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On Stressed Colorado River, States Test How Many Diversions Watershed Can Bear

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The Colorado River is short on water. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at a slate of proposed water projects in the river’s Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

Speaker 1: 00:00 The Colorado River provides more than 70% of San Diego county's water, but it also supplies a total of 40 million people in the southwest and the river is running short on water. This is pushing some states to tap into every available drop before things get worse. In the first of a series we're calling the final Straw, k u n sees Luke Runyon reports on a controversial effort to make one Colorado Reservoir bigger

Speaker 2: 00:25 Tyson long drives his black pickup truck in the foothills outside boulder, Colorado. The narrow dirt road twists and turns through pine forest and past houses with yard signs that read stop gross reservoir expansion. This is a good vantage point. We are at the corner of long and his wife, April Lewandowski, live near the reservoir in an area called Cold Creek Canyon. As we get closer to the dam, they imagine trucks full of building materials barreling toward us. People are going to get in car wrecks and people are going to get killed. I'm convinced that's going to happen and that's why I keep hitting the safety nail on the head that those trucks could become a reality. The utility that owns the reservoir, Denver water wants to increase the size of the dam by 131 feet and fill the human made lake with more water from the headwaters of the Colorado River from an overlook. The dam is a deep wall of concrete situated between the tree lined canyon walls.

Speaker 3: 01:28 What do you mean you look at how the land splays out. I mean you can see why they want to do that. Is it just, it's so much wider all the way around.

Speaker 2: 01:37 If the expansion goes through, this would be the tallest dam in the state and where we're standing would be underwater. Like there's nothing that we get from this. Like we don't get the water from it. We don't get a better, like we've never been told we were going to get a better road or wider road.

Speaker 3: 01:54 It is a major construction project. There's, I don't want to gloss over that. It will have impacts to the local community.

Speaker 2: 02:02 Jim Lochhead is the CEO of Denver water that utilities been pushing for the expansion since 2003 that's when a lack of snow caused the agency to nearly run out of water and one of its service areas.

Speaker 3: 02:15 This is a project that's needed today to deal with that imbalance and that that vulnerability and to give us more drought resiliency.

Speaker 2: 02:24 Safety concerns are just the beginning of the projects. Opposition environmentalist are suing, arguing the expansion will harm endangered fish. A group of local activists say the additional water will spur unsustainable population growth and the utility is now sparring with Boulder county officials over a land use permit. No one wakes up in the morning and says, Gee, I hope there'll be a seven year damn construction project in my backyard, and a Mcdermott also lives near the banks of gross reservoir. She spoke about that permit at a public meeting in March. This project represents an effort by Denver Water Board to actually grab water while they can before federal legislation and management of the Colorado River basin is imposed. What Mcdermott is referring to is a disconnect in the watershed states downstream. Like Arizona and Nevada just signed a new agreement that keeps them from becoming more reliant on the river. Meanwhile, upstream in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, the opposite is happening. There really isn't unused or excess water out there. That's University of Colorado water policy researcher Doug Kenney.

Speaker 4: 03:33 So every new water project we build is undercutting the reliability of every other water project we've already built.

Speaker 2: 03:41 A longstanding compact gives upper basin states the legal cover to continue developing projects like the gross reservoir expansion. Kenny says that adds additional pressure to the river.

Speaker 4: 03:53 I think that limiting factor would be the co, the economic cost to these projects, but, but currently there's little evidence to suggest that's what stops these things. You know, it's politics and it's uh, it's how well mobilized the political opponents are to these projects.

Speaker 2: 04:10 Meaning to justify the costs of these big builds water managers throughout the Colorado River's upper basin have to convince a skeptical public. They're absolutely necessary. I'm Luke Runyon in Greeley, Colorado and that was k UNC repo to Luke Runyon who joins me now with more. Luke, thanks for joining us. Thanks for having me. Now. In the Intro, we pointed out that San Diego is trying to reduce its reliance on water from the Colorado River. How is it that California is trying to reduce his demand and states like Colorado where you are, are planning to build dams to increase the water use. It's really a story of a tale of two basins. So the Colorado River is divided into Al upper basin and the lower basin and that was um, because of a 1922 agreement called the Colorado River compact that divided those two basins up and it divided the river's water equally.

Speaker 2: 05:05 And so states like California and Arizona over many decades have been using above and beyond what they were allocated in that compact. So right now they're trying to reign in their water use in order to, um, be more compliant with what the Compact actually says. Whereas in the upper basin, the opposite is true states up here in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico haven't grown nearly as quickly as states in the lower basin. And so they've been under the amount of water that they were allocated under that compact and they've been spending the last several years trying to figure out how they can use their full allocation. Would you say that stories like the one that we just heard gives extra urgency to California to find alternative sources of water? I think it because you have states like Colorado and Utah and Wyoming that are saying, you know, we've left enough water in the river that California has been using our surplus water for years and years and we want to level the score and we want to claim some of the water that's, um, that's legally ours to, to use.

Speaker 1: 06:18 So San Diego relies on the Colorado river for, for more than 70% of its water supply. How much of Colorado's water supply comes from the river?

Speaker 2: 06:27 It's a considerable amount. Um, the state uses a network of, of Trans Mountain diversions. These are tunnels that were dug through the mountains from western Colorado to eastern Colorado. Um, it's, it's a considerable amount of water that um, the Colorado river basin supplies not just in Colorado but in Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, and even a portion for the country of Mexico.

Speaker 1: 06:55 Right. So the upper basin, you were talking about the two basins, the upper basin, where you are, how long do the estimate it'll be before you need more of that water?

Speaker 2: 07:06 Well, that's why these dams and diversions are being talked about now because the water managers here say that the need is right now. Um, the, the story that we just heard about gross reservoir expansion that serves Denver Water and Denver water says in dry years, portions of its service area are already close to running out of water. And so they would say that the need is, is right now, and that's due to a temporary drought, but also the longterm trends of climate change, which are going to reduce the reverse flow, um, and population growth, which is happening in quite a few pockets within the American southwest.

Speaker 1: 07:46 Well, California is looking at spending a lot of money on finding alternatives like diesel you up in Colorado are looking at ways to damn the Colorado River and use more of it.

Speaker 2: 07:56 Yeah. And uh, you are starting to see some proposals in certain parts of the basin that are, you know, some people would Mike considered kind of outlandish. Um, there's this long idea of augmentation, which basically means bringing in fresh water from other areas, whether that's desalination or other river basins throughout the United States and building massive pipelines to pump that a freshwater into an area like the Colorado River Basin, which is short on water. Um, so I think we're reaching a point now with water scarcity in the southwest where no idea is being left off the table

Speaker 1: 08:31 and there's a lot of debate about how this agreement should be reached. How close are all these seven states to, to reaching some kind of an agreement on how to manage the water before maybe federal or a government regulations step in.

Speaker 2: 08:48 I guess the way that water managers function on the Colorado River is through an ongoing series of agreements. It seem like the management is ever going to be fully complete. Um, but just recently you had a congress and the president sign a drought contingency plan. Um, this is basically trying to keep the rivers largest reservoirs from crashing to levels where you wouldn't be able to push any water through them. Um, and that's requiring cutbacks in states like California and Arizona and Nevada. Um, and then water managers are going to start up a whole new series of negotiations here pretty soon. Um, they're looking at re upping some guidelines that they had agreed to in 2007 and that's going to be a much more wide ranging negotiation than we saw in the drought contingency plan. They're going to be leaving no stone unturned during those negotiations to figure out what the future of the Colorado River actually looks like. Well, thanks for bringing us a perspective from further up the river. Like thank you. That was k UNC reporter Luke Runyon. And His story is part of a collaborative series from the Colorado River Reporting Project at K U N C K e r in Salt Lake City and Wyoming public radio.

Speaker 5: 10:03 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.