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Law Offices of Ronald W. Rutz
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June 10, 2002: Water Storage in Colorado

Q: Water storage seems so obvious a solution to Colorado's long-term water problem. I guess I don't "get it" - why don't Coloradoans just do something? I have asked a number of people and your name keeps popping up. I do not know you, nor do I live in Fort Collins, but I do have access to the Coloradoan. Would you be so kind as to enlighten me?

A: Oh my gosh. I am not sure that I can "enlighten" anyone but I can outline a few of the issues.

Colorado water carries around a great deal of political, environmental, historical, legal, social, and feudish baggage - much too complex to outline in a column. As a side note, however, especially for Colorado judges who must decide these issues, it is obvious only a tiny few have the background to "get it." But that can be a future column.

There are three parts to your question - reservoir construction, alternative storage solutions, and water availability for storage (even during those 45 days or so when 80% of the water from the Colorado mountains roars past us and if not caught, out of the state).

A rule of thumb is that the higher up the water is caught and stored, the more flexibility that exists to distribute the water, since there is a better chance to divert the water to different drainage systems or lower reservoir storage sites where it might be needed more. Lower sites are usually less desirable since options are often limited only to releasing water down the water course. Geologically and geographically, there are not many good high reservoir sites left that physically can be used.

But the sites that are available may not all be options because of environmental factors (Two Forks), or opposition from west slope interest to transfer more water to the east slope (several sites involving the Big-T system and local ditch companies), or legal prohibitions (Supreme Court cases involving the Laramie and North Platte river system in North Park), or simply no water availability because it has all been appropriated (the upper reaches of the Cache la Poudre), or the site is in the wrong place (no water available worth catching).

There are alternatives. Many of our reservoirs have been around for 75 to 120 years and have had much of their capacity reduced by silting. Some estimate that as much as 50% of the storage capacity has been lost in many areas. The sites could be dredged but the cost is high. Environmentally, where do you put the material and legally, the Courts could rule that the silted capacity was lost or abandoned by nonuse.

Existing sites could have storage increased by raising the dam heights. But many of the dams are old and might not even stand the additional pressure of extra water created by dredging, let alone increasing the dam height or using the current structure as the foundation for an updated structure.

Aquifers could be recharged during those flood weeks, some of which is being done now in the Denver area and at a site on the edge of the Ogallala formation in eastern Colorado. But the good sites are few and facilities must be built. And how will the projects be financed since for years or even decades the "benefits" may not be noticed or used?

A number of our reservoir companies have not used all of their current extra storage capacity for several reasons. Perhaps the use of the underused structures currently in place needs to be reviewed. Huge reservoirs are partially kept empty for flood control. Maybe a more realistic look at using such water space during the vast expanse of time when it is not needed for flood control should be explored.

This also suggests the need for better timing in releasing "upper" water to "lower reservoirs" to create "new" space for water as it begins to flow during the spring thaw. Most companies do a reasonably good job. Others do not. Additionally, more winter water storage might be done, even though such use is hard on the structures. Even temporary storage in ditch systems or a series of farm ponds might be used.

In my opinion, in order to pursue alternative storage solutions, there needs to be a radical departure as to how Colorado has been "doing water" for over 144 years (1858) and a water czar (not these endless committees and boards) needs to be installed. Sorry, I'll step down from my soap box and go on.

But all of this suggests that there is water that can be legally caught and stored. Colorado's prior appropriation system has blocked "new" water storage for most of the year, even if the water is not actually caught and stored, but runs down the river. But even during the flood weeks when there is "free" water, with Court rulings interpreting the compacts and in the environmental area, favoring Kansas and Nebraska, and to a lesser extent Wyoming and New Mexico, we can build it (the reservoir) but they (the water) will not necessarily come.

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