The Colorado River: Intergovernmental Agreements


Denver, Colorado   March 8, 2013

The Colorado River: Intergovernmental Agreements

As part of their three-day conference, the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute hosted a discussion on recent developments in Colorado River use, particularly as they relate to the unique and sometimes competing land use interests in Colorado on either side of the Continental Divide.  “The Colorado River: Intergovernmental Agreements” specifically focused on the 2011 Colorado River Conservation Agreement (“CRCA”), which brought together Western Slope and Front Range parties to settle ongoing conflicts and consider cooperative conservation efforts.  Eric Kuhn, General Manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District (“CRWCD”), outlined the general Western Slope view.  Covering fifteen counties, CRWCD is one of Colorado’s four conservation districts formed around a specific water basin.  As the conservation district of the Colorado River Basin, CRWCD strives to conserve water in the basin, protect statewide interests, and promote responsible development on both sides of the Divide.  Tom Gougeon, a member of Denver Water’s five-person Board of Water Commissioners, joined Kuhn and represented the Front Range (and more specifically Denver) view.

Kuhn began by describing how land use policy inextricably links to water use and conservation.  For the Western Slope, encouraging settlement and agricultural development requires extensive irrigation and improvements to access.  At least since the 1930s, the Bureau of Reclamation has played a vital role in creating more arable land and encouraging agriculture on the Western Slope.

But as the Bureau of Reclamation experienced its heyday in Western Slope irrigation projects, Denver also continued to grow and strain its own water supply from the South Platte system.  Denver and the Front Range had similar goals in agriculture and irrigation as the Western Slope, but Denver’s large population growth forced the city to look beyond the South Platte to supply its residents. As a solution, Denver turned to the Colorado River Basin and constructed an impressive water infrastructure that could supply the burgeoning Denver population.  The decision to turn to the Colorado River was predictable: 80% of the state’s population lives along the Front Range, but about 80% of the state’s water flows west away from Denver by the Colorado River and its tributaries.  As Kuhn noted, major projects that brought Western Slope water to the Front Range, including the Moffatt System on the Fraser River and Dillon Reservoir on the Blue River, pulled water from headwater streams.  Kuhn also explained that projects on the Fraser River and the Blue River were both just “one pass” from the Front Range (Berthoud and Loveland Passes, respectively), making them the most accessible options to Denver.

As these projects came on line, Kuhn explained, disputes arose between the two interests, pumping untold amounts of money into litigation.  For example, determining the priorities of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which supplies the Front Range, and Green Mountain Reservoir, which supplies Western Slope communities, proved arduous and expensive. Some on the Western Slope also desired some kind of mitigation for the water they would lose to Denver.  The Blue River Decree attempted to resolve these and other conflicts, but since its inception in 1955 the Decree has been the subject of continued litigation and disputes of interpretation.

After the drought years of 2002-2003, Denver sought to improve the Moffatt System and increase the capacity of Gross Reservoir, and applied for permits to do so. Instead of allowing the permits, CRWCD and other Western Slope entities wanted to create a comprehensive agreement to resolve problems and set out a more cooperative relationship over Colorado River use.  The CRCA concluded in 2011. CRWCD, Denver Water, and many Western Slope counties and towns have signed the agreement.

As Kuhn explained, the most important goals for CRWCD and the other Western Slope signatories were to protect streamflows, secure water for consumptive use in the Western Slope’s agricultural and recreational economies, encourage smarter growth and irrigation practices, and implement better Front Range conservation and reuse.  To CRWCD, the CRCA works to achieve each of those goals by, for example, defining the specific service area of Denver Water, supplying more water for more diverse uses in Summit and Grand counties, implementing Denver’s “WISE” reuse project (discussed below), and allowing new Denver Water development only with the consent of impacted Western Slope signatories.  Each of these provisions contributes to water conservation and to a more cooperative environment that can allow the two sides to work together to tackle future challenges.  As Kuhn stated, the CRCA recognizes that Denver and the Western Slope have interconnected economies but need to recognize the same connection in water policies.

After Kuhn’s outline of the CRCA and its effect on Western Slope signatories, Denver Water’s Tom Gougeon spoke about the agreement’s impact on Denver and the Front Range.  After summarizing the century-long development of the Denver system and its utilization of the South Platte, Blue, and Fraser Rivers, Gougeon assessed the current state of the system and noted that Denver Water’s system is quite reliable and robust, providing high-quality water to over 1.3 million people in Denver and surrounding areas.  Denver Water has diligently pursued conservation efforts by metering use and instilling a culture of conservation in its customers.  In fact, despite population growth Denver Water has reduced demand by 20-25% since 2005.  But as Gougeon explained, these improvements to the system and to conservation efforts have not tempered the need to ensure reliable supply in an increasingly unpredictable hydrological climate.  The old view that rivers provide a “firm yield” year-to-year no longer accurately describes the situation.  Future supply is not as easily calculable as once believed, meaning conservation and reuse are more important than ever to prepare for dry years.  New challenges like increased fire danger, terrorism, and possible Colorado River Compact calls do not simplify the picture either.

To Denver Water, the CRCA was a way to tackle numerous goals at once and replace historical conflict with cooperation. Above all, the CRCA helped to create more certainty in supply and in the ability to cooperate with the Western Slope on new projects and conservation.  As Gougeon astutely observed, fighting over the interpretation of the Blue River Decree did not help either party.  By settling points of contention, both sides could instead focus on more pressing issues of conservation and vulnerability of supply.  Denver Water, for instance, abandoned long-held conditional water rights in Eagle County because it was unlikely to ever utilize those priorities. In truth, continued retention of those priorities only aggravated relations with Western Slope communities.  CRWCD likewise abandoned similar rights that it perfected in the 1950s and 1960s but never put to development or use.  This new cooperative mindset, Gougeon believed, created “a holistic approach” that would be better suited to actually resolve sticking points between the Western Slope and Front Range and benefit all Colorado River users.

Two accomplishments of the CRCA particularly serve Denver’s interests.  First, Gougeon said, making progress on the Gross Reservoir expansion was essential to Denver Water to strengthen the relatively weak northern end of their system.  Second, WISE would also serve to conserve more water and relieve some stress upon Denver’s system in the present and future.  As Gougeon explained, WISE was part of a realization that, eventually, many residents in Douglas County and other areas southeast of Denver would face supply problems and would turn to Denver Water’s extensive system for relief.  Since many residents of Douglas County rely upon a decentralized system of groundwater wells, any depletion in supply cannot easily be resolved without outside help.  Instead of taking on those customers directly, Denver Water preferred to reuse some of its reusable effluent through the WISE project to supply those areas.

Kuhn and Gougeon agreed that, from each of their perspectives, the CRCA embodies a “new way of doing business.”  While future supply may always be uncertain due to climate change and Colorado River use outside of the state, the CRCA will help to secure reliable water supply to all Coloradoans along the Front Range and throughout the Colorado River Basin.  It will also work to ensure environmentally healthy water systems and politically healthy relationships across the Continental Divide.

Overall, the discussion was effective in helping to describe the competing interests in Colorado for Colorado River water.  Kuhn and Gougeon’s comprehensive account of the various challenges each faces in their job role and in implementing the CRCA left out no detail, and provided a good look into the future of cooperation between their respective organizations.