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Water Speculators, Developers and the Plot to Destroy Colorado's Most Popular Park

The Park Killers

by PHILLIP DOE

The other night I went to a killing.  It was all very matter of fact.  Five judges sat at the front of the room listening to people testify for or against the killing of public recreation and wildlife at Chatfield Reservoir.  An urban recreation and wildlife center, Chatfield receives over 1.5 million visitor days a year.  It is Colorado’s premiere state park, helping to underwrite more remote and less visited parks.  Too, it is a bird sanctuary, home to at least one endangered species, and a place without equal in the state because of its proximity to Denver.  You can get there by simply pedaling your bike, many do.

But all this hasn’t stopped backroom, Water Buffalo plans for converting it from a stable flood protection reservoir into a greatly fluctuating reservoir to satisfy future water demand from suburban sprawl, or at least try to.  They’ve been at it for over a decade, with the public unsuspectingly paying for the prospective kill.  Several so-called environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Greenway Foundation have joined the Water Buffaloes in the slaughter.  Still, there are problems.

Most of them are even admitted to if you read carefully a five hundred-page behemoth called the Chatfield Reservoir Storage Reallocation Integrated Draft Feasibility Report and Environmental Impact Statement.

Chief among the many problems is that there is no dependable water available, a niggling matter, apparently, to the climate-change deniers and other optimists.  You see, the Platte River on which the reservoir sits is over-appropriated, like all rivers on the east side of the continental divide in Colorado.  We’ve used them up, over 80 percent of it to agriculture, a lot of it to raise corn, which can then be converted into ethanol and sugar to be shipped off to mix with gasoline and Coca Cola.  Over 40 percent of the corn raised in the U.S. is converted to ethanol.  It might be even higher in Colorado.

But wait, these back room planners, called stakeholders to distinguish them from ordinary people, have looked into our past, and provided that past can be repeated, flood flows might be captured and delivered to sprawl.  The planners do admit that the slice of the past they studied was one of the wettest in tree-ring history, but wishful thinking is a strong opiate.  The conjunction of a predicted dryer and hotter southern Rockies future from climate change with a narrow slice of planning data from a wet past would make rational folk demand some sensitivity analysis.  How much increase in surface temperature, how much decrease in snow pack and runoff cause this whole scheme to collapse in a heap?  This should be the first item of business, but it hasn’t been.

The real question is whether our political delegation, all of which have supported the Chatfield destruction to varying degrees, will demand that the Corp of Engineers do a sensitivity analysis.  One would hope for such an outcome since a Bureau of Reclamation climate change study on the Colorado River commissioned several years ago, indicated that with only a 2 degree increase in temperature in the river basin, runoff might be reduced by as much as 12 percent.  Reduced snow pack was not part of that study.  Its contribution has yet to be measured.  Snow pack in Platte River drainage was about 26 percent of normal this past year.  Whose to say this drop couldn’t be the harbinger of a new, dryer norm?

But let us remain boldly optimistic and blind to climate change.  So, if the historic floods come, then massive relocations at the reservoir will be undertaken, even wetlands will be moved and hundreds of acres of mature cottonwood forest will be cut down or simply die from standing water.  Wildlife will be forced to find new places, but to the stakeholders new places are always available.  The displaced fox will always be welcomed into cousin coyote’s den for a tidy meal of displaced rabbit.

In fact, this very dicey water supply might lap busy Wadsworth Blvd when the reservoir was in maximum storage mode.  When the water had been spent, sand and mud flats would dominate the horizon, rivaling the view of the Bay of Fundy at tide out, except the Chatfield mud flats could remain for months if not years.  Picnickers and bathers would be hundreds of feet from water across smelly, fly-infested mud flats.  But as the stakeholders reason, use would stay high, for there’s no place else to go this close to town.  Only the aesthetics of the experience would change.

Alternatives to Chatfield destruction are treated in the EIS, and they abound, but killing Chatfield is the preferred stakeholder alternative.  The reasons are many.  Not least among them is the fact that as the costs of a project to capture a water supply that might not even exist in a hotter and drier future increased, concessions were made.  That’s right, even though the stakeholders have agreed to pay all of the costs they really aren’t going to.  Already the Secretary of the Army has used his authority to forgive the lion’s share of the costs of reservoir storage, about $22 million.  This is public revenue that won’t be going to the Treasury so that water users in Castle Pines, one of the wealthiest places in America, don’t have to pay the full freight.

The Secretary reasoned that the costs were too high given the diceyness of the endeavor, and especially when taken in conjunction with the mitigation costs for recreating the recreation and wildlife destruction someplace else.  Those costs come to over $150 million.  But anyone even remotely familiar with the history of mitigation on large federal water projects knows the awful truth—mitigation measures almost never happen. In the Chatfield case, even Nathan Detroit would shy away from betting on mitigation being performed.  For rest assured if the water doesn’t come, the mitigation sure as hell wont.  Turmoil will be the only product of this interminable study that has already cost the public millions, the stakeholders nothing.

Among the rejected alternatives to the killing of Chatfield was the option of using existing and planned sand pits downstream, from Denver to Brighton, for storage.  They number about 41 and have an estimated storage capacity of at least 100,000 acre feet, about 5 times the proposed storage at Chatfield.  This alternative was only slightly more costly than the Chatfield reallocation, but less costly to the general public because the $ 22 million in storage costs at Chatfield would not have to be forgiven.  Besides preserving Chatfield as a wildlife and recreation area, it has the advantage of being incremental—fast conversion if growth is fast, slow conversion if it is not.  And of course these ponds too may not fill with a warmer and drier climate, and while that risk appears acceptable to these stakeholders, it should not include interfering with our premier state park.   Let these water speculators practice their alchemy on private lands and leave the park’s visitors and wildlife alone.

Oh, did I mention that we use about 5 million acre feet of water in the Platte and Republican River basins each year?  That we use another 2.5 million acre feet in the Arkansas River basin? That we have built around 1200 storage reservoirs in these basins?  What they want at Chatfield, as disgustingly destructive as it is, is only one thousandth of one percent of what is used in these drainages every year.  Surely, a solution involving conservation from existing users would make Chatfield unnecessary, and when the potential for conservation is added to the off stream storage potential in the numerous gravel pits downstream from Chatfield, they make the whole scheme another terrible joke on the public and its belief in government.

Really, the question is will stupidity and greed trump good social and environmental planning?  The smart money’s on stupidity and greed, because so is history.

PHILLIP DOE lives in Colorado. He can be reached at: ptdoe@comcast.net