Alchemy on the Fraser River

The Fraser River carries very little water in late summer, although Denver’s planned increase in diversions wouldn’t change that as the water would be skimmed from the three runoff months of May through July. Photo/Story Group
The Fraser River carries very little water in late summer, although Denver’s planned increase in diversions wouldn’t change that as the water would be skimmed from the three runoff months of May through July. Photo/Story Group

Less is more for the Fraser River, say parties in Moffat firming agreement

New pact heralded as model as Colorado talks about last drops

by Allen Best

Located at the headwaters of the Colorado River, the waterways of Grand County have become the poster child for aquatic death by a thousand cuts.

Grand County is that part of the snow-rich Western Slope most proximate to the farms and cities of the Front Range. It juts like a thumb eastward, the most easterly point of the Pacific drainage in North America.

As such, it became a target, early and often, of transmountain diversions. The first major diversion across the Continental Divide was completed in 1890 and the last, located at Windy Gap, where the Fraser River flows into the Colorado, in 1985. Several others, more audacious in scale, came between.

Taken together, these great engineering achievements annually draw 60 percent or more of the native flows of this headwater region eastward, over and through the Continental Divide. The water delivered to cities between Denver and Fort Collins have made them among the most vibrant in the country, and the water that flows to farms as far east as Julesberg, hundreds of miles away, among the nation’s most productive.

But this achievement has had a hidden cost that became more apparent in recent years. Combined with the frequent drought since 2000, the depletions have left the Colorado River shallow and warm as it flows through Middle Park. It is, according to environmental advocates, a river on the edge of ecological collapse, unable to support sculpin, trout, and other fish.

American Rivers, a conservation group, designated the Colorado River as the nation’s most threatened in 2010 after conferring the same distinction on the Fraser River in 2005.

In 2011, Barry Nehring, then an aquatics researcher with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, was the lead author of a report that found the Colorado River below Windy Gap had lost 38 percent of its aquatic insect species, and with them sculpin, a species of fish native to the river.

A model for the future?

Now come new efforts, the most recent announced earlier this month, to bring the Colorado River and its tributaries back from this brink.

Called the Mitigation and Enhancement Coordination Plan, the agreement between Denver Water, Grand County, and Trout Unlimited proposes to govern Denver’s incremental diversions through the Continental Divide known as the Moffat firming project. However, according to the architects of the deal, it should also serve as a model in the ongoing dialogue as Colorado’s growing metropolitan areas look to squeeze out the final drops of the state’s entitlements to the Colorado River, as defined by the Colorado River compact of 1922 and other compacts.

“It is a demonstration of a new way of doing business that should be a model as Colorado talks about meeting its water gaps (between demands and supplies),” says Jim Lochhead, chief executive of Denver Water.

“Instead of platitudes or politics or parochialism, you need to do it by sitting down and working together and dealing with the issues,” he adds.

Jim Lochhead
Jim Lochhead

A statewide water plan, now being completed under the direction of Gov. John Hickenlooper, “can lay out some generalities,” said Lochhead, but agreements require tough negotiations that require strong working relationships and take years to come to fruition.

David Taussig, a native of Grand County and now the county’s water attorney, working from the 16th Street firm of White & Jankowski in downtown Denver, also sees the agreement as a model. “Nobody knows what (the agreements) will look like, but there are ways to develop things that benefit the Western Slope,” he says.

There are skeptics, unable to explain this strange alchemy in which a river can in any way benefit from having less water, as the agreement insists can be the case.

Among those withholding enthusiasm is Matt Rice, the Colorado coordinator for American Rivers. He points out that the agreement covers just 4 of the 32 creeks and streams trapped by Denver Water in the Fraser Valley and the adjoining Williams Fork. Too, like too many other similar programs, the data collection begins after permits are awarded, not before, which he thinks is backward.

In short, while Denver is careful to talk about “enhancements,” he thinks it falls short of addressing full, cumulative impacts.

Cumulative impacts are likely to be a focal point of federal permitting. While the Environmental Protection Agency is likely to have a voice, the vital 404 permit must come from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The parties to the new agreement have asked that their agreement be incorporated into the permit.

Denver’s ambitions to use all of its water rights in the Fraser River triggered the agreement. The city began diversions through the pioneer bore of the Moffat Tunnel in 1936 and, with later expansions, now skims 60 percent of the average annualized flows of the Fraser River and its tributary creeks: Jim, Vasquez, Ranch, and others.

The new increment of diversions would yield another 15 percent, exclusively during the runoff months from May through July. That would produce a net annual average of 75 percent diversion.

For Denver, the key to the added diversions of up to 18,700 acre-feet of spring runoff from the Fraser Valley (and Williams Fork, an adjoining valley) is having storage capacity. It proposes to achieve that with expansion of Gross Reservoir, located southwest of Boulder.  (See map at Denver Water website). There, to expand storage capacity from 41,811 acre-feet to 119,000 acre-feet, the dam would be raised 130 feet.

That work would be responsible for the lion’s share of the Moffat firming project’s current estimated cost of $360 million.

(* See footnote for added complexity involving Summit County.)

Costs and benefits

Under terms of this agreement, however, Denver Water is required to spend $10 million in direct costs in Grand County.

A major concern on the Fraser River is higher temperatures caused by more shallow flows, harmful or even deadly to fish. The money would go to such things as temperature-monitoring stations, to track how warm the Fraser is getting in summer months.

In places, creeks and the Fraser River will be rechanneled. A river with 75 percent of its flows diminished over a year’s cycle has less need for width. Instead, it needs a narrower course, to allow more depth and hence the colder water needed for aquatic life. Such work was already started several years ago on a segment near the Safeway store in Fraser.

A far greater financial cost to Denver specified by the agreement is the agency’s commitment to forfeit up to 2,500 acre-feet annually of the city’s added 18,700 acre-foot take.

Based on the firm yield of the water and Denver’s rate for outside-city raw water to customers, this commitment is valued at $55 million.

Very little water is bypassed from the Jim Creek diversion, leaving this rusty trickle. Photo/ Story Group
Very little water is bypassed from the Jim Creek diversion, leaving this rusty trickle. Photo/ Story Group

Denver will make this water available for release into the creeks and rivers, to keep water temperatures colder and hence more hospitable to insects and fish. The water can also be used for flushing, to mimic what happens naturally during spring runoff, scouring river bottoms, to clear out the silt that clogs the spaces between rocks where mayflies and other insects live – and upon which fish feed.

Denver’s uncertainties

Denver Water has been agonizing, too, because of climate change, forest fires, drought, and population growth. The agency delivers water to 1.3 million people, about half of the metropolitan area and a quarter of Colorado’s population.

About 80 percent of that water comes from mountain creeks delivered on the metro area’s south side, a large part of it from Dillon Reservoir. The Moffat system delivers only 20 percent.

After big fires in 1996 and then 2002, erosion displaced storage of several of its reservoirs along the South Platte and also threatened to overwhelm water-treatment plants.

The drought of 2002 further exposed the vulnerability of Denver and its close-in suburbs, especially those in the northwest side, including Arvada and Lakewood.

“We were operating our system on duct tape and bailing wire,” says Lochhead.

Watering restrictions were imposed, pipelines were patched together, but things looked more grim yet in 2003 until a giant St. Patrick’s Day snowstorm arrived, dropping 31 inches. The storm caved in several roofs but averted summer crisis.

“This is a project that we really needed 10 years ago, and we still need it today for our existing customers,” says Lochhead.

A final environmental impact statement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected in late April. The federal agency can also impose conditions of its own making. They would be included in a record-of-decision, which is expected to be issued in late 2015.

A permit from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment is also needed. Boulder County insists it also has say-so over enlargement of Gross Reservoir, an assertion contested by Denver Water.

In addition, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must award a permit for revised hydroelectric generation at Gross.

At earliest, expansion of Gross could start in 2018 and be ready to capture spring runoff in 2022.

Lochhead says the most difficult part of the negotiations involved these environmental parameters. From Denver Water’s perspective, he said, Denver alone is not responsible for all the ills of the Fraser. “We certainly have an important part in the Fraser, but there are a lot of other things going on,” he said, identifying forest management, cattle grazing and other diversions.

“The idea is to create a process whereby Denver Water is responsible for the impacts we create and, within a partnership with Trout Unlimited and Grand County, to make what is there better without placing blame on who might be causing the problem.”

James Newberry, a Grand County commissioner, agreed that the Fraser’s problems aren’t all of Denver’s doing. He points to sand being spread on U.S. 40 and the lack of stormwater plans in Fraser and Winter Park. “I’m not saying they (Denver) don’t have a play in it, but the rest of us have play in it, too,” he says.

Thinking has evolved

The agreement represents a new wave of thinking about impacts of water diversions. The older way of thinking was demonstrated in the Colorado Big-Thompson project. Financed by the federal government, it gave the Western Slope a one-time package, Green Mountain Reservoir, between Kremmling and Silverthorne, to serve Western Slope needs, particularly the farmers near Grand Junction who need water for late-summer fruits and produce. The agreement did not cover a more recent problem seemingly caused by the diversion, algae that obscure the clarity of Grand Lake.

The most recent of of the new agreements since the 1990s provides more living, breathing elasticity. The foundation for the new agreement was announced in 2011 but not finalized until recently. Called the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, it sharply restricts Denver’s ability to develop new water sources on the Western Slope and also calls for Denver to provide both water and money to address problems in the Vail, Breckenridge and Winter Park areas.

Then, in 2012, came agreements addressing the ambitions by five cities along the northern Front Range to increase the take of spring flows at Windy Gap, similar to what Denver wants to do at the Moffat Tunnel.

The Windy Gap settlement introduced adaptive management, an idea gaining favor in management of rivers of the West for several decades. The essential idea of Learning  by Doing, the program embraced for both Windy Gap and the Moffat projects, is that it’s impossible to know exactly what to do in advance.

“This is an ongoing process that will continue into perpetuity, and there has never been that sort of planning focus on our river,” says Grand County Manager Lurline Curran, who grew up in Kremmling, at the lower end of Middle Park.

Curran was remembered by many for her appearance at the Water Workshop in Gunnison several years ago. There, in looking at Denver’s plans for increased Moffat diversions, she said that 50 years ago, Denver had been thinking ahead – and Grand County had not.

This time, she thinks Grand County is thinking ahead.

But there is also risk? Curran says one risk is that decisions today are based on the past, assuming the future will look the same. “But climate is showing us that may not be the case,” she says. “We think sometimes that we have the ability to predict, and Mother Nature sometimes says, ‘Nice idea, but that’s not what I’m going to do.’”

Defining risks

Mely Whiting, an attorney for Trout Unlimited, says the new deal builds on both the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement and the Windy Gap settlements. They mesh together and, downstream from Windy Gap, should have great benefit.

Mely Whiting
Mely Whiting

The weakness is that in the Fraser Valley, there is little existing baseline data. “We don’t have a very good grasp on either what we have lost or what we may lose in the future,” she says. “We know there have been declines, but don’t have nearly as much information (as below Windy Gap). So the effort will be to develop a strong baseline and get a strong understanding of what is going on up there.”

At the end of the day it is a compromise, and Whiting admits that not all environmentalists are thrilled.

“On my side of the equation, when I talk to people in the conservation community, some people want language that nails Denver to the ground, so that they have no wiggle room. They want things very predictable,” she says.

“This Learning by Doing agreement is not extremely predictable,” she added. “We have some basic parameters. There are three ways we are going to measure, to monitor to make sure the values of the streams aren’t going down.”

Might Grand County lose interest or Denver Water want to just provide money, instead of staying the course on Learning by Doing. “Those are,” says Whiting, “our two biggest fears.”

Lochhead says Denver is in it for the duration.

“In the past, you’d build a project, do the required mitigation and move on. That’s no longer the case. Denver Water is committed to a new way of doing business – one that approaches water management in a way that is collaborative and as beneficial to West Slope interests as possible. The partnership we’ve created through Learning by Doing is permanent. Our commitment is t o work with Grand County, Trout Unlimited and all the partners in Learning by Doing in an ongoing manner permanently into the future.”

* For reasons entirely to complex to explain in even a long story, Denver will be able to divert a small additional amount of water from Summit County as a result of the Moffat firming project. Plumbing in Colorado is nothing if not complex.

Links of interest:

Denver Water section on Moffat firming project

Grand County’s section on water resources

Including Colorado River Cooperative Agreement

And information on Windy Gap firming project

River ecology organizations include Colorado Trout Unlimited and American Rivers

ADDENDUM FROM DENVER WATER: “Denver Water is taking steps to monitor and collect data prior to the project being permitted. We currently are part of the ongoing monitoring efforts for the Grand County Stream Management Plan, which is the foundation of the monitoring program in the Mitigation and Enhancement Coordination Plan and Learning by Doing cooperative effort. This monitoring in the Fraser River addresses sediment transport, and was expanded this year to include macro invertebrate sampling. Prior to the Moffat permits being issued, Denver Water also has committed to work with Grand County and others to identify and test opportunities to voluntarily provide flushing flows. (This is stated at the bottom of page 5 of the MECP.)”

Other agreements serve as foundation for new pact governing the Fraser

2011: Colorado River Cooperative Agreement. Deal struck by Denver Water and several Western Slope organizations, especially the River District, it was broad and sweeping. It substantially limited Denver Water’s further diversions to its existing service territory and provided water and money for many locations, not just in Grand County.

But in a sense, the new agreement builds upon the resources committed by that 2011 agreement.

2012: Two agreements that year addressed further diversions from Windy Gap by a subagency consisting of five cities within the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. The first agreement between Trout Unlimited, a landowners group, and the cities committed money toward a potential bypass of Windy Gap and a Learning by Doing program.

Grand County also got access of up to 4,500 acre feet of Windy Gap water stored in Lake Granby for release to benefit aquatic life in the Colorado River. Other water districts, including Middle Park and the River District, were also involved.


Allen Best

4 thoughts on “Alchemy on the Fraser River”

Comments are closed.