Colorado River connectivity channel gets go-ahead after environmental assessment
New channel will have a mile of public fishing access
Ten years after plans for a diversion route for the Colorado River around Windy Gap Reservoir outside of Granby was finalized, the project is a go.
A consortium of state and commercial water entities announced on Monday that in late June or early July, construction crews will begin excavating dirt from land adjacent to U.S. Highway 40, to fill in part of the existing reservoir and dredge a new path for the Colorado River to flow around it.
This comes after The Natural Resources Conservation Service released a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) drawn from its Environmental Assessment of the Colorado River Connectivity Channel. The decision paves the way for the construction, which will wrap up in 2023 and provide a new, mile-long public fishing access to the Colorado, said Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited.
Trout Unlimited is joined by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District Municipal Subdistrict, Grand County and the Upper Colorado River Alliance in creating the project.
Klancke told the Sky-Hi News that the project is a long time coming for the health of the Colorado, which has suffered since Windy Gap was constructed in the 1980s. It currently blocks fish and sediment passage upstream and downstream of the dam. It also holds water in a shallow reservoir, sometimes elevating stream temperatures downstream of the dam when water is released. And on windy days, soils from around the reservoir get stirred in the water and fill the river below the dam with sediments.
“This dam killed the Colorado River for miles,” said Klancke. “Sediment filled the interstitial spaces in the rocks below it. Sculpin (a small fish and food source for trout) disappeared. The giant stonefly (another main food source for trout) disappeared. And 38% of macro-invertebrates vanished, according to a study done by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. So from this dam all the way down to the Williams Fork Reservoir, the ecosystem has been crashing. They put a dam right in the middle of a mainstream, whereas today you can’t get a permit for a dam.”
The connectivity project will shrink and deepen the reservoir, which stores Upper Colorado and Fraser River water. Through the Colorado-Big Thompson water diversion project agreement, Northern owns rights to 220,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado per year, which it pumps into Lake Granby, Shadow Mountain Reservoir, Grand Lake and through miles of underground tunnel to multiple cities on the Front Range.
This concerns water entities like the Upper Colorado River Watershed Group, which has asked the agencies to do a water accounting in the Upper Colorado River Watershed to insure sufficient water exists before moving along with the project.
UCRWG President Andy Miller said that while the group doesn’t flat-out oppose the project, important questions it posed to the Colorado Division of Water Resources were never answered.
“We have requested during this process a full accounting detailing how current and projected (considering climate change) basin water flows balance with local, Front Range and downstream rights to this available water,” Miller said. “We can’t continue to make decisions like this one without having an accurate picture of the current state of the river.”
The Colorado Division of Water Resources administers water rights, represents Colorado in interstate water compact proceedings, monitors stream flow and water use, and approves construction and repair of dams. When the Sky-Hi reached out to the division’s State Engineer Kevin Rein, he emailed the following:
“The water right for this diversion is decreed by the water court. The question of water availability is addressed at the time of application to the water court.
Once the court awards a decree for this diversion, with a priority date, the Division of Water Resources will administer it within the prior appropriation system, just as we do with all water rights in Colorado. If the water right can divert without impacting water rights that are senior to it, and the diversion is consistent with all terms and conditions of the decree, they may divert. If not, the water right cannot divert.”
Klancke added, “If the water isn’t available, Northern doesn’t get to pump. But the water in the channel will always be there because that’s guaranteed in Senate Document 80 (passed on June 24, 1937, by the 75th Congress). Senate doc 80 created Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain Lake. Lake Granby has certain flows it has to release. Those flows have to be in this channel, because there’s guaranteed flows below the dam. They can’t take that water and dry the river up below this dam. It has to go through that channel and on down the river because it’s guaranteed in Congress.”
According to the Windy Gap FONSI, the Upper Colorado River Watershed Group’s first choice for dealing with the dam — complete removal — would cost $75 million, whereas the Connectivity Project will cost $27 million.
The bulk of those funds will from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Another $1 million comes from Grand County’s Open Lands Rivers and Trails fund, and Klancke says Northern has already exceeded the amount it committed to pitch in — from an initial $2 million to $4 million.
Klancke adds that Northern — seen as a “water buffalo” by many Grand County residents, due to its interests in diverting water to the Front Range — has “gone over and above” in its support of the project.
Based on the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s environmental assessment, the project “will result in long-term beneficial impacts for environmental resources (i.e. soil, air, water, animals, plants, and human resources).” With the FONSI secured, the Natural Resources Conservation Service can now provide funds pledged toward the project construction, and may consider granting up to $9 million in additional funds still needed for the project.
Grand County’s Board of County Commissioners applauded the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s work in reaching its decision and acknowledged “the tremendous work of the project partners and individual champions.”