Opinion: The Windy Gap settlement is a win for the West Slope and its waters — The #Colorado Sun #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

An aerial view of Windy Gap Reservoir, near Granby. The reservoir is on the main stem of the Colorado River, below where the Fraser River flows into the Colorado. Water from Windy Gap is pumped up to Lake Granby and Grand Lake, and then sent to the northern Front Range through the Adams Tunnel. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism

Here’s a guest column from Merrit S. Linke, Jack Buchheister, Kathy Chandler-Henry, and Marti Whitmore that’s running in The Colorado Sun:

As Western Colorado leaders, we congratulate the parties involved in continuing a history of cooperative solutions to benefit water users and choosing collaboration over litigation.

The history of Western Colorado’s water is told in stories of hard-fought wins and losses, of lawsuits and government petitions, of tough negotiations and collaboration.

In Grand County, the history of West Slope water — and Front Range demand for that water — is more visible than in other areas west of the Continental Divide. It is visible at the base of a concrete spillway below Windy Gap Reservoir that disconnects our state’s namesake river; and at the Fraser River’s edge, where visitors see only a fraction of the river that once carved its way downstream.

Top row: Merrit S. Linke, Jack Buchheister. Bottom row: Kathy Chandler-Henry, Marti Whitmore. Credit: The Colorado Sun

But Grand County has also been the backdrop for stories that center on the importance of collaboration and negotiation. Stories of water users coming together to protect and preserve Western Colorado’s water security, communities and local economies.

A recently-announced $15 million settlement between environmental groups and Northern Water’s Municipal Subdistrict is a win for the Western Slope, adding to the nearly $100 million in benefits already secured for water users in Grand County and further downstream.

We commend the parties for reaching this settlement and look forward to partnering with them on projects to further restore and enhance the aquatic environment in Grand County.

The settlement allows the Windy Gap Firming Project to move forward with construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir near Loveland. It also unlocks the benefits of water, reservoir storage and funding outlined in a nearly 10-year-old agreement and clears the way for the long-promised Colorado River Connectivity Channel to break ground in Grand County.

The enhancements secured by the prior agreement will create a healthier river system and benefit irrigators, communities and people who recreate on Grand County’s rivers.

In 2012, after years of negotiation, the Colorado River District, Grand County, Middle Park Water Conservancy District and the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments signed an intergovernmental agreement with Northern Water that secured hard-fought yet collaborative resolutions to restore and protect the health of our rivers and communities in Grand County.

This agreement provides a secure water supply for Middle Park water users in Grand and Summit counties. It also secures perpetual reservoir releases for the environment, which will improve aquatic habitat and water quality and boost flows for recreation and endangered fish downstream in the Colorado River.

These releases will provide more cool water in the river when it is most needed, alleviating low flow in the hottest, driest portion of summer and early fall. In addition, Grand County residents and visitors will enjoy preserved open space and public access to Willow Creek.

Finally, the agreement supports the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, which will boost river health by reconnecting the Upper Colorado River to its channel around Windy Gap Reservoir. The Connectivity Channel demonstrates how diverse interests can collaborate on solutions that benefit both water supply and watershed health.

Security of our West Slope resources remains at the forefront for Grand County leaders, and the agreement includes important protections barring Northern Water from future water development or water rights acquisitions in Grand County without prior approval from Grand County and the Colorado River District.

Each of these enhancements contribute to better water quality and a healthier river, and they will increase the resilience of our water supply in drought years. This is an achievement for everybody who uses the river.

When the Chimney Hollow Reservoir was first proposed more than a decade ago, West Slope leaders had the foresight to secure these protections for water users.

We congratulate the parties involved in the recent settlement in continuing a history of cooperative solutions to benefit West Slope water users and choosing collaboration over litigation.

Merrit S. Linke is the chair of the Grand County Board of County Commissioners. Jack Buchheister is the president of the Middle Park Water Conservancy District. Kathy Chandler-Henry is the chair of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments’ Water Quality and Quantity Committee. Marti Whitmore is the president of the Colorado River District Board of Directors.

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