Breaking impasse on water

Denver utility, W. Slope cut deal over Eagle River By Jerd Smith, Rocky Mountain News Wednesday, November 28, 2007 Denver Water will give up millions of gallons of water in the scenic Eagle River, water it had once counted on for future customers, under a legal settlement unveiled Wednesday.

In exchange, Denver preserves some of its water rights in the river and receives the right to participate in a new reservoir project at Wolcott, if all the parties, including Eagle County water users, agree it should be built.

The settlement is considered a breakthrough in the stalemate between Denver and the West Slope over how to serve both fast-growing regions without harming streams or allowing chronic water shortages to develop.

Denver Water is Colorado's largest water utility and serves 1.2 million people in the metro area.

The agreement is important for the West Slope because it leaves much of the water in question in the river, a move that will ensure supplies for fast-growing Vail and other Eagle County communities.

It also will help protect stream flows in the Eagle and the drought-strapped Colorado River, to which the Eagle is tributary.

"It's quite a step," said Brian Werner, a spokesman for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which serves Fort Collins and Boulder, among others. "It's probably the first significant movement we've seen in East/West talks in a long time." Northern is one of the parties to the settlement.

The Denver Water Board approved the terms of the proposal Wednesday. The other parties also have agreed to the terms.

Denver's director of planning, Dave Little, did not return calls seeking comment. Glenn Porzak, an attorney for the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, which serves Vail, also did not return calls.

At issue are thousands of acre-feet of Eagle River water Denver claimed decades ago but hasn't used yet, largely because it hasn't needed it.

Last year the Eagle River district and others sued to force the utility to abandon its claim to the water, but Denver insisted during a trial this summer that it needed the water for its metro-area customers.

The case comes as water shortages loom on the Front Range and the Western Slope, with counties such as Eagle concerned that their scenic resort haven will be hurt if more water is moved to the Front Range, as is allowed under Colorado law.

Denver had discussed as recently as 2004 voluntarily giving up at least part of its future Eagle River supplies in exchange for getting Eagle County water users to support building a reservoir at Wolcott. But those talks fell apart as the drought lingered and friction between Denver and Western Slope water users increased. The lawsuit was filed in fall 2006.

Denver draws roughly half of its annual supplies from Western Slope rivers, including the Blue, in Summit County, and the Fraser, in Grand.