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Utility says Gross expansion needed for water security for 1.5 million people

by Allen Best

Denver Water has been awarded its final federal permit for expansion of Gross Reservoir but may still need a permit from Boulder County.

A permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission announced today wraps up all the federal permitting needed to raise the existing 340-foot-tall Gross Dam across South Boulder Creek by 131 feet.

The dam has a hydro plant with a capacity of producing up to 7.6 megawatts.

But the most difficult permit may be the one that it still lacks: a 1041 permit from Boulder County. The Boulder Daily Camera explains that a district court decision affirmed the county’s authority to review the project under a 1973 law. That law, commonly known by its legislative bill title, gives local governments land use authority to review major projects by other governments.

Eagle County used that same authority in 1991 to deny a permit sought by Aurora and Colorado Springs to conduct a major water diversion project from within the Holy Cross Wilderness Area near Minturn and Red Cliff. The two Front Range cities fought the denial but lost and ultimately participated in a collaborative process designed to produce a more acceptable solution. That process is ongoing, with many opposed to the lighter, gentler approach. But by any measure, the current proposal in the Homestake Valley would have much less impact upon the wilderness area .

This case of Gross Dam is different in that the water being diverted only passes through Boulder County. The water would come from Grand County via the Moffat Tunnel. The county itself signed off on the expansion after a lengthy collaborative process that was in many ways modeled after what was created in the wake of the Homestake II denial.

Denver Water in this case committed to a collaborative process called Learning by Doing. The intent is to allow Denver to use its water rights in the Fraser Valley and also in the adjoining Williams Fork Valley but in ways that avoid the harshest of impacts.

The process earned Denver the support of Trout Unlimited, and also some fierce Denver critics such as Kirk Klancke, a Fraser Valley resident.

But some Fraser Valley residents continue to oppose the project. “We don’t have any more water to send to Denver,” says Andy Miller, a Fraser town trustee, as elected members of the governing council are known. “With the water that is being diverted now, we are barely keeping the system alive.”

Miller said additional diversions would mean that at times the only water in the Fraser River will be the releases from the wastewater treatment plants in Winter Park and Fraser. “That’s not enough,” says Miller, who is also a member of the Upper Colorado River Watershed Group.

Denver began pursuing the expansion of the dam after the drought of 2002 exposed the vulnerability of water delivery to Arvada and other suburbs in the northwest metropolitan area that contract with Denver Water for supplies. The next year, Denver began the federal environmental permitting process. Denver already received approvals from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2016 and 2017.

Colorado’s largest water provider, Denver Water provides water not just for the city’s residents but a broad swath of the metropolitan area, a quarter of the state’s 5.8 million residents.

In a statement, Jim Lochhead, the chief executive of Denver Water, said the FERC permit—it’s technically called an order—brings a comprehensive 17-year federal and state permitting process to a close.

Lochhead also characterized the project as a necessity given the increasing weather variability in a warming climate.

“The project provides the system balance, additional storage and resiliency needed for our existing customers as well as a growing population. We are seeing extreme climate variability and that means we need more options to safeguard a reliable water supply for 1.5 million people in Denver Water’s service area,” he said.

 

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