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Showdown at Two Forks

May 27, 1988

The prevailing view of water in the West goes something like this: All the best Western dam sites have been used up. Besides, with the federal budget squeeze and the high cost of new projects, there is no real consensus for any more mammoth water developments. The watchword in Western water now is good management, or how to get by on existing sources.

Those statements generally are true. But there always seems to be an exception to the rule, and today that exception is fueling "the last big water fight" in Colorado, which has a rich history of fighting over water. The focus of the battle is the proposed 550-foot Two Forks Dam on the South Platte River southwest of Denver, near where the South Platte and its north fork join at the foot of the Rockies. The project--costing $500 million to $1 billion, including environmental mitigation--would inundate 20 miles of fine trout-fishing stream and store up to 1.1 million acre-feet of water (about twice what the city of Los Angeles uses in a year). Denver has been eyeing a dam at the Two Forks site for more than 80 years.

The project would be locally financed by the Denver Water Department and 42 suburban districts that make up the Metropolitan Water Providers. In opposition is the Colorado Environmental Caucus--made up of 19 groups like the Sierra Club, the League of Women Voters and others. In the middle at the moment is Colorado Gov. Roy R. Romer, a development-minded chief executive who is expected to decide within the next several weeks whether to support or oppose the project. Two Forks does not need Romer's permission, but his support is considered vital to the dam's future. The project does require approval from two federal agencies, the U.S. Forest Service and the Corps of Engineers, which have set a June 10 deadline for public input.

This is a classic modern water fight, with many of the same elements of contention that figure in California water disputes. In Two Forks the growing chain of cities and suburbs along the Front Range of the Rockies battles environmentalists for more water, some of it to be imported from another part of the state. But the old war between the urban Front Range and the rural West Slope on the other side of the Continental Divide is only a minor part of the Two Forks fight.

Metropolitan Water Providers want a big reservoir on their side of the divide to ensure an ongoing supply for the next 35 years and to protect against a drought or some disruption of existing supplies that come by tunnel from the Colorado River drainage on the West Slope. One of the disruption theories evolves from a fear that California one day will somehow grab some of Colorado's share of the Colorado River.

The Environmental Caucus contends that the proponents' future population and water demand estimates are exaggerated and that the metro area needs can be met through conservation, purchases from farmers and a variety of smaller projects at half the cost. Caucus members note that 30% of the stored supplies would go to watering suburban lawns and gardens. These arguments are the same kind that Northern Californians use for opposing further exports of water to Southern California.

No one can say if Colorado is going to make the "right" choice on Two Forks. It should be noted, however, that all segments of the Colorado water community have been involved in this discussion since 1981, when then-Gov. Richard D. Lamm convened an advisory group known as the Governor's Metropolitan Water Roundtable. Roundtable sessions, evolving into the environmental-impact process, made it possible for the decision-makers to have a clear idea of the alternatives and the choices involved. Along the way a number of Colorado's knotty water disputes were resolved through Roundtable consensus. That is the sensible modern way to deal with old water battles.

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