Gilpin’s Moffat Tunnel crucial in Front Range expansion

Water and you: Part 3

By Don Ireland

“Here is a land where life is written in water.”inscribed in the Colorado state capital

It’d be a safe bet to presume thousands of Denver and the Front Range residents don’t realize that a Gilpin County engineering marvel is the reason they have water for their homes, schools and businesses.

The Moffat Tunnel, located along Gilpin County Road 16 a few miles west of Rollinsville, plays an integral role in water supply for Denver and nearby communities. Without it, the Denver metro region might never had grown and flourished the way it has in recent decades.

A little more than a century ago, industrialist David H. Moffat Jr. wanted to build railroads that crossed the Continental Devide. According to the Colorado Business Hall of Fame, Moffat was one of Denver’s most important financiers and industrialists in late 19th and early 20th century Colorado. He served as president, treasurer and as a board member of railroads, banks, and city government posts. By the time of his death, Moffat had claims to over one hundred Colorado mines and nine railroads.

Considered a visionary of his time, Moffat spent an estimated $14 million to build the railroad to Rollins Pass, according to Denver Water. He died in 1911, but the work continued until its completion in 1928. According to history, 28 workers died during the construction project.

In 1936, the 6.2-mile tunnel was partially lined and water from the Western Slope began to flow through it. Denver Water purchased the water tunnel in 1996 to safeguard water supplies for future generations. Water flowing through the Moffat Tunnel ends up at the Gross Reservoir, located in Boulder County near the Gilpin County border. Boulder residents have raised legal challenges to Denver Water’s proposed expansion to the Gross Reservoir. However, an April 1, a Federal Court decision dismissed those objections. It is unknown if additional challenges will delay the project, originally anticipated for completion in 2025.

Moffat, for whom Moffat County in northwestern Colorado was named, once said he conceived the plan as a way to boost trade and commerce for the city and the West. “I had no ideas of greatness when I undertook the building of the Moffat Road. I wanted to do it for the good of the state and nothing more.” In 1979, the Moffat Tunnel was designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Denver Water’s collection system encompasses about 4,000 square miles, or 2.5 million acres, and extends into more than eight counties, including Park, Grand, Jefferson, Summit, Teller, Douglas, Clear Creek, and Gilpin counties.

Regardless of where Coloradoans get their water, it is essential in every corner of the state. According to Colorado State University’s Water Center, here is how water is utilized:

  • 7 percent is used in agriculture, for livestock, and to irrigate crops. More than $5 billion in revenues are generated annually because of Colorado’s agriculture.
  • 7 percent goes to municipalities. This includes water districts and suppliers, which deliver water to homes for indoors and outside use.
  • 1 percent is utilized by industry.
  • The remaining 5.5 percent remains in streams for environmental and recreational use.

Colorado’s water professional community and governments are concerned about climate warming, droughts, and increasing population. The state’s estimated population was 5.8 million in 2020, a 14.5 percent increase since the 2010 Census. The Colorado Water Plan, released in 2015, estimates the state’s population could rise to 9 million by 2050. That could result in a shortfall of water for millions of people in the state.

The plan also addresses ways to avert that potential water crisis by reducing overall future needs though cost-effective efficiency measures. They include:

  • Integrating water efficiency planning and projects into overall water resource management.
  • Promoting a water efficiency ethic throughout Colorado.
  • Exploring additional water reuse options.
  • Further integrating land use and water planning.
  • Seeking creative options for improving agricultural irrigation conservation and efficiency.

In 2019, the state legislature approved a new law, requiring certain appliances, plumbing fixtures, and other products sold for residential or commercial use to meet energy efficiency and water efficiency standards.

Throughout many Colorado neighborhoods, residents use as much of 50 percent of their water to use on their lawns. Kentucky Blue Grass, a non-native turf, is commonly used in lawns and has been considered “normal” by thousands who’ve moved here from eastern states. Blue Grass requires significant and frequent watering to stay emerald green throughout spring, summer and fall.

Many water suppliers along the Front Range have initiated financial incentives to persuade homeowners to replace their Blue Grass lawns with native grasses and xeriscape plants, which use less water. Some water providers now require high-tech meters at homes that measure indoor and outdoor consumption separately – charging lower rates for typical consumption (cooking, bathing and laundry) and substantially higher rates for outdoor usage.

In the next installment of this series, typical water usage in a home and America’s addiction to bottled water will be discussed.

About the author

Don Ireland has appeared in two Eco documentaries involving water conservation. He has spoken to hundreds across the state on the subjects of saving water and appropriate planting in Colorado. In addition to contributing stories and drone photos to the Weekly Register-Call, he writes stories for Colorado WaterWise Magazine.

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