Compromise at Windy Gap prelude to Moffat Tunnel?

The spillway at Windy Gap was completed in 1985. Photo/Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District

Battle moves to Winter Park area as

Front Range cities enlarge straws

by Allen Best

(From the Dec. 12 issue of Mountain Town News. For a sample copy, please write to the author. For contact information, see About: MTN).

An agreement has been reached at the headwaters of the Colorado River that may provide a template for new diversions from already hard-hit creeks and rivers.

Grand County last week awarded a permit to a coalition of cities and water districts from the state’s northern Front Range for additional diversions from the river at Windy Gap but with protections to buffer effects of low flows on the river’s habitat for insects and fish.

With the agreement, the Windy Gap firming project, as it is has been called, is likely to move forward with reduced opposition from environmental groups. However, it still needs a permit from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Grand County residents and environmental groups hope that the model may cause Denver Water to reconsider its proposal for enlarged diversions from the nearby Fraser Valley. That project is called the Moffat Collection System Project, because it uses the pioneer bore of the Moffat Tunnel. But Denver, in a statement, said it’s done enough already.

The headwaters of the Colorado River are already among the most heavily tapped of any in West. The transmountain diversions began in 1890, with construction of a canal in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park, and were expanded significantly in the 20th century. Farms were the original recipients of the diverted water, but increasingly cities from Denver north to Fort Collins get the water.

Diversions already remove 60 percent of native flows of the Colorado River headwaters in Grand County through tunnels and canals. Expanded diversions, by both Denver Water at the Moffat Tunnel and the consortium called the Municipal Subdistrict at Windy Gap would increase diversions to 75 to 80 percent of annual natural flows.

The Municipal District consists of 10 cities, including Greeley, Loveland and several of Boulder’s suburbs, plus two water districts and the operator of a coal-fired power plant.

Environmental groups and the local government have argued that the existing water diversions have cumulatively damaged the existing creeks and river.

Lending science to the observations of fishing enthusiasts was a study by a biologist for the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife that found the upper Colorado River to be a on the verge of absolute collapse, barren of biological life.

Several problems were apparent. Because spring runoff is impounded in reservoirs, the absence of flushing flows means the space between the cobbles on the river bottoms have been filled with silt that has become hardened over time. Insects live in these gaps, called interstitials, and fish feed upon those insects.

A second adverse consequence of reduced summer flows because of dams and diversions is that the water in the creeks and rivers is shallower, resulting in warmer temperatures—distressing cold-water-loving trout.

The Colorado River below Windy Gap is lovely in all seasons, but biologists say diversions have sapped biological functions. Photo/Colorado Trout Unlimited

From the perspective of Colorado Trout Unlimited, one of the primary protagonists in both the Windy Gap and Denver’s Moffat collection expansions, the compromise just announced is a significant success.

“This is not a perfect deal,” said Mely Whiting, lead attorney for the Colorado Trout Unlimited. “This is the product of compromise. But looking at the entire package, we firmly believe it offers the best chance for the upper Colorado River’s recovery. It also offers an opportunity for a new way of doing business: where stakeholders work side by side with water providers in an effort to protect our valuable streams.”

As is usually the case, the threat of lawsuit lingered in the background as different sides assembled around the negotiating table.

Grand County had said that the project needed a 1041 permit, the same permit that Eagle County in the late 1980s denied to diversions from around Mount of the Holy Cross in the celebrated Homestake II case. The Front Range interests at Windy Gap filed an objection, but went ahead with the application. You can file lawsuits – but lose. Trout Unlimited could have turned it over to the federal government. But the outcome was not certain.

All these checkpoints, said Whiting, had “consequences one way or another.”

Whiting admits to some tension along the way. But the longer the parties sat down together, the easier the negotiations were, she says.

A key element in the agreement is the call for a water bypass around or through the dam at Windy Gap. Front Range diversions agreed to spend at least $2 million of their own money for this bypass, and both sides hope that another $2 million from the state government can be tapped. Whether these two funds are enough is unclear, and that’s one element of uncertainty that Trout Unlimited does not like—but accepts in the spirit of compromise.

The overall package also includes an agreement with Grand County to enable pumping and storage of water to deal with summer low-flow problems. In this package, Grand County gains access to 4,500 acre-feet of water from Windy Gap to be released during summer as needed; this is in addition to 4,500 acre-feet otherwise released for needs of endangered fish in the Grand Junction area.

The Front Range entities also had previously agreed to contribute $4 million for the physical work of breaking up the hard bottom of the river downstream from Windy Gap to Kremmling, where flows are augmented by the Blue River out of Summit County.

“It’s one thing to know the right thing to do, but it is entirely another to have the guts and conviction to make it happen,” said James Newberry, Grand County commissioners. “We just did that for the future of Grand County.”

Another county commissioner, Gary Bumgarner, took a more defiant stance. “The river is in decline now. I’m not sure how taking more water out of it is going to make it better,” he said.

Image from Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District

That was also the stance of a Fort Collins-based environmental group, Save the Poudre. In the end, said Gary Wockner, the group’s director, the project does little to help Colorado and the Front Range move toward a sustainable water future. The group sees the Western Slope diversions being necessary to complete a project west of Fort Collins that the group does not like.

Trout Unlimited hopes that Denver Water will agree to something similar in its plans to divert additional water through the Moffat Tunnel to metropolitan Denver. So do many Grand County residents.

“To me the real takeaway we hope that Denver sees what Northern (parent of the Municipal Subdistrict) has done and follows suit,” says Patrick Brower, a resident of Granby since 1979 and long-time former publisher and editor of the Sky-Hi News. “We feel that Denver really isn’t coming through for us on the Fraser River.”

There’s no doubt that the Front Range cities own the water rights. It’s a matter of minimizing the impacts of the diversions, and Brower says, and that comes down to money.

Denver has diverted from the Winter Park area since 1936, and it was this diversion that allowed metropolitan Denver’s huge population boom after World War II. But the drought of 2002 exposed weaknesses in supplies, particularly in the northern metro area for Arvada, Lakewood and other communities that contract with Denver.

In 2011, Denver Water reached a pact with 40 government agencies on the Western Slope, most specifically the Colorado River Water Conservation District, on future diversions. In that agreement, Denver agreed to an adaptive management program. But the terms were geared more toward past diversions. Left hanging was the mitigation for future diversions from the Fraser Valley.

Trout Unlimited reports a lack of fruitful discussions with Denver.

“There is no dialogue to find middle ground,” says Whiting. “They have not budged an inch.”

Denver tells a different story, pointing to $30 million in environmental enhancements to which Denver committed last year in a deal struck with the Colorado River Water Conservation and other Western Slope agencies last year. (Mountain Town News was the first news agency in Colorado to announce the agreement).

“We applaud Northern Water, Grand County and Trout Unlimited for their joint work on finding workable solutions in order to move forward on a very important project,” says Jim Lochhead, general manager of Denver Water.

“Similarly, Denver Water and more than 40 entities on the West Slope found common ground and agreed on environmental enhancements for the river through the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, including approximately $30 million in environmental enhancements for our state. These agreements are clear examples of how, through cooperation, we will be able to meet the growing challenges of water supply needs in Colorado.”

From Brower’s point of view in Grand County, it’s just not enough.

“I keep hearing that they will spend just $2.5 million for river mitigation, and everybody I talk to says that’s nothing on the Fraser River.”

Trout Unlimited’s Whiting call the $30 million figure misleading, at best. The money was allocated to a great many purposes, including those in the Vail area and in Summit County. Very little was devoted to the actual damages caused in Grand County. She says $4 million was earmarked for all diversion impacts in the Colorado River drainage above Gore Canyon, which includes Summit County.

“They gave money to everybody over there, but he problem is they allocated just a little bit of money where the center of all the impacts are,” she says.

She also notes that the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement specifically says that the nothing in the agreement is mitigation for the impacts of future expansion of diversion facilities in the Moffat Collection System.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must still issue a permit after consultation with the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA effectively has veto power, but has rarely used such authority.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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