For decades, the Fraser River has struggled with low flows, rising stream temperatures, sediment build-up, plummeting fish populations and degrading aquatic habitats due in large part to Front Range water diversions that drain 65% of the river.
But after years of heated negotiations — and the formation of a partnership between environmentalists, Grand County officials and Front Range water diverters — some stretches of the Grand County tributary of the Colorado River have started to show improvement.
Some are heralding the success as the beginning of a new era of collaboration between historically fraught Front Range and Western Slope water stakeholders. But with future restoration projects being contingent on two new water diversion projects that will siphon even more water from the Fraser to the Front Range, some worry that the efforts might only be a mirage.
“They’re basically putting a Band-Aid on the issue, they’re not helping the underlying cause of the problem, which is that too much water is being taken out of a river to meet human needs,” said Jen Pelz, wild rivers program director for the organization WildEarth Guardians.
Proponents of the collaboration have rejoiced at the results of the work, saying it’s the first time that major Front Range water diverters have participated in meaningful river restoration projects, and have taken responsibility for damage done to Colorado’s rivers. The partnership, dubbed the Grand County Learning By Doing Cooperative Effort, or LBD, includes the two biggest water utilities in the state, Denver Water and Northern Water, as well as Trout Unlimited, Grand County officials and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The partners celebrated their first success in 2018: the completion of a $200,000 restoration project called the Fraser Flats Habitat, which rehabilitated a mile of the river near Tabernash by narrowing the streambed to increase the river’s depth and velocity, to improve the aquatic ecosystem.
Seeing the river flowing again brought tears to the eyes of Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado headwaters chapter of Trout Unlimited and longtime resident of Grand County.
“It was like I was looking at a completely different river,” said Klancke, who has been an integral part of the collaborative. “In the 48 years I’ve lived in Grand County, it was the first time that I saw the river actually looking healthier.”
“We’ve got the most heavily diverted county in Colorado, about 300,000 acre-feet a year comes out of Grand County. The next highest competitor is Pitkin County, with 98,000… We consider ourselves ground zero. If we can’t save the rivers in Grand County, every river in Colorado is doomed.”
Future river restoration projects contingent on more diversion projects
The LBD partnership stemmed from the 2013 Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, which detailed a more collaborative approach to water relations between Front Range water utilities and Western Slope stakeholders. The agreement outlined a handful of conditions to help restore the Fraser River and mitigate future damage.
Among other things, the agreement outlined three important components: Denver Water must release 2,000 acre-feet of water to the Colorado River and tributaries of the Fraser River when flows are low and stream temperatures are high; Denver Water and Northern Water must pay $11 million for river restoration and mitigation projects in Grand County through the Learning By Doing project; and Denver Water must seek approval by Grand County for any future water development projects.
In addition to providing money for restoration projects, Denver Water also agreed to stop buying land to obtain water rights, a tactic referred to as “buy and dry.” The water utility also agreed to limit its service areas to its current service area.
“That part is huge,” said Mely Whiting, legal council for the environmental group Trout Unlimited.“They will likely grow up, with more indoor use, but not grow out. They have limitations now.”
But the benefits to Grand County are contingent upon the completion of Denver Water’s Gross Reservoir Expansion and the Northern Water’s Windy Gap Firming Project. (Currently, the LBD projects are funded by grant money and partner contributions.)
Northern Water has already gotten the go-ahead for its Windy Gap firming project, but Denver Water is still waiting on a final permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which will amend the utility’s existing hydropower license to allow it to generate more electricity. The project is also tied up in a lawsuit.
In December, a coalition of environmental groups — including residents living around Gross Reservoir — sued to stop the expansion, targeting a number of federal agencies and Denver Water for what the plaintiffs claim would be a violation of the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.
For years, Whiting opposed the various diversion projects on the Western Slope. But given the circumstances, she says the cooperative agreement, and the benefits outlined in it, might be the only way to stop the damage that’s already been done to the Fraser.
“Frankly, even if they don’t expand the reservoir, but just take more water, which they are legally allowed to do, the damage is going to continue,” said Whiting, who has been a part of the negotiation since 2006 as legal council for Trout Unlimited.
“We already have serious problems. You can kill the projects, but that’s not going to change the reality. There is enough in the agreement that will give us the tools to fix some of the problems that we are facing.”
The partners have weekly calls and discuss river temperature. If stream temperatures are high, Denver Water can release water to increase flows.
“It’s a collaborative effort to watch what’s going on and improve the circumstances,” Whiting said. “And that hasn’t happened before. Denver Water always thinks about the Fraser now. And that’s pretty important, and remarkable, really.”
Both Denver Water and Northern Water state that their new diversion projects are aimed to help meet increasing water demands along the Front Range and to buffer customers from future water-supply variability due to climate change.
But Pelz says they aren’t looking at the bigger picture: rivers wouldn’t need to be restored if they weren’t being pushed past their ecological limits in the first place.
“I understand the issues at play. I live in Denver, I drink the water, I know that people need water, and that farmers need water, and that it’s going to be a really hard transition,” Pelz said.
“But I think that at some point, we just have to say enough is enough,” she said. “We are going to reach a point where not only are the rivers not meeting our needs, but we are destroying things that we cannot get back.”
Andy Miller, president of the Upper Colorado River Watershed District and longtime resident of Grand County, has been openly critical of the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, saying the plan is inadequate to solve Grand County’s water woes. He says the environmentalists involved in the LBD collaborative compromised too much during negotiations; chiefly, they didn’t ask for more money.
“The money that was allocated is a start, but it’s not enough to address the overall problems we are seeing,” said Miller, who is not part of the LBD partnership. He said one way to address the funding gap would be implement an impact fee on diverted water.
“And that money would go back to help deal with the impacts of that water leaving its natural basin. It would be a way to possibly deal with these 300 miles of impaired streams that we have on the Western Slope.”
He says that funding model has a lot of promise, but it would be “a huge, political heavy lift.”
“The models that we’ve developed say that if we were to put an impact fee that will cost the Denver water user $2 a month on their water bill, it would raise $14 million a year, somewhere in that neighborhood, depending on the year, just for the Fraser River Basin,” Miller said.
For Klancke, the progress the LBD partners have made to help restore the Fraser River is what gets him out of bed in the morning. He says the success gives him hope.
“When you get down to the hundred year history of diverting water and the impacts of that hundred years, and how to address those impacts, I think the only way that these rivers can be healthier is by helping Denver develop their water supply and in turn having them help us keep the rivers alive,” he said. “Some people say it’s a foolish risk. But to me, it’s the only logical way forward.”
A long road to collaboration
Klancke says Denver Water used to primarily lean on its legal water rights, but that’s changed in his lifetime. When he first started getting involved in water issues on the Western Slope, he couldn’t get the utility to return his calls.
He was brushed off when he called to ask if Denver Water wanted to collaborate on a sediment catchment system at one of its diversion structures. “We had miles of barely alive river because of the traction sand,” Klancke said. “Their lead environmentalist told me to hang up the phone and never call again about the issue.”
Some sediment migration is normal, but at the time, the Fraser River was filled with thousands of tons of traction sand, which gets applied to highways in the winter months. The sand chokes out the aquatic ecosystem by covering the river’s floor and filling the spaces between rocks that act as habitat for insects and other organisms.
“And once you lose the bug life and you lose the fish life, the whole ecosystem crashes. That’s what was happening here, and has been happening,” Klancke said. He stresses that it’s not just diversions that are damaging the river, it’s also agricultural practices, development and animal grazing that damages riparian habitat.
But he persisted, and after nine years they started to budge, contributing $50 million to help remove excess sediment from seven miles of the Fraser. “We just threw enough science at them and enough years of pressure until they worked with us,” Klancke said.
In 2006, Klancke used the same tactics to get Denver Water to start paying attention to the increasing stream temperatures in the Fraser, which set the foundation for LBD’s current restoration projects. Over the course of a year, Klancke and a group of fishermen collected temperature data along the river. Then they brought the results to Denver Water.
“They looked at it and said ‘fishermen with thermometers? That’s not science,’ and they threw us out of their boardroom,” said Klancke, who worked as a stone mason for 35 years before getting involved in river restoration projects.
So Klancke got a grant to buy more sophisticated equipment and continued to collect data. But this time, he sent to data directly to the Environmental Protection Agency. In 2007, the EPA stepped in and told Denver Water that they needed to do more to monitor the environmental impacts that their diversions were having on the Western Slope rivers. In response, Denver Water commissioned a two-year stream temperature study.
“And after that, Denver Water was much more willing to start talking mitigation,” Klancke said.
He says that when they started planning to expand Gross Reservoir in 2003, they concluded that the expansion would have little impact on the Fraser River and they had no mitigation plans proposed.
“That was their stance and that was their stance for a few years. This temperature program helped get them see the impact they have on the river,” Klancke said.
Now, Klancke says, Denver Water comes to him with ideas.
“There were obviously challenges in the beginning,” Jessica Alexander, an environmental scientist with Denver Water, said of the LBD partnership. “And I would say that over the last five years working with the Learning by Doing partners, we’ve come a long way. We’ve built a lot of trust.”
“We recognized that we can’t do projects in isolation, because water is a resource that we all share. … The Colorado River Cooperative Agreement set the groundwork for a cooperative partnership with Grand County and our partners. Since then, instead of spending money on litigation and fighting each other, which doesn’t really do anything for the environment, we set aside those knee jerk reactions and are now working towards how we can move forward in a positive way.”
In April, Denver Water sued Boulder County, stating that the utility should be exempt from submitting its Gross Reservoir project for 1041 review, which would give the county more local authority over the construction project. Boulder County said it won’t process Denver Water’s land-use application while the county is defending itself from the lawsuit. The situation is unresolved.
The LBD operates on unanimous consent, meaning that if one member of the partnership doesn’t like a proposal, the plans go back to negotiation. The cooperative is split into two committees: the Management Committee makes the decisions, while the Technical Committee provides support and recommendations, and is in charge of monitoring environmental conditions in Grand County.
After working in water planning for 20 years, Gretel Follingstad says collaborative agreements such as the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement are the most efficient way to address the large-scale water challenges the West faces. But she also says they are far from a perfect framework. They take a tremendous amount of time, and it’s especially challenging to get all the necessary stakeholders to even engage in conversation, let alone come to a consensus on how to move forward.
But Follingstad, who specializes in climate change resilience planning, says these agreements are the best way to ensure that the results are practical, and that burdens are equitably distributed and ultimately benefit the environment.
“And I think that this cooperative agreement has done a pretty good job of that. But it didn’t come without a lot of agony,” said Follingstad, who served as New Mexico’s state water planner from 2007 to 2011.
She says water utilities often are pinned as the “bad guys” in these conversations, and that the environment is degrading faster than perceptions can change. But she says that in order to move forward, the water utilities have an important role at the negotiation table.
“Because ultimately speaking, no environmentalist wants every single human on the planet to have their own well, because that would even be a bigger nightmare than trying to deal with the utility who’s got the sophistication of reuse and conservation programs that force people into using less water,” she said.