ridgway reservoir

Looking Beyond the Basin to Solve Colorado’s Water Conundrum

By Gus Jarvis | Western San Juans

What Good Will a New TMD Be if the Colorado River is Tapped Out?

Facing a possible continuation of statewide drought conditions, accelerating water demands on the Front Range and the fear of agricultural dry up, members of the Southwest Basin Roundtable want the State of Colorado to look outside the Colorado River Basin for possible future water sources in its final draft of the Colorado Water Plan.

If current drought conditions persist, according to Durango-based water engineer and member of the Southwest Basin Roundtable Steve Harris, even if a new future transmountain diversion project is approved to pull more water from the Colorado River Basin to the Front Range, it may prove to be completely ineffective if there is no water available anyway. It’s time, he said, for Colorado to consider alternative water sources other than the Colorado River Basin. And with the drafting of the Colorado Water Plan ongoing, now is the time to look at those alternatives.

Over the past year, the Southwestern Basin Roundtable and Colorado’s eight other basin roundtables have been drafting individual Basin Implementation Plans that will eventually make up the entire Colorado Water Plan. With the final plan due to Gov. John Hickenlooper in December 2015, the time between now and then will be dedicated to revising, amending and shaping the Colorado Water Plan.

Along with the basin implementation plans, the Interbasin Compact Committee has created a seven-point draft conceptual agreement that sets the framework for negotiations on possible new transmountain diversion projects. The first point in that conceptual agreement states “the East Slope is not looking for a firm yield from a new transmountain diversion project and would accept hydrologic risk for that project.” In other words, the Front Range will only divert water through a new TMD when Lake Powell is above a certain threshold in the future.

Amidst the current drought in the Colorado River Basin, both Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at historic low levels. In referring to a recent tree ring study that finds in the time period from 760 to 2010, decade-long droughts are a common occurrence, Harris said it remains uncertain how long this drought will last, leaving the question if and when the Front Range will be able to divert more water through a new TMD project.

“It’s pretty clear that decades-long droughts are not unusual,” Harris said. “Are we really going to be able to get more water out of the Colorado River Basin at low flow periods if it lasts for 20 or 30 years? What good is a new transmountain diversion project if you don’t have water?”

In his thinking, Harris said he pulled out a map and looked at the distance from Denver to Utah’s Flaming Gorge, a possible site for a new TMD. He also marked the distance from Denver to points on the Missouri River in South Dakota where an average of 19 million acre feet of water flows per year. Could the Missouri River be an alternative water source for Colorado’s Front Range?

“The distances aren’t a whole lot different,” he said, comparing the Missouri River to the Flaming Gorge. “You might not get water out of the Missouri 24-7 but you are not going to go a couple of decades of no water like you could get on the Colorado River Basin.”

Of course, using the Missouri River Basin as an alternative water source for Colorado’s Front Range may have its obstacles.

“Even though there is a lot of water there, everybody is protective of what they think are their resources,” he said. “Those states may be very protective of it.”

Mostly, though, Harris is considering the possibility of using the Missouri River Basin as an example of a possible alternative water source. If millions of dollars are spent on studying the possibility of a new TMD that may prove to be fruitless without water, Harris, along with the Southwestern Basin Roundtable, suggests Colorado explore alternative water sources as well and that a comparative analysis program for alternative water sources be included in the final draft of the Colorado Water Plan.

Already the Southwestern Basin Roundtable has included an alternative water source analysis in its basin implementation plan and Harris has reached out to other basin roundtables suggesting they include a similar measure in their implementation plans as well. On Wednesday, Jan. 28, he also presented the idea to the Interbasin Compact Committee.

“I would like to have the comparative analysis of water item as an action item in the final Colorado Water Plan. That would be my highest hope,” Harris said. “If you look through the water plan, there are lots of sections with action items and I would like to see this included as an action item for the Colorado Water Conservation Board. If we are going to get anything done, it needs to be included in the water plan somehow.”

Harris said he wanted to be sure that the alternative water source proposal is not a way to delay a new transmountain diversion project on the Colorado River Basin but to make sure that money spent on a potential new water source will actually provide a firm water supply and minimize agricultural dry up.

“The fallback is if a TMD doesn’t work, it’s going to result in ag dry up,” he said. “We are already seeing a lot of that in the Arkansas basin and it’s starting to occur on the South Platte. It takes so long to get a project built. If we start something now it may be operational in the 2040s.”



Twitter: @Gus_Jarvis

About the Author

Gus Jarvis


Gus Jarvis is a journalist, writer, bloviator at large and co-editor of the San Juan Independent.