Pair of lawsuits challenges need for more Colorado River water

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Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The dam that forms the Windy Gap Reservoir, which sits across the main stem of the upper Colorado River, near Granby.

DENVER — Two lawsuits making their way through the federal court system are challenging two significant water projects in Colorado designed to divert more water from the Colorado, Fraser and Williams Fork river basins in Grand County.

The projects — Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s Windy Gap Firming project and Denver Water’s Moffat Collection System Project — would provide a combined firm yield of 48,000 acre-feet of water for the sprawling Front Range.

But environmental groups say government agencies violated the law in the environmental permitting processes of both projects.

“Our biggest claim is that (the agencies) claim they looked at reasonable alternatives (to the projects),” said Gary Wockner, director of Save the Colorado, the lead plaintiff on both cases. “But they didn’t look at conservation or efficiency. Water providers are trying to go to big water projects first and not the cheaper option of conservation.”

Both Northern and Denver Water say they factored in conservation efforts when they calculated water demand and that even aggressive conservation efforts won’t be enough to meet water demand in the future.

“There are only a few answers for water supply in the future, and Windy Gap Firming is one of those options,” said Brad Wind, general manager at Northern. “Without that project, I can’t fathom where we will end up.”

But some water experts say the state’s use of population growth as one of the major drivers of water demand was flawed.

“As population goes up, water demand continues to go down, and it’s been that way for decades,” said Mark Squillace, a water-law expert at the University of Colorado Law School.

Source: Denver Water

A detail of a map from Denver Water that shows the headwaters of the Fraser, Williams Fork and Colorado rivers, and associated tunnels, as well as the location of Gross Reservoir.

Decoupled demand

The phenomenon of increasing populations with declining water use is known as “decoupling,” and it has been happening in nearly every part of Colorado since the 1990s.

Higher efficiency appliances, utility-driven conservation programs and greater citizen awareness of water shortages have all driven the change.

But water managers say the state’s growing urban areas are reaching the point of “demand hardening,” where the additional water that can be conserved will not outweigh the amount needed in the future.

“We have been hearing those kind of stories for a long time, and it never happens,” Squillace said. “There are a lot of things that we could still do on the conservation end that would be a lot cheaper (than new infrastructure) and a lot more consistent with the environment that we live in.”

While they differ, the two lawsuits, spearheaded by Save the Colorado, could each hinge on demand and conservation estimates, as well as the assumption that additional conservation won’t be sufficient in the future.

Both lawsuits were filed in federal district court and are now awaiting action by a judge to move forward.

The Windy Gap Firming case was filed in October 2017 against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Moffat Collection System case was filed in December against the Army Corps, the U.S. Interior Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

An aerial view of Windy Gap Reservoir, near Granby. The reservoir is on the main stem of the Colorado River, below where the Fraser River flows into the Colorado. Water from Windy Gap is pumped up to Lake Granby and Grand Lake, and then sent to the northern Front Range through the Adams Tunnel.

The projects

Both the Windy Gap and Moffat projects were conceived decades ago to address projected water shortages on Colorado’s Front Range and to add resilience to both Northern’s and Denver Water’s supplies.

Now estimated to cost about $600 million, the Windy Gap project will include Chimney Hollow Reservoir, a new 90,000-acre-foot reservoir in western Larimer County.

The reservoir is designed to store water from the Colorado and Fraser rivers transported from the Western Slope through the existing infrastructure of the Colorado-Big Thompson project.

Windy Gap Reservoir, built in 1985, is created by a low, river-wide dam across the main stem of the Colorado River, just downstream from where the Fraser River flows in.

The reservoir is relatively small, holding 445 acre-feet, but it’s well situated to gather water from the Fraser, pump it up to Lake Granby and Grand Lake, and then send it through the Adams Tunnel under the Continental Divide.

With the Moffat project, Denver Water plans to spend an estimated $464 million in order to expand Gross Reservoir in Boulder County, by raising the height of the dam by 131 feet, in order to store an additional 77,000 acre-feet of water.

Gross Reservoir, which is part of the utility’s existing northern collection system, is filled with water from the headwaters of the Fraser and Williams Fork river basins. The water is moved through a pipeline in the Moffat Tunnel, which runs east through the mountains from the base of the Winter Park ski area.

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The upper South Platte River, above its confluence with the North Fork of the South Platte, and the location of the proposed Two Forks dam and reservoir.

The fork not taken

The plans to expand Gross Reservoir started in 1990 after the Environmental Protection Agency rejected Denver Water’s plan to build Two Forks Reservoir on the South Platte River.

The EPA’s rejection of Two Forks signaled the end of an era of large dams and forced groups planning large water infrastructure projects to give more consideration to the environmental impacts of their plans.

After this rebuke, Denver Water turned to the environmental groups that had opposed their project and solicited advice.

Throughout the 1990s, the utility implemented water conservation and recycling programs and started making plans to expand an existing reservoir instead of building a new dam.

“We embarked on the path that the environmental groups suggested. We implemented a conservation program and reduced our demands,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO and manager of Denver Water. “But you can’t get to zero. We continue to be committed to conservation, but at the end of the day, we still need more water.”

In partnership with environmental groups such as Western Resource Advocates and Trout Unlimited, Denver Water has agreed to spend $20 million on environmental improvements in watersheds on the Western Slope as part of the Gross Reservoir expansion.

Denver Water has also agreed to a monitoring program that will require them to mitigate any unforeseen environmental problems caused by the project,  a compromise between environmental groups and the largest water utility in the state.

“In some sense, this project was the development of an alternative from a number of groups,” said Bart Miller, director of the Healthy Rivers Program at Western Resource Advocates. “In some respect, you are putting this in context next to what could happen or could have happened.”

Concerned about having their own projects fail, as Two Forks did, other water managers emulated Denver Water’s strategy.

When Northern started planning for the Windy Gap Firming project, it also reached out to environmental groups and ended up committing $23 million to mitigate problems caused by past projects and to make other improvements in the upper Colorado River watershed.

Even though there will be impacts from taking more water from the river, Northern says these “environmental enhancements” will leave the river better off than it would be without the project.

And environmental groups working on the project agree.

“There is a lot of damage on the river that will continue to go on without an intervention,” said Mely Whiting, legal counsel for Trout Unlimited. “This is probably the best shot.”

Photo: Courtesy Denver Water

Gross Reservoir in the mountains to the southwest of Boulder. Denver Water hopes to increase the height of the dam by 131 feet — to 471 feet — to store three times as much water. Denver Water says the expansion will help it meet increasing demands and better weather severe droughts.

The lawsuits

Although some environmental groups have seen compromise as the best step forward, Save the Colorado and the other plaintiffs in the two lawsuits take a harder stance.

Save the Colorado, in particular, is against any new dams or diversions.

“The river has already been drained enough,” Wockner said. “The mitigation, in our mind, is not consequential.”

Colorado and the six other states that use Colorado River water are now negotiating a plan to better manage Lake Powell and Lake Mead in response to drought and aridification.

Last week, an engineer from Northern told the Loveland City Council that the district may have to decrease by 10 percent the amount of water it draws from the headwaters of the Colorado River, sending the water instead to Lake Powell, where water is held before being moved through the Grand Canyon and into Lake Mead for use in California, Arizona and Nevada.

And Northern’s statement did not go unnoticed by the plaintiffs in the Windy Gap and Moffat lawsuits.

“The old guard in water have the default setting that we need to build more reservoirs and we need to find more ways to bring water from the Western Slope,” said Kevin Lynch, the lawyer representing the environmental groups in the Windy Gap Firming case. “The argument my clients are hoping to make with this case is that that may have made sense in the past, but it doesn’t now. We are definitely trying to buck the status quo and change the historical way of doing things.”

Lynch and his team are arguing that the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers — the two government agencies being sued in the Windy Gap Firming case — failed to update and independently verify the water-demand data used to justify the project.

To back up this allegation, the plaintiffs petitioned the court to include a statistics report in the administrative record.

The report, which looks at water-use statistics in communities with stakes in Windy Gap Firming water, showed that their demand projections made back when the agencies conducted their environmental assessments were between 9 and 97 percent higher than the actual water-use rates in those areas.

The lawyers in the Moffat Project lawsuit also found that Denver Water used old data — specifically, from 2002 — to project their demands future demands.

The complaint filed by the plaintiffs says that the Army Corps and the Department of the Interior — which are the two agencies being sued in the Moffat case, along with the Fish and Wildlife Service — ignored more-recent data that was available when they conducted their assessments.

“If they were to use today’s data, they would no way be able to justify that they need the water,” said Bill Eubanks, the lawyer for the plaintiffs in the Moffat Project case. “Here, we are talking about almost two decades. Two decades where we have seen the most-transformative uses of water in a century.”

Both legal teams say that even if the data did reveal a demand for more water, the agencies failed to analyze the alternatives to two large infrastructure projects, including conservation.

Specifically, Wockner and Eubanks both spoke about how a “cash for grass” program — where the government pays people to dry up their lawns — was never analyzed as an alternative. Looking at similar programs in California, they say the same amount of water could be saved, but for less money than either of the two infrastructure projects.

To this claim, both Northern and Denver Water say that additional conservation measures are already planned for the future, but that they are not enough.

“The state has done a lot of studies for need for water on the Front Range,” said Jeff Drager, Northern’s director of engineering and the project manager for the WIndy Gap Firming project. “We agree that there can be more conservation, but it won’t be enough to meet our participants’ needs.”

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

This pipeline, at the base of the Winter Park ski area, moves water as part of the existing Moffat Collection System Project. The portal of the railroad tunnel, from this view, sits behind the pipeline.

Looking forward

Due to a long backlog in the court, both lawsuits are unlikely to see their day in court anytime soon. According to both lawyers, it could be months or years until the cases are decided. The court’s slow pace could impact the construction of both projects.

Citing the lawsuit, Northern in August delayed bonds to build the project.

Executives at Northern say they are using the time to hammer out the last of the details of the project’s design, but that if the project is delayed, it may cause costs to rise or endanger the water supplies of the project’s participants.

Denver Water, still waiting on several permits before they can begin planning construction, is less concerned about a delay. Both Lochhead and Wind say they believe that the projects will go forward once the lawsuits are resolved.

“We feel confident that our permitting processes are on solid ground,” Wind said. “I don’t think there is anyone in this organization at all that has thought this lawsuit would be effective.”

Although both Northern and Denver Water are confident that their projects will move forward, the plaintiffs in the cases are hoping for an upset that could topple the entire water system in Colorado.

“If we win this case, using this particularly egregious example of inaccurate water-demand projections, we think we can set a precedent that would force the state to look at more-recent data for different types of projects,” Eubanks said.

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