Colorado River restoration project crawls forward as some environmental groups call for radical change
The Colorado River Water Conservation District at a board meeting Tuesday voted to give $1 million of their taxpayer-raised funds to help construct the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, which will improve deteriorated conditions at the headwaters of the Colorado River.
“When I look at this, it has benefits that are assisting our communities in the damage caused by transmountain diversions,” River District General Manager Andy Mueller said during the meeting.
The district’s vote is the first step in a final push to fund and build the long-awaited channel, which has been in the works since the early 2000s. The connectivity channel is the first project to which River District board members have allocated money as part of the organization’s new Project Partnership Funding Program.
If built, the channel would mitigate much of the damage to the Colorado and Fraser rivers that has been caused by the Windy Gap reservoir in Grand County. While the channel itself has broad support, its fate is tangled in that of a more controversial project that will draw additional water from the Colorado River system.
The Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District constructed the original Windy Gap Project in the 1980s to divert water from the Colorado River to customers across the Continental Divide.
“It’s an unchanneled reservoir, meaning that it’s just plopped right in the middle of the Colorado River,” said Mely Whiting, the legal counsel for Trout Unlimited. “It basically blocks the river all the way across, and that has serious consequences.”
The project cut off the river’s flow and led to large stretches of river that went dry. It caused sediment buildup and a documented decline in biodiversity below the reservoir, including a 38% loss of its aquatic insect species and declines in fish populations.
The connectivity channel, which is designed to undo some of this damage, would reconnect the Upper Colorado and Fraser rivers to the main stem of the Colorado by routing the river around the dam of the Windy Gap Reservoir, creating a path for fish, water and sediment to flow down the river.
Since the release of its original conceptual design in the early 2000s, the connectivity channel has seen its estimated costs grow from about $10 million to $23.5 million. The River District money would help close the remaining $7 million funding gap — but not completely. According to Mueller, the River District voted to give the money in hopes that it would entice other groups to do the same.
The project has been lauded as a rare example of collaboration in the world of water management. It carries support from an unusual coalition of environmental groups, local government and water-management groups on both sides of the Continental Divide. The River District is just one of 10 of the project’s financial backers, which include Northern Water, Grand County and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
But the channel’s construction does come at a cost. Much of the funding for the project depends on the construction of the Windy Gap Firming Project — an expansion of the Windy Gap Project that would result in the construction of a 90,000-acre-foot reservoir in Larimer County.
To date, the Windy Gap’s junior water right has meant that the project’s managers have not been able to divert water in dry years and have not had a place to store water for their customers during wet years. The reservoir would give the project’s customers a consistent supply — or “firm yield,” as it’s called — of 30,000 acre-feet annually.
Drawing additional water from the beleaguered Colorado River was controversial, so to win support for their plan, Northern Water signed on with a battery of agreements with environmental groups and Western Slope municipalities and water managers.
Included in these agreements was $5 million for the connectivity channel, a guarantee to maintain a minimum streamflow below the dam, construction of water storage for Western Slope communities and a promise to open negotiations over other water rights that impact the Western Slope.
For many groups that traditionally oppose moving water from the Western Slope to the Front Range, the benefits from the project were enough to win them over. Additional supporters and sponsors of the project include Trout Unlimited and the Grand Board of County Commissioners.
“We have to look at this in a realistic light,” Mueller said of the compromise. “This won’t fix the original sin of placing the Windy Gap Reservoir right in the middle of the Colorado River channel, but it does mitigate it.”
Trout Unlimited has used the funds from Northern Water as leverage for attracting other funding and grants for the connectivity channel and other projects to improve the habitat quality on the river. These include plans to protect the river from some of the effects of climate change by narrowing parts of the river channel to lower stream temperatures and adding fire protection.
“Everything that we’re doing is to make the river more resilient,” Whiting said. “It’s not going to be what it would be naturally in terms of size and volume and flows, but it will function naturally and it will function as good habitat in spite of all those limitations.”
But while many have heralded the Windy Gap Firming Project as the beginning of a new era of cooperation in water management, not everyone agrees that mitigating environmental damage to the river is enough.
“We are past the point where we can do work around the margins,” said Jen Pelz, the Wild Rivers Program Director for the environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “There is a climate crisis, there’s a water crisis. These things are real, and they are not going away by us mitigating them around the edges.”
WildEarth Guardians is one of six environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Save the Colorado, that filed a lawsuit against the Windy Gap Firming Project. The 2017 suit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers alleged that the agencies violated the National Environmental Protection Act and the Clean Water Act by approving the permits for the Windy Gap Firming Project. Northern Water was not a defendant in the case.
In the lawsuit, the environmental groups argued that the agencies did not consider conserving water instead of building a diversion project as an alternative for providing water to Front Range communities.
The call for conservation came as a surprise to Northern Water, which used the state’s water-demand projections to justify the need for their project. Those projections already assume that municipalities will adopt a certain level of conservation measures.
“We’ve been pretty confident with our project that we addressed all the issues in our environmental work that they had questions about,” said Jeff Drager, Northern Water’s director of engineering. “And part of the reason they take so long is because the federal agencies are nervous about getting sued like this, and they want to make sure they check all their boxes and get things done.”
A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in December. In his ruling, the judge did not analyze water conservation as an alternative. Instead, he noted that the agencies followed the procedural laid out in the law and that he was required to give deference to the agencies’ decisions.
While the plaintiffs weigh whether to appeal the case, Northern Water and the other supporters of the Windy Gap Firming Project have begun taking small steps toward constructing their projects. Barring another legal challenge, they will begin construction on the project’s reservoir as soon as this summer and on the connectivity channel in the fall.
For now, the supporters of the firming project are excited about what they see as a paradigm shift in water management: a move toward cooperation over competition for water resources. Those against the projec also are hoping for an eventual shift, but their idea of what that looks like is something more dramatic.
“This just highlights for me that federal environmental laws aren’t really working anymore. When you have deference to the agency, it’s hard for someone else to come in and say that here are other ways that this can be done,” Pelz said. “I think one of the things that needs to happen, which is a radical thing, is that we need to actually live within the river means.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with Swift Communications newspapers. Its water desk is supported by Sam Walton via the Catena Foundation. AJ was supported by the Walton Family Foundation from 2016 to 2018, and the foundation has also supported Trout Unlimited. For more, go to aspenjournalism.org.
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