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Deal-making pays off: Boulder County’s Gross Reservoir closer to expansion

Author: Joey Bunch - July 8, 2017 - Updated: July 8, 2017

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Gross Reservoir in Boulder County could give politicos and water managers a reason to celebrate with a tall, cold glass of H2O instead of bubbly from a magnum Saturday.

After 14 years, Denver Water now has the two critical regulatory documents — a “record of decision” and 404 Permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — for an expansion that would allow the utility to hedge against drought and better manage the system that delivers water to about 1.4 million Coloradans.

The estimated $380 million project would raise the existing dam by 131 feet to store Colorado River water. Unlike almost every other proposal to use Western Slope flows to quench the thirst of Front Range growth, Gross Reservoir has support on both sides of the Continental Divide, because of agreements forged by Denver Water, the state’s largest water utility.

“Issuance of this permit will unlock significant resources that will allow us to do good things for the river and the environment,” Mely Whiting, counsel for Trout Unlimited, a significant backer of a bigger place to fish, said in a statement.

Learn more about the expansion here.

Denver Water says storing more water in Gross Reservoir is a big part of its long-term plans, which include conservation, reuse and “responsibly sourcing new supply.”

“The state’s responsibility is to ensure we do the right thing for Colorado’s future, and this project is vital infrastructure for our economy and the environment,” Hickenlooper said last year when he added his support. “The partnerships and collaboration between Denver Water, the West Slope and conservation organizations associated with this project are just what the Colorado Water Plan is all about.”

The Gross Reservoir dam has been around since 1954, two years before Hickenlooper was born.

The statewide water plan the governor referenced was released last year and calls for more compromise and collaboration and less litigation and political brinksmanship, which is written large in the history of water in the West.

Support isn’t universal, however, and a group called Save The Colorado said regional environmental groups and hundreds of homeowners in the area are considering a lawsuit to overturn the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision on Gross Reservoir.

“We believe the Army Corps has violated the law,” Gary Wockner of Save The Colorado said. “Denver Water doesn’t need the water, the Colorado River is already severely drained and depleted, and the people of Boulder County don’t want the project. The courts need take a hard look at this decision.”

He added, “Every American river deserves its day in court and the Colorado River deserves the best legal defense we can give it.”

Denver Water secured broad support with the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement inked in 2013 with 18 partners with such concessions as using its water for environmental flows in Grand County, as well as providing providing millions of dollars for sedimentation, aquatic habitats and other needs.

Writing on Hick’s backing a year ago, Marianne Goodland of the Colorado Independent crisply explained the need for water:

Colorado is predicted to face a gap of more than one million acre-feet of water by 2050, according to a 2010 estimate that many believe may be on the low end. One acre-foot of water is the amount of water it would take to cover the field at Mile High Stadium from endzone to end zone with one foot of water. That’s 325,851 gallons of water. The average family of four uses about half an acre–foot of water per year.

The celebrated documents Denver Water now holds are key parts of the National Environmental Policy Act.

While NEPA is a high hurdle, the deal isn’t completely done yet.

“The next milestone we anticipate is approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission of Denver Water’s hydropower license amendment application at some point next year,” said Jeff Martin, Gross Reservoir Expansion program manager, said in a statement from Denver Water.

Denver Water recently hired engineering consulting firm Black & Veatch as its “owner’s representative” — essentially a project manager — and is in the process of landing a design engineer, Martin said.

Dam design, geotechnical work and other pre-construction work are expected to begin next year and the project could be completed by 2025.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.


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