Western Slope water won’t be tapped in new Front Range storage proposal, officials say
A group called the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group, or SPROWG, is proposing to store 175,000 acre-feet of water in a series of reservoirs on the South Platte River, from north of Denver to the Morgan County line. The project also includes a long pipeline to pump water from the river back to the metro area to be cleaned and re-used.
May 8, 2018
KEYSTONE — Representatives of water providers in the South Platte River Basin said last week they intend to develop a new water-storage project that includes 175,000 acre-feet of storage at three locations on the South Platte River system.
The potential project in northeastern Colorado drew concerns from those on the west side of the Continental Divide. The plan would be to store 50,000 acre-feet of water in Henderson, just north of Denver; 100,000 acre-feet in Kersey, downstream of Greeley; and 25,000 acre-feet farther downriver on the Morgan County line at the Balzac Gage, east of Snyder.
By comparison, Ruedi Reservoir above Basalt holds about 100,000 acre-feet of water and Dillon Reservoir in Summit County holds about 257,000 acre-feet.
“We think we have something that could help the Front Range and the South Platte, and the state as a whole,” Jim Yahn, who represents the South Platte Basin on the Colorado Water Conservation Board and is the manager of the North Sterling Irrigation District, said at a conference last week.
The South Platte project does not include new sources of West Slope water, but concerns still were raised by West Slope interests on the Interbasin Compact Committee that the South Platte project could eventually draw more water through existing transmountain diversions.
Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District who remains a governor’s appointee to the IBCC, suggested that the West Slope might want to see “some protections that these reservoirs don’t end up sitting there empty for a long time and that it doesn’t just drag additional transmountain water over the hill.”
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The IBCC operates under the auspices of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and is charged with sorting out potential conflicts between basins, especially those brought up by transmountain diversions under the divide. The committee includes two representatives from each of the state’s nine basin roundtables, six governor’s appointees and two members of the Legislature.
T. Wright Dickinson, a rancher along the Green River, also serves as a governor’s appointee on the IBCC.
“I think the South Platte is clearly demonstrating what many around this table has asked, in the context of fully utilizing your own resources,” Dickinson said. “But I have a concern that the project could in fact pull water through existing projects — more water across the divide.”
Bruce Whitehead, the executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District in Durango, commented on the South Platte basin’s apparent stance that the project was happening regardless of what the West Slope thought.
“I’m a little concerned about ‘we’re moving forward, with or without you,'” Whitehead said. “I’m not sure that’s the way we’re going to get cooperation.”
He also suggested the West Slope might embrace the project if it also included “an acknowledgment there won’t be any more development of water from the West Slope.”
That drew a chuckle from some IBCC members, as Front Range water interests have said they do not intend to walk away from the Western Slope as a source of water.
The proposal is coming from an informal and collaborative working group that included officials from Denver Water, Aurora Water and Northern Water, along with officials from other water providers and users, such as Yahn.
The group called itself the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group.
A new regional water organization is expected to be formed to guide the proposal toward permitting and funding, said Lisa Darling, the executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority.
Darling was on the working group and she was presenting the project to the members of the Interbasin Compact Committee on Wednesday in Keystone.
She said the various water providers in the South Platte realized that “not unifying was not an option” and that the group developed “a series of projects that could be linked together to benefit everybody as a whole.”
The South Platte River rises in the mountains west of Denver, runs through the city north to Greeley, and then turns east toward the Nebraska line.
A key component of the project is a long pipeline and pump system from the lower river back to the metro area north of Denver, in order to re-use the water released earlier from the upstream storage facilities. Each time the water went through the system, up to 40 percent could be reused, Yahn said.
“It’s a big one,” said Yahn, of the project. “It doesn’t fulfill all the needs, especially on the other basins, but on the South Platte it could be a pretty big deal.”
The project proponents did not provide a cost estimate during their presentation.
“As for costs, the number is, gazillions,” Darling told the IBCC members. “It is a very, very large number.”
But not large enough that the working group thought state funding would be needed.
“It was sort of a presumption that the individual water providers would find enough value in this on a cost per acre-foot basis that they could collectively get there and pull off a project,” said Sean Cronin, executive director of the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District in Longmont.
He said water from the Colorado-Big Thompson project, which serves the northern Front Range, was now “going for $38,000 an acre-foot, and developers aren’t even batting an eye, because houses are now going for $400,000. So, it is on in the South Platte.”
Aspen Journalism is collaborating on the coverage of rivers and waters with the Summit Daily. Learn more at aspenjournalism.org.