Boulder Rights of Nature hosts water forum

Local activist group looks to educate Boulder on Colorado’s strained water resources

The Fraser River Diversion
Courtesy Boulder Rights of Nature

Backed by local activist group Boulder Rights of Nature and the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, a diverse group of experts, environmentalists and concerned citizens will address a variety of critical water issues facing Boulder, the state and the West at an open forum on June 7.

Beginning at 9 a.m. at Unity Church of Boulder, speakers will discuss topics ranging from Colorado water law to how food choices can impact your water footprint. Boulder Rights of Nature member Kristen Marshall says that the idea for the water forum arose from a similar event that was held last year at Unity Church. While Boulder Rights of Nature wasn’t part of that, she and other members felt that the dialogue about water needed to continue.

“Water is essential to life and for life, and I think that we, the human race, are a part of nature, not apart from nature and it’s going to affect all of us, these changes,” says Marshall.

The changes Marshall speaks of are many, but foremost among them is the ever-growing gap between water supply and demand. With its waters reaching the Sea of Cortez for the first time in 16 years this past spring, the Colorado River has become the clearest example of the West’s strained water supplies. In 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation completed the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, which confirmed that growing demands on the river — 40 million municipal users, irrigation for nearly 5.5 million acres of land, supplies for at least 22 federally recognized tribes, seven national wildlife refuges, four national recreation areas, 11 national parks and hydropower facilities generating more than 4,200 megawatts of electricity — coupled with the impacts of climate change may lead to prolonged water shortages if changes in water use aren’t made.

“When you read about the Colorado before it was diverted, the wildness of the Colorado was amazing. It would flow and surge and seemingly destroy areas and then afterward, life would seemingly just happen,” says Abby Burk, the Western Rivers Action Network consultant for Colorado. “Now in some places it’s more like plumbing than a river. It’s hard for me to see as an ecologist, as a river enthusiast.”

As an avid whitewater kayaker and a longtime Colorado resident, Burk has a deep personal love of Colorado’s rivers, as well as an education in biology, hydrology, ecology and education.

“I think this forum is a great first step,” Burk says. “When I talk to people, and I’m talking from school kids to policy makers, people don’t understand where their water comes from. Most of our water we use throughout the day — for drinking, for cooking, for bathing — that is mostly river water, and most people have a disconnect with understanding where their water comes from and with what that water also supports, so getting people connected, creating a respect and a new water ethic is needed. We can take stewardship of how we manage our water without taking for granted all the things it supports.”

Burk works with approximately 9,000 people across the state on water issues, including consultation with organizations such as Audubon Rockies.

“Birds are an incredible barometer for ecosystem health,” Burk says. “Over 90 percent of birds species in Colorado depend on rivers for some part of their life cycle.”

Burk says that many bird species are threatened or endangered as water supplies dwindle.

At Saturday’s water forum, Burke will be speaking about the status of the Colorado Water Plan, the state’s first comprehensive plan to address water supply solutions to meet Colorado’s needs for drinking water, agriculture, recreation, tourism and environmental preservation. The plan is being developed by the Interbasin Compact Committee, which represents each of the eight water basins in Colorado. While the Denver metro area isn’t associated with a river basin, its concentrated development and extensive water needs make it the ninth entity on the committee.

“We are setting the course for what we want our water footprint to be in the future. Right now we have a limited supply of water, especially when we’re talking about dealing with climate change and a reduction in snowpack,” says Burke. “As we have a reduced amount of water and increased growth in population, how do we want to see our water used? Will it be purely for agriculture? For development? Each of the nine basins is tasked with how best to use their water.”

Burk says there is ripe controversy about the amount of water used on the Front Range, where 80 percent of the state’s population resides, but where only 20 percent of the state’s precipitation falls.

“The controversy comes from the realization that the Front Range needs to rethink water usage, and the realization that we are now very much impacting river health on both sides of the Continental Divide. We are taking water from one river basin and it will never return to that basin,” says Burke. “River health issues are important, as are the wildlife communities that those rivers support. Those are issues that are near and dear to people. People can see how a lot of water on the Front Range can be seen as misused or wasted. Now you have folks that are looking at wasted water and a new project that’s going to harm the environment and wildlife communities and wondering ‘How can we justify that?’” 

The project Burk speaks of is the Gross Reservoir expansion. Gross Reservoir is located about 15 miles southwest of Boulder and has served as water storage for municipalities in the Denver metro area since 1954. Water utility Denver Water diverts water from the Colorado River, west of the Continental Divide, through the Moffat Tunnel to be stored in Gross Reservoir, east of the Divide.

A panel at Saturday’s forum will discuss Denver Water’s proposed expansion of Gross Reservoir, which will increase the height of Gross Dam by more than 120 feet, nearly tripling the reservoir’s storage capacity. The Final Environmental Impact Statement for the expansion came out on April 25. A comment period of 120 days was granted for any citizen to make assessments on the 11,000-page document, a time frame that some have characterize as severely inadequate for such a hefty analysis. An extension of the comment period was denied, making Monday, June 9 the final day for comments.

While Denver Water says the expansion will resolve issues with water supply shortages in the metro area, activists like Chris Garre, president for nonprofit The Environmental Group Colorado, say the utility’s proposal to expand the dam is “horrendously flawed.”

“The shortcomings of it are not only so significant that the project disproves itself, but also arbitrary and capricious,” says Garre. “The conspiratorial-type thinking is starting to look less conspiratorial, as much as I hate to say that.”

The project has raised concern about environmental destruction on both the Eastern and Western slopes. According to Garre, destruction on the Eastern Slope is focused mainly on the expansion of the reservoir, which could take between three and seven years to complete. Acres of wetlands will be upended, cliff faces will be blasted and quarried and tens of thousands of trees will be removed. A winter bedding habitat for elk populations will also be disturbed.

However, Garre says the vast majority of environmental damage will occur on the Western Slope — a “tricky situation,” in Garre’s words.

“Fraser River will be drained. It’s 65 percent drained now. They say 85 percent is what it will be depleted after expansion, but those numbers are annual averages and you only draw off the river for four months out of the year because it’s frozen,” says Garre. “So when you divert 99 percent over four months and average it out for the year, you get 85 percent. So really it’s the whole thing. In fact if you use their math it’s 103 percent. It’s pretty obvious their goal is to build the reservoir as large as they can.”

Garre hopes people will come to the forum and learn more about the proposed expansion of Gross Reservoir and take a few moments to add to the public comments against the project.

“We’ve hired and managed to entice volunteer hours from scientists, engineers and policy advocates to come up with what we believe to be the killer comment stack,” says Garre. “We’d like other people to sign on and say, ‘We’re with you.’ I’ll have it on an iPad and you put in your name and email address and go.”

Burk says that diversion projects like the Gross expansion project are preventing Colorado’s rivers and streams from creating healthy, natural habitats.

“Rivers are very dynamic and we have so many structures to tame them. Even at high runoff rates we’re seeing now with spring snowmelt, rivers need that pulse of high water to mobilize that sediment out of the riverbed so invertebrates and fish populations can eat invertebrates. Cottonwood and willow trees need high flows to spread and reproduce. With a lot of diversion structures, we really flatline rivers — they aren’t allowed to have that natural hydrograph, that high flow,” she says.

Other speakers at the forum include Phil Doe, a former bureau chief and environmental compliance officer for the Bureau of Reclamation, and Wes Wilson, a retired analyst for the Environmental Protection agency and featured expert on the documentary Gasland, who will co-present on the hazards fracking imposes on water and the environment at large.

Steve Grace will be present to sign his book Dam Nation, which examines the scramble to claim water rights in the West during expansion, and the rapid development of dams to satisfy the growing West’s need for water.

Dale Ball and Carolyn Bninski will discuss how individuals can shrink their water footprint through a vegan diet, and Libby Comeaux, a lawyer and member of the Loretto Community, will explore a paradigm shift in law that places more empasis on nature.

Jo Evans, president of the Audubon Colorado Council and chair of the Audubon Water Task Force, will help set other presenters up by kicking the forum off with a simple explanation of Colorado water law.

Evans says “people run in the other direction,” when faced with discussions about water law, afraid that it’s just too complex.

“It honestly isn’t that complicated,” she says. Evans has written a booklet that she calls the “Run, Spot, Run” of water law. She uses the hypothetical “saga” of Farmer John to simplify how Western states divide water among millions of users.

“The rank and file, us, can be part of the dialogue going on about water,” Evans says. “In order to do that, we need to demystify Colorado water law so we can all participate in the exchange of ideas.”

“Water: Rights & Nature, Exploring Water Use and Ecosystem Conservation” will take place on June 7 at 9 a.m. at Unity Church, Valmont and Folsom streets, Boulder.