The drought of the 1930s was the impetus for the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.
Work started in 1938 and would span nearly two decades to complete.
The first project was the Green Mountain Reservoir on the Blue River. The water stored ran north into the Colorado River and is used to compensate for water that would be diverted to the Eastern Slope.
A significant year for the project was 1944 when work ended on the Alva B. Adams Tunnel, just over 13 miles long. It carried water under the Continental Divide.
Lake Granby, the largest reservoir in the system, stores Colorado River water during the spring runoff. A second project was the nearby Shadow Mountain Reservoir connected to Grand Lake by a short canal. The two bodies of water are nearly 90 feet higher than Lake Granby.
The Alva B. Adams Tunnel’s west portal is on the east side of Grand Lake which, incidentally, is the largest natural water body in Colorado.
After the spring runoff and to keep Shadow Mountain Reservoir and Grand Lake filled, a pumping station brings Lake Granby water up to their level.
Added in 1951-52 and on the west side of the Continental Divide is the Willow Creek Reservoir. A pumping station elevates the water 175 feet to a canal flowing into Lake Granby.
The 9 ½ -foot in diameter Alva B. Adams Tunnel drops 109 feet in its 13 miles, ending at the East Portal.
From a small lake at the East Portal, the water is carried via a siphon under Aspen Brook to the Rams Horn Tunnel and via a penstock, down to the Marys Lake power plant. This is a drop of 205 feet.
Running directly under the summit of Prospect Mountain, yet another tunnel and penstock delivers water to the Lake Estes power plant, a drop of 482 feet.
From Lake Estes, water flows east first through the Olympus Tunnel to the 5 ½ -mile long Pole Hill Tunnel.
Water is delivered to the top of a canal then to a penstock. It drops 815 feet to the Pole Hill power plant. From there, the water enters the 1 ¾ -mile-long Rattlesnake Tunnel, ending on the west side of Pinewood Lake. An intake on the east end of Pinewood Reservoir takes water through the Bald Mountain Tunnel to the penstock visible from Loveland.
Water is delivered to the Flatiron power plant at Flatiron Reservoir over 1,000 feet below.
This is where things get complicated.
During times of excess water, it is pumped up to Carter Lake, 277 feet higher.
Water also flows through a short tunnel north to the Hansen Feeder Canal to Horsetooth Reservoir.
From the south end of Carter Lake, water is delivered into the South St. Vrain Supply Canal. This long canal takes water under part of Rabbit Mountain all the way the Boulder Reservoir.
In all, West Slope water drops nearly 3,000 feet during its journey to the East Slope.
The Colorado-Big Thompson Project has created a dozen reservoirs, uses 35 miles of tunnels and also generates a substantial amount of electric power. These are the power plants:
On a 4-2 vote, a Longmont City Council majority on Tuesday night reduced the amount of water the city will contract to store in the Windy Gap Firming Project reservoir to be built in Larimer County.
Council members Polly Christensen, Marcia Martin, Joan Peck and Aren Rodriguez instead changed the city’s commitment to its share of the overall project expense to whatever would be needed to pay for Longmont’s storage of 8,000 acre-feet of water in the Chimney Hollow Reservoir, rather than the 10,000 acre-feet that a previous council majority had favored.
That smaller amount of Longmont water storage is expected to reduce the amount of bonds, if any, that the city would have to sell to help finance its share of the water storage.
It also is expected to reduce the amount of any additional water-rate increases — if any — that Longmont would have had to bill its customers to pay for the $36.3 million in bonds that Longmont voters in the 2017 election authorized the city to sell.
It would not, however, eliminate the 9 percent water-rate increase the previous council had already imposed for 2018, followed by another 9 percent increase in 2019.
Mayor Brian Bagley and Councilwoman Bonnie Finley dissented from the vote to reduce the amount of water that Longmont would have stored, and the resulting reduction in Longmont’s cost share for the reservoir project.
Chronic ingestion of molybdenum can cause diarrhea, stunted growth, infertility, low birth weights and gout
Colorado health officials on Wednesday ignored state scientists and delayed for two years a decision on a mining giant’s push to weaken statewide limits on molybdenum pollution of streams, including a creek flowing into Dillon Reservoir, Denver’s drinking water supply.
Denver Water contends that Climax Molybdenum’s campaign to jack up molybdenum pollution limits 43 times higher than at present could cost ratepayers up to $600 million for expansion of a water treatment plant. Trace amounts of molybdenum — below a health advisory level — already flow out of Denver taps.
But Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials and federal Environmental Protection Agency officials on Wednesday rescheduled a Dec. 12 molybdenum rule hearing for November 2019.
A CDPHE hearing officer said the delay will allow time for industry-financed studies to move through a peer-review process and for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to make decisions on molybdenum toxicity. A “temporary modification” that currently allows elevated molybdenum pollution from the Climax Mine was extended this year through 2018, and CDPHE officials at Wednesday’s meeting opened the possibility it could be extended again.
CDPHE scientists opposed the delay. The scientists, Denver Water and a coalition of mountain towns have opposed the push by Climax to allow more molybdenum pollution of Tenmile Creek, which flows down from the Climax Mine above Leadville into Dillon Reservoir, where water flows out through a tunnel to Denver and the upper Colorado River Basin. CDPHE water-quality scientists have determined that molybdenum pollution at the proposed new limits would kill fish and could hurt people…
Denver Water treatment plants cannot remove molybdenum, and expanding one plant to do that would cost from $480 million to $600 million, utility officials said in documents filed to the CDPHE.
Those costs ultimately would hit ratepayers, the 1.4 million people who rely on Denver Water for their domestic water supply. The molybdenum pollution from Tenmile Creek that reaches Denver facilities today is “below the human health advisory levels,” Denver Water spokeswoman Stacy Chesney said.
“We’d likely exceed the human health advisory standard if that (new limit) were to become the statewide water quality standard. … Currently, the concentrations in Tenmile Creek have not been at a high enough concentration that would result in an exceedance of the human health advisory level, so an extension of the ‘temporary modification’ for molybdenum is acceptable,” Chesney said.
A subsidiary of the $46 billion mining giant Freeport-McMoRan, Climax Molybdenum runs the Climax Mine, which was closed for 25 years and reopened in 2012. This led to elevated molybdenum pollution at levels up to 2,500 ppb, 10 times higher than the current statewide limit. The “temporary modification” granted by CDPHE water commissioners, and extended this year, allows this elevated pollution through December 2018…
EPA officials recently said a molybdenum pollution limit as high as 10,000 ppb could be sufficient. But EPA scientists previously have advised lower limits.
“Denver Water’s current position is that the molybdenum limit should be based on scientific evidence. While Climax Molybdenum Company has presented scientific studies in support of its proposed standard, the studies fail to account for the effect high molybdenum concentrations will have on individuals with a copper deficiency,” Chesney said. “Because we do not know how high molybdenum concentrations will affect people with copper deficiencies, and EPA has not modified the Human Health Advisory for molybdenum to correspond with Climax’s proposed standard, the (state water quality control) commission should decline to increase the molybdenum standard to the level proposed by Climax.”
A coalition of mountain towns also is fighting the proposed higher limits for molybdenum pollution of waterways.
“Because of scientific uncertainty regarding the effects of varying molybdenum concentrations on human health, the commission should decline to make the changes that Climax Molybdenum Company has proposed in the statewide molybdenum standards,” Frisco attorney Jennifer DiLalla said. “The town’s primary goal is ensuring that any action the commission may take with respect to molydenum standards is protective of the health of those who live and work and play in Frisco.”
Starting in January, Fort Morgan residents can expect to pay at least $2 more per month for water, depending on their water usage.
The Fort Morgan City Council recently approved adjusting water rates for 2018 to include the 3 percent increase recommended by the latest rates study.
Water Resources/Utilities Director Brent Nation said that a residential household that currently pays $71.90 for a monthly water bill likely would have a bill next year of $73.90.
The increase was recommended to the council so as to keep the city’s water fund revenue on track for the possibility of going out to bond for construction on the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP), as well as likely upcoming large capital projects at Fort Morgan Water Treatment Plant and ongoing maintenance of the city’s water delivery system, Nation and City Manager Jeff Wells explained…
He said the price of constructing NISP has not changed, but some of the projections for how it is expected to be financed for Northern Water by the 15 participants – including Fort Morgan and Morgan County Quality Water District – are changing. That meant the city needed to figure out how to “balance out” those financing expense projections with the water fund projections for revenue.
Nation said the latest water rates study included “a conservative approach” so that the city could “make sure that the fund is safely being funded for these projects” but also keep rates from having to skyrocket in the future.
For now, Nation said the 3 percent water rates increase for 2018 would “keep us moving forward towards where we’re projecting that we’re going to need over the next 10 to 15 years, depending on how NISP plays out.”
The current rate study did indicate that Fort Morgan’s water rates are on the higher end in northeast Colorado, but that had been the case since the Colorado-Big Thompson project began, Nation said.
“We pay for high quality water, and that’s what we’re getting,” he said.
But there also are other things the city’s water treatment and water delivery departments will look at doing so as to save money for rate payers, Nation told the council, not getting into specifics right now.
Wells pointed out that the city has been collecting a monthly NISP fee from rate-payers so as to start building up cash toward future bonding for that project, if or when it gets approved.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is expected to rule early next year on what would be the biggest public works project in Boulder County history, exceeding the original construction of the Gross Reservoir Dam, which was completed in 1954.
The tree removal plan outlined in Denver Water’s FERC application states that all trees and their associated debris on about 430 acres along 12.5 miles of shoreline will have to be removed in the course of the expansion, which is envisioned as being completed by 2025.
Denver Water spokeswoman Stacy Chesney said the agency has estimated that “the density of the forest ranges from approximately 150 to 1,800 trees per acre. Based on these initial plans, we estimate up to 650,000 trees will need to be removed in the area surrounding Gross Reservoir.”
In a recent interview, Denver Water President Jim Lochhead vowed that every aspect of the project’s completion is being designed and executed with an eye toward mitigation of its impacts on the high country environment and those who depend on it for their recreation or call it home.
“We recognize that this is a major construction project and it has adverse impacts to the community,” said Lochhead, whose utility serves 1.4 million in Denver and many of its suburbs — but not Boulder County.
“We are trying to understand exactly what those impacts are, and see what the needs of the community are, and do everything we can to help address them.”
Referencing project manager Jeff Martin, Lochhead said, “Whether it’s traffic, hauling on the roads, whether it’s noise associated with the quarry, whether it’s the tree removal issues, it’s Jeff’s job to make sure it goes in a way that we’re doing the best that we can by the local community.”
Martin said: “We recognize the brutal aspects of the project. We don’t want to hide from those. That’s not our objective.”
Stressing that Denver Water intends to factor the concerns of reservoir neighbors into its planning of what’s officially known as the Moffat Collection System Project, Martin said, “We look forward to getting that feedback, seeing how we can make it into the most palatable project we can, and turn it into, maybe not reducing all the impacts, but for the greater good, reducing them as much as we can.”
A 48-page plan for the required tree removal prepared by Denver Water describes a mix of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and Rocky Mountain juniper.
According to data the agency compiled in 2005, most of the trees at that time were 20 to 50 feet high, with a breast-high diameter ranging from 4 to 14 inches.
“Because of the topography, e.g., very steep slopes, rock outcrops, etc., several more complex tree removal (logging) systems will need to be used, and some temporary roads will need to be constructed to remove the trees,” the plan states.
It estimates that 50,000 tons of forest biomass are expected to be produced during the required clearing for the expansion of Gross Reservoir, which is to see its dam raised by 131 feet, expanding the reservoir’s capacity by 77,000 acre feet to a total storage capacity of 118,811 acre feet.
While noting that, “Traditionally, most of the slash would have been piled and burned in place,” the plan acknowledges that, “Today, burning large quantities of forest residue, in close proximity to residential areas, is problematic in the extreme.”
Allen Owen, Boulder District forester for the Colorado State Forest Service — a contracted forest resource management partner to Denver Water through the Forests to Faucets program — said he had been unaware of the number of trees Denver Water is planning to pull out of the Gross Reservoir area, or that it will involve the leveling of all growth on 430 acres of shoreline.
He doubts it would actually reach the 650,000 figure.
“That would mean 1,500 trees per acre over the entire 430-acre unit, and I know that’s not the case,” he said. “The stand densities vary all around the perimeter of the shoreline. There are areas that are nothing but solid rock, with no vegetation on it, to units that may have those number of trees. But there are not that many trees over the entire 430 acres. The number seems high.”
Owen expects state foresters will be involved in plotting how the trees’ removal proceeds.
“It’s something way beyond the ability of the Colorado State Forest Service,” he said. “I would consider that a big logging job, on very steep slopes, with very poor access. It is going to be very difficult, at best.”
Martin discussed three different potential scenarios, including removal by truck, burning and burial of felled lumber, or some combination of those strategies.
In cases where trees are located on small rock bluffs, Denver Water’s current removal plan notes, “the use of helicopter may be necessary.”
Denver Water believes new emerging technologies may pose options for removal that weren’t contemplated when its plan was authored.
“One of the things we’ve committed to is developing a process with public input … going out and getting some public input and some stakeholder input and that includes the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado state forester and Boulder County, and developing some concepts … and then seeing what fits best for the community from there, and then moving forward with the plan,” Martin said…
Denver Water points to steps it is taking to mitigate the effects of construction wherever possible, and also emphasizes measures that it contends offers some in Boulder County a benefit. Lochhead and Martin touted the provision of a 5,000-square-foot environmental pool in the expanded reservoir, to be available for replenishing South Boulder Creek for the benefit of both Boulder and Lafayette at times when it is running dangerously low.
“That’s kind of a neat partnership there,” Lochhead said.
That does not mean that Boulder supports the Gross Reservoir expansion — but nor does it oppose it.
“Boulder has a neutral position on the overall expansion,” said Boulder’s source water administrator, Joanna Bloom.
“If the project somehow falls apart, then Boulder will continue to try to establish the streamflows on South Boulder Creek through other means,” Bloom said…
Boulder County’s stance on the expansion is more complicated.
The county filed extensive comments on both the draft and final environmental impact statements in the Army Corps of Engineers’ review process, and doesn’t agree that the EIS adequately addressed “the myriad of impacts” that would result for Boulder County and its citizens.
On March 23, the county filed an unopposed motion to intervene in the FERC approval process. One of the points the county addressed at length in that intervention relates to tree removal — and its arguments are based on the presumption of a far more modest, but still significant, removal of trees, at a total of 200,000.
“County roads (Flagstaff Road, Magnolia Road and others) are windy with low volume residential traffic and would be inappropriate for use by trucks hauling trees,” the county argued.
“In addition, it may not be possible to safely navigate SH 72 with trucks full of trees. These heavily laden trucks will cause damage to the roads and present safety concerns for road users.”
Moreover, the county contends Denver Water’s project must come through its land use review process, while the utility maintains that the county’s role is superseded by the FERC review process.
Until that conflict is resolved, the county is tempering its remarks, pro or con, on the Gross Reservoir project, so that it will not be seen as having prejudged any application Denver Water might make in the future through the county’s land review process.
Martin recalled that Denver Water worked extensively with Boulder County in 2012 exploring a potential intergovernmental agreement to facilitate the reservoir expansion.
While such a pact was ultimately rejected by Boulder County commissioners by a 3-0 vote, Martin said, “What we did receive was a lot of information from Boulder County and the public on how we need to shape the project in order to meet the needs of both the community and Boulder County.”
However, independent of the environmentalists’ planned federal lawsuit, there might be a need for another judge to sort out the critical question of whether Denver Water’s plans for tree removal and many other aspects of its reservoir expansion must pass through the county’s land use review process.
“I would say that it is likely that it will take litigation, because neither party is willing to give up its position,” said Conrad Lattes, assistant county attorney for Boulder County. “We need some neutral third party to decide this for us.”
However, on a warm and sunny day back before the chill of approaching winter descended on Colorado’s high country, Denver Water’s brass were flush with optimism.
Martin said that for Denver Water, it’s not just about getting the project done.
“We’re also looking at the social responsibility,” he said, “making sure that when it’s said and done, that we did it in the right way; that we could look back and say we did everything within reason and practicality to make this really the most environmentally, socially responsible project we can.”
DENVER — Beneath the dim red glow of string lights at the Mercury Cafe in downtown Denver, about 25 people gathered Tuesday afternoon to rally support for a lawsuit against the state on behalf of the Colorado River.
The case, the first of its kind in the United States, has the potential to shift American environmental law by granting nature a legal standing. The suit lists “the Colorado River Ecosystem” as the plaintiff along with people who hope to serve as “next friends” for the river and represent its interests in court.
Five potential next friends were named in the original complaint — Deanna Meyer, Jennifer Murnan, Fred Gibson, Susan Hyatt and Will Falk — all members of the environmental group Deep Green Resistance, which states its goal is to “deprive the rich of their ability to steal from the poor and the powerful of their ability to destroy the planet.”
In an amended complaint, filed on Nov. 6, two more “next friends” were added to the case.
Owen Lammers of Moab is the executive director of Living Rivers, “which empowers a movement to realize social-ecological balance within the Colorado River watershed,” the amended complaint states. Living Rivers is a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to clean water founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
“Because of Mr. Lammer’s significant relationship with, and dedication to, the Colorado River ecosystem, he is qualified to serve as next friend,” the amended complaint states.
This is a change from the original complaint, which did not cite any particular relationship between the Colorado River and the members of Deep Green Resistance.
Also added to the case was John Weisheit, who is “the person designated as the on-the-water ‘keeper’ per the Waterkeeper Alliance policies. In other words, Mr. Weissheit is the ‘Colorado Riverkeeper,'” the amended complaint states.
Weisheit, 63, “has enjoyed the Colorado River and its tributaries since childhood,” the complaint says. A resident of Moab, he’s been a river guide since 1980 and “continues to lead river trips that support scientific research and public education, in fulfillment of Colorado Riverkeeper’s mission statement.”
Weisheit is also a co-author of the 2004 book “Cataract Canyon, a human and environmental history of the rivers in Canyonlands,” which is a detailed 268-page guide to the “center of the universe.”
Signs of protest
Though the novel case is seeking personhood for the Colorado River ecosystem, the suit’s proponents hope to use it as a launching pad for a broader rights-of-nature movement.
“For you or I to defend a river in court right now we have to show how injury to the river injured us,” said Mari Margil, the associate director for the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a rights-for-nature legal group and a legal adviser on the Colorado River case. “There is a growing understanding that our environmental laws are starting in the wrong place.”
Rather than maneuvering within existing environmental law, where nature is considered property, rights-of-nature lawsuits seek to give the natural world rights to exist beyond its use to humanity.
Margil and other rights-of-nature proponents say that our current environmental legal framework — which is based on legislation like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act — does not go far enough. They point to past court decisions that have granted legal rights to corporations, like the 2010 Citizens United case, and say nature should have that same standing.
“I’ve long acknowledged that what we are doing in the environmental movement has not created change,” Meyer, one of the potential next friends in the lawsuit, said in a recent interview. “We see every biotic system on the planet in decline and nothing has gotten better. Until the river has rights, I don’t see any change happening in the way it is being used and exploited.”
At the meeting in the café in Denver on Tuesday, activists supporting the lawsuit propped up poster boards that said “The Colorado River runs through us” and “Legal standing for the Colorado River,” that were made for a courthouse rally held earlier that morning. They kicked off their meeting with a slow chant praising “sacred Colorado waters” before sitting down to strategize about building support around the lawsuit.
The group is planning protests, awareness campaigns and other rights-of-nature lawsuits in an effort to open up the courts for cases defending ecosystems from environmental ills.
“The court isn’t going to just give us anything,” Jason Flores-Williams, the Denver-based lawyer representing Deep Green Resistance and the potential next friends in the lawsuit, said at the meeting. “How we won’t lose is not based on whatever will happen inside the courtroom, but what happens outside of it.”
So far, the case has moved forward only a couple of short steps. Flores-Williams filed the case on Sept. 25, which the state followed with a motion to dismiss on Oct. 17 on the grounds that the case does not fall under federal jurisdiction and lacked specific injuries attributable to the state.
“The complaint alleges hypothetical future injuries that are neither fairly traceable to actions of the state of Colorado, nor redressable by a declaration that the ecosystem is a ‘person’ capable of possessing rights,” reads the motion to dismiss, which was filed by the Colorado attorney general’s office.
The plaintiffs were then allowed to amend their complaint, and on Nov. 6 Flores-Williams filed a new complaint, invoking rights under the U.S. Constitution in order to keep the case in federal court.
246,000 square miles
Flores-Williams used the opportunity clarify aspects of the original complaint. For example he added that the Colorado River has the right to “be restored” in addition to the right “to exist, flourish, regenerate, [and] naturally evolve.”
He also defined the scope of the plaintiff in the case, the “Colorado River Ecosystem,” saying it “encompasses the area bound by the highpoints and ridgelines where drop-by-drop and grain-by-grain, water, sediment, and dissolved materials ebb their way toward the Gulf of California: some 246,000 square miles (640,000 km2) in southwest North America including portions of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California in the United States, and portions of Baja California and Sonora in Mexico.”
The amended complaint states that the Colorado River ecosystem includes the river’s “major tributaries” and “all the creeks, streams, and tributaries that feed them, along with the surrounding landscape where water percolates and flows underground,” and it includes a map of the entire Colorado River basin.
It also cites the native endangered fish species that are struggling to survive in the Colorado River basin and says the Endangered Species Act “has failed to reverse the pace of biodiversity degradation.”
In terms of the connection between the river ecosystem and those who wish to be seen as “next friends” by the court, the amended complaint claims that “as the human part of the Colorado River ecosystem, next friends and guardians are capable of speaking through words on behalf of the natural communities that comprise the Colorado River ecosystem.”
The amended complaint also elaborates on the idea of personhood for the river, noting “the recognition of the Colorado River ecosystem as a ‘person’ is far less of a stretch than bestowing upon inanimate corporations the status of personhood.'”
And the amended complaint argues that by lack of such recognition the river’s rights are being denied under the due process and equal protection provisions in the U.S. Constitution.
On thing the amended complaint did not do is correct claims in the original complaint that the state of Colorado operates a number of dams and reservoirs on the Colorado River system that are, in fact, operated by the Bureau of Reclamation or other water-management organizations, including Blue Mesa Reservoir on the Gunnison and Green Mountain Reservoir on the Blue River, both tributaries of the Colorado River.
Beyond the law
The courthouse rally and the following rights-of-nature meeting were originally scheduled around a status conference slated for Tuesday, but the court vacated the hearing and gave the state until Dec. 1 to respond to the amended complaint. Flores-Williams expects the state will again move to dismiss the case.
Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, the case’s plaintiffs plan to keep fighting against what they see as exploitation on the Colorado River and hope to inspire others to file rights-of-nature cases.
“Our case by itself is not going to transform the American legal system,” Falk, a potential “next friend” in the case said in an interview. “People who care about the environment need to realize that one court case is not going to be a quick fix for a system that has a tradition of exploiting the natural world.”
The amended complaint notes that Falk “recently traveled the waters of the Colorado River.”
“To support the idea that the Colorado River needs rights, I wanted to go see firsthand the problems along the river,” Falk said in a recent interview.
“It started a couple weeks ago when we went up to La Poudre pass north of Rocky Mountain National Park to see the headwaters of the river,” Falk said. “And you don’t really find a whole lot of natural or wild water. What you find is the Grand Ditch, which is a ditch build in the 1880s that is still carrying water across the Continental Divide and over the Rocky Mountains and to the Front Range. From the very beginning, the river is being exploited. The water is taken from her birthing grounds. From the moments she begins to flow she is being stolen.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and waters in collaboration with the Glenwood Post Independent, The Aspen Times, the Vail Daily and the Summit Daily News. The Post Independent published a shorter version of the story on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Collaboration is a lofty goal touted by political and business leaders as a potential way forward on anything from climate change to healthcare to obesity. Drop your weapons, turn your enemies into partners and achieve great things — or so the thinking goes. But collaboration is a concept that sounds great in the abstract and quickly turns messy in practice, with plenty of pitfalls along the way toward a common goal.
Avoiding drawn out fights has always been tough when dealing with water issues in the West. Collaboration wasn’t always the go-to strategy for environmentalists, political figures and water managers who held competing interests on overtaxed, overdrawn rivers.
But with the Windy Gap Firming Project in northern Colorado’s mountains, old grudges are being put aside in favor of new, collaborative tactics. While some of the West’s oldest enemies are working together, those who feel left behind by all the newfound teamwork aren’t ready to sing “Kumbaya.”
Windy Gap Reservoir — at the heart of the dispute — is a shallow, human-made lake just west of Rocky Mountain National Park. Colorado River water sits in a wide, shallow pool, kept in place by a dam…
It’s just one piece of a much larger diversion project that moves water from the headwaters of the Colorado through the mountains for use along the Front Range. Water managers have proposed, and received the federal permits needed, to use this small reservoir to move more water eastward, exercising water rights they say they’re unable to use now because the system is full to the brim at inopportune times.
That type of proposal — to send more Colorado River water eastward to supplement urban and suburban growth — stirs up all kinds of West Slope anxiety about Front Range growth.
“We know the flows are going to be diverted,” [Kirk] Klancke says. “We know the state’s not going to stop growing, that’s reality.”
“The pragmatic approach would be then to figure out how to keep your aquatic habitat healthy with those diminished flows, and that’s what we’re doing,” he says.
Rather than fight powerful water managers like Denver Water and Northern Water in the duke-it-out, courtroom-style battle some environmental groups have perfected over the years, Trout Unlimited and some of its allies took an unprecedented step: working together. Since the Windy Gap project’s revival more than a decade ago, they’ve had a seat at the negotiating table. If cities want to siphon away West Slope water, Klancke says, they need to give something in return.
“These are some of the most powerful people in the state because they control one of the state’s most important resources,” he says.
Which is exactly why other environmentalists, like Ken Fucik, don’t trust the water diverters and, by association, environmental groups like Trout Unlimited for working with them.
“When you look at the process over here, there are some of us over here who are unhappy,” Fucik says.
Fucik, a retired environmental consultant from Grand Lake, is opposed to a 2012 deal brokered by Trout Unlimited, county officials and others. In exchange for a permit to allow more water be sent to the Front Range as part of Windy Gap, the negotiators got $10 million in required mitigation to upgrade water quality in the headwaters and an additional $12 million in mitigation work for fish and wildlife, projects not required by law. That includes partial funding for a bypass channel that would skirt around Windy Gap dam and reservoir, reconnecting the upper reaches of the Colorado River, allowing fish to move more freely.
Grand County was also able to negotiate additional flows out of Windy Gap Dam to flush out sediment, an agreement that Northern Water be in charge of operation of the new bypass and more flows to support endangered fish in a stretch of the Colorado near Grand Junction…
Environmental consultant Geoff Elliott agrees. He lives in Grand County and says when you’re not part of collaborative agreements and weren’t invited to the negotiations, you end up feeling left out and unheard.
“It comes down to trust and we’re asked to trust in a process where we’ve been eliminated, pushed out and punished,” he says. “It’s hard for us to trust in that process.”
Fucik and Elliott are now supporting a recently filed lawsuit from a handful of environmental groups who take a different tactic with water projects, like Save The Colorado and WildEarth Guardians. Their goal is to prevent more water pulled from the Colorado River watershed from traveling to the Front Range…
For an environmentalist concerned about the health of the river, this conundrum has become the fork in the road: When do you collaborate with someone who’s supposed to be your enemy? And when do you roll the dice in court?
Lurline Underbrink Curran says the path of most resistance has been tried before, with pretty erratic results. She’s the former Grand County manager and sat at the negotiating table with Northern Water.
“I don’t understand collaboration becoming a dirty word,” she says. “Because I can tell you, I can throw out some dirty words that will curl your hair, and that is not one of them.”
Because Grand County officials, like Curran, held the key to a permit that would allow the project to move forward, she joined forces with environmental groups like Trout Unlimited and ranchers concerned about the river’s flow downstream of Windy Gap. The negotiations took years and Curran says her team was a formidable opponent to the Front Range water suppliers, despite what detractors might think.
Curran admits some of the negotiations were done behind closed doors, as she says, to build trust among old enemies. But adds that the solutions they came up with will benefit the river in the long-term.
“Will the Colorado be as wide and deep as it used to be? Hell no. But that’s gone. Like it or not that’s been gone for decades,” she says. “But you can make it so it’s functional.”
The idea of bringing parties with old grudges to the negotiating table was meant to avoid lawsuits in the first place. Now that one’s been filed it threatens to bring down the whole deal. Northern Water has already started planning the $400 million Chimney Hollow Reservoir. Trout Unlimited is still fundraising to secure enough money to build the Windy Gap bypass channel, the crown jewel of the agreement.
Northern Water spokesman Brian Werner says the agency is moving ahead with its plans.
“I’d be lying if I said there weren’t any concerns, we’d rather not have a lawsuit filed,” Werner says.
Werner doesn’t have any regrets on how the compromise went down. For decades, water managers have been seen as bullies who strong arm their opponents to get what they want. He says the Windy Gap Bypass project seemed like a turning point.
“What’s best for the river?” he asks. “We need water for growth in Colorado, there’s no question about that. How are we going to do it, folks?”
Either by working with your enemies. Or against them.