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Along the winding rural highways and forested watersheds of northern Colorado, the paths of Colorado’s two U.S. Senate candidates intertwined on Tuesday at a series of events that put a spotlight on the all-important Colorado River Basin and what fate awaits it in an age of catastrophic climate change.
Standing atop the dam at Windy Gap Reservoir in Grand County, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet joined state and local officials in a groundbreaking ceremony for the Colorado River Connectivity Project, a mile-long diversion aimed at improving the flow and ecological health of the Colorado River as it runs west from the Continental Divide. Nearly 40 million people across the western U.S. get their water from the Colorado River or its tributaries, which make up a basin that drains westward from high in the Rocky Mountains through seven states and into Mexico.
“More than ever, the future of the Colorado River is in doubt,” Bennet told a small crowd assembled under a tent beside the river. “You know what’s happening. Climate change is bearing down on us, and it means less snowpack and more evaporation. Flows are down 20%. Farmers are fallowing their fields. Outfitters are wondering if they’ll have a business in five years.”
Windy Gap is among the first reservoirs to dam the Colorado River as it flows down from its headwaters on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. Since the dam’s construction in the 1980s, conservation groups have raised alarm about the damage it’s done to the river’s ecosystem, blocking the passage of fish while letting through sediment that muddies the river downstream.
The $27 million diversion project, funded with federal dollars from the Natural Resources Conservation Service as well as private donations, will dredge a new channel for the river alongside the reservoir. Advocates like Mely Whiting, an attorney with conservation group Trout Unlimited, say the diversion will restore habitats, improve stream flows and “prepare the headwaters of the Colorado River for a much hotter and drier future.”
Bennet passed the microphone to a string of dignitaries that included Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and Brad Wind, general manager of Northern Water, the utility that owns and operates the Windy Gap Reservoir.
Another key player in the project, meanwhile, observed proceedings from the back, joining in the applause while posing for photos: Joe O’Dea, Bennet’s Republican challenger in Colorado’s closely-watched 2022 Senate race. The first-time candidate is the CEO of a Denver-based construction company, Concrete Express Inc., which was tapped by the CWCB last year as the Windy Gap project’s general contractor. Clad in a hardhat and a safety vest, O’Dea arrived shortly before the groundbreaking and departed shortly after.
We have a crisis … If you look at graphic depictions of the Colorado River — it is dramatic. This is serious.
– Dennis Yanchunas, of Northern Water
O’Dea, who has consistently pitched his candidacy as a crusade against what he calls “reckless spending” by the federal government, wrote on Twitter Tuesday that the project — for which CEI has been paid $348,000 to date for design work, according to CWCB records, ahead of a projected $22 million construction phase — was an “incredible public, private partnership that promotes the health and vitality of the Colorado River.”
“It was good to see Sen. Bennet and other leaders from around the state there today,” O’Dea said.
Following the event, a campaign staffer for O’Dea denied an interview request, claiming a Newsline reporter was “biased” but repeatedly refusing to specify any substantive objections to Newsline’s reporting. Throughout the race, O’Dea and his campaign have repeatedly refused to answer questions regarding the candidate’s positions on climate change.
In June, O’Dea told an interviewer that he believes “there’s still a debate” to be had about the causes of global warming — a claim at odds with the overwhelming scientific consensus that fossil fuel emissions and other anthropogenic factors account for virtually all of the planet’s observed temperature increase since 1850.
‘A very dark and foreboding time’
Dennis Yanchunas has worked in water management for over 30 years. He currently serves as president of Northern Water’s municipal subdistrict, which provides water to six Front Range municipalities via the Windy Gap Reservoir and the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, a “transmountain” diversion of water from the west side of the Continental Divide to the east.
Speaking at Tuesday’s groundbreaking event, he called the new plans for Windy Gap “a beacon of light in what is otherwise right now a very dark and foreboding time along the entire Colorado River.”
“We have a crisis,” Yanchunas said in an interview. “If you look at graphic depictions of the Colorado River — it is dramatic. This is serious.”
As the West’s water woes continue to worsen, federal officials last week ordered a series of emergency measures to further cut 2023 water allotments from Lake Mead along the Nevada-Arizona border, after the seven Colorado River Basin states missed a deadline for a voluntary agreement.
The “megadrought” that has gripped the Colorado River Basin since 2000 is the most severe dry spell the region has experienced in at least 1,200 years. Nearly half of the severity of the drought can be attributed to the rising temperatures caused by climate change, researchers say.
“There are two possible new normals,” wrote scientists with the Colorado River Research Group in 2018. “First is a continuation (and likely acceleration) of the current drying trend and the accompanying increase in variability … A second, and better, new normal would be to establish regional hydrologic conditions at a steady new level — a step change — that results from the stabilization of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations at some new equilibrium.”
“It is time for water managers to both adapt for the profound changes the future holds and to advocate within the political sphere for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions,” the researchers added.
Bennet and O’Dea followed the groundbreaking at Windy Gap with separate appearances at the annual convention of the nonprofit Colorado Water Congress in Steamboat Springs.
In an appearance that lasted 20 minutes, O’Dea touched only briefly on the climate crisis, and did not clarify what he believes the causes to be.
“What has raised the stakes and added to the complexity of solving our water challenges is the climate change,” O’Dea told the crowd. “There is no doubt that the climate is getting warmer and drier. Layer on to that rapidly growing populations in Colorado, and what you get is one hell of a policy dilemma.”
An hour later, Bennet spoke at length about the impacts of climate change and Democrats’ passage of a $370 billion package of clean-energy spending aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“I was here several years ago to ring the alarm on how climate change threatened the future of western water, and since then, matters have only gotten more challenging,” Bennet said. “The people in our state, on the Front Range and the West Slope, are deeply worried about what’s happening to the quality of their lives.”
“One of the best moments that I have had in this job,” he added, “is when I called my oldest daughter, Caroline, and told her that we had finally done something on climate — that we’ve finally done something to make it a little bit better for her generation, right when they really had started to give up hope.”
The clean-energy provisions in Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act could help reduce total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by about 40% by 2030, according to independent estimates. Such reductions are likely to help stave off the worst-case scenarios for global temperature increases, but still fall short of the scale and pace of action that scientists say would do the most to limit the most catastrophic impacts of warming.
‘Collaboration and innovation’
Echoing the position held by many of Colorado’s municipal and agricultural water interests, both Bennet and O’Dea called on “lower basin” states like California, which use a higher proportion of the basin’s water, to cut back first, and praised Colorado water users for their successful conservation efforts. But they offered starkly different visions of the role the federal government has to play in managing the West’s drought crisis.
O’Dea emphasized the role of “collaboration and innovation” in solving water supply problems, rejecting the “heavy hand” of the federal government. He has railed against the Inflation Reduction Act, telling Axios that he “didn’t see anything in there that I like.”
The bill, signed into law by President Joe Biden earlier this month, includes not only substantial tax credits and subsidies for clean energy but also $4 billion in funding for Western drought resiliency projects, a result of last-minute negotiations to secure Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s support.
“We were able to get the language that we needed,” Bennet told the Water Congress. “In drafting that language, we spent hours on the phone with Colorado water leaders to make sure it worked for our state.”
As water managers both in Colorado and downriver continue their high-stakes negotiations — not only over short-term cuts but major revisions to the 100-year-old Colorado River Compact ahead of a 2026 deadline — Bennet said the fight to safeguard the West’s water future is only just beginning.
“We have to keep going,” he said. “We have to build on the historic progress that we’ve made — by making sure this funding gets to the right projects and lifts up the hard work of our state and local leaders, by fighting to defend Colorado’s seat at the table in the American West, and by continuing to push for more investment. Because we know this is only a down payment on what’s required.”
Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.