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Colorado Water Plan Has Become 'Colorado Dam Plan'

You'd have thought the earth moved exactly two years ago with all the ballyhoo at the State Capitol when Gov. John Hickenlooper unveiled the final Colorado Water Plan. I stood in the west foyer of the Capitol as every TV camera in the city pointed at Hickenlooper and his then-Colorado Water Conservation Board director, James Eklund. Bold promises were made that the plan was going to save our rivers, farms, cities, and the whole state from the coming catastrophe of population growth.

I was deeply involved in the Colorado Water Plan process, and at the time I issued a big word of caution in the form of a newspaper column that was printed in seven outlets across the state.


I warned that the plan was too heavily focused on draining and damming rivers rather than protecting and restoring them.

Now, two years out from that unveiling, I take no solace in being right. In fact, the Colorado Water Plan has become the "Colorado Dam Plan."

If you look at the sheer amount of money so far spent and supported, the state's endorsements and loans for dams have outsized water conservation and river restoration by a margin of at least 50 to 1. Before the ink was dry, Hickenlooper used the plan to endorse the $350 million "Moffat Collection System Project," which would be a massive enlargement of Denver Water's "Gross Dam" in Boulder County. In fact, it would build the tallest dam in the history of Colorado and fill it by draining another 4.5 billion gallons of water every year out of the already severely degraded Upper Colorado River in Grand County.

If that wasn't enough, Hickenlooper then used the plan to endorse the $380 million "Windy Gap Firming Project," which would take another 9 billion gallons of water every year out of the same Upper Colorado River, reducing its flow to a small fraction of its natural beauty. To add insult to injury, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (all appointed by Hickenlooper) then ran a bill through the Legislature to loan that project $90 million to give it financial legs because it couldn't stand on its own two feet.

And there's more.

The "Basin Roundtables," which are made up of self-appointed "stakeholders" around the state, have used the plan to get funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board for more planning and scheming about dams in northern Colorado on the Cache la Poudre River, in the southwest corner of the state on the San Juan River, and in the northwest corner of the state on the White River.

At the same time that all of that money and planning has flowed toward dams, the alternatives to dams and river protection have gotten extreme short shrift, just as I predicted two years ago.

Despite all the rhetoric, a pittance of money has been allocated to water conservation, water recycling and reuse, and the highly touted "alternative transfer mechanisms" to share water with farmers.

On that last note, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has promoted a few small "pilot" alternative transfer mechanisms, including one larger one in Weld County which wasn't to increase water supply for growing cities—it was created to share water between farmers and frackers. Implementation of the plan has also allocated a tiny amount of money for "Stream Management Plans," but such little money has yielded a similar result.

Here in Fort Collins along the Cache la Poudre River, we just found out that Hickenlooper endorsed "Fish and Wildlife Mitigation Plan" for a massive proposed $850 million dam project called the "Northern Integrated Supply Project."

Despite complete scientific opposition from actual wildlife scientists, the mitigation lan unanimously sailed through the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, both appointed by Hickenlooper.

Let's just say Hickenlooper's never seen a river-destroying dam he didn't like.

When the Colorado Water Plan was proposed four years ago, it was perceived by many educated onlookers as an effort by the Front Range growth machine to push through policy and funding to further dam and drain rivers to fuel and subsidize growth.

Two years down the road, that perception has become complete reality.

I'm no longer skeptical about the Colorado Water Plan; I'm now working to stop it.

Wherever you are in the state, if you hear someone touting the Colorado Water Plan, don't take the bait, again—we need to stop it before every beautiful river in our state is drained and destroyed.

Author Gary Wockner, Ph.D., directs two river-protection groups, "Save The Poudre" and "Save The Colorado."

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