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A Tug Of War Over Water At Dillon Reservoir

Nathan Heffel

Nowhere is the annual balancing act between municipal water needs and recreational water needs more evident than the small mountain town of Frisco.

Frisco is clearly a recreation town. Close to the ski slopes of Copper Mountain, Breckenridge and Arapahoe Basin during the winter. In the summer, their bread and butter is Dillon Reservoir.

After back to back drought years, Dillon Reservoir is about nine to ten feet below average for this time of year. That’s where the interests of Denver Water and the town of Frisco play out.

Dillon is both the largest reservoir in the Denver Water system and a major economic driver for Frisco. During the summer, the marina provides a substantial boost to Frisco’s economy, accounting for a third of the town’s tourism.

Credit Nathan Heffel / KUNC
A stylized sailboat adorns each street sign in downtown Frisco.

It’s a relationship that’s part of their identity; a sail boat is etched on the town logo.

The issue? Frisco doesn’t own any of the water they rely on so much.

It belongs to Denver Water and the on-going demands of Front Range water users.

Jenn Shimp, office manager of the Frisco Bay Marina says in normal water years, the water on the reservoir would be less than a football field away from her office. But now because of ongoing demand from Denver Water coupled with less than ideal winter moisture, it’s now a five to ten minute walk to the water's edge.

“So this year the docks are a little further away from the main office where you rent your boats. The walk out here has actually not been too bad. We do offer a shuttle for people who can’t do this walk…it’s a kind of a little bit of exercise.”

While great strides have been taken to balance the needs of all, Denver Water Spokeswomen Stacy Chesney says the Dillon Reservoir is ultimately for the agency's 1.3 million customers.“Denver Water does have a lot of older water rights, senior water rights, and that’s kind of how the water system works in terms of where water goes and kind of first use of the water,” said Chesney.

No one knows that more then Bill Efting, Frisco’s Town Manager.“It’s Denver Water’s water. And we work very closely with them and we look at it as partners,” he says.“But we understand that when they have calls that’s going to take a priority.”

Credit Nathan Heffel / KUNC
The 2013 Frisco BBQ Challenge.

Efting says big events like the annual Frisco BBQ Challenge bring thousands of tourists to the small town. But the main attraction, he says, is still the Frisco Marina.“And we hope they’ll come up for the weekend, and then we hope they’ll come up later on in the year.”

Denver Water says it’s highly unlikely that Dillon reservoir would ever be completely drained.

Even in a worst case scenario, Efting is confident his town could survive.“I think we look at offering other programs in town, more special events. We’re working with the Forest Service now on a summer permit to allow more hiking on the peninsula,” said Efting. “You look at other things for folks to bring them up to Frisco. And if you can’t control the water, we need to help them find other things to do and have fun.”

Credit Nathan Heffel / KUNC
Dock Island is situated far away from shore where the water is deep enough to allow boats to dock. Shuttles carry people from the shore.

Back at the Frisco Bay Marina, Jenn Shimp’s focus is not so much on promoting other recreational activities when the water is low. It’s about getting even more creative. Take for example ‘Dock Island,’ a floating marina far from shore created just for low water years.

“Putting them out here in deeper water meant we could just set them and let them stay there,” said Shimp. “And customers worked with it.”

Most of Colorado remains in the grip of drought and there’s only so much snowpack left to melt from the high mountain peaks.

Right now the best estimate is that the Dillon reservoir will remain about seven feet below normal.

Even though the water levels continue to look extremely dire from I-70 right now, they’re only nine to ten feet down. How does Shimp convince the I-70 traveler to stop and take a closer look at the marina she works so hard to keep open?

“That is a challenge, that’s definitely a challenge…” Shimp trails off.

Which means the delicate water balance between recreation and reservoirs will continue to play out over another summer.

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