#ColoradoRiver #drought plan, more money for water projects top 2019 legislative agenda #COleg

From Water Education Colorado (Larry Morandi):

Colorado River drought planning as well as the funding dilemma behind the state’s ambitious water plan, are among the water issues likely to win stage time at the Colorado State Capitol this year.

When the session opens Friday, Democrats will control both chambers, having retained the majority in the House of Representatives and taken control of the Senate as a result of the November elections.

The two committees where most water bills originate have new leadership as a result of the political shift. Sen. Kerry Donovan (D-Vail) is now chair of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Dylan Thomas (D-Avon) is now chair of the House Rural Affairs Committee.

800-Pound Gorilla in the Room

There is one major issue that will loom over this session even without legislation—the Colorado River drought. In November, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s lead water policy and planning agency, adopted a critical policy statement supporting a Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). Once the plan is finalized, a process that could take months, it may require lawmakers to act.

The policy comes in response to a 19-year drought in the Colorado River Basin that has seen storage in its two largest reservoirs—Lake Powell and Lake Mead—drop below 50 percent of capacity. Continued drought could lead to water cutbacks in the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basins in order to comply with the 1922 Colorado River Compact and related agreements. The Upper Basin comprises Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, while the Lower Basin states include Arizona, California and Nevada.

Included in the DCP is discussion of a far-reaching conservation effort in Colorado and the other Upper Basin states that would free more water for storage in a protected pool in Lake Powell to ensure Lower Basin states receive their legal allotment.

Under the new policy adopted by all four Upper Basin states and the Upper Colorado River Commission, any demand management program would emphasize voluntary, temporary and compensated reductions in water use, and would not be implemented without an extensive public review process.

If it comes to actual cutbacks, water users across the state would share the pain, including Front Range communities, under the new policy.

Despite these assurances, there is a great deal of legislative concern, especially over the potential role of the federal government in deciding if and when to release water from Upper Basin reservoirs to replenish Lake Powell. Sen. Don Coram (R-Montrose) likened it to “depositing money into a bank account [Lake Powell] and authorizing someone else [the Bureau of Reclamation] to make withdrawals.”

The crisis on the Colorado River is likely to serve as context for several water policy discussions this session, though Rep. Roberts said, “There won’t be any rush to legislation.”

Donovan said lawmakers would be fully briefed on the drought plan, “and then we will be able to proceed to consider appropriate actions to put the state in the best position to comply with the Colorado River Compact.”

Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013

Colorado’s Water Plan

Another high priority will be examining ways to fund Colorado’s Water Plan (CWP). The CWP was prepared by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) at the direction of Governor John Hickenlooper and adopted in 2015. It contains eight measurable objectives—including new water storage, maintaining agricultural productivity, and improving watershed health. It also includes critical actions to achieve them.

The plan cites a need to raise $100 million annually over 30 years—or $3 billion from 2020-2050—to sustainably fund its implementation. It suggests a loan repayment guarantee fund and “green” bonds for environment, recreation, conservation, agriculture and education activities. Not all funding would come from the state; storage projects often rely on ratepayers to cover the costs of water development and delivery.

Legislators are expected to explore funding options for structural and nonstructural projects. The CWCB has included $20 million for CWP implementation in the 2019 “Projects Bill” that will be submitted to the legislature for approval. That is $9 million more than in 2018.

North Fork Republican River via the National Science Foundation.

Republican River Compact

Another bill that has been forwarded to lawmakers from the 2018 interim Water Resources Review Committee would redraw the boundary of the Republican River Water Conservation District in eastern Colorado to include more wells that reduce the flow of the Republican in violation of a compact with Kansas and Nebraska. The bill would allow the district to assess the same fee on those well owners that it does on all irrigators in the district to pay for a pipeline that transports water to the river to ensure compact compliance. The district borrowed $62 million to buy water rights and build the pipeline, and has assessed farmers $14.50 per acre to repay the loan.

Oil and gas development on the Roan via Airphotona

Severance Taxes

Lawmakers will also consider a bill that would change the timing of severance tax allocations for several CWCB water programs, to allow for better planning. The state collects severance taxes from oil and gas producers and other extractive industries, some of which is used to support water-related activities.

Currently the state’s severance tax revenue is transferred three times a year to the CWCB based on revenue forecasts; if the actual tax collections are below forecasts (which is often the case), funds are “clawed” back. This bill would base allocations on the amount collected in the previous fiscal year and consolidate three payments into one for the following year. Because tax collections in fiscal year 2018 exceeded forecasts, “it gives us a moment in time to do this,” Donovan said, avoiding any gap in funding.

Photo credit: AgriExpo.com.

Deficit Irrigation

Still another issue likely to surface is how to encourage more deficit irrigation, a strategy that applies less water than optimally needed by a crop in order to free up water for other uses. One proposal that did not make it out of the summer interim water committee would have added deficit irrigation to land fallowing as a type of pilot project the CWCB could approve, with the conserved water being available for short-term lease. Although the bill received support from a majority of committee members, it did not garner the two-thirds necessary to advance as a committee-sponsored bill. It may be considered again this year. (A similar bill—HB 1151—passed the House in 2018 but was withdrawn by its senate sponsor for additional study.)

The lower Crystal River was running at 8 cfs near the state fish hatchery on Aug. 1, 2018. Lows flows on the Crystal have spurred action from the state, including curtailment and a call for instream flows. Photo credit: Heather Sackett via Aspen Journalism

Instream Flows

There is also interest in legislation that could expand the state’s instream flow pilot program, where water right holders forego diversions, instead leaving their water in the stream on a short-term basis for fish and habitat protection without jeopardizing their water right. The program is voluntary, temporary, and can provide financial compensation. It may involve “split-season” use, where a farmer irrigates his or her crops early in the season and then leases the water to a nonprofit (in partnership with CWCB) to maintain instream flows later in the year. Although the committee did not report out a bill on this issue, there is reportedly interest in legislation that would encourage additional voluntary leasing while protecting agricultural water use.

Bonita Mine acid mine drainage. Photo via the Animas River Stakeholders Group.

Water Quality and Hard-rock Mining

And last but not least, the General Assembly is expected to renew consideration of a measure it rejected in 2018. Lawmakers considered HB 1301, which would have required reclamation plans for new or amended hard-rock mining permits to demonstrate an “end date” for water quality treatment to ensure compliance with water quality standards. The bill also would have eliminated the option of “self-bonding”—an audited financial statement that the mine operator has sufficient assets to meet reclamation responsibilities—and required a bond or other financial assurance to guarantee adequate funds to protect water quality, including treatment and monitoring costs. It passed the House but was defeated in a Senate committee. Rep. Roberts, the primary sponsor last year, expects a bill on the same topic this session.

Larry Morandi was formerly director of State Policy Research with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News. He can be reached at larrymorandi@comcast.net

Fresh Water News is an independent, non-partisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed here.

@WaterEdCo: Four #Colorado counties seek additional cash for land, water projects

The confluence of Weir Gulch and the South Platte River. The partners on the river are widening the floodplain and placing fish structures. Photo from one of @WaterEdCO’s great summer rides in the Denver urban area

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Four Colorado counties next week will ask voters to approve new or to extend existing taxes to preserve land, and to protect and improve waterways.

Denver, Park and Chaffee county initiatives involve sales taxes, while Eagle County voters will be asked to extend an existing property tax.

If all measures are approved, it would mean more than $50 million annually in new funds for these land and water efforts.

“It just demonstrates the importance that rivers and open space and parks have in Colorado,” said Fay Augustyn, American Rivers’ conservation director for the Colorado River Basin. “Counties continue to recognize the importance of protecting this.”

Denver’s Ballot Question 2A asks voters to raise the city and county sales tax .25 percent, or 25 cents on a $100 purchase, with funds dedicated to acquiring and improving park lands and restoration of waterways. If approved it would raise an estimated $45 million annually.

Eagle’s County’s Ballot Question 1A asks voters to extend a 1.5 mill property tax to protect working farms, wildlife habitat, wetlands, floodplains and public access points to rivers and streams. The existing tax generates $4 million to $4.5 million annually, according to Matt Scherr, a backer of the campaign.

Chaffee County Ballot Question 1A is seeking a new sales tax of .25 percent or 2.5 cents on a $10 purchase. If approved the new tax would generate $1.2 million annually, a portion of which would help to protect watersheds in the region.

And in Park County Ballot Question 1A seeks to extend an existing 1 percent sales tax through 2028 and 1B seeks authorization to use those tax dollars to preserve, acquire, lease, improve and maintain water rights, along with water systems and infrastructure, among other items. The existing tax raises $850,000 annually.

“They all take a slightly different angle,” said Gini Pingenot, legislative director at Colorado Counties Inc. Given that nearly one-third of Colorado’s 64 counties are seeking some kind of tax hike, she said it was surprising to see land and water issues landing a spot on the ballot.

“Knowing the amount of stress [counties] are under, I found it intriguing that they would be seeking voter approval for natural resource protection. It probably plays into their recognition that it is part of the lifeblood of their community. Clearly their residents are valuing it,” she said.

Anti-tax forces, however, believe the call for new taxes may be premature. Opponents, of the Denver measure, point out that the city is facing its longest ballot in history with four requests for new taxes, including 2A.

Mike Krause, public affairs director for the Independence Institute in Denver, said the local tax measures are in keeping with Colorado’s TABOR Amendment, which requires local approval of any new taxes. “That’s working the way it should,” he said. But he cautioned that Denver’s 2A, would add unneeded revenues to Denver’s healthy tax coffers.

“The Denver city budget is already growing faster than inflation and population growth. We see 2A as a way to avoid having to use existing revenue to expand the parks, even though they could do it if they really want to,” Krause said.

Denver City Council President Jolon Clark said he hopes voters give the city the go ahead, in part because Denver is one of the only counties in the state that doesn’t have its own open space tax. And, he said, preserving water is key to protecting other green spaces in the city.

“Forty years ago, the South Platte was largely dead ecologically, but today we have trout that are thriving. If you look at the reach between Overland and Grant Frontier [parks, south of downtown Denver], we were able to re-channelize that whole stretch of the river to create high flow and low flow channels because the water had become so slow moving and wide that it would heat up and kill everything in that stretch. Those are the kinds of projects that 2A will help fund,“ Clark said.

The tax questions come as Colorado water officials are researching how best to raise money to help implement the state’s water plan, an effort with a price tag of roughly $20 billion. The money would help create water conservation programs, environmental programs and some water storage projects to stave off future shortages.

Whether these initiatives will serve as an indicator of voters’ willingness to fund bigger projects isn’t clear. Pingenot said counties, traditionally, are much better at convincing residents to tax themselves to reach community goals. Statewide taxing questions are a tougher sell.

“We will know more after November,” Pingenot said. “But I think it is probably instructive for the legislature to observe the sentiment and the desire by communities to protect their resources.”

The idea of asking local residents to pay up to protect regional watersheds isn’t new. In 2003, the state approved the Colorado Healthy Rivers Fund income-tax check-off. After falling into dormancy, it came back in 2016 and was broadened to accept non-income tax related donations. To date the fund has raised nearly $1.5 million, according to Casey Davenhill, executive director of the Colorado Watershed Assembly, which administers the fund.

But it is Pitkin County that has created the most far-reaching watershed tax. In 2008, voters approved the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers Fund, which has generated $8 million for water projects. To date, it has helped build a recreational in-channel diversion on the Roaring Fork River, among dozens of other projects.

Pitkin County Attorney John Ely said the initiative’s backers hoped other counties would follow suit.

“We always thought other counties would join in but it has been slow,” he said. “It’s nice to see other people joining us now.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Click here to read the latest “Fresh Water News” from Water Education Colorado.

A WISE Approach to Water Reuse: Q&A with Lisa Darling — @WaterEdCo

WISE Project map via Denver Water

Click here to go to Water Education Colorado (Rachel Champion) and read the whole interview. Here’s an excerpt:

Lisa Darling, Water Education Colorado’s trusted board president, has years of experience working with water reuse—we sat down with her to learn more. Lisa works as executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority (SMWSA), an organization that formed in 2004 when rapidly-growing south metro communities reliant on declining non-renewable groundwater realized they had to shift their water portfolios if they were to be sustainable. Now SMWSA relies on the Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency Partnership (WISE) between Denver Water, Aurora Water, and 13 SMWSA members, reusing water from Aurora’s Prairie Waters Project—which Lisa worked on for Aurora before moving to SMWSA in 2017. An excerpt of the interview is available in the fall 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine, but you can follow along with the full interview here!

An Ambitious Reuse Plan for the South Platte Basin — Headwaters Magazine @WaterEdCO

A group called the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group, or SPROWG, is proposing to store 175,000 acre-feet of water in a series of reservoirs on the South Platte River, from north of Denver to the Morgan County line. The project also includes a long pipeline to pump water from the river back to the metro area to be cleaned and re-used. Graphic credit: CWCB via Aspen Journalism

From Headwaters Magazine (Nelson Harvey):

Conceptual project would capture and store flows before they cross into Nebraska.

Colorado is expected to add 3 million new residents by 2050, and many of them will likely settle along the northern Front Range. That growth will spur a massive mismatch between water supply and demand—a gap of roughly 500,000 acre-feet per year by midcentury, according to Colorado’s Water Plan. Since 2015, a group of Front Range water providers called the South Platte Regional Opportunity Working Group (SPROWG) has been looking for ways to bridge that future gap through collaborative multi-purpose water projects, without diverting more water from Colorado’s Western Slope or drying up eastern Colorado farmland in the process.

“[This is] about making our water systems as efficient as we possibly can, and then seeing how large the remaining supply gap is and what the next steps will be,” says Lisa Darling, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority, a member of SPROWG, and president of Water Education Colorado’s board.

Along with South Metro, SPROWG includes representatives from Denver Water, Aurora Water, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District, the North Sterling Irrigation District and the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District. The group is seeking to capitalize on a surplus of untapped reusable water in the lower South Platte River near the Nebraska border, which accumulates there through return flows from the Denver Metro area and farms upstream. According to the South Platte Storage Study, an effort funded by the Colorado legislature and completed in early 2018, Colorado sent an annual median volume of 293,000 acre-feet more water to Nebraska than the South Platte River Compact requires between 1996 and 2015. SPROWG aims to enable the reuse and exchange of more of that water before it leaves the state.

“The central problem is that [future] demand will largely materialize in growing communities located roughly along the north-south axis of Interstate 25, while data and modeling tell us that available water supplies in the basin generally occur much further downstream where the river traverses the plains,” says Doug Robotham, a consultant who helped initiate SPROWG and facilitates the group’s discussions.

The conceptual project that SPROWG is now pursuing would remedy that mismatch through the creation of about 175,000 acre-feet of new water storage in three locations: 50,000 acre-feet near Henderson, 100,000 acre-feet downstream near Kersey, and 25,000 acre-feet further east near Snyder. The concept could also involve the construction of a pipeline from the Snyder-area reservoir back to the South Platte River north of Denver. This would enable the storage, reuse and exchange of several types of water, including native South Platte River flows in wet years, and legally reusable water supplies. Reusable supplies include transbasin diversion water, unconnected well water, and other sources imported into the South Platte system.

SPROWG’s analysis suggests the concept would generate 54,600 acre-feet of dependable “firm yield” every year. That’s only about one-tenth of the South Platte Basin’s looming water supply gap, but Joe Frank of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District says the concept would have added benefits for farmers and ranchers in eastern Colorado.

“It provides a viable alternative to buy and dry that has and continues to threaten lands within our boundaries,” says Frank. The economies of many eastern Colorado towns are dependent on irrigated agriculture and will suffer if acres are removed from production by cities acquiring agricultural water to support growth, Frank says.

Much research remains before SPROWG’s concept solidifies into an actual water project. SPROWG partners recently received $155,000 in funding from the Metro and South Platte Basin roundtables, and at press time they were waiting on approval for an additional $195,000 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Water Supply Reserve Account. Over the next year, they’ll use those funds, together with $120,000 of their own money, to hone in on which municipal, agricultural and recreational water users could benefit from the SPROWG concept. They’ll also study how the concept would be funded and governed, and the exact size and location of the proposed storage facilities and water reuse pipeline.

Click here to read the whole issue of Headwaters and while you are there become a member and support water education in Colorado.

The latest “Freshwater News” is hot off the presses from @WaterEdCO

Roman lead pipe — Photo via the Science Museum

Click here to read the newsletter from Water Education Colorado. Here’s an excerpt:

Dozens of public water systems on state watch list for lead contamination (Jerd Smith)

Forty small communities, school districts and day care centers serving 51,000 people statewide are being monitored by state health officials because of concerns about potential lead contamination.

It does not mean that these entities are violating rules governing lead contamination, only that small amounts of lead have been detected in their water samples at some point, according to Nicole Graziano, a water quality specialist at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Once that occurs, under state and federal guidelines, water suppliers must embark on a rigorous sampling program that sometimes requires new water treatment and replacement of lead service lines.

“If they’re on our list, it means they are active in our process, “ Graziano said. The rule has a long timeline, meaning that water providers can remain on the list for years as the problem is monitored, treated, and then monitored again to ensure treatment is working.

The CDPHE regulates some 2,000 public water systems statewide. Roughly 1,000 of these are subject to the federal Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), Graziano said.

Concern over the issue has risen dramatically since 2015, when Flint, Michigan, switched water sources, pushing millions of gallons of highly corrosive water through aging lead pipes, leading to a wave of contamination and a public health crisis.

Under the LCR, more than 90 percent of samples must show lead levels of 15 parts per billion (ppb) or higher in order to trigger an action order. During the Flint crisis, lead levels of 27 ppb were found, with one sample registering 158 ppb, according to published reports.

These numbers are concerning, according to public health officials, because lead isn’t considered safe at any level, particularly for children, and levels as low as 5 ppb can be dangerous. Treating lead and copper in water systems is a complex undertaking governed by the federal Lead and Copper Rule. Often these metals aren’t found in water once it leaves a treatment plant. But they can leach into the supply via corrosion as water passes through copper pipes as well as lead service lines in older homes and schools. To learn more about protecting your home or office from lead contamination here.

By far the largest entity on Colorado’s watch list is Denver Water. The utility serves some 1.4 million customers in metro Denver and has been required to sample water from its customers’ taps, conduct extensive public education efforts on protecting against lead contamination, and change out thousands of lead service lines, which are major contributors to the problem.

Earlier this year Denver Water, along with Aurora Water, the Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation District and the Denver Greenway Foundation, sued the state health department over a new requirement that it add phosphorous to its water treatment processes to reduce the potential for lead contamination. Denver Water has asked the state to use a PH-based protocol instead. Talks to settle the lawsuit are underway now.

Dozens of small communities are confronting the same problem, often with limited resources and big fears that a new, likely tougher, set of federal lead regulations is coming in response to the crisis in Flint. A draft set of these new rules is set to come out early next year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

According to the CDPHE, the systems on its watch list serve more than 51,000 Coloradans.

Among them is the scenic Idaho Springs, population 1,746. Lead showed up in its tap water more than a decade ago, according to Dan Wolf, manager of the town’s water and wastewater system.

Since being directed by the state in 2008 to boost the PH levels in its water treatment system, lead and copper levels in routinely collected samples of its tap water have been negligible, according to state records.

But the higher PH levels are causing problems with other aspects of the system, Wolf said. Increasing the PH, for instance, has created an organic reaction with the chlorine used for disinfection, resulting in a set of carcinogenic byproducts known as haloacetic acids (HAAs).

“Lead is not a significant issue for us anymore,” Wolf said. “But treating for lead and copper is causing higher levels of disinfection byproducts.”

In response, Idaho Springs has asked the state to allow it to operate at a lower PH level, a request the state hasn’t ruled on yet, Wolf said.

Two other entities on the list, Elk Creek Elementary School in Pine and Bearly Tawl Day Care Center in Evergreen, have shown elevated levels of lead at some locations in their buildings in 2016 and 2017 respectively, and both are being closely watched. Subsequent tests at both facilities have shown lead levels well below the action targets, according to state records.

Bearly Tawl did not return a call seeking comment. But Jefferson County Schools’ spokeswoman Diana Wilson said the school district has moved quickly to replace faucets and drinking fountains at Elk Creek and other schools to reduce lead levels and that all of its schools are now on a rotating sample schedule so that any elevated lead levels can be identified and addressed.

Like hundreds of other school districts across the state and the nation, Jefferson County opted to use state grant money to test for lead.

“We were concerned about the age of our buildings,” said Diana Wilson, executive director of communications at Jefferson County Public Schools. “Most of them are more than 50 years old.”

In general, 50 years ago is when lead piping was outlawed, due to health concerns. Buildings constructed since then aren’t likely to have lead pipes, although some may contain copper pipe fittings.

As drinking water concerns continue to echo across the state, some communities have opted to move forward and replace all lead service lines even though they are not on the watch list. Two years ago, the town of Paonia in Delta County, which relies on underground springs for its water, saw its water source reclassified under a new set of regulations designed to address concerns over groundwater contamination.

The new classification meant it had to redo a significant portion of its water system, using bonds and grants. As part of that $4 million redo, it opted to go ahead and replace all of its lead service lines, according to Paonia Town Administrator Ken Knight.

“In a lot of small communities, their infrastructure is at the end of its life expectancy. But the fact of the matter for us is that we are going to be in very good shape.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

The latest @WaterEdCO “Fresh Water News” is hot off the presses #ColoradoRiver #COriver

A view of the location of the proposed Chimney Hollow dam and reservoir site in the foothills between Loveland and Longmont. The 90,000 acre-foot reservoir would store water for nine Front Range cities, two water districts and a utility, and is being held up a lawsuit challenging federal environmental reviews. Graphic credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt (Jerd Smith):

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.

Restoring a river channel in the Upper Colorado Basin

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 jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith. Fresh Water News is an independent, non-partisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado.

@WaterEdCO: Recovery to Resilience Flood Tour-September 18, 2018, Loveland, CO

Big Thompson Canyon before and after September 2013 flooding. Photo credit: Flywater.com

Click here for all the inside skinny:

Join Water Education Colorado on September 18 for a 5th anniversary, full-day tour of the 2013 flood-affected zone along the Front Range (to begin and end in Loveland). Jump on the bus with lawmakers, water managers, attorneys, engineers and members of the public to get an up-close look at various recovery projects. Participants will learn about the initial actions that were taken to protect lives and property as well as the subsequent projects that were undertaken to recover and build resilience. View the draft agenda here, then hurry and reserve your spot today. Seats are limited!

Register Now