Learning to do more with less water in the Colorado River headwaters
by Allen Best
GRAND COUNTY – A decade ago, Kirk Klancke had hard, cold feelings about Denver Water.
A stonemason for 35 years who moved to the Fraser Valley in 1971, he was passionate about the outdoors, particularly fly-fishing, and was outraged by depleted flows of the Fraser River and tributary creeks below a network of transmountain diversions.
Listening to Denver Water’s plans to step up diversions from these Colorado River tributaries, Klancke would seethe.
Today, Klancke almost gushes with compliments.
“Denver has been a treat to work with,” Klancke said one day in August at his home near Tabernash, located eight miles from the Winter Park ski area.
Denver Water still intends to divert more spring runoff. But what has won Klancke’s support is the utility’s commitment to an adaptive management program called Learning By Doing.
Part of the program includes about 30 people conferring weekly to address water issues in the upper Colorado River basin upstream from Kremmling, where up to 80 percent of the water may soon be diverted to the arid side of Colorado along the Front Range.
The conference call is modeled on a similar weekly call used to coordinate water deliveries to protect endangered fish in the Colorado River in the Grand Junction area.
During those calls, information is exchanged by water managers, and sufficient deliveries are usually ascertained. And decisions are made by consensus.
So far in the Learning By Doing effort, Denver Water has shown a willingness to juggle its diversions in response to conditions on the once-pristine streams in Grand County.
For example, in late July, Klancke noted warm water and dying fish in Ranch Creek, a tributary of the Fraser River. He told Denver Water about the low flows, but he didn’t really expect a response. To his surprise, utility officials offered to rejigger its diversions to make the flows in Ranch Creek last longer.
“It really helped Ranch Creek a lot,” says Klancke, the president of the Colorado River headwaters chapter of Trout Unlimited.
Learning By Doing is partly about manipulating diversions in the most environmentally friendly way possible, Klancke says. In the past, that wasn’t a concern “because they have just been operated like plumbing.”
The program is now gaining some notice in other headwater valleys of Colorado that are also substantially dewatered by transmountain diversions built in the 1930s and 1960s.
Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards, who has focused for years on water issues, says Learning By Doing “clearly is a sound concept, modifying approaches based on science and data feedback. But we’re not sure we’ve seen enough actual implementation to judge whether it’s a valid tool.”
A trip without itinerary
Learning By Doing is like a road trip without a precise itinerary.
It acknowledges broad impacts to water-dependent ecosystems from Denver Water’s existing transmountain diversions and those of others. However, it doesn’t presume to know exactly how to lessen the impacts of existing diversions, let alone impacts of new ones.
The Moffat Firming project, which sparked the Learning by Doing effort, is being proposed by Denver Water. The nearby Windy Gap Firming Project, on the main stem of the Colorado River below Granby, is a proposal from Northern Water. Both projects are part of Learning By Doing, although Northern is not a signatory to the underlying agreement for the program, the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement.
Both firming, or expansion, projects were conceived many years ago, but they were pushed forward after the 2002 drought. The drought crystalized Denver Water’s worries that it couldn’t supply enough water to its northern service area.
As such, Denver Water has proposed to divert more water from tributaries of the Colorado River and send it through its existing Moffat Tunnel system to an expanded Gross Reservoir, which is in the mountains southwest of Boulder.
The two big transmountain diversion systems in Grand County managed by Denver Water and Northern Water, plus several smaller ones, have annually removed an average of 67 percent of the water in the Colorado River below Windy Gap, according to the final environmental impact statement on the Windy Gap firming project.
The two proposed expanded diversions would bump that up to a combined 80 percent. By comparison, about 40 percent of water in the upper Roaring Fork and Fryingpan headwaters goes east, not west. That’s significant, but the upper Colorado River has been hit even harder.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the final decision-maker on both the expanded Moffat and Windy Gap diversions, now expects to issue decisions on the proposals in 2017.
The agreement that yielded Learning By Doing is grounded in political realities.
Denver Water needed Western Slope support to get more water. But to get it, the utility had to acknowledge a moral responsibility to address the impacts of existing diversions. That responsibility is now reflected in a legal agreement.
The water agency initially submitted models about the effects of its proposed increased diversions. Trout Unlimited and other environmental groups were skeptical.
“A lot of water has been taken out of these rivers,” says Mely Whiting, an attorney for Trout Unlimited. “We were not convinced any model was going to be able to predict what would happen [with increased diversions] or what will happen with climate change.”
The message to Denver Water, she says, was “if you want more water, you have to fix problems we already have, and you have to make sure we don’t have more problems. That’s what we believe Learning By Doing is all about.”
Will the Colorado River actually end up being better off after the diversions?
“I think so,” Whiting says. “That’s the goal. That’s what we’re shooting for.”
But the upper Colorado River basin may never be as pristine as it once was.
“The goal is not to make it natural,” says Whiting. Instead, Learning By Doing aims to “make it better.”
Other environmental advocates reject this reasoning.
“Grand County got bad legal advice,” says Gary Wockner, executive director of Fort Collins-based Save the Colorado. “The river is already drained and depleted, and climate change is just going to make it worse. When you’re heading for a cliff in your car, the first thing to do is take your foot off the accelerator.”
Water conservation, Wockner contends, “is always cheaper, easier and faster than trying to build a massive new dam, as is buying and sharing water with farmers.”
Trout Unlimited sees things differently.
“We have said ‘yes, let’s conserve,’ and we do everything we can to really engage in pushing forward conservation,” Whiting said. “But we also need to figure out how to best protect the river with its projects moving forward.”
Might the parties that divert water from the Roaring Fork River watershed, which include Colorado Springs, Aurora, and Pueblo, as well as irrigators in the Arkansas River Valley, ever feel a moral obligation to address the impacts of their diversions?
Chris Woodka, a former water reporter and the new issues management coordinator for the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District in Pueblo, was at least willing to consider the question.
Southeastern manages the Fry-Ark project, which diverts water from Hunter Creek and a string of tributaries in the upper Fryingpan River basin.
“We’re probably not going to suggest anything that would take less water,” Woodka says. “But if we are asked to do something, we would certainly look at it. But our primary obligation is to bring supplemental water to the Arkansas basin.”
And an important factor for the Roaring Fork watershed to consider may be this: Learning By Doing is the result of a proposal to increase transmountain diversions and is not simply borne of a desire to better manage the streams already depleted by them.
Basis for collaboration
Denver Water, the Western Slope, and environmental groups have long had an adversarial relationship. There was occasional collaboration, such as with the Wolford Mountain Reservoir near Kremmling in the 1990s. But more defining was Two Forks. It was disputed by Western Slope organizations as well as environmental groups. The Environmental Protection Agency vetoed a key permit in 1990.
The city’s water rights in Grand County, if relatively junior under state law, were never in question. Cumulative impacts were. After Denver initiated the federal review process for the expansion in 2003, Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District in Glenwood Springs, sent a proposed “global settlement” to Denver that recognized impacts of a Moffat expansion would have ripple effects all the way to Grand Junction. Denver rejected the specific proposal, but not the idea and submitted a counter proposal in what became an extended negotiation.
Still, there wasn’t any hand-shaking going on between representatives of environmental advocates like Klancke and Denver Water representatives. That changed, but for a variety of reasons. Environmental groups began focusing their public relations arsenal on impacts to the Fraser River. American Rivers in 2005 labeled the Fraser as America’s most endangered river. It made the front page of the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News.
Then came 2006, dry and hot—and dead fish in the warm, shallow waters of the Colorado River as it flowed from Windy Gap to Kremmling. If Grand County lacks the billionaires of Aspen, that segment of the Colorado River nonetheless has several wealthy and well-connected anglers. They complained to Trout Unlimited about a dying river bludgeoned by the multiple blows of transmountain diversions.
Soon, headwaters counties — especially Grand, Summit, and Eagle —concurred that there had to be a global agreement among the affected counties in response to Denver Water’s proposal. Mediated negotiations began in 2007 involving 43 parties, most of them located on the Western Slope.
Ken Neubecker, then an employee of Colorado Trout Unlimited, says Denver was at least partly motivated by practical considerations. It faced a bruising PR battle and, very likely, a courtroom fight, and a potential echo of Two Forks, the giant dam on the South Platte River that was voted down by the Environmental Protection in 1990.
“The last thing they wanted was another Two Forks, where a federal agency would veto it,” says Neubecker, now an American Rivers representative in Garfield County. “If you have all the players on both sides of the divide chipping in and smiling for a picture, it makes it a lot harder politically for the EPA to veto a project.”
A key figure representing Grand County in the process was Lurline Underbrink Curran, a county native who became a planner and then the Grand County manager, a position from which she recently retired.
Some years ago, at a water conference in Gunnison, she summed up Grand County’s plight succinctly. Denver had had vision, she said, and Grand County had not.
The 21st century vision crafted by Curran and elected officials is a calculated gamble. Working with Denver, they decided, could yield more benefits than a courtroom brawl.
Developing relationships took time, though. Closed-door sessions were held repeatedly over several years. People from Denver, those in Grand County, and other organizations got to know each other. One member’s son committed suicide during that time of negotiations and three of them suffered cancer. In time, they decided to trust each other.
Curran, who wears a pink bracelet, credits Denver Water directors appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper when he was mayor of Denver with acknowledging an important truth.
They were “willing to step back and go, ‘Well, we have had a huge impact and if at all possible we need to improve the area that we take the water from,’” she said.
Denver Water, in turn, shared modeling studies with Grand County after securing a promise that the models wouldn’t be used legally against it.
Science as the basis
Grand County also commissioned its own expensive stream management plan that brought science to the argument.
Paula Daukas, environmental planning manager for Denver Water, was impressed by that plan.
“It gives them the science, so they can frame their needs and wants in a scientific way,” she said. “That plan became the foundation for Learning By Doing.”
Learning By Doing is included in the 2013 Colorado River Water Cooperative Agreement, the result of the long negotiating process with Denver Water.
And Curran says Learning By Doing puts Grand County, with its multiple tasks, on par with Denver Water, an agency with a singular focus.
“That is a really big deal,” Curran says.
Denver Water and the Windy Gap sponsors aren’t legally required to participate in Learning By Doing until they get all their federal permits.
Nonetheless, in 2011, they joined the state, Grand County, and other partners to begin to explore how to do more for rivers with less water.
Diminished flows distress the web of life found in rivers. Macroinvertebrates — bugs — live in the gaps between rocks in rivers. Reduced flow means less velocity, and sediments are not swept from between the rocks. Less room for bugs means fewer of them. And fewer bugs mean fewer fish.
Klancke, the avid fly-fisherman, can point to reaches of river and creeks in Grand County where President Dwight Eisenhower snagged big trout during summer vacations in the 1950s.
But now he can also point to segments of the Fraser River where summer flows, depleted by diversions, are too shallow for the width of the channel, resulting in water dangerously warm for fish and the bugs they depend upon.
“They heat up in ways they never did before,” says Klancke of the tributaries in Grand County. “Seventy degrees is the limit trout can withstand.”
One recent response has been to narrow a section of the Fraser River’s channel for nine-tenths of a mile and add riffles and pools. The ongoing Fraser Flats project will cost $201,000, with various parties, including a private landowner, chipping in.
Denver Water’s portion of the Fraser Flats is only $50,000, part of $2 million earmarked for aquatic habitat improvements under the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement. The agreement says that Denver Water will provide $11 million to Grand County in all.
That agreement also obligates the utility to bypass 1,000 acre-feet that it could divert. The water is to be used for environmental purposes in the Fraser Valley.
An expansion of Gross Reservoir to triple its current capacity is key to this alchemy. Denver Water says that the larger storage of spring runoff will allow it more flexibility in when and where it diverts during the warmer summer months.
After the work is done at Fraser Flats next year, stream temperatures and other indicators will be monitored for several years.
The procedure, explains Denver Water’s Daukas, is to see what benefit has occurred, “so that when we go to the next project, we can see what has worked and what won’t work.”
But Wockner of Save the Colorado thinks Grand County settled for a “terrible deal.”
“The two dam and diversion projects would take over a billion dollars of water over to the Front Range,” he says, referring to the Moffat and Windy Gap firming projects.
“Grand County settled for about one percent of that in mitigation costs, which is a fleecing of money as well as water.”
As for the “channel enhancement” at Fraser Flats, he sees only a narrowed irrigation ditch.
“The Fraser and Colorado rivers need more water, not less,” Wockner says.
Still, proponents say Learning By Doing provides a model. They say it requires commitment by people to be stewards of rivers in their back yards. It requires mechanisms for addressing problems. It requires cooperation among diverse partners. And it requires compromise.
Denver Water’s most important change, says Klancke, may be a new focus. Instead of a singular focus on delivering water to customers it may now have a broader focus that includes maintaining the health of the basin of origin, he says.
“That’s the culture they’re changing,” he said. “I won’t say it’s successful until the scientists say it’s healthier than it used to be. But we’re headed in the right direction.”