If water is the new oil, then Grand and Summit counties should be as flush with cash as Saudi Arabia.  Instead, Grand County communities pay as much as three times more for water and sewer services than the beneficiaries of our water on the Front Range and are facing even higher fees as our watershed dries up.

Recent water agreements include commitments for our county to at least begin to deal with the effects of losing 80% of our water to eastern slope users.  If the “Moffat Firming” project is fully realized the only water left in the Fraser River might be return flows from irrigation and treated effluent from local sanitation plants.

“If” is a key word above as eastern slope conservation groups continue to fight expansion of Gross Reservoir where “firming” water from the Fraser would be stored.

The key concern is how west slope residents will pay for mitigating east slope impacts to our watershed. Fraser valley residents are facing what could be a $5 million upgrade to our regional sewage treatment plant to remove copper from waste water because there is not enough water in the river below the plant to dilute copper leaching from plumbing pipes.

Simply put, we will pay $5 million because Denver is taking so much water out of our river.  Also simply put, water diversion constitutes a point source pollutant – a view disputed by diverters. “The solution to pollution is dilution” goes the old saw – a solution no longer available to local taxpayers.

Another diversion impact arises from the fact Fraser obtains its minimally treated drinking water from wells.  Regular testing is done to see if town well water is “influenced” by surface water. As soon as testing shows surface water is mixing with ground water Fraser will face another $5+ million dollar bill to build a surface water treatment plant. Our wells along the Fraser River draw from ground water originating in the mountains around us. Denver maintains a system of ditches circling the valley, reducing the amount of water flowing through our underground reservoir. The key to underground water quality is dilution.  Our future becomes clear; here comes another multi-million dollar expense at least partially due to water diversion.

It is critical to remember we are all in this together – east and west slope residents all depend on the upper Colorado watershed. In recognition of this fact, Denver Water invests in forestry projects in the valley to help preserve water quality in case of a fire. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District has offered to help pay for the copper upgrade to the regional treatment plant (Northern removes 60% of Grand County water headed for the East Slope, Denver removes the other 40%). Both local and Front Range agencies would benefit from a predictable source of mitigation funding.

Some would say Denver Water owns the water they seek to divert and we are therefore powerless to ask for mitigation. We do still have leverage.  Assuming environmental regulations survive the current Administration’s onslaught on reason; watersheds are protected by environmental laws. It is also a given all of us, including Denver and the Northern District, share a common interest in keeping our Colorado River headwaters healthy.

The Upper Colorado River Watershed Group (a recently organized local water group) is exploring a funding source which has been long discussed by many different local and state groups.  The idea is to levy a per gallon fee on water leaving Grand County’s watershed to help deal with the financial impacts of diversion. This fee could mitigate impacts to local taxpayers, help protect a resource depended upon by eastern slope residents and could maintain a high quality watershed capable of supporting wildlife.

If you are not convinced a sustainable source of revenue is needed to fund upper Colorado water stewards in their efforts to keep what is left of the Colorado River healthy, please form a mental image of rings around the basins of the rapidly disappearing Lakes Mead and Powell. The Colorado River Compact is the blue whale in the room; this 1922 agreement governs allocations from our river to the 36 million plus people in seven states the Colorado River supplies. We know there is not nearly enough water in the Colorado to satisfy the increasingly thirsty American Southwest, emphasized once again this year as the North American Atmospheric Administration forecast the upper Colorado River Basin flows into Lake Powell will be a paltry 39 percent of average.          

We are all in this boat together and if we don’t obtain the resources needed to preserve the shallow water keeping us afloat we’ll all certainly be left high, dry and broke.

Columnist Andy Miller is but one voice on the Boards of both the Town of Fraser and the Upper Colorado River Watershed Group. His opinions are his alone and do not necessarily represent the positions of either group.