When Does An Environmentalist Compromise? Lessons From Colorado’s Fraser River

December 7, 2016
Photo: Fraser River 1 | Kevin Scannel
Kevin Scannel, a fishing guide at Devil's Thumb Ranch near Tabernash, Colorado, shows off bug life taken from the Fraser River on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016.

Colorado’s economy depends on water: where it is, where the people who need it live and work, who has rights to it. Fights over those needs are a core part of the state’s history, and they tend to follow a pattern. So in some ways, the fight over the Fraser River in Colorado’s Grand County is familiar.

Denver Water holds unused water rights on the river, which starts in the shadow of Berthoud Pass and courses down the western side of the Continental Divide past Winter Park, Fraser and Tabernash to join the Colorado River outside of Granby.

The agency, looking at the booming population and economy in Denver, now wants to exercise those rights. That means taking more water from the river, piping it under the Indian Peaks and sending it into Gross Reservoir near Boulder.

Some conservationists and environmental groups are crying foul, saying that the river has already been overtaxed (about 60 percent of its existing flow is already diverted to slake Denver’s growing thirst) and it’s time to let the river alone.Photo: Fraser River 3 | Berthoud Pass

But the fight's pattern is taking some unfamiliar twists and turns. Influential groups like Trout Unlimited and American Rivers, who’ve historically fought diversion projects, support this one. In exchange, Denver Water says it will will help protect and enhance what’s left of the Fraser River.

That compromise has fractured traditional lines in Colorado’s conservation and environmental advocacy community, and fostered new alliances. While these organizations more or less agree on their ultimate goal -- to protect and restore the environment -- the strategies they use are very different. The big question that divides them: When to compromise?

Denver Water Extends An Olive Branch

Decades ago, environmentalists were not at the top of list of Denver Water’s concerns when it would try to build dams and add capacity. In the 1980s, environmental groups pushed back on a huge proposed dam called Two Forks.