The article “Survey supports River District ballot measure” in the May 15 issue of the Sky-Hi News reporting on a possible increase in property taxes struck a sour note. Our concern is not because this is another tax increase, but because the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which was formed in 1937, never has and never will have the necessary funds to carry out their mission “to protect and develop water supplies in western Colorado.”
Yes, the CRD has been somewhat effective in some western counties, but certainly not Grand County. If we look more closely at the situation in Grand County, this accusation becomes quite clear. Two major water districts on the Front Range — Denver and Northern Water — divert up to 70% of Grand County’s water to users on the Front Range.
This is possible because Colorado has granted them a water right to use these waters. They deliver this water through transmountain diversions. When water is moved from one watershed to another, they are mining water. However, unlike most mining operations, there are no requirements to mitigate the environmental damage.
The mining of water from Grand County has been going on for over 100 years, and according to the Colorado Water Quality Control Division, it has resulted in over 300 miles of environmentally impaired waterways.
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According to WQCD, these environmentally impaired streams have elevated water temperatures, low dissolved oxygen, algae blooms, elevated levels of heavy metals and poor fish habitats. These problems were not caused by Grand County residents and most likely never would have occurred if Denver and Northern Water had not been mining more and more of Grand County’s water and diverting it to users on the Front Range without mitigating the impacts.
A closer look at one project mentioned in the Sky-Hi article, the Windy Gap Connectivity Channel, gives a clear picture of Grand County’s water woes. The Windy Gap Reservoir was built in 1985 to provide additional water for diversions for Northern Water. The reservoir serves no real purpose for the residents of Grand County and served 100% of Northern’s needs.
The reservoir has elevated water temperatures and has impaired downstream fisheries in previously “gold medal” reaches of the Colorado River. Northern Water is proposing to pay only 50% of the $15 million needed to install a by-pass channel in an attempt to rectify some of the problems. Grand County Commissioners approved contributing $1 million in funds from OLRT-1A tax money toward the project. This is just one example of numerous other projects throughout Grand County and other West Slope counties where the property owners are left with the burden of mitigating the problems caused by Denver and Northern Water.
The state, the Colorado River District and the West Slope counties where water is mined simply do not have the financial resources to mitigate these problems. The 300 miles of impaired streams identified in Grand County are conservatively estimated to cost $100 million to mitigate. Additional funds above the $100 million will be required to upgrade sewage treatment plants, restore streams where sediment is clogging our reservoirs and improve riparian habitat.
We need a new paradigm that does not rely on taxes that burden West Slope property owners. The Upper Colorado River Watershed Group commissioned an independent study to look into imposing an Environmental Impact Fee on Front Range end users that utilize water diverted from the western slope. The analysis indicates that an assessment of 1/20 of a cent ($.0005) per gallon would generate an average of $7.4 million per year from just Denver Water customers that utilize water diverted from Grand County. When we include the fee to Northern Water end users, the annual fees double to nearly $15 million. This fee amounts to a monthly assessment of approximately $2 per month for each Front Range end user. The fees from the EIF would roll back to the county of origin, (in this case Grand County) and be available to mitigate environmental past and future environmental damage in our waterways.
As demand for water on the Front Range continues to increase, we need to be more proactive than we have in the past in protecting and mitigating our environmentally impaired waterways. The citizens of Grand County need a new paradigm. The proposed Environmental Impact Fee on Front Range end users is a far better solution than continuing to tax western slope residents to solve problems caused by big water companies on the Front Range.
David Troutman is a board member for the Upper Colorado River Watershed Group. UCRWG is a 501(C)3 nonprofit organization supported by grants and donors. Its mission is to protect and ensure the resiliency of the Upper Colorado River in Grand County. For more, http://www.ucrgw.org.