On stressed Colorado River, states test how many more diversions watershed can bear

Denver Water wants to raise Gross Dam by 131 feet and fill it with water transported from the Western Slope. If completed, the dam would be the tallest in Colorado. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part 1 of a three-part series.

COAL CREEK CANYON, Colo. – The Colorado River is short on water, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at a slate of proposed water projects in the river’s Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

The river and its tributaries provide water for 40 million people in the Southwest. For the past 20 years or so, demand for water has outstripped the supply, causing its largest reservoirs to decline.

In the Bureau of Reclamation’s 2012 Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, you can pinpoint when the lines crossed somewhere near 2002. It’s a well-documented and widely accepted imbalance.

That harsh reality – the river’s water is promised to too many people – has prompted all sorts of activity and agreements within the seven Western states that rely on it. That activity includes controversial efforts in some Upper Basin states to tap every available drop before things get worse.

‘There’s nothing that we get from this’

Tyson Long drives his black pickup truck in the foothills outside Boulder. The narrow dirt road twists and turns through pine forest, past houses with yard signs that read: “Stop Gross Reservoir Expansion.”

We stop at an intersection, near an electrical provider and across the road from a community center. It’s an almost 180-degree turn from the main highway onto the road to Gross Dam.

The utility that owns the reservoir, Denver Water, wants to increase the height of the dam by 131 feet and fill it with water from the headwaters of the Colorado River via the Moffat Tunnel through the Continental Divide.

Imagine a tractor trailer hauling dam-building materials making this turn, Long said.

April Lewandowski and Tyson Long live in Coal Creek Canyon, a community near Golden, Colorado, that would see increased truck traffic and noise as part of the Gross Reservoir expansion. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

“If they truck all of this material up our canyon,” Long said, “people in our community are going to get killed by those trucks. Period. There’s a lot of other issues here, but the safety thing should really be a serious priority.”

Long and his wife, April Lewandowski, live near the reservoir in a sparsely populated community called Coal Creek Canyon. Like many of her neighbors, Lewandowski commutes to her job on the state’s densely populated Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. Her daily commute on the canyon’s two-lane highway is the same as a haul route for trucks that would be needed to raise the dam.

Long pulls up to a small parking area that overlooks the dam. It’s a deep wall of concrete, stretched between the tree-lined canyon walls of South Boulder Creek.

“I mean, you look at how the land splays out, you can see why they want to (build it),” Long said. “It’s so much wider all the way around.”

If the expansion goes through, the place where we’re standing will be submerged in water. Raising the crest of Gross Dam to 471 feet would make it the tallest in Colorado.

Long and Lewandowski are concerned about the safety of neighbors who commute down the canyon each day and would have to compete for road space with enormous trucks. They wonder what effect the five years or more of construction could have on the value of their home. They want to know how they can keep a water agency of appointed officials accountable for promises made.

“We don’t vote for them or fund them,” Lewandowski said. “There’s no way that we can have a voice. There’s nothing that we get from this. We don’t get the water from it. We’ve never been told we were going to get a better road or a wider road.”

‘This is a project that’s needed today’

Denver Water began to seriously consider expansion of Gross Reservoir after the dry winter of 2002 and exceptional drought conditions took hold across the Mountain West. In the midst of those historic dry conditions, a portion of its service area nearly ran out of water, said the utility’s CEO, Jim Lochhead.

“This is a project that’s needed today to deal with that imbalance and that vulnerability and to give us more drought resiliency,” Lochhead said.

Jim Lochhead is the CEO of Denver Water, which has been trying to expand Gross Reservoir since 2003. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Since then, Denver Water has filed federal permits to start construction and negotiated an agreement with local governments and environmental groups on Colorado’s Western Slope to mitigate some effects of the additional water being taken from the headwaters.

Before leaving office, former Colorado Democratic governor (and current presidential hopeful) John Hickenlooper threw his weight behind the project, giving it an endorsement and suggesting other water agencies in the West take notice how Denver Water approached the process.

But despite the political heft behind the project, it faces considerable headwinds.

Environmentalists are suing, arguing the expansion would harm endangered fish. Local activists say the additional water will spur unsustainable population growth along the Front Range. In recent months, the utility has sparred with Boulder County officials over whether it was exempt from a certain land use permit.

Building a 131-foot dam addition does come with baggage, Lochhead said. But he argued his agency has done its part to address some of the concerns, such as reducing the number of daily tractor-trailer trips up Coal Creek Canyon and planning upgrades to the intersection where trucks where turn onto Gross Dam Road.

“It is a major construction project. I don’t want to gloss over that. It will have impacts to the local community,” he said.

Denver Water staff members are doing more outreach in the canyon as well, Lochhead said.

“We are committed to the project and seeing it through. We’re also committed despite the opposition to working with the local community in doing this the right way,” he said.

‘There really isn’t unused or excess water out there’

The latest scuffle with Boulder County has brought the Gross Dam expansion squarely back into public view. At a county commissioner’s meeting in March, residents criticized Denver Water on all fronts, from specific concerns about the construction itself, to broader concerns about water scarcity in the Colorado River basin.

“No one wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Gee, I hope there will be a seven-year dam construction project in my backyard,'” Anna McDermott, who lives near the shore of Gross Reservoir, said at the hearing.

Gross Reservoir is a key piece of Denver Water’s delivery system. A proposal to expand the dam has galvanized opponents. (Photo by Nick Cote for KUNC/LightHawk)

“This project represents an effort by Denver Water … to actually grab water while they can, before federal legislation and management of the Colorado River Basin is imposed,” McDermott said.

What McDermott is referring to is a stark disconnect in the Colorado River watershed. States downstream on the river – Arizona, Nevada and California – signed a new agreement in May called the Drought Contingency Plan that keeps them from becoming more reliant on the Colorado River. It requires cutbacks to water deliveries should levels in Lake Mead, the river’s largest reservoir, continue to drop.

No such agreement was made upstream in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. Those states wound up agreeing to study the feasibility of a program that would compensate farmers to stop irrigating their cropland if reservoirs dropped, with no solid way to pay for it. They also agreed to better coordinate releases from their biggest reservoirs to aid an ailing Lake Powell. While they figure out how to develop those two concepts, the Upper Basin states keep inching along on their development projects to divert more from the river.

The 1922 Colorado River Compact, the river’s foundational governing document, gives Upper Basin states the legal cover to continue developing projects like the Gross Reservoir expansion. In the compact, each basin is allocated 7.5 million acre-feet of the river’s water.

Over the decades, the rapidly growing and intensely farmed Lower Basin has used much more than that. The less-populated Upper Basin has never reached its full allotment. Those states have been using roughly 4.5 million acre-feet for the past 13 years, with the rest flowing downstream for the Lower Basin to use as it sees fit.

The Gross Reservoir expansion and other proposed water projects are an attempt to even the score, even if they add some additional pressure to the overallocated resource, said Doug Kenney, an expert on Colorado River policy at the University of Colorado Boulder. (Some of Kenney’s work has received funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.)

“There really isn’t unused or excess water out there, and so every new water project we build is undercutting the reliability of every other water project we’ve already built,” Kenney said.

The additional water to fill Gross Reservoir – if the expansion goes through – will have to come from somewhere.

“They might have in the back of their mind this thought that this is something that will make up for elsewhere in the basin through another mechanism,” Kenney said. “And if that happens, then it all looks very reasonable. But if it doesn’t happen, then this doesn’t look very reasonable.”

Water managers are able to look at the entire Colorado River watershed and recognize its fundamental supply and demand imbalance, Kenney said, and still find ways to siphon off new supplies in smaller pockets. It’s one of the conundrums of Colorado River governance. No one agency or commission exists to consider and manage the system as a whole.

Conservation programs tend to be less expensive than huge new projects, Kenney said. But additional water supplies stored in reservoirs give more security and reliability. It’s why water leaders push for them, even when the economics don’t make sense.

“I used to think the limiting factor would be the economic cost to these projects, but currently there is little evidence to suggest that’s what stops these things,” Kenney said. “It’s politics and it’s how well-mobilized the political opponents are to these projects.”

This story is part of “The Final Straw,” a series produced by the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, KUER and Wyoming Public Radio. KUNC’s Colorado River coverage is supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.