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Ski resorts, insect infestations and water diversions

by Carina W 0 Comments
Ski resorts, insect infestations and water diversions

Welcome to Grand County, Colorado. The mountain playground and giant water reservoir for Front Rangers (the sprawling metropolis of Denver, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs). Home to Winter Park Ski Resort, Rocky Mountain National Park, three lakes, six designated wilderness areas and just over 14 thousand people. It is also happens to be the headwaters of the Colorado River. Historian Robert C. Black called this place the ‘island in the rockies’ because the only way in is over a major mountain pass.

I’m not entirely sure what I did right to land this case study. But here I am, trying to understand how the communities in this valley experience and respond to landscape change.

The eastern border of the county is the Continental Divide and to the west, the main highway passes through Byers Canyon – that cuts of the ‘New West’ from the ‘Old West’: recreation, amenity migrants and retirees from ranching, mining and forestry. There are four major towns here, Winter Park/Fraser, a reasonably typical ski resort/mountain town, Granby, the service town, Grand Lake, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, and Kremmling, an old ranching/forestry town which kind of still feels like the Old West. The village of Tabernash is my new temporary home. It has a post office, a flower shop, Snooty Coyote Liquor, an upmarket restaurant and an eclectic set of old buildings, log cabins and second homes.

The permanent population of Tabernash is small – around 400 people – although you wouldn’t know that from the number of houses around. I’ve heard a range of different figures but between 60-70% of the houses in the county are second homes. Winter Park takes the cake, with only 17% of the houses having permanent occupants.

Grand County is the’’high amenity’ recreation and tourism case study in our project. It is a large county, covering some 1,869 square miles, however we’re focused on the eastern side, where tourism – ski and snowmobilie tourism in winter and hiking, biking and off-road vehicle trails, fishing, rafting and golf in summer – dominates the economy. Like many other counties in the West, around 70% of Grand County is in public land – Forest Service, Bureau  of Land Management and National Park. And, like much of the West, these public lands that previously supported extractive industries – mining, ranching and forestry – are now playgrounds for the county’s tourist economy. These features make Grand a ‘archetypal case study’ – sharing many similarities with other recreation communities in the Interior West.

But there are two other factors that brought us to Grand. Beetles and Water.

First, the beetles. About ten years ago, Grand County was the ‘epicentre’ of a mountain pine beetle epidemic. The beetle is a native to this landscape, so while there have been beetle outbreaks in the past, many say that climate change and the drought have made this most recent outbreak worse. The beetles lay their eggs under the bark of the tree and in this process inject the tree with a blue fungus to protect the eggs. Problem is, the fungus also kills the trees. Their numbers use to be controlled by strings of really cold days/weeks that they could not survive – and if there is one thing I’ve learnt from Grand County residents – those cold spells are less and less common. Without this natural population control, the population boomed and has killed millions of acres of trees across the Northern Rockies from Colorado up to British Columbia.

Insect infestations fall into the category of complex problems that cannot be addressed by individuals alone. Collaborations like the Colorado Bark Beetle Cooperative emerged to bring together land management agencies, local governments, the ski resorts, chambers of commerce together across Northern Colorado to address the problem. Landscape change transcends the boundaries of public and private land, conservation or production. We might care if it is a national park or a national forest, the beetles don’t know the difference. Whether it is beetles, fires, floods or droughts, managing the landscapes of the future will require this kind of collective effort so we’re interested in finding out whether or not the beetle outbreak built some capacity in the local communities to deal any future challenges they face.

Nobody questions the fact that water shortages are the challenge of the future for Colorado.

The water that flows through the Fraser and Colorado rivers are the life of this county. Every tourist activity here is tied to that water, ranching can not exist without it, and neither can the Front Range. Land and water rights are  separated in Colorado water, enabling forward thinking towns from the plains to buy up the water rights to what was then an isolated mountain community with a very low population. Following three major diversion projects, first of which was put in in 1904, there has been a 73% reduction in the average annual flows through the basin. 73% and a proposal has just gone through to up that to 82%.

Unsurprisingly, the people of Grand County are not very happy.

Like the beetles, a cross-jurisdictional collaboration has emerged to negotiate a path through the difficult issues of managing water between the communities living on the east and western slope of the continental divide. The Colorado River Cooperative Agreement is too complex for the bottom of an already long post so I’ll leave it for now. The critical point for the story is that there is very little the West slope communities can do about the water diversions so the communities on both sides of the divide are going to have to learn to share Colorado’s water resources. And if the models, predictions and droughts over the past 10 years are anything to go by, there will be less and less to go around.

So, it is because of the ski resorts, insect infestations and water diversions that I ended up in one of the most beautiful counties in Colorado.

Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting

by Carina W 0 Comments
Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting

With 80% of the water in Colorado falling West of the Continental divide where less than 20% of the population live, water is the source of longstanding tensions between the East and West slope communities. This tension is very real for the residents of Grand County, as around 70% of the water that flows through the upper headwaters of the Colorado and Fraser Rivers are pipped across the Divide to the ever growing Front Range communities. Since the water rights are not held within the County, there is no legal basis to oppose these water diversions under Colorado water law. This leaves Grand County Commissioners and local government with few options other than to work with the Front Range water managers to negotiate the best possible outcome even if they can’t get the water back.

Before getting into the new agreement, first some background on Colorado water law. Apparently there are more water lawyers in Colorado than the rest of the US states combined – whether this is urban myth or truth it makes some sense to me as I’ve been trying to grapple with this complex system of water rights, transmountain and transbasin diversions. Water in Colorado is governed by the law of prior appropriation: water rights belong to whoever first diverted the water and put it to a beneficial use. Senior water rights belong to those who came first, and the Colorado Constitution declares that the right to appropriate unappropriated water “shall never be denied”. This means that water rights and land rights are separate, creating the opportunity for water rights to be owned by people who don’t live where the water falls. And because the majority of the people of Colorado happen to not live where the water falls, taking water between basins (transbasin diversions) or across the Continental Divide (transmountain diversions) has been a feature of Colorado history since the mid 1800s.

Construction of the Grand River Ditch began in the 1880s since then there have been three major diversion tunnels constructed in Grand County: the Moffat Tunnel, the Colorado-Big Thompson and the Windy Gap project. When these schemes were put into place Grand County had a very small population so beyond agricultural producers there was a lot of water to be put to ‘beneficial’ use. Beyond the first in first served appropriation, Denver water purchasing substantial water rights from ranching families in the Upper Fraser Valley in the first half of the 20th century. So provided the water diversions don’t infringe on downstream users rights, this water legally belongs to water managers on the Front Range. Without these transmountain diversions, growth of agriculture and urban centers of Denver, Colorado Springs and Fort Collins would not have been possible. However these projects and water diversions have created longstanding conflict (which in the US tends to lead to litigation) between West slope communities and Front Range water managers. After attempts to resolve these conflicts were met with more litigation it became clear that a new approach was needed.

Enter the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, intended to end decades of litigation and fighting over Colorado’s most precious resource. After five years of negotiation, the agreement was finalised in May 2012 and has been heralded as a ‘landmark deal’ in the history of Colorado water management. There are 43 parties involved in the agreement that promises to sure up water supply for Front Range communities while providing much needed funding for stream restoration projects on the West slope. There are provisions in the agreement that require Denver Water to undertake conservation measures, to ensure supply of water for the West slope communities, and boundaries have been set around the future water development projects in Denver. Most importantly, under the agreement, Summit and Grand counties commit not to oppose planned enlargements of critical water reservoirs and diversion tunnels. Seems that this is one of the key features of the agreement, because the majority of the provisions don’t come online until Denver Water has approval for these enlargements. So now that there is significant funding for mitigation tied to Denver Water getting these permit to enlarge the Moffat and Gross reservoirs, West slope communities now have an interest in the permitting going ahead. But… if these enlargements go ahead, water diversions from Grand County will go from 73% of pre-diversion flows to around 80%. That is a lot of water to be taking out of the headwaters of any river, let a lone one as over allocated as the Colorado.

When I asked if this is a good deal for the West slope communities, I was told that they are better of with this deal than without. Denver Water didn’t have to come to the table and apparently they have gone above and beyond what they were legally required to do in terms of the amount of water and money they put on the table. I heard lots of people in academic circles talk about water being an issue for Colorado to deal with as a whole – but the people I interviewed in Grand County didn’t see it this way. From their perspective they have been “defeated”. “It is our water and they are taking it to water their lawns.” But when water demand outstrips supply, and the water rights and the voting population are on the Front Range it is hard to see any alternative. More conflict and lengthy litigation is not going to make it rain more, so coming to some kind of collective arrangement seems to be the only way to go.