being explicitly mentioned in one letter, and implicitly in the other, the Gunnison Basin Roundtable responded with our own letter to the IBCC, addressing both letters. (Full disclosure: I am on the Gunnison Basin Roundtable.) We defused the Arkansas Basin complaint by agreeing that we indeed had to play a part in helping solve Colorado water problems. We then entered a complaint that the metropolitan area needed to be providing leadership in balancing the eternal quest for more West Slope water with an equal pursuit of serious demand reduction – above the 20 percent deemed feasible through conventional conservation programs. Even if that meant “major changes in land use, or significant alteration of most of the urban landscape,” as they had put it in their IBCC letter, in addressing what they felt were the limits to conservation.

It’s time, we argued, for the whole state to start exploring the kinds of “major changes” and “significant alterations” in the “urban landscape” that might be more fitting for a desert environment.

When no one had answered our letter after several months, we decided that, with those opening arguments on the table, to not follow up with an effort to further explain ourselves to each other would be a violation of the spirit of the enabling legislation for the Roundtables (HB 05-1177). So, we invited the Arkansas Basin to have a joint meeting to discuss the problems raised, and they agreed.

The meeting basically revolved around the two issues talked around in the letters: the role of Blue Mesa Reservoir on the Gunnison River in helping resolve statewide water problems, and the challenge of “serious urban demand reduction” beyond conventional conservation.

Blue Mesa Reservoir has been a sore spot between East Slope and West Slope water groups for more than a decade. After a decade of litigation in the 1990s on a proposal from several Front Range water providers, for a major transbasin diversion from the Gunnison Basin’s headwaters streams. The State Supreme Court upheld the water court’s decision of insufficient water for the project as proposed – but went on to opine that there might be a “marketable pool” of 240,000 acre-feet of water in Blue Mesa still available for lease from the Bureau of Reclamation. This unresearched opinion has since come to be considered an established fact.

People in the Gunnison Basin dispute the existence of this “marketable pool,” pointing out that the State Engineer declared the whole basin to be over-appropriated during the very dry year of 2002. Also, since the Supremes’ opinion, Gunnison Basin water has been committed below Blue Mesa for a Black Canyon water right and water for Colorado’s endangered fish.

But those are good arguments to take into a discussion with others who need water, in a state where, constitutionally, all the water is the property of all the people, provided it is not already committed to a beneficial use. There are really no good reasons for refusing to have a discourse when a) you have good arguments, and b) you can be taken to court at upwards of a million dollars per trip (for the Union Park adjudication) if you don’t talk it through in less expensive venues. “We’ve been told we can’t even talk about this,” was the observation from a prominent member of the Arkansas Basin Roundtable. Now we’re at least all talking about it – which is probably better than having everyone else talking about it behind your back.

The other issue – serious demand reduction – is both more ambiguous and probably more pressing. But this discussion is kind of a “home game” for the Arkansas Basin Roundtable, which has both large urban water suppliers and rural irrigation districts represented, the latter suffering losses at the hands of the former, through the purchase of agricultural water for urban use.

Wayne Vanderschuere, an Arkansas Roundtable member representing the Colorado Springs Utilities (one of the Big Six), observed that pushing demand reduction beyond conventional conservation requires cultural change that will be “generational” – an undertaking that the current generation of people working on these challenges will not complete. Our children will have to finish what we start. But that was less discouraging than the usual lamentations about what we will be passing down to our children. It was good to think that we might be able to pass along a solution-in-progress rather than just another problem too big for us. And Vanderschuere is willing to work on it.

So we have two groups working across Central Colorado’s Great Divide on problems that have simmered for most of a century. This may not impress those who observe that, when all is said and done, more is usually said than done. But there was a definite desire to start moving on these things – so we have agreed to have another joint meeting in September, to see what the groups have come up with. Can’t hurt; might help.

George Sibley was born in Western Pennsylvania, but was conceived in Colorado by Colorado natives, and thus considers himself to be a native Coloradan.