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Mountain News: What mountain rivers will help Denver grow?



GUNNISON, Colo. - Mountain towns in the Rockies have a symbiotic relationship with Denver and other cities along Colorado's urbanized, Front Range corridor. It is typically also one of ambivalence.

That Front Range corridor already consists of four million people, the single largest source of skiing customers in North America, perhaps anywhere on the planet. That base allows Colorado ski areas with relative proximity to survive even when the more distant-but more lucrative-destination skiers stay at home.

That was evident in last week's report from Vail Resorts, which has four major ski areas within a two-hour drive of that Front Range population, plus another at Lake Tahoe. While destination skiers dropped to 57 per cent of the total visitation this past winter, compared to 63 per cent the year before, Vail Resorts had a total decline of skier visits of only 5.3 per cent.

But the need of Front Range cities for water causes continuing tension, with reverberations as far away as Jackson, Wyo.

Native supplies were proving inadequate even 125 years ago, when farmers discovered they had insufficient water during late summer to finish their crops. To accommodate their needs, creeks from the western side off the Continental Divide, in the area of Rocky Mountain National Park, were diverted eastward.

Since then, the headwaters areas from Granby southward to Winter Park, Breckenridge, Vail and Aspen, have become configured with an intricate labyrinth of ditches, reservoirs, canals and tunnels, all with the intent of achieving what historian (and Telluride native) David Lavender described as a "massive violation of geography."

With the easy diversions completed decades ago, Front Range interests began to look for the small increments close in, what has been described as the "last drop," or with big straws in mind to draw from more distant sources.

The drought of 2002 provoked an even greater intensity of focus. So do population projections that envision the state's population doubling by the year 2050, with four-fifths of that population growth occurring along the Front Range.

One idea still being studied calls for pumping of water from Green Mountain Reservoir, located on the Blue River, about 20 miles to Dillon Reservoir, for diversion to Denver. A compensatory dam on the Eagle River west of Vail might be the quid pro quo to the Western Slope.

Other ideas look at more distant sources. Aaron Million proposes to withdraw water from the Green River, which starts in Wyoming's Wind River Range, an hour or two south of the town of Jackson. The river briefly enters Colorado before continuing down to a confluence with the Colorado River near Moab. As such, Million says, Colorado is entitled to the water from the Green as per river compacts reached in 1922 and 1948. But Wyoming isn't so sure. Even people in Jackson, Wyo., who would be unaffected, have been testy about the idea.