Water Supply in Colorado Part II: The Debate over Trans-Mountain Diversions

If only life could be so easy. In many parts of the world, population centers and water supplies are not located in the same place. Areas from California to China go to great lengths and costs to move water from where it is (relatively) abundant to the population centers and farmland. One of the largest diversion projects in the world, China’s South-North Water Transfer Project just opened its second branch to the Beijing area in December. The project theoretically will bring almost 12 trillion gallons of water from the Yangtze River Valley north to the mega-cities surrounding Beijing. But the project will also bring with it controversy – mainly over the sustainability of this water supply and the pollution issues that already plague China’s dwindling water supplies.

On a much smaller scale, Colorado is facing some of China’s same issues. Colorado faces pressures from population and economic growth. Reliable water supplies must accompany this growth, and much like China, Colorado’s water supplies and population centers are not co-located. Colorado lawmakers are considering a new diversion project called the Northern Integrated Water Supply Project to bring further water supplies to the burgeoning population centers in the state. But this project too is not without controversy and debate over its sustainability, its economic impacts and the impacts on the environment. In this piece I will review the Project and the pros and cons of its construction.

Trans-Mountain Diversions in Colorado

The Rocky Mountains that run through Colorado separate the state into two distinct watersheds. The Western Slope of the Rockies captures about 80% of the state’s water supply. However, 80% of the state’s population lives on the Front Range, on the east side of the Rocky Mountains. Since as early as 1889, state legislators have looked to the Western part of the state to tap water supplies. The early diversion projects simply used gravity-fed ditches to move water. A 50-year span of projects from the 1920s to the 1970s would change the face of Colorado’s water infrastructure and usher in the population growth and development we see in the state today.

As we fast forward to today, Colorado has approximately 24 major diversion projects that bring water from the Western Slope across the Continental Divide. The Colorado-Big Thompson Project is the largest diversion project currently in the state. The Project on average collects about 200,000 acre-feet per year from the Western Slope and sends it by tunnel and pipeline to the areas north of Denver. According to Northern Water, 85% of the C-BT allotment went to agricultural use when the project became fully operational in 1957. Today, agricultural uses own less than a third of the project allotment. As the population in Colorado grew, new citizens put more pressure on water resources. Today, diversion projects such as C-BT and the proposed Northern Integrated Supply Project are at the center of debate over the sustainability of population growth in the state and the potential environmental ramifications of trans-mountain diversions.

While smaller than the C-BT project, the Northern Integrated Supply Project still faces some major scrutiny from its opponents. The project will bring approximately 40,000 acre-feet of water annually in a new trans-mountain diversion to 15 front range water providers. The diversion project would capture excess water that in years of abundance would leave the state. The water providers that are part of this allotment lie to the North of Denver, along the tributaries of the Platte River. Please see this map for the participating water districts’ locations and proposed allotments.

As you can imagine, there are arguments both for and against this proposed diversion project. Supporters of the project argue that Colorado needs the new diversion system to ensure sustainable growth. The Northern Water Group projects that water demand within the NISP participants’ service area will almost triple by 2030. These communities have done much to reduce per-capita water usage, but these areas will still need more water supplies. The cities in the NISP service area have reduced their water consumption by over 30% in the last 20 years to approximately 177 gallons per day.

Second, proponents of the project argue that NISP is the most cost effective way to build new water infrastructure. NISP estimates the total project cost at about $500 million, or approximately $12,500 per acre-foot of water. In comparison, the units of the C-BT Project that have traded recently are going for significantly higher rates. According to the Journal of Water, C-BT prices have nearly tripled over the last three years and are approaching $25,000 per unit. (A C-BT unit corresponds theoretically to 1 acre-foot of entitlement from the project, but the actual amount of water delivered depends on the yearly quota. The historical average quota is approximately 70%, or 7/10 of an acre-foot per unit.) The project can bring water that communities need at lower costs than the alternatives provide.

Opponents, however, are concerned about the potential environmental and economic ramifications of this project and other water transfers across the state. The most controversial of these policies is the process referred to as “buy and dry”. As I mentioned, there has been a wholesale shift of water rights from agriculture to municipal users in Colorado. In some instances when farmers sell their rights, there is a “dry-up covenant” that prevents the owner of the land where the associated water rights were from to pursue water rights in the future. The new owner can use the land for limited pastures/ranching, dry farming or just leave the land fallow. There are obvious economic implications to the areas where the water leaves. As Rod pointed out in his post on vineyard land in the Paso Robles, California area, land without water is much less valuable than land with a reliable and long-term water supply. Opponents argue that lawmakers must consider the economic implications of their decisions before they support new water transfer projects.

There are also environmental concerns with the NISP. Organizations such as Save the Poudre River argue that increased diversions will cause further strain and damage on an already endangered river. Further, environmental opponents argue that the infrastructure necessary to move this new water supply will damage and jeopardize critical habitats. NISP engineers counter that they have studied this project to the most minute detail and have been transparent through the entire process. In a Fort Morgan Times article, Fort Morgan Water Resources Director Brent Nation said, “We do know that groups like ‘Save the Poudre’ are actively soliciting funds for opposition to the project. [But] the amount of analysis that goes into one of these water projects is almost mind-numbing. We have paid to analyze every rock over six inches in diameter. It’s to that level. It isn’t just taking a stab at it.”

Needless to say, there are strong opinions on both sides of this issue. It will be very interesting to see how these issues continue to play out over the months until lawmakers make a final decision on this project.


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About Jeff Simonetti

Jeff Simonetti is the Vice President of Public Affairs at the Capitol Core Group and provides project management, business development, and policy/lobbying expertise to a variety of federal, state and local clients. During his tenure at Capitol Core, Jeff has among other projects helped a renewable energy company to secure authorizing resolutions in cities across Southern California. Prior to joining Capitol Core Group, Jeff was a Vice President at the Kosmont Companies, a real estate and economic development consulting firm. At Kosmont, Jeff was the project lead for cities looking to implement financing strategies such as Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts (EIFDs) and other post-redevelopment funding mechanisms. He also was the project manager for the Economic Development element of the Fontana General Plan Update. Jeff gained significant state and local government affairs experience as the Government Affairs Director at the Building Industry Association (BIA) of Southern California’s Baldy View Chapter. During his tenure at the BIA, he helped to found the annual San Bernardino County Water Conference, an event that gathers over 400 elected officials and business leaders in the region to discuss the pressing water policy issues that affect the community.