@COWaterTrust, Grand Valley Irrigators, and the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District ink water deal for fish and hydroelectric generation #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Max Schmidt, general manager of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District in Palisade. (Photo by Osha Gray Davidson)

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

A deal announced Tuesday will help both endangered fish in the Colorado River and the aging Grand Valley Power Plant hydroelectric facility near Palisade.

The Colorado Water Trust has reached a five-year deal with the Grand Valley Waters Users Association and the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, the operators of the facility. Under the deal, water the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust will secure from upstream sources may be delivered to the nearly century-old plant during critical times of year, helping provide adequate water levels for fish in an important 15-mile stretch of the river just downstream of the plant.

Andy Schultheiss, executive director of the Colorado Water Trust, said a major goal is to deliver more water to the fish in the spring to help counter a drop in river flows that results when irrigation diversions have begun but runoff from mountain snowpack is still minimal. He said that phenomenon has come to be known as the “April hole,” although it has actually begun to happen earlier in the year. Warming temperatures have accelerated the start of irrigation and runoff seasons in Colorado.

Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program

The agreement is designed to help humpback chub, Colorado pikeminnow and other native endangered fish in the river. It also will benefit the plant and its operators by enabling the plant to run at a higher capacity when it doesn’t get enough water from other sources, including its own water rights, to maximize power production.

That should mean more revenue for the plant’s operators. In addition, the Colorado Water Trust has committed to contribute $425,000 to a $5.4 million rehabilitation project at the plant, which is nearly a century old. A Walton Family Foundation grant is making that contribution possible.

Schultheiss said the trust benefits by getting the ability to deliver water from upstream to the fish, without the possibility of the water being diverted by other users before it gets there. He said what has frustrated conservationists trying to get more water to what’s known as the 15-Mile Reach is that it can’t be protected from other upstream users unless there’s a purpose for it.

“It just so happens this plant is just upstream of the 15 Mile Reach so it’s perfectly located,” he said.

He said the trust will likely contract for water from an upstream reservoir for the project.

The upgrade work at the plant also will help protect the plant’s senior water rights, which benefit the fish. Those rights let the plant pull water from the Colorado River headwaters to the 15-Mile Reach without that water being available to holders of more junior upstream water rights.

“Working in partnership with the Colorado Water Trust to rehabilitate the Grand Valley Power Plant and more effectively utilize the capacity in the system is a win-win proposition,” Max Schmidt of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District said in a news release.

Mark Harris of the Grand Valley Water Users Association said in the release, “In times of increased pressure on water supplies throughout the state, projects like this that further the interests of multiple sectors are sorely needed.”

In the release, Tom Chart, director of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, which is led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, applauded those involved for “crafting this one-of-a-kind agreement.”

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