Colorado River basin: Wildlife Commission hears water plan concerns

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Here’s the release from the Colorado Division of Wildlife:

Colorado Wildlife Commissioners heard a day of presentations and testimony Friday as they continued to evaluate draft plans to mitigate impacts to fish and wildlife resources submitted by proponents of two major transmountain diversion projects.

The public hearing came midway through the Commission’s 60-day review of mitigation and enhancement plans pertaining to Denver Water’s Moffat Collection System project and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s Windy Gap Firming project. The meeting was held at the Hampton Inn and Suites on Highway 50 in Salida.

Wildlife Commission Chairman Tim Glenn said he was encouraged that Denver and Northern had incorporated additional changes to their draft plans based on public input during the past several months.

“Denver Water and Northern have listened to the concerns about impacts to fish and wildlife in the Upper Colorado River system and improved their plans in response,” Glenn said. “I think everyone’s focus is the health of these rivers and we look forward to continuing these discussions through staff during the next month.”

Ken Kehmeier, a senior aquatic biologist with the Division, presented staff’s analysis of Denver’s and Northern’s plans for mitigating impacts from the proposed projects as well as enhancing existing conditions on the impacted streams and rivers.

Following staff and public testimony, Commissioners asked for additional information about whether the mitigation plans were sufficient to protect cool water temperatures in the headwaters of the Colorado and Fraser River systems.

They questioned whether flushing flows would be adequate to rejuvenate cobble beds important for trout spawning and trout forage that have been degraded by previous water development. Commissioners said that they would like to see additional funding to help restore healthy river conditions and a legally binding agreement to ensure restoration would occur. They also suggested the Division should have an integral role in developing and managing restoration projects through the adaptive management process known as Learning by Doing.

Denver Water’s Moffat Collection System Project is designed to firm up the yield from its existing water rights on the West Slope, primarily by enlarging Boulder’s Gross Reservoir and diverting additional water from the Fraser, Williams Fork and Blue rivers.

Northern’s Windy Gap Firming Project is proposing to firm up the yield from its existing water rights in the Upper Colorado River by diverting additional water to the proposed new Chimney Hollow Reservoir west of Loveland.

In addition to the Commission’s fish and wildlife mitigation plan process, Denver Water recently announced it had reached a complex legal settlement with Grand County and 33 other groups regarding longstanding concerns about the health of the Colorado River that includes funding for aquatic habitat and development of the Learn by Doing process.

The Wildlife Commission is scheduled to make a final recommendation on the adequacy of the mitigation plans at its June meeting in Grand Junction.

“Healthy river systems are critically important to the future of this state,” Glenn said. “The Commission’s review of these projects has been lengthy and we greatly appreciate all of the input we have received on how we can best fix the river. Water projects like this have to be done right if we’re going to have healthy wildlife and a healthy tourism economy.”

Additional information regarding the Wildlife Commission’s review, including links to DOW staff evaluations of the mitigation and enhancement plans being offered by Denver Water and Northern, can be found on the Division’s web site at:

More coverage from Bruce Willoughby writing for The Denver Post. From the article:

The commission dedicated the day solely to public commentary on two controversial transmountain water diversion projects proposed for Colorado River headwaters, and river advocates crammed the docket with impassioned pleas for assurance that the projects won’t decimate fragile fisheries such as the Fraser River, Williams Fork, Blue River and the Upper Colorado itself. They came away with none…

Representatives from Grand County, Trout Unlimited, Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, Colorado River Landowners and Western Resource Advocates expressed concerns over the proposals by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District to annually draw thousands of acre-feet more water from Windy Gap Reservoir for Front Range storage and by Denver Water to increase diversions through the Moffat Tunnel to an enlarged Gross Reservoir near Boulder…

“I see dead brown trout on the bank every year in August because the water temperatures are too high,” said rancher Ron Jones, whose Fraser River frontage merits Gold Medal designation. “If they want to take the water, then they should put the money into doing what it takes to protect the rivers.”

It’s an interesting perspective — putting the health of the rivers ahead of the perceived need for more water elsewhere. There is some money on the table dedicated to enhancement of a portion of the Colorado, but consensus holds that it’s not nearly enough. And as currently proposed, many mitigation measures are conditional upon the volume of water already diverted and stored in East Slope reservoirs, not necessarily what’s happening in the rivers it’s being drawn from.

The Wildlife Commission, meanwhile, finds itself in the compromising position of attempting to address flaws it has identified in the proposals and finding a way to enforce its stance in the next month. After that, the Colorado Water Conservation Board will have 60 days to affirm or modify the commission’s recommendation as the state’s official position.

More Colorado River basin coverage here.

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