By Shari Phiel
With all of the rain, late afternoon thunderstorms and tornado warnings hitting the Front Range for the past several weeks, it might be difficult to remember that Colorado is actually a semi-arid climate typically receiving no more than 12 to 16 inches of precipitation per year.
And while the current economic conditions may have slowed the area’s growth temporarily, eventually the unprecedented boom seen in the late ’90s and early 2000s will return once again. All of which makes understanding where our water comes from, what environmental changes loom on the horizon, and how all that growth will be accommodated an absolute necessity.
Which was the exact purpose of a recent tour of the eastern slope of the northern Front Range area conducted by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. The NCWCD, headquartered in Berthoud, is the public agency responsible for providing our area with water for agricultural, municipal, domestic and industrial uses. Each year the district offers full-day tours of both its eastern and western slope facilities to allow agricultural water users, officials and members of the public an opportunity to better understand how and what the district does.
While much of the water used in the northern Front Range areas originates along the western slope, the canals, reservoirs and pumping stations find along the eastern slope are critical to delivering our water. These facilities include Carter Lake, Horsetooth Reservoir, Flatiron Reservoir and the proposed Chimney Hollow and Glade Reservoir projects.
“If you look at where the demands for water are in Colorado, both in terms of agriculture and in terms of municipal and industrial use, and you look at where the water’s located in Colorado, we’re just opposite of what we should be,” said Eric Wilkinson, general manager for the NCWCD.
Wilkinson added, “About 80 percent of the water supplies in the state of Colorado fall west of the continental divide. About 83 percent, today, of the demands for water in the state of Colorado are on the east slope.”
Bringing that water from west of the divide to the eastern slope is where the NCWCD comes in. The district was created in 1937 in response to the Great Depression, and the drought and dust storms that swept across prairie land. It was created to develop the Colorado-Big Thompson Project — a district encompassing more the 1.6 million acres across Larimer, Weld, Boulder, Broomfield, Logan, Morgan, Washington and Sedgwick counties — that delivers water from north of Fort Collins, south to Louisville and Lafayette, and as far east as Fort Morgan.
Better known as the C-BT, the project is the largest trans-mountain water diversion project in Colorado and moves water to the Front Range through a system of canals, siphons and pumps from the Colorado River headwaters at Grand Lake into 12 reservoirs.
According to information provided by the NCWCD, the C-BT uses “35 miles of tunnels, 95 miles of canals and 700 miles of transmission lines” to collect and distribute 213,000 acre-feet of water each year.
For those, such as many of us on the tour, Brian Werner, a public information officer for the district, explained this is the volume of one acre of surface area to a depth of one foot, or roughly 326,000 gallons of water. Which means in a single year, the C-BT delivers nearly 70 trillion gallons of water to the northern Front Range.
Over the years, the district has seen a dramatic change in who is using all that water and when water demand in occurring. From the 1940s, when the district first began delivering water for agricultural use through the ‘50s and ‘60s, most of the water demand began in the spring and lasted through the fall. Now that demand is year round.
Who owns the water right has changed as well. Originally, “85 percent were owned by agricultural interests; 15 percent were owned by municipal and industrial interests,” said Wilkinson. In addition, 95 percent of the water delivered went to agricultural uses. “As we stand today, 64 percent of our allotment contracts are owned by municipal or industrial investors. And our usage is now about 60 percent ag and 40 percent municipal/industrial,” he added.
As Colorado’s population continues to grow, questions about how more water will be made available and delivered have begun to arise. Next week, we will look at proposed projects like the Northern Integrated Supply Project and the Windy Gap Firming Project will affect our area. We’ll also look at how environmental changes could also affect our water supply.
For more information about the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, call (970) 532-7700 or visit their Web site at www.NCWCD.org. Eastern slope and western slope tours are free but have limited seating. Contact the district for more information.
<p>Carter Lake is a key eastern slope water facility.</p>