Good ’til the last drop

Opponents prepare for final showdown over Gross Dam

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Joel Dyer

On July 6, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved a project by Denver Water to raise the dam at Gross Reservoir by 131 feet.

If it gets built, the dam at Gross Reservoir would be tallest in the state. It would constitute the biggest construction project in Boulder County history. Denver Water says the expansion would increase the reservoir’s capacity by about 25 billion gallons, or about six times the size of Boulder Reservoir. They say the dam needs to be expanded in order to meet the needs of the one million new people they project will be in their metro Denver service area by 2040.

But opponents say if the dam is expanded, it will effectively kill the Colorado and Fraser rivers, and other smaller waterways, by diverting up to 80 percent of the water in the Upper Colorado River basin.

The area in question is in and around the Fraser Valley and the water would be pumped through the mountains into Gross Reservoir in Boulder County by way of a tunnel.

Critics of the plan point to studies that indicate global warming will sap the entire Colorado River of up to 30 percent of its water by mid-century, making it impossible to divert the planned amount of water. And, they say, Denver Water doesn’t need more supply: the company has reduced consumption by 22 percent since 2002 despite a 10 percent increase in population, according to its own data.

Denver Water says it has a plan to mitigate the environmental effects of the project. Opponents don’t believe it and the two sides disagree on population and environmental impact studies used to justify the expansion. They even disagree on whether or not Denver Water needs to receive a permit from Boulder County to expand the dam.

So, who’s right? And what obstacles remain in Denver Water’s way before shovels hit the ground at Gross Reservoir?

Kirk Klancke is the president of the Colorado chapter of Trout Unlimited, a national river conservation group. He’s worked for decades to protect the state’s waterways, particularly the Fraser River, where he’s lived with his family since the ’70s. Klancke says the current iteration of the dam expansion is the best of a bad situation — Denver Water has the right to take up to 90 percent of the water out of the Fraser River, and would be unlikely to lose a lawsuit challenging that, he says.

“We were in the worst negotiating position possible,” Klancke says, adding that there were no initial plans for any kind of mitigation. He says it was only through the efforts of Trout Unlimited and other parties that support conserving the Fraser River that they were able to were to “get a foot in the door” and find a compromise that would save the Fraser River.

“Anything we got is more than we were [originally] offered. So maybe it was a bad deal but we clawed our way into everything we have,” Klancke says.

That deal includes wrangling the widespread Fraser River into one concentrated stream during low-flow periods which will at least save the aquatic life. But turning a wild river into a steady creek isn’t really saving it, says Gary Wockner, president of Save the Colorado.

“‘Concentrating’ is an Orwellian euphemism,” Wockner says. “They’re going to make a river that used to be 40 feet wide into a creek that’s 20 feet wide. … They’re going to bring bulldozers into a natural river basin and turn the river into a ditch.”

Mitigation on the Front Range side of the mountains will include construction of a 5,000-acre-foot environmental pool to support Boulder Creek in times of low flow. But, Wockner says, with a deeper dam comes colder water that would be released, water too cold for existing river wildlife.

In light of what he says are the plan’s failures, Save the Colorado and a coalition of other environmental groups are planning to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act. The Corps violated those acts, Wockner says, because by granting approval for the dam expansion, they did not adequately consider less environmentally impactful alternatives — or any alternative that didn’t involve taking water out of the river, he says. The lawsuit is expected to be filed this fall.

Adequate alternatives to dam expansion, Wockner says, include conservation efforts. For instance, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) paid up to $450 million in collective rebates to users who switched out their lawns for drought-tolerant landscapes. The plan saved 80,000 acre-feet of water in one year, according to MWD, more than the entire increased capacity of the Gross dam expansion.

But when asked if conservation alone will meet the area’s projected water needs, Denver Water President Jim Lochhead says, flatly, “No, it can’t.” He adds that the Corps already settled this in its environmental impact study.

“Bullshit,” Wockner says. Thus, the lawsuit.

Although the project will draw water from the Fraser River, Lochhead and Klancke say looking at the scope of the project — channeling Fraser River, the environmental pool, and payouts to Grand County communities — provide the flexibility necessary to adjust to the realities of a growing population.

“The projections do show an increase in population within our service area,” Lochhead says. “We look at planning 50 years ahead, and we factor in conservation, we factor in efficiency. We factor in reuse. We factor in additional supplies. The potential for underground storage. All of that is built into our planning models.”

Denver Water is projecting an increase of about one million people in their service area by 2040. Census data indicates Denver added about 13,000 people last year (the Denver Water service area extends to Lakewood and Centennial, and includes DIA), but it dipped below a 2 percent annual growth for the first time this decade, indicating a possible plateau. If it stays at that rate, the service area will add just about half a million people.

Still, according expansion proponents, that doesn’t factor in the exponential needs of a growing district — it’s not just household consumption, it’s businesses, construction and more. Lochhead references a study that confirms the one-million-person increase, which was commissioned by the Denver Regional Council of Governments (a coalition of Denver-metro city and counties) and independently confirmed by a consultant.

But even if population increases, Wockner says that’s not the best indicator for future water needs, citing a theory that “decouples” population growth from water consumption, which is currently being used in Western cities.

“Denver Water’s [service area] is mostly density,” Wockner says. “When you add apartment buildings or condos, it adds very little water use, as opposed to suburban sprawl. People are becoming more conscious, [those moving in are] more millennial, young professionals. They’re not out there with lawns running their sprinklers every day.”

But David Bahr, a Nederland-based climate scientist and co-author on the 2013 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says population growth is almost a moot factor. Climate change figures to wipe out more water than an expanded reservoir could ever fill.

Joel Dyer
A proposal awaiting final regulatory approval would raise the dam at Gross Reservoir 131 feet.

Bahr cites a recent study from University of Arizona and Colorado State researchers that indicates up to a 30 percent reduction in water in the entire Colorado River basin by mid-century. That not only affects Colorado water supplies, but because of water rights agreements throughout the West, it affects how much water Colorado will have to let flow to other states to honor those agreements.

“[Western states and Mexico] all want their share and there’s just less water to go around,” Bahr says of a future shortage. “So it puts Denver Water in a real bind. They can build a dam but they won’t be able to fill it.”

Wockner says if Gross Dam and the Windy Gap Project (which would pump an additional 33,000 acre-feet at least to the Northern Front Range) are both approved, it would amount to “environmental annihilation,” considering the tolls of diversion and global warming.

Lochhead says, however, global warming will not have an impact on Colorado water needs.

“The climate models really don’t agree on climate warming on precipitation, as to whether it’ll have more or less precipitation,” he says. “We do know and we factored in the Earth is getting warmer and it will have impacts. So things like more rain, less snow, earlier runoff, increased severity of storm events, perhaps longer droughts. If you add all of those up, what that actually argues for is the need for additional flexibility and reliability and storage capacity.”

Klancke says he agrees with Lochhead that climate change won’t necessarily have an effect on water availability in Colorado, “just as long as we can get more and can take it into their tunnel, it may not impact [Denver Water] at all.”

It’s worth noting that Denver Water, as well as the Walton Family Foundation, who supports the privatization of water, are financial sponsors of Trout Unlimited. The Waltons, of Walmart fame, also fund American Rivers, Colorado Water Trust, Conservation Colorado, Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy and more. In total, the Waltons have invested tens of millions of dollars into the Colorado River, while simultaneously promoting private water markets as a way to conservation.

In exchange for small concessions from the powers that be, environmental groups sometimes sign off on environmentally harmful projects and agree to, for example, not file lawsuits, say Bahr and Wockner. Bahr calls Denver Water’s approach to compromise “a little slimy.”

“They’re buying off all the entities one by one,” he says. “All these communities that have accepted these arrangements from Denver Water are kind of making the best of a bad situation but that doesn’t do anything to solve the climate change problem.”

As another case in point, Bahr cited the connection between Denver Water and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) — Denver Water gave the USFS funding for forest management initiatives near Gross Reservoir and is considering an extended contract. Consequently, Bahr says, the USFS withdrew all of the concerns it previously had about the dam expansion.

Joel Dyer
Up to 200,000 trees could be lost in the construction process.

Residents in the region near the dam are also concerned about increased traffic, noise, light pollution and disruption caused by what will be a massive construction project that won’t be finished until 2025. Lochhead says Denver Water has worked with local residents to determine concerns, and they’ve recently found a quarry that’s closer to the site to limit some transportation effects.

So with the Army Corps, government agencies, municipalities and several environmental groups in support of the project, opponents have three hopes to stop the dam expansion: The lawsuit Wockner mentions; a rejection from the Federal Environmental Regulation Commission (FERC); and intervention from the Boulder County Commissioners.

FERC has solicited comments on the project and has yet to issue the hydropower license amendment needed to expand the dam. There is no timetable for the ruling, but the application has been filed and all comments have been solicited.

Boulder County, meanwhile, informed FERC that Denver Water needs to complete a land use permit (a 1041 permit) from the County before it can start construction. Denver Water, however, claims it doesn’t need to do that. It’s because the local impacts that would be addressed in Boulder County’s permit would be covered by FERC’s permit, Lochhead says.

Boulder County Commissioners declined to comment for this story, citing that they’ve yet to take a public position on the issue, however Commissioners’ Public Information Officer Barb Halpin laid out what could happen pending FERC’s decision on the permit.

If Denver Water submits a 1041, Halpin says the Commissioners will then hold a public hearing and decide whether or not the project meets the County’s land use codes. Those codes require projects to prove their importance to the state and if local impacts outweigh those benefits.

If Denver Water does not submit a 1041, “the County will review its legal options,” Halpin says.

When it comes to matters of “state interest,” local control hasn’t earned many key victories lately. That’s why opponents of the plan are concerned about what lies ahead. Klancke, however, says there should be hope in the “adaptive management” plan hashed out with Denver Water; that if water becomes scarce in the future, all interested parties will meet again to come up with a mutually beneficial solution. Too, Klancke says Denver Water will only sell to people within its boundaries.

“The only way they could screw up is by providing water to other people who screwed up,” he says.

But with water figuring to become scarce either from diversion or global warming, there could be a time in the near future when agencies that have secured water rights are forced — or enticed — to sell water outside their historic boundaries. And the claim that groups throughout the West are working locally to secure future water sources is a dangerous assumption, Wockner says.

The folks chattering about historic collaboration on the Colorado River represent a very narrow band of interests that generally supports new dams and diversions,” Wockner wrote in an email to supporters. “The stories of ‘collaboration and compromise’ and about how ‘we are all in this together’ are not accurate.”

But when it comes to water, we kind of are all in this together. We all need it. The politics of water, however, are decidedly divisive, and the future resolutions of those divisions — including those on Gross Reservoir — will impact millions of lives from here to California.   

  • Tyler Komarnycky

    Thanks for writing about such important issues, and quite objectively. I wish more people were aware of the really scary situation that is water in CO and even the Western United States as a whole.

    Personally, being that most of this water is truly used to water lawns, I find this absurd. We’re killing our rivers and the life they support so we can have green lawns, it is literally insane to me. It should be illegal to water lawns on certain days/times of the year and everyone in this state should be required to have drought tolerant lawns. It’s a lawn for Pete’s sake, who cares?!