A conversation with Jim Lochhead and Eric Kuhn on water supply, transbasin diversions, conservation and more

Transbasin diversions have had a long, changing and important history redistributing water across Colorado.  In partnership, the Colorado Water Congress and Colorado Foundation for Water Education coordinated a series of webinars looking at these projects and exploring questions that are arising in the drafting of Colorado’s Water Plan. The final webinar was a video-cast conversation between Denver Water’s Jim Lochhead and the Colorado River District’s Eric Kuhn. After a lively conversation, a few questions from listeners went unanswered. Below are some thoughts from Jim Lochhead and Eric Kuhn responding to those participant questions. 

Panelists Jim Lochhead and Eric Kuhn, prompted by moderator Dan Luecke, discuss Colorado's transbasin diversions.

Panelists Jim Lochhead and Eric Kuhn, prompted by moderator Dan Luecke, discuss Colorado’s transbasin diversions.

Q: While big projects may be a long way off, the IBCC keeps referencing possible new transbasin diversions on the Yampa, Green or Gunnison. Why spend time on the Seven Points if no big transbasin diversion is really necessary? -Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

Jim Lochhead: The IBCC Seven points offer a framework for discussion, particularly around providing more security for our Colorado River supplies. If we can’t achieve operational security for our Colorado River supplies through the operation of federal Upper Basin reservoirs and management of demands during critically dry periods, then the development of new major transmountain diversions and the dry-up of irrigated agriculture may become necessary. Hopefully an understanding of these issues will allow for more experimentation and piloting of ideas, such as the System Conservation Agreement.

Eric Kuhn: The value of the discussions of the Seven Points on the West Slope has been an increased understanding and sensitivity to the [Colorado River] Compact risk issues. My view is that there has always been (and there may always be) a constituency on the East Slope that believes Colorado’s water problems can be solved by importing water (and thus exporting the problems) from somewhere else. Folks with this view are at the table and have to be a part of the discussion.

Q: Might we consider including those in the regulatory arena in those early, collaborative discussions to expedite the later permitting and review process– Jim Luey, EPA

Jim Lochhead: It is definitely worth exploring whether regulators can be brought into early, collaborative discussions consistent with legal obligations. Ideally, at a minimum, regulators will have a better understanding of the permit applications and environmental compliance and would be able to more quickly develop analysis and work with project proponents and the public.

Eric Kuhn: I agree with Jim. The concept has been discussed for many years, but has proven to be very difficult to implement.

 Q: Is there room for Front Range entities who use West Slope water to adopt a more proactive approach to safeguarding the environmental health of West Slope rivers? Colorado Springs, for example, does not seem to want to talk about the environmental health of the Roaring Fork, even though close to 40 percent of the river’s water is diverted.

Jim Lochhead: I can’t speak for Colorado Springs. At Denver Water, we are acutely aware that the environmental health of the watersheds and rivers that are the sources of our supply is critical to the long-term sustainability of those supplies and our obligation to supply water to our customers. We continually educate our customers about the interconnection between environmental health and their water supply and believe that they support our programs to increase watershed and aquatic health—on both the East and West Slopes.

Eric Kuhn: I agree with Jim’s answer.

Q: Colorado water law and administration tends to encourage people to divert more water than they need to meet their legitimate consumptive uses. Is there a way to change that, perhaps by requiring a transparent public measurement of “current consumptive use” as assessors do with houses and land?

Jim Lochhead: One way to encourage, or even enforce, better and more efficient management is to more forcefully enforce prohibitions against waste by requiring or at a minimum incentivizing greater efficiency. Denver Water’s conservation mantra is “Use Only What You Need,” which should apply across all sectors.

Eric Kuhn: On the West Slope there is too much confusion between diversion “efficiency” and measures that reduce consumptive use. The only real ways to reduce consumptive use are by reducing evapotranspiration by plants and evaporation by the sun. Depending on the location of the diversion, bad “efficiency” is often good for the environment, because the delayed return flows hold up late season stream flows.

Q: Colorado experienced some condiserable rainfall flooding damage in the last couple years on the Front Range especially. Obviously capture and retention of stormwater is an important source of water for domestic usage. The new water plan supports developing new water storage facilities to hold water from winter snow melt to spread water delivery over a longer period than just the natural May, June, July runoff period. I don’t see any reference in the SB 14-115 reports to flood control aspects in these new water storage projects. Flood control has historically been a major reason for creating reservoirs. My question is, why no flood control concepts in the SB 14-115 report and water plan? -Bob Jenkins, Colorado Home Builders

Eric Kuhn: Stormwater is one of those areas where we have become servants of water law (as opposed to it serving us). In over-appropriated basins, like the Platte, the problem is that stormwater management can be viewed as an out of priority diversion. This is an area that requires additional discussions with the State Engineer’s Office. On the flood control question, there is an inherent conflict between operating a reservoir for water storage vs. flood control. For flood control reservoirs, we want to keep them empty because we never know when we’ll get another September 2013 flood. For water storage, we want them full, because we never know when we’ll be entering the next critical drought. Many reservoirs do in-fact have both purposes, but there is a delicate balance and tension between these purposes. The lengthy Chatfield Reservoir reallocation process is a good example of how difficult these issues are to analyze and resolve.

There are 27 transbasin diversions in Colorado that move more than 580,000 acre-feet of water each year from one of Colorado’s four major river basins to another. Read more in CFWE’s Citizen’s Guide to Colorado’s Transbasin Diversions. And hear more from these speakers Jim Lochhead and Eric Kuhn on a panel at the 2015 Colorado Water Congress Annual Convention.

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