Water storage in Colorado could become a defining issue

Cross Currents: A column by Bill Christopher
Posted 1/23/19

Colorado’s population continues to surge ahead. According to a forecast quoted by the City of Westminster, the state’s population will reach 7.8 million residents by 2040. This is alarming to say …

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Water storage in Colorado could become a defining issue


Colorado’s population continues to surge ahead. According to a forecast quoted by the City of Westminster, the state’s population will reach 7.8 million residents by 2040. This is alarming to say the least.

The climate is changing. Colorado is experiencing warmer temperatures on average and less precipitation. Given our semi-arid climate, this trend is all the more concerning.

The trend lines for population increases versus warmer temperatures and less precipitation create a red flag when projecting future water supply needs and water storage, which just emphasizes for the need to build more raw water storage reservoirs in Colorado.

But as important as it is, Colorado has had mixed results on increasing water storage reservoirs over the years. Three quick examples include the ill-fated Two Forks Dam - which was vetoed by the EPA - and Boulder County’s quite recent callenge to the Denver Water Board’s planned expansion of Gross Reservoir.

Finally, the Chimney Hollow Reservoir, which is close to Carter Lake Reservoir in Larimer County, is underway. It will hold 90,000 acre feet of water when full.

Leadership is needed now

As we look ahead with the above stated trends, someone needs to take the bull by the horns and mount a campaign for more untreated water storage capacity throughout the state. Farming interests should be at the table as well as drought cycles have a direct impact on their ability to grow crops.

Storing water to help offset a dry cycle is already critical and will become more so in the not too distant future.

Two Forks Dam was a central focus

The proposed Two Forks Dam was a hot topic back in the 1990s. The state and numerous local governments teamed up with developers to pursue what was hailed as the most expensive dam in American history. It was estimated at the time to cost approximately $1 billion.

A variety of environmental interests combined to fight the proposed new dam. It would have covered 7,300 acres at the South Platte River near its confluence with its North Fork about 25 miles southwest of Denver. The reservoir would have flooded six towns as well as much of Cheesman Canyon, a wilderness area beloved by outdoorsmen.

Despite those challenges, then Colorado U.S. Senator William Armstrong publicly supported the project. His statements at the time were prophetic. He stated that regardless of the decision on the Two Forks Dam, growth in Colorado would continue. Ultimately, EPA Administrator William Reilly in the Bush Administration vetoed the project. It should be noted that no federal money was to be involved in the project.

Gross Reservoir expansion could be litigious

Last October, the Denver Water Board was about to receive the final approval on enlarging Gross Reservoir, which is located in Boulder County. The Army Corps of Engineers had already issued the needed permit in 2017 and the only remaining hurdle was a needed amendment from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regarding the existing facility’s hydroelectric license.

Then Boulder County notified the Denver Water Board that it believed that the utility would have to go through a land use review process for the expansion. The water utility contended that it was exempt from any land use review process because it was “zoned for such uses by right” prior to May 1974 when the legislature enacted House Bill 1041, giving local governments greater authority in land use regulation.

The planned expansion calls for raising the dam by 131 feet to increase the holding capacity by 77,000 acre-feet of water. Denver Water had been planning on starting construction this year. Last month, environmental interests filed suit against the Army Corps of Engineers in an attempt to stop it.

Planning ahead is paramount

Building either new dams or expanding existing dams to create water storage is a controversial topic with strong feelings on both sides and the two above contentious examples demonstrate this point. Too often, the most feasible locations to construct a dam are coveted locations for fishermen and other outdoor interests and pristine natural beauty. Plus, there is the fundamental objection to more growth in Colorado.

However, it is imperative that additional water storage be achieved to cope with the surging population increase and to help offset the impacts of climate change and drought cycles. The normal tendency of growth will not be checked by cities and counties until there is a serious problem at which point it is too late to build reservoirs or acquire more water resources.

A call to arms

While individual municipalities and water districts have their own individual future plans to store water, it would behoove water utility and agricultural interests to come together to promote additional storage. Governor Polis should spearhead this endeavor — perhaps calling upon former governors to play a role in calling attention to the need and then developing a strategy to select sites and garner funding, including state funding.

The Colorado Water Congress and the Colorado Municipal League should be directly involved as well. Federal funding would certainly be helpful but adds considerable red tape and time.

If you can read between the lines, you can see that this endeavor does not allow a quick turnaround. It will take years to get to a point where sites would have been selected and have gone through the federal environmental processes. And rest assured whatever sites are selected, the proposed dam/reservoirs will be contentious and strung out with litigation.

What is in your water utility’s future plans?

We as consumers and taxpayers tend to take our water supply for granted. We expect safe, clean and tasty water when we turn on the faucet for various domestic uses. Businesses that use potable water in their products or processes expect dependability and quality as well.

Long range planning by Colorado public water utilities is paramount to address the changing times and have sufficient water resources and storage in place ahead of the demand.

What’s in your wallet? No, no ... I meant to say what is in your municipality’s or water district’s future plans?

Bill Christopher is a former Westminster city manager and RTD board member. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.


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