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Colorado Water Agreement Hailed as Game Changer

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A landmark water agreement between Denver and western Colorado water agencies seeks to heal long-standing wounds from water battles that have sharply divided the state.


The so-called Colorado River Cooperative Agreement unveiled Thursday near Winter Park is being billed as a new direction for how water is managed in Colorado, but it remains to be seen whether this new spirit of cooperation will extend to other large water utilities along the Front Range.

The agreement was hammered out after five years of mostly closed door negotiations.  Among the takeaways in the 50 page document is that Denver Water has agreed to a number of concessions that may bring greater environmental protections to the already stressed Colorado River basin; including at Glenwood Canyon and the Dillon Reservoir.

"The west slope’s interests were very simple, to preserve what makes western Colorado wonderful and unique, and that’s the ecosystem, and the Colorado River is the key to that," said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District in Glenwood Springs.

Kuhn, who spoke at a press conference at the Devil's Thumb Ranch resort in Grand County, said the agreement enforces the reality that faces Coloradans;  the state will have to do more with less water in the future. 

Front Range agencies with more senior water rights on the Colorado River have long diverted and piped water back over the mountains to the arid eastern plains for farming, and the region’s exploding population. That will certainly still happen under the Denver Water agreement. But the agency is pledging to take less water during low flow times of the year, and reuse more of it in the metro area. In return, Denver, among other things, will expand its Gross Reservoir near Boulder to increase reliability to its 1.3 million customers. 

"We have an obligation to the rest of Colorado, including our neighbors on the front range, on the west slope and the environment to develop manage and use our water supplies responsibly and act with integrity," said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water.

Under Colorado’s complex water laws, Denver is legally entitled to the Colorado River water without all of the concessions in the agreement, and that’s partly why this proposal is being hailed as so historic. 

"In my experience of forty years of living on the west slope, this is a complete paradigm shift in the way the two sides have worked with each other," said Kirk Klanke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters chapter of Trout Unlimited in Frasier.

He added: "It’s always been us versus them, and this is a collaborative effort."

But Klanke said  this proposed settlement doesn’t address all the concerns facing the Upper Colorado River, including diversions planned during high run off that he worries could negatively impact how much sediment is flushed downstream. 

And then there’s the plan by another powerful Front Range agency, Northern Water, which like Denver Water, has also proposed to increase the amount of water it diverts to the eastern plains. 

But Northern spokesman Brian Werner said expect a similar settlement to become public soon between his agency and western slope interests.

"It’s the right thing to do," Werner said. "I think it’s political reality in this day and age, you aren’t going to go out and build projects and get agreements without having some concessions on both sides." 

This new era of cooperation surrounding water management, if it holds up, would be a game changer, and is certainly pleasing to politicians like Governor John Hickenlooper, who was also on hand for Thursday's announcement.

"Collaboration can move mountains and move water lawyers," the Democrat joked. 

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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