The Boulder County Commissioners Thursday unanimously asserted rights to local control over what would be the largest construction project in Boulder County history, by ruling Denver Water is not exempt from a regulatory process it hoped to bypass as it endeavors to dramatically expand Gross Reservoir Dam. But as KGNU’s Roz Brown reports, the Commissioners’ decision may not mean an end to the controversial project.
In an effort to expand Boulder County’s Gross Reservoir to serve Denver water customers, the Denver Water utility made its case that it is exempt from what’s known as “1041” – a bill passed by the Colorado legislature in 1974 that gave locals more control when massive infrastructure projects are proposed. Denver Water contends it doesn’t apply to the Gross Reservoir project, but dozens of local residents who spoke at the county public hearing disagreed.
“In this proposed project, Boulder County assumes all the risk and Denver gets all the benefit,” said Celena Collins with Save Boulder County. Collins offered up 400 postcards signed by local residents, urging the County Commissioners to affirm a previous ruling by their Land Use Director that Denver Water is required to adhere to 1041.
“This exactly what the 1041 process was made for, to help local governments to stand up to local large corporations and/or private utilities,” added Collins.
Like many others, Beverly Kurtz noted that the Gross Reservoir expansion was proposed in 2002, long before current research on climate change – which means Denver Water could be relying on obsolete data that does not take into consideration the persistent drought across the West and its impact on the Colorado River.
“The bottom line is, we’re dealing with a finite resource, just because you build a dam does not mean the water will come,” said Kurtz. “If expanded, Gross Reservoir may be nothing more than an ugly hole in the ground and a testament to greed and lack of foresight.”
Ann McDermott who has lived on the north side of Gross Reservoir since 1977. She urged the commissioners to implement the 1041 permit process, calling it a tool to protect the county’s environment.
“Dams promote water usage, not conservation,” said McDermott. “No one wakes up and says, ‘Gee, I hope there will be a seven-year dam construction project in my backyard.’ But if this project provided a significant solution, I would have to suck it up and deal with my personal loss and there’s no evidence for that.”
Denver Water serves nearly a 1.5 million customers in the Denver metro area, but none in Boulder County. The utility wants to raise the Gross Reservoir by 131 feet to a height of 471 feet to expand its capacity by 77-thousand acre-feet, and in the process remove as many as 650-thousand trees around the 12-mile shoreline. Local concerns range from years of construction requiring heavy vehicles along narrow mountain roads, to environmental devastation, to displacement of wildlife.
Only a handful of people spoke in favor of allowing Denver Water to go ahead without the 1041. They included an engineer, a spokesman for Trout Unlimited, and representatives of Grand County. Grand County was initially opposed to Gross Reservoir expansion but has since been persuaded of its value. Merrit Linke, a Grand County Commissioner urged the Boulder County not to invoke 1041, suggesting legal action could follow.
“Grand County is not a big fan of projects that take water from the head waters at Grand Lake to the Front Range, but using the 1041 opens up litigation,” said Linke.
But litigation to stop Gross Reservoir expansion is already in play with a lawsuit filed last year by, Save the Colorado. The environmental group sued the U.S. government over a permitting process it says inadequately evaluated the impact of the large project on streamflows.
“Boulder County and the people of Boulder County should not be a sacrifice zone for Denver’s river-draining scheme,” said Save the Colorado Director Gary Wockner. “It’s ridiculous that they don’t think they don’t have to go through your permit process to build the tallest dam in the history of Colorado and the largest construction project in the history of Boulder County.”
After more than four hours of testimony the three commissioners issued a unanimous decision, siding with their land use director that Denver Water needs to follow the 1041 permitting process.
Following the hearing, a spokesman for Denver Water said they would be taking time to evaluate their next move.