Chatfield plans don’t hold water

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By Paula Noonan

The Chatfield Reservoir expansion project will doubly affect South Jeffco, and not for the good. The Army Corps of Engineers, at the urging of 14 upstream and downstream water users, wants to change Chatfield from a flood-control and public-recreation reservoir to a highly fluctuating multi-use reservoir. The corps will add 12 vertical feet of storage for projected residential and agricultural needs.
The 14 water users want to increase Chatfield’s storage because they believe it is the cheapest and easiest option for them — but not necessarily for us taxpayers.
Since the South Platte River is already over-appropriated, the corps can only add water to the existing reservoir during high flood years, about once in every seven years, according to the historical record. In those years, the reservoir’s surface will expand to the edges of Wadsworth Boulevard. Upstream fishing ponds, marshlands and cottonwood canopies will flood and die off. The bird sanctuary, home to several rare bird species, will be immeasurably compromised, and maybe lost entirely.
This storage regimen will require the relocation of all existing recreation facilities, boat ramps and marina, biking trails, picnic grounds, and day camp sites. The beaches will be a moving target. In high flood years, people can sunbathe close to Wadsworth. In the most common dry years, kayakers, bathers, and families will trek across about 300 yards of smelly mudflats, toddlers in tow, to throw down their towels.
The project is in the midst of an Environmental Impact Statement evaluation as required by federal law. The Colorado Water Conservation Board is the local project sponsor. The CWCB has set aside about $40 million, according to the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, to get some project loans out this year.
The EIS, past due from 2010, is still hung up, and most data that any citizen might want for assessing the value of the project are still unavailable. It is unlikely that a $40 million loan will be needed in 2011, as the project must also go through a public comment period once the EIS is released. It’s peculiar to do a loan now for added storage because it would seem to preclude the consideration of other options supposedly evaluated in the EIS which, incidentally, is being paid for by the public, not the proponents.
Even so, when the state’s Department of Natural Resources was asked to pony up to help bridge the state’s budget deficit, it only offered $10 million from the CWCB for 2010-11 and $15 million for 2011-12. The JBC’s staff determined the CWCB could pitch in $51 million for 2010-11 and $65 million in 2011-12. When the JBC staff informed the committee that about $40 million of the $116 million would be a loan for Chatfield, two committee members, Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, and Jon Becker (R-eastyern Colorado, beat a hasty retreat. “We’d better not touch those dollars,” said Gerou.
Meanwhile, Chatfield’s 14 prospective water users do not include anyone from Jeffco. The water will go mostly to Douglas and Arapahoe counties for their water needs projected out beyond 2030. Users include Perry Park, the golf course and residential area south of Sedalia, and Castle Pines and Castle Pines North on the east side of Santa Fe. Two “stakeholders” are agricultural users. The CWCB loans for the project are at very favorable rates: 2.75 percent for ag users and as low as 4 percent for municipalities.
So here’s where Jeffco is in double jeopardy: If the $40 million is set aside for Chatfield in 2011-12, it can’t be used to offset the state’s deficit, including the $300 million to $400 million gap in state education funding.  If the JBC took all of the CWCB’s $116 million, those funds could cover a quarter to a third of our education deficit. It is important to note that the CWCB funds come mainly from severance taxes and are restored annually.
Jeffco kids could really use some of that money to prevent burgeoning classroom size, secure reading and math programs, and offer middle and high school electives, among many other programs. Yet the JBC and CWCB are apparently putting water need projections far ahead of our immediate, pressing education needs.
It’s always important to weigh competing resource values. In this economy, it’s time to weigh in for our kids’ educations. A bundle of less-expensive water options, such as conservation, off-stream storage, and ground water recharge along the South Platte Valley, can support the water users’ projected needs. It might also be wise to ask these 14 water users to go to their local banks to get the loans to secure their water rather than tap the public, once again.

Paula Noonan, a South Jeffco resident, is a member of the Jefferson County Board of Education.