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Denver Water’s crucible: Two Forks

The proposed dam project still resonates three decades later, enabling a new path forward.

Editor’s note: When the proposed Two Forks Dam was under consideration decades ago, environmental groups and others opposed to the idea of building the new dam pushed for conservation measures, water reuse and the expansion of Gross Reservoir.

We’ve all experienced a crucible in our lives, that defining moment where events force you to choose a new path forward.

The Two Forks Dam project was Denver Water’s crucible, according to Jeff Martin, program manager for Denver Water’s Gross Reservoir Expansion Project.

In the early 1970s, Denver Water proposed building a dam at the confluence of the north and south forks of the South Platte River. At the time, Denver Water and other water utilities in Colorado and the western United States routinely pursued large storage projects to meet the water demands of growing populations. In many cases, utilities focused solely on getting the project done without much consideration of the project’s impact on others.

Then, in November 1990, the Environmental Protection Agency vetoed the project.

Jeff Martin, program manager for the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project, talks at a recent event about the collaborative approach Denver Water uses to move projects like the expansion project forward. Photo credit: Denver Water.

This pivotal moment essentially ended the era of big dam construction projects in this country. At Denver Water, the decision forced the organization to examine its approach to big projects.

“We knew we were going to have to do business differently,” Martin said at the 2018 Watershed Summit at the Denver Botanic Gardens. “Collaboration and environmental stewardship would now move to the forefront of every project we do.”

Environmental groups and project opponents at the time pushed for more conservation, water reuse, and expanding an existing dam, Gross Reservoir, rather than building a new one.

Denver Water took note of those suggestions and now has an industry-leading water efficiency program, a recycled water plant, and is moving forward with the Gross Reservoir expansion.

In his talk, Martin reflected on the importance of lessons learned from the Two Forks project and discussed what it takes to move a water project forward today.

“In addition to the environmental stewardship and collaboration components, you need an alignment of vision, ethics and values among stakeholders,” Martin said. “You’ll also need patience — a whole lot of patience.”

All those aspects have been present in Denver Water’s approach to the Gross Reservoir expansion.

The additional storage capacity will help prevent future shortfalls during droughts and offset an imbalance in Denver Water’s collection system.

“Right from the start of this project, we said we were going to do things differently,” Martin said. “There would be more focus on environmental stewardship and much more focus on collaborating with the different stakeholders in the area.”

Adding additional storage capacity to Gross Reservoir will help prevent future shortfalls during droughts and offset an imbalance in Denver Water’s collection system. Photo credit: Denver Water.

That shift in approach led to the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, signed in 2013 by 18 entities, including Denver WaterGrand CountySummit County and the Colorado River District. The agreement’s goal is to protect watersheds in the Colorado River Basin while allowing Denver Water to pursue future water supplies, including expanding Gross Reservoir.

“The Gross Reservoir project is a great example of Denver Water considering the impacts of a project on other stakeholders involved, as well as on the environment,” Martin said. “It really does represent a new way of doing business for us.”

As for the patience needed to move a water project forward, Martin said the Gross Reservoir project has required that as well. Denver Water began the permitting process in 2003.

“We actually extended the Environmental Impact Statement process by about five years because a number of stakeholders had questions,” Martin said. “When you make a commitment to collaboration, you must have the patience to back it up. It’s been a long process, but I think we’ve done it the right way.”

The next milestone in the project comes with the anticipated approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission of Denver Water’s hydropower license amendment application. The entire project is expected to be completed in 2025.

That would be 36 years after Denver Water experienced the crucible of Two Forks. Patience, indeed.