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Upper Colorado River restoration project entangled in bitter lawsuit
A rare river restoration project in the Upper Colorado River Basin near Grand Lake is in danger of being stopped because of a lawsuit by environmentalists.
The restoration project has been proposed to compensate the West Slope for environmental damages to the Upper Colorado River caused by a large Front Range water storage project known as Windy Gap Firming.
Sponsored by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the new storage project would bring more Colorado River water from Grand County to rapidly growing, water-short towns on the Front Range, including Lafayette, Longmont, Louisville and Broomfield, among others.
The restoration project would reconnect a section of the Upper Colorado River severed by the original Windy Gap dam Northern Water built years ago. But Northern Water said it may halt the restoration work because Save The Colorado, an environmental group, is seeking to stop the large reservoir project in U.S. District Court in Denver.
With the future of the reservoir now in doubt, Northern Water officials said it may not make sense to proceed with restoring the river channel.
“It’s painful,” said Jeff Drager, Northern Water’s director of engineering.
The reservoir has been under review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, Grand County and others for 15 years. The project was within months of starting when the lawsuit was filed last October.
Save The Colorado has been challenging the project for years, saying that no more water should be diverted from the drought-stressed, over-used Colorado River. According to a number of different estimates, more than 65 percent of flows in the river’s headwaters region are already being diverted across the Continental Divide to the Front Range, endangering the river’s health.
For his part, Save The Colorado Executive Director Gary Wockner disagrees with Northern Water’s assessment of the restoration project’s future, saying that a number of agencies and stakeholder groups, including his, will have to weigh in on the project’s fate.
The original Windy Gap Project began supplying Colorado River water to the Front Range in 1985. But it has never been able to deliver the full amount of water it has rights to because storage space in its collection system on the West Slope isn’t always available. The new $570 million reservoir, called Chimney Hollow, would be near Carter Lake in Larimer County.
Environmental groups such as Trout Unlimited, along with several mountain communities and other stakeholder groups, spent years working with Northern Water to develop a set of environmental projects that would help restore the Upper Colorado River watershed. Reconnecting the river channel near Grand Lake was among those environmental projects.
In an open letter to Save The Colorado last December, Trout Unlimited’s Kirk Klancke, president of the group’s Colorado Headwaters Chapter, urged the litigants not to interfere in the decade-long negotiations that have given Western Slope communities more water for streams and helped restore habitat for fish and the bugs they feed on.
“It took 10 years of fighting to get a package of measures that will restore our rivers and prevent additional impacts. The viability of those solutions depends on Windy Gap Firming Project moving forward,” Klancke wrote. Klancke could not be reached for comment this week.
Connecting the channel would make it easier for trout to migrate and would help restore miles of streambed where critical sand and gravel had long been trapped by the dam at Windy Gap Reservoir, supporters say.
But it is the larger question – how to prevent more water from being taken out of the headwaters of the drought-stressed Colorado River – that prompted the lawsuit by Save The Colorado.
The lawsuit is being litigated by the University of Denver’s Environmental Law Clinic, where students overseen by faculty members take on cases that have national environmental implications for free.
The suit is one of three major efforts by environmental groups to halt new water projects that would serve the Front Range. Just last week Save The Colorado filed a “notice of intent” to sue Denver Water over the proposed expansion of Gross Reservoir in Boulder County. This project too would bring additional water from the Upper Colorado River headwaters over to the metro area.
And four years ago, the Environmental Law Clinic filed an unsuccessful suit to stop a project that would free up space in Denver’s Chatfield Reservoir to store more water for metro area cities and South Platte farmers. The students represented the Audubon Society, which argued that the project would remove too many wetlands that provide critical bird habitat. The Audubon Society lost the case last year, but it is currently on appeal in the U.S. District Court in Denver.
Kevin Lynch, the supervising professor for the DU law students, said the law clinic’s work is critical to ensuring that groups that are not politically powerful have their day in court. “We see that as a vital role, giving these groups clout and giving them the opportunity to engage in these processes. And it gives students a chance to work on meaningful real-world litigation,” he said.
That some groups from the environmental community are backing the river channel restoration project doesn’t mean Save The Colorado shouldn’t proceed with its broader mission to stop any additional water from being diverted from the headwaters, Lynch said.
Regardless of the lawsuit, “There is no reason that [Windy Gap proponents] couldn’t do the project anyway…Doing a bypass would be great. They don’t need to further drain the Colorado River to do that,” Lynch said.
But Northern Water’s Drager said the $15 million channel project’s primary reason for being was to mitigate the impact of Windy Gap’s Chimney Hollow Reservoir.
“We don’t have a plan to do the channel project if Windy Gap doesn’t move forward,” Drager said.
Drager said Windy Gap proponents will decide by February whether to proceed with the channel or to halt the design work that is underway now.
Bart Miller, an attorney with the Boulder-based conservation group Western Resource Advocates, declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit. But he said the channel project is important not just because of its restorative effects, but because it demonstrates the power of collaboration between water interests, cities and towns, and environmentalists.
“When we have an extremely dry year like this one, and going forward we’re going to have more of them, this cooperative effort between conservation groups and water providers and interests like Grand County is a very good example of efforts to address these pressing challenges. I hope the effort can continue,” Miller said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith. Fresh Water News is an independent, non-partisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado.