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HW 2009 Basin

Headwaters magazineWinter 2009: The South Platte Basin

In this edition of Headwaters, Water Education Colorado explores the South Platte basin.  The river supplies our largest cities and highest producing ag counties. To make it happen, trans-mountain diversions provide flows that almost equal the amount of water that leaves the state. Agriculturists and economists look at the future of farming and ranching in Colorado - they're changing, along with the river and the state.

Read selected articles below, or flip through the magazine online.

A Most Peculiar River

By Allen Best | Photographs by Kevin Moloney

clear_creek_hw_web_70Westward travelers of the 19th century invariably found the South Platte River perplexing. Samuel Mallory, on seeing the river for the first time, dubbed it the most ‘peculiar river I ever saw. It is about a mile wide and runs with a rapid current, yet I can wade across it at any place, and I have never seen a place yet where it is four feet deep.’

Mallory, a former mayor of Danbury, Conn., made the observation on June 10, 1860, while on the way to the Colorado gold fields. The route along the river that spring was busy. The night before, said Mallory, a train of 27 mammoth wagons passed his party, probably near present-day Brush and Fort Morgan. Mallory and companions could already see snow-covered peaks.

Even then, the distant mountains were being remade. The Clear Creek Valley was the epicenter. Major discoveries of placer gold in 1859 confirmed the vast riches of gold near today's Idaho Springs and Central City. Quickly the landscape and its waterways were rearranged. Individual gold pans were abandoned in favor of lengthy wooden boxes into which teams of men—for this was a young man's game—shoveled dirt and gravel, all this then rinsed by streams of water to remove the lighter materials. Gravity flows were harnessed to create jets of water that blasted whole hillsides. It wasn't pretty, but that wasn't the point.

These two stretches of water, Clear Creek and the lower South Platte River, are studies in contrasts, both in their native states and in their evolving uses since 1860. Much shorter, Clear Creek is less than 60 miles from its headwaters along the flanks of the Continental Divide to its confluence with the South Platte. The creek's snow-melted waters tumble 8,000 feet and through volumes of Colorado history.

Read more: A Most Peculiar River

Roundtables: A Silver Lining for Water Users

By Eryn Gable

Colorado's unprecedented growth and the increased emphasis on multiple uses of water have complicated decision making while creating an opportunity for collaborative solutions.

One outgrowth is the creation of nine groups—or Basin Roundtables—for each of the state's river basins plus the Denver metro area. The roundtables came out of the Statewide Water Supply Initiative and legislation passed in 2006. The Interbasin Compact Committee, made up of representatives from each basin, is meant to provide a statewide perspective; negotiate interbasin agreements; and address issues between roundtables.

The monthly meetings bring together a broad range of stakeholders to talk about competing water issues and give local residents greater input in water decisions. The South Platte Basin Roundtable, with 51 voting members, meets the second Tuesday of each month in Longmont. Metro, with 27, meets the second Wednesday. Metro members represent 29 cities and towns.

‘It is a mechanism that creates a dialogue among water users that otherwise might not be there,’ said Mike Shimmin, one of the South Platte roundtable's Interbasin Compact Committee representatives.

Jim Yahn, the vice-chairman of the South Platte roundtable, said the meetings enabled him to talk with people he never would have before, including city water providers, recreation representatives and environmentalists.

Read more: Roundtables: A Silver Lining for Water Users

Finite Supply, Infinite Possibilities

By Lori Ozzello

‘The earthen Plains of Colorado had long been labeled unfit to grow anything other than buffalo, snakes, cactus and antelope.’
—C.R. Shwrayder

Unstable commodity prices, rising costs for agricultural inputs such as feed and fertilizer, and competition for a finite water supply hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of agriculture officials in the Lower South Platte River basin.

Canals, ditches, man-made streams and reservoirs, fed by return flows, native surface water, transmountain imports and the alluvial aquifer weave through the basin. Maligned by Mark Twain and a list of explorers and travelers, the hard-working South Platte has a lot to do between Greeley and the Nebraska state line.

The South Platte and Metro roundtables—water purveyors, agriculture experts, environmentalists, and state and local governments—are in the process of determining whether municipal and industrial demands can be met reliably without permanently drying up irrigated agriculture. Buying agriculture land and using the water to meet municipal demands, also known as buy and dry, is the least expensive way to acquire water, but it means sacrificing irrigated agriculture and possibly reducing groundwater tables if historic return flows diminish.

Said Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Stulp: ‘How much water can you continue to take from agriculture? That will change the way we look as a state if we continue to buy 1 or 2 percent (of farm land) yearly. It will have an impact over time.

‘It comes back to how much growth you can have in relation to ag production.’

In the midst of the uncertainties, throw in a burgeoning ethanol industry, the location of a cheese factory in Greeley, and innovations in irrigation. The result: A lot of interest and even more questions about how the river is used.
‘Will there be less irrigated agriculture over time?’ asked Weld County Commissioner and South Platte Roundtable Chair Bill Jerke. ‘Without a doubt.’

Read more: Finite Supply, Infinite Possibilities

Conservation Conversation: Changes in Attitude

By Joshua Zaffos

When Kevin Reidy began his job at Aurora Water in July 2002, his hiring doubled the agency's water conservation staff. The two-person department was in charge of a ‘pretty typical’ city conservation program, Reidy said, based around watering restrictions and a water-wasting ordinance. ‘But to be honest, they were not being enforced,’ he added.

The summer of 2002 brought severe drought to most of Colorado. Many utilities already recognized the state's scarce water resources, but the low snowpack, high temperatures and dry conditions in the first years of the 21st century overwhelmed some providers.

Denver Water's storage was more than half empty after summer 2003, said Melissa Elliott, the utility's water conservation manager. The intensity of the drought brought a realization that a new level of conservation and efficiency measures was necessary for the near and not-so-near future.

‘I think the drought was a big wakeup call,’ added Ruth Quade, the Greeley water conservation coordinator.

The alarm rang especially loud in the South Platte Basin, where roughly 3 million people live; that's about 70 percent of the state's total population. Providers had to stretch dwindling supplies, and they recognized the challenge of preparing for projected growth. According to the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, or SWSI, a report completed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board in 2004, communities of the South Platte will add another 1.9 million people, or a 65 percent increase, by 2030.

‘It got us thinking we need to include drought response and conservation in our long-term planning,’ Elliott said.

Read more: Conservation Conversation: Changes in Attitude

Metro Providers Hunt for Options

By Jayla Poppleton

As far as surface water and prior appropriation in Colorado go, south Denver metro missed the first boat. It wasn't due to shortsightedness, but rather lack of necessity, that the aquifer-reliant region didn't lay claim to the South Platte River basin waters early enough. Many of south metro's communities weren't even around when that boat shoved off. If they were, they were pumping groundwater.

‘In the 1980s, the area joined dozens of Denver-area providers to promote Two Forks, a project that would have included a 1 million acre foot reservoir to store water from the East and West slopes.

Read more: Metro Providers Hunt for Options

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HWSPMultimedia Extras

 Scott Hummer

View photos and listen to Water Commissioners Scott Hummer and Brent Schantz describe their work.

View the water administration issue online.

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Denver, CO 80218