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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

Connecting the Drops

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Water Education Colorado

Metro Roundtable

By Jayla Poppleton

The Metro Roundtable was carved from the South Platte Basin because of its unique demographic and water uses. Anchored by the Mile High City, the metro area includes Golden to the west, Parker to the south, Aurora to the east and Thornton to the north, as well as many others in-between.

In short, the roundtable's major challenge is having all of the people and none of the water, says Colorado Water Conservation Board member Barbara Biggs. With 2.1 million residents in 2000, the metro area played host to nearly half the state's population. By 2030, another 1.2 million people will call the Denver area home. Even as they have made great strides in water conservation and efficiency, the roundtable's members expect they will need more imported water to make ends meet. With a 62,500 acre-foot gap, as projected by the Statewide Water Supply Initiative for 2030, staring them down, they are getting antsy.

‘The mood is that we need to move forward,’ says the roundtable's chair and Interbasin Compact Committee representative, Rod Kuharich, putting it mildly.

‘The Metro Roundtable is very frustrated that we keep studying issues globally and never get to anything project-specific,’ says Biggs, who is also government affairs officer of the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District.

The group adopted SWSI's figures for its consumptive needs report. But then it went on to assess the degree of overlap between identified projects that were used for SWSI's calculation of projected available supply. This work was initiated together with the South Platte Basin Roundtable, which is concerned about the Metro region looking increasingly at purchasing agricultural water rights from the South Platte. The Metro Roundtable has little agricultural water within its own borders, and with resistance to transbasin diversions, will certainly look to take advantage of some of the ag water for sale.

Some members of the Metro Roundtable want to further study various pumpback projects from the West Slope. But Chips Barry, manager of Denver Water and one of the roundtable's IBCC representatives, urges caution. ‘My enthusiasm for the pumpback projects is tempered by the number of unanswered questions about the Colorado River Compact,’ he explains. ‘The difficulty with those projects is they may utilize so much of Colorado's remaining water, it would put existing water rights at risk. No one knows how a compact call would work.’

He says Denver Water itself uses about 150,000 acre feet of West Slope water annually. Almost all of that is from post-1922 water rights, decreed after the signing of the compact. If lower basin states placed a call on the river, asking for payback of water they didn't receive, it could call out all the rights junior to 1922. ‘It would be a real mess for Colorado,’ says Barry.

Still, Barry is engaged in a dialogue with the Colorado River Water Conservation District and four West Slope counties—Summit, Grand, Eagle and Mesa—to settle 50 years worth of disputed issues. One agenda item in the dialogue is the Green Mountain Pumpback, a proposal to pump water from Green Mountain Reservoir back to Lake Dillon to provide more water for the Front Range. Green Mountain was originally built to provide replacement water for the Colorado-Big Thompson Project's diversions to the northern Front Range. As a substitute, Denver Water would build Wolcott Reservoir off I-70 below Vail for West Slope users. Denver Water owns the property and has the water rights already. At the same time, Summit County wants to ensure water levels in Lake Dillon, which is owned and operated by Denver Water, remain sufficiently high for aesthetic and recreational purposes.

‘Part of what's promising in the dialogue,’ says Barry, ‘is the increased understanding that if they want security on Lake Dillon levels and flows in the streams up there it will take Wolcott Reservoir.’

If the Green Mountain and Wolcott projects were successful, they could provide an additional 50,000 to 60,000 acre feet to the metro area.

Though Denver Water is not officially representing other entities for these negotiations, Barry says part of the equation is making provisions for additional water supplies for other Front Range customers. Biggs says this is a source of tension on the roundtable. ‘The idea is that once he knows what he's got to work with, Chips would come back and figure out how to divvy up those resources. But it leaves people feeling uncomfortable because they're not at the table.’

The roundtable has also sent delegates to a joint subcommittee for evaluating non-consumptive needs with the South Platte Basin Roundtable. However, there are limited non-consumptive needs in the Metro region itself. One thing it did consider is that the stretch of the South Platte River running through Denver realizes some ecological and recreational benefits from the Chatfield Reservoir Reallocation, a project supported by the Greenway Foundation.

The reallocation, which was partially funded through the roundtable's Water Supply Reserve Account, will transfer some of Chatfield's capacity to municipal storage purposes. The 300,000 acre-foot reservoir was originally built for flood protection. Denver Water already has 27,000 acre feet, and 15 other providers will share the new 20,600 acre-foot pool. As part of the project, the group will cooperate to time releases for ecological benefits downstream, says Biggs.

Another project supported by WSRA funds is an evaluation of aquifer supply in the Denver Basin for the South Metro Water Supply Authority. The study's first phase is evaluating aquifer supplies, the effect of drawdowns on well productivity, and potential sites for an aquifer storage and recovery pilot study. The second phase, for the pilot itself, was approved for more than $1 million by the roundtable in December 2008 but awaits the CWCB's final approval.

Aquifer storage and recovery, or ASR, holds promise as an effective means of storing water underground, eliminating evaporative losses and prolonging an aquifer's life. With the largest gap in the state, the south metro area is especially in need of renewable water supplies to supplement its use of Denver Basin aquifers. Although the ASR study is a positive step, the SMWSA's executive director Rod Kuharich is anxious to move forward with studying what he calls the ‘strategic initiatives.’

Essentially, those initiatives are pumpback projects, such as the Yampa Pumpback or the idea to bring water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River in Utah. (See Yampa Roundtable profile.) Though many people point to incomplete needs assessments or the progressing Colorado River Water Availability Study as the reason to wait on studying such projects, Kuharich thinks there's no reason not to study them concurrently. ‘A year ago, the Metro, Arkansas and South Platte roundtables met and came to a near unanimous decision to move forward with studying these projects,’ he says.

By Kuharich's estimation, it would take political compromise to allow these studies to move forward but once underway, they could be completed in 12 months. Recognizing the resistance to such projects from the West Slope, he says the pumpback projects were envisioned as a water supply with no headwaters impact; they would be diverting water from much farther downstream. And, he says, ‘We have no intention of moving forward with anything without mitigation.’

In the meantime, water providers are getting their hands wet one way or another, defaulting to drying up ag in short-term projects. They are also taking a hard second, third and fourth look at ways to drive conservation farther and maximize reuse. Historically, consumable return flows haven't been fully used, and entities including Denver Water, Aurora and the SMWSA are cooperating to take advantage of that water.

‘We're examining how some of our plumbing, pipes and pumps might be used to their advantage and some of theirs to our advantage,’ says Barry.

Fully consumable water includes imported water as well as non-tributary groundwater, which doesn't interface with a surface stream. Following its first use, this water usually flows back to the river in the form of treated wastewater or lawn irrigation return flows. Cities can claim the water and transport it back for another use or exchange it with downstream users.

This kind of cooperation could go a long way to meet the Metro area's shortfall, says Barry. He believes that if the Front Range entities can maximize conservation and reuse, build the Green Mountain Pumpback and Wolcott Reservoir, and buy some agricultural water from the South Platte, they will be able to solve their water supply problems for at least the next 30 or 40 years.

Though some urge patience with the grassroots process saying nothing in water moves fast, Kuharich fears that if they don't proceed with negotiations related to some of the long-term projects the process will lose the impetus it had.

‘If we don't get moving on this, the process is going to be perceived as the 'emperor with his new clothes.'’




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