Denver Water reduces diversions from Colorado River headwaters, keeps streams flowing on Western Slope

With a federal water shortage declaration looming for the Southwest, Denver Water is trying to help. Normally nearly 20% of the city’s water comes from Grand County, which is filled with streams that make up the headwaters of the Colorado River.

In a normal year, 60% of the water in Grand County is diverted from streams high above Grand Lake and captured near Winter Park and sent to the other side of the Continental Divide for agricultural and municipal water supply, mostly on the Front Range. The metro area has been legally entitled to collect this water for its supply since the 1920s, but in this exchange, it’s to help improve suffering streams and tributaries along the Colorado River.

“While our primary responsibility is to make sure we’re supplying water to 1.5 million people in the metro area, we’re always looking for opportunities to help improve conditions on the rivers, to help the aquatic environment, recreation and communities they flow through,” said Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s manager of water supply, in a news release.

It is estimated that by that around 11,000 acre-feet of water from Grand County has not been collected, or roughly enough water to supply over 44,000 residences for one year.

Denver Water was given this ability due to a wet spring pulling the Front Range out of a drought and into a good spot with water.

Denver Water’s customers have also done a better job of usage; from January to May, use hit a 50-year low across the metro area. That comes despite nearly 600,000 more people in its service area since 1970 and years with drought restrictions.

“Some of the low use may be due to COVID-19 impacts on business, and obviously a wet, cool spring helped,” said Greg Fisher, demand manager for Denver Water, in a statement. “It’s a great sign that our customers really understand efficient water use and let Mother Nature do the watering for them when possible.”

Elder said that Denver Water turned off the divided-traversing Roberts Tunnel in April, which helped bring up water in Dillion Reservoir, the utility’s largest.

“Between the rising temperatures, changes to the timing of spring runoff, extreme fire behavior, and half a million more people expected in the metro area by 2040, our ability for flexible operations is decreasing in a time when we need it the most,” Elder said. “We must take an ‘all-in’ approach that includes conservation, water reuse, and development of new water supplies so we can continue to maximize the benefits of a large system.”

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