Eagle River Assembly

Posted: Jul 1, 2005
Written by: 
Chris Treese

Initially created to address an out-of-basin water diversion proposal in the Eagle River Basin in Colorado, the Assembly's efforts are now the centerpiece of a proposed 18-part Colorado River solution to impacts and conditions associated with out-of-basin diversions of Colorado River water.

Participants: The Eagle River Assembly was formed as an informal, cooperative effort among the principal water rights owners and interests in the Eagle River Valley. These included: Vail Resorts; Climax Mining; Eagle County; the Colorado River Water Conservation District; Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority; Upper Eagle Water & Sanitation District; the Eagle River Basin communities of Vail, Minturn, Avon, Edwards, Eagle, Gypsum, and Red Cliff; and the out-of-basin cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora. Relatively early in the process, the Denver Water Department and the Pueblo Board of Water Works joined the Assembly's process, albeit largely as passive participants. Most recently, the efforts and elements of the Assembly's proposed solutions expanded to include other Colorado River headwaters regions and Eastern Colorado municipal and agricultural interests stretching from Fort Collins to Pueblo.

Objective: The Eagle River Assembly is an informal group of water users and interests concerned with the condition of the Eagle River watershed. The Assembly is a cooperative effort addressing legal and property interests in water in the Eagle River Basin while preserving the quality of life and outstanding environmental conditions present in the Eagle River.

History: The Continental Divide separates Colorado into two, unequal hydrologic parts. Precipitation falling on the western portion of the state drains to the Colorado River system and the Pacific Ocean. East of the Divide, the relatively meager amount of moisture falling there flows to the Gulf of Mexico via several, distinct rivers (Platte, Arkansas, and Rio Grande). The backbone of the Rockies also delineates a political divide in Colorado when it comes to water.

 Transmountain Water Diversions in Colorado Source: Colorado River Water Conservation District
In round numbers, 80% of the water in Colorado falls on the "Western Slope," where less than 20% of the state's population resides. This 80:20 ratio reverses for Colorado's "Eastern Slope." Consequently, the more populous Eastern Slope has a long history of transmountain diversion of West Slope water to meet its thirsty population's urban, industrial, and agricultural water demands. Transmountain diversions provide roughly 50% of the greater metropolitan Denver area's water supply. Over 14 major transmountain water projects currently pierce the Continental Divide, transporting water from every headwater's tributary of the Colorado River within Colorado to East Slope farms and cities. Nearly all these transmountain diversion projects have been the subject of protracted legal and political battles. One such contest was over the proposed expansion of the existing Homestake Project that diverts water from the headwaters of the Eagle River to the East Slope.

The "Homestake II Project" proposed to expand significantly the number of streams and areas from which the existing Homestake Project currently collects and transports water from headwater tributaries of the Eagle River to the project's East Slope sponsor-cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora. The proposed expansion included collections within a recently created federal Wilderness area. Local residents, area and regional environmental groups, and in-basin water interests united over concerns of anticipated impacts. They also feared that the project would set an adverse precedence concerning development within a Wilderness area.

After 10 years of unresolved litigation and a pending petition before the U.S. Supreme Court, the West Slope parties to the litigation invited their East Slope adversaries to sit down, without attorneys, and explore alternative avenues of resolution. The first meeting, which all parties approached with skepticism and low expectations, resulted in surprising unanimity on several important fronts.

All parties quickly conceded frustration with a legally dominated process that effectively precludes development and pursuit of constructive alternatives. While no entity relinquished any legal standing or strategy, all parties agreed to explore water project alternatives that included benefits to both sides of the Divide. Additionally, all parties agreed to a basic set of ground rules that included no attorneys, no media, and attendance of less than a quorum of any entities' governing board, so that the Assembly could officially and legally remain an informal oasis amid the ongoing legal and political vitriol surround the Homestake II proposal. These exclusionary standards violate the basic tenants of any true collaboration, but given the history of open animosity and public hostility on both sides of the Divide and the pending U.S. Supreme Court action, all parties agreed such extraordinary conditions were necessary and therefore justified.

Accomplishments: The first milestone in the Assembly's process was an agreement to mutually pursue unbiased science regarding the conditions present in the Eagle River and its tributaries. The Assembly commissioned a study, with costs shared equally, to determine current stream health and potential threats to these conditions associated with out-of-basin water diversions and in-basin growth. This, in turn, led to the first and perhaps most significant "Ah-ha" of the process, especially for the in-basin participants. The study concluded that the Eagle Basin's stream health, while generally excellent, is indeed impaired by periodic low-flow conditions. However, these periods of low stream flow do not occur when out-of-basin diversions are operating. In other words, the problem is neither created nor exacerbated by transmountain diversions. Flows in the Eagle River occasionally fall below the state's minimum in-stream flows, which are generally recognized as less than optimal for environmental vibrancy. These reduced flows occur in the late fall and early to mid-winter during years with less than average precipitation and are therefore due in large part to naturally occurring conditions and not to any consumptive use of water by humans, either in basin or out of basin.

 Eagle River near Gypsum
Photo by Ken Neubecker
The Eagle River enjoys a vital rafting, kayaking, and fishing recreational economy. Vail Resorts, owners of the Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas, successfully market these recreational opportunities to promote year-round visitation. Additionally, area residents are keenly aware and highly protective of the generally favorable environmental conditions in the basin. Accordingly, for the first time, not only out-of-basin interests, but in-basin representatives recognized the potential benefit of storing some of the area's abundant spring-time runoff for later use during naturally occurring periods of lower stream flows. This recognition was a genuine milestone, but institutional barriers would delay any formal cooperation for several years.

After lengthy negotiations, in 1998 Colorado Springs and Aurora and Eagle Basin entities entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) committing all signatories to cooperate in development of a relatively small reservoir to serve both in-basin and out-of-basin water needs. The MOU recognized that any such project must be acceptable locally as well as meet rigorous environmental standards. Notably, Colorado Springs and Aurora agreed to substantially reduce the amount of water each was legally entitled to develop in the Eagle Basin.

From the beginning, the looming unaddressed issue orbiting the Assembly's negotiations and deliberations was the role of the Denver Water Board and its substantial, undeveloped water rights in the Eagle River Basin. Denver Water is Colorado's single largest water provider, serving over 1.2 million customers in and around the Denver metro area. Half of Denver Water's raw water supplies come from the West Slope. While none of its current supply originates in the Eagle Basin, Denver Water has conditional (undeveloped) water rights to develop a substantial out-of-basin diversion project from the Eagle River basin.

Challenges/constraints: From the earliest stages of the Assembly's history, Denver Water participated in the cooperative explorations, but largely as an observer. Historically, Denver Water had shown little interest in pursuing development of its Eagle Basin water rights. However, shortly after the MOU was executed, Denver conducted a thorough review of its Eagle Basin water rights and their development alternatives.

Therefore, shortly after the MOU was executed with Colorado Springs and Aurora, local interests realized that what they hoped would be a final, definitive resolution to out-of-basin risks could just be the next project in a succession of transmountain water diversion projects. Once the MOU signatories developed the reduced-size successor project to the Homestake II Project, Denver Water could be proposing another larger project with commensurately greater impacts. Therefore, the Assembly's efforts shifted to bringing Denver Water and its Eagle Basin water rights under the limitations of the MOU. If this effort succeeded, it would effectively provide the Eagle Basin with near-permanent certainty regarding development and preservation of its water resources.

Progress since the 1998 MOU to formally include Denver Water as a signatory to the MOU had been encouraging, but never conclusive. Most recently, West Slope entities, including Eagle Basin interests and others, proposed a "global solution" to the Denver Water Board that addresses Denver Water's current West Slope operations and its water rights in three headwaters counties (including Eagle County).

The global solution is a consensus proposal by West Slope water interests, which in its unanimity represents a considerable achievement. This proposal recognizes that Colorado's intrastate water picture is complex and its pieces interrelated. To date, individual projects or solutions have been proposed on a project-by-project basis or, at best, on a single, integrated basin approach (e.g., the Eagle River Assembly). By incorporating 18 elements ranging from headwaters issues to water users' issues at the state line, the West Slope is proposing a holistic solution to Colorado's complex, but interrelated, water puzzle. Included in this proposal are elements effectively bringing Denver Water into the Eagle River MOU with real benefits to both Denver Water and the Eagle Basin.

As of this writing (Summer 2005), Denver Water is reviewing the "global solution" proposal. The governing boards of the various East Slope and West Slope interests recently gathered for a largely symbolic, but nevertheless meaningful, meeting of governing boards simply get to know one another personally. Denver Water has proposed a jointly funded technical analysis of certain aspects of the global proposal. This will likely require 8 to 12 months to complete, during which time other, more philosophical aspects of the proposal will be discussed, as well. From such simple beginnings, the Eagle River Assembly commenced.

For more information see:

Colorado River Water Conservation District
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