Aurora and Colorado Springs need extra water. The proposed resolution – a brand new reservoir – would have far-reaching implications

Environmentalists are concerned about the loss of these climate change threatened wetlands. Delia Malone, ecologist and wildlife professor at the Sierra Club’s Colorado Chapter, said most animals rely on wetlands.

“It’s inherently rare and because of evolution we’ve lost even more, which further increases the rarity of this habitat and essential nature for wildlife,” Malone said.

Malone said the proposed reservoir locations could include areas that are home to bogs, a type of wetland that is rare in the arid west and supports plant biodiversity. Bogs have layers of peat, take thousands of years to develop, and are replenished by groundwater. Bogs also trap environmental carbon, improve water quality, and retain water.

“They are the systems that provide streams with water so that currents can flow,” Malone said. “If we want fish, if we want native species that depend on this water, we’ll keep it in the stream.”

Hart Van Denburg / CPR NewsNew construction of an apartment in Aurora on Sable Avenue on 2nd Street on March 10, 2021.

Climate change is drying up the Colorado River, even though water needs are increasing

The flow of the Colorado River has declined about 20 percent since 2000. Research shows that half of this is due to man-made climate change and that the river’s flow is expected to decline more. Some see this as an argument to keep water flowing. For Aurora and Colorado Springs, climate change makes a reservoir even more critical and would support the cities during the drought.

“In the 21st century, new water projects have additional hurdles to overcome,” said Brad Udall, senior scientist on water and climate research at Colorado State University.

Udall understands and appreciates the Front Range water utilities’ mission to provide reliable water to their growing population, but said this new reservoir could face challenges with climate change.

“There is a potential reduction in water for these projects; there is a reduction in water quality,” said Udall. “And then you have this whole redevelopment equity issue affecting older Colorado water projects that have already been built.”

HOMESTAKE WATER AURORAHart Van Denburg / CPR NewsClouds were reflected in the Aurora Municipal Center on March 10, 2021.

Colorado and other states are required by a centuries-old treaty to send a certain amount of water downstream into states like California. As the Colorado River dries with climate change and there is more demand for the river, Udall says there is a higher risk of a so-called “compact call,” a provision that gives downstream states like California the authority to request water from upstream states like Colorado not sending enough water down the Colorado River.

If so, Udall said newer water projects in Colorado – including the proposed Whitney Reservoir – could potentially be used less to ensure enough water is directed downstream.

Udall said the best science available is needed to answer the question, is this water better left in the river or sent to Aurora and Colorado Springs?

“The science really needs to be heard here,” said Udall. “It’s a little unsettling and very different from the science we used in the 20th century to assess the value and usefulness of such projects.”

Officials in Colorado Springs and Aurora declined CPR News’ interview requests.

Before cities can move on to building the reservoir, the US Forest Service must approve the structural tests and surveys that require the drilling of test holes in the wetlands. A decision on that permit, which has received more than 500 public comments, is expected later this month, with most arguing against the drilling and the entire project.

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