Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
The C-BT Project water year ended on Oct. 31. C-BT Project storage levels on Nov. 1 were above average for a third consecutive year, with 548,274 acre-feet in active storage. The Nov. 1 average is 444,177 AF. Deliveries increased in 2016 over 2015 levels, with 204,078 AF delivered (including quota, Carryover Program and Regional Pool Program water). Forty-six percent of the deliveries were from Horsetooth Reservoir, 40 percent from Carter Lake and the remaining 14 percent went to the Big Thompson River, Hansen Feeder Canal and the South Platte River. Estimated deliveries to municipal and industrial users totaled 102,157 AF, while agricultural deliveries were approximately 101,921 AF.
The long awaited Windy Gap Bypass Project may begin moving forward in the not-so-distant future.
Officials from Grand County as well as multiple local partnering agencies and groups are patiently awaiting news on a $10 million Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) grant. The announcement regarding which applicants will receive the grant is expected sometime in Dec. this year. If the grant award is approved full funding for the Windy Gap Bypass Project will be secured.
WORKIN ON THE RIVER
The RCPP grant is administered by the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and is given to producers and landowners to provide conservation assistance. The grant application was submitted under a partnership of multiple local organizations and entities including: Grand County government, the Irrigators in the Lands in the Vicinity of Kremmling (ILVK), the Upper Colorado River Alliance (UCRA), Middle Park, the Colorado River District, Trout Unlimited, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) and Northern Water.
If awarded the $10 million grant monies will go directly to two specific projects: the Windy Gap Bypass Project and a streambed habitat improvement project in the Colorado River for the ILVK. Additionally CPW is working to secure funding from the States Wildlife Mitigation and Enhancement Plan to conduct a stream enhancement project on the Colorado River between the Windy Gap and the ILVK lands. If local organizers are able to secure funding for all three projects roughly 33-miles of the Colorado River will see stream improvements.
Lurline Underbrink-Curran is a contract employee for Grand County overseeing much of the County’s efforts on water issues. She worked closely with others to develop the RCPP grant application. “This will be a big deal if we are successful,” Underbrink-Curran said. “We think we have a strong application and we have a very strong partnership collaboration.”
She cautioned against expecting results too quickly though, even if full funding is approved. “The things that happened to the River didn’t happen over night and we won’t fix them overnight. But if we have methods and plans in place we will get them fixed.”
WINDY GAP BYPASS
The total cost of the Windy Gap Bypass Project is estimated at roughly $9.6 million. A total of $4.5 million has already been secured for the project and the $10 million RCPP grant would cover the remainder, with excess funds going to the ILVK Project.
The Windy Gap Bypass Project is intended to create a free flowing channel for water from the Colorado River to [bypass] the Windy Gap Reservoir. The Windy Gap Reservoir is located just a short distance west of Granby on US Highway 40 and is one of several water storage reservoir[s] that make up the Colorado Big-Thompson Project’s water diversion system.
Water from the Windy Gap is pumped through the Northern Water diversion and pump network eventually reaching Grand Lake before moving across the Continental Divide through the Alva B. Adams Tunnel. When the Windy Gap Reservoir was initially constructed no free flowing channel was created. As such the Windy Gap Reservoir divides the river habitat above and below the reservoir, preventing fish and other creatures from migrating freely.
Additionally the Windy Gap causes the Colorado River to lose nearly all of its velocity, allowing for a substantial amount of sediment to develop in both the reservoir and in the river downstream. The sediment buildup negatively impacts bug habitat, which has a domino effect on all other species living in the river.
The work that will be done for the Windy Gap Bypass is fairly simple in concept. Excavators will dig out a channel within the existing Windy Gap Reservoir. The dirt from the excavations will be used to construct a berm inside the Reservoir. The berm will establish a smaller reservoir while also creating a separate channel for the free flow of water down the Colorado.
The ILVK streambed habitat improvement project seeks to address two concerns: issues with irrigation infrastructure and improvements of streambed habitat for bug and aquatic life.
As Paul Bruchez, one of the ILVK landowners helping to spearhead the project explained, the project hopes to accomplish both goals through the same work; by rebuilding the pools and riffles that create healthy river habitat and focusing most of those efforts on areas where the irrigation pumping infrastructure already exists.
The ILVK is a landowners organization made up primarily of irrigating ranchers near the town of Kremmling. The ILVK holds some of the most senior water rights on the upper Colorado River; their senior water rights are recognized in Senate Document 80 and their rights precede the famous Colorado-Big Thompson Project (CBTP).
Prior to the establishment of the CBTP there were virtually no water storage reservoirs in the high country and no ditches bringing water to the landowners of the ILVK. At that time they were considered as having, “meadows act water rights” meaning they did not irrigate their fields using irrigation ditches, rather their fields naturally flooded each spring/summer as snow runoff from higher elevations made its way to the Colorado River.
When the CBTP was established irrigation pumps were constructed to provide water from the Colorado River to the landowners of the ILVK. As time has passed and additional water diversions and storage projects were undertaken above the ILVK region the flows that provided the ILVK members with irrigation water have diminished, along with the overall water table.
“We have a fixed station (irrigation) pump system with a river that is dynamic and changing,” Bruchez explained. “My neighbors and family struggle with irrigation issues. But I am also watching the regress of the Colorado River from a fishery standpoint. The concept of the ILVK project is to fix and repair our irrigation systems to be sustainable while using construction techniques that will improve the health of the river overall.”
In that way the ILVK project proverbially kills two birds with one stone. But for Bruchez and other landowners along the Colorado the effort isn’t just about improving their ability to access the water that is theirs by right, it is about the broader health of the River as well.
“If we can cut down water temps by even a fraction we are making headway,” Bruchez said. “It almost becomes a water quality issue. We are not just improving segments but improving the whole river system. We can’t look at one part or another as the priority. It is a system that needs a system wide repair.”
FromAspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith) via The Aspen Daily News:
The board of directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board gave conceptual approval Wednesday to a $90 million loan to help finance the $400 million Windy Gap Firming Project, which will divert more water from the Colorado River.
The CWCB, charged with facilitating water supply projects in Colorado, has both a loan program and a grant program. And while its grant program is being challenged by a sharp drop in severance tax revenue from the oil and gas sector, the agency’s loan program remains robust, especially as Aurora just repaid a $70 million loan ahead of schedule.
The $90 million loan to Northern Water, which is developing Windy Gap, is the largest in the agency’s history. It will help facilitate a project that is more popular on the Eastern Slope than the Western Slope, given it will increase the level of water sent under the Continental Divide.
The loan, which still needs final approval from the CWCB board, will be part of a financing package for a new reservoir near Loveland called Chimney Hollow Reservoir, which will cost $400 million to construct.
Eric Wilkinson, the general manager of Northern Water, said he expects the project to be approved in 2017, that test drilling has begun at the dam site — next to Carter Lake Reservoir in Larimer County — and design work is well underway. Gov. Hickenlooper has also endorsed the Windy Gap project, even though final federal approval is still outstanding.
Wilkinson also said that the prospect of a CWCB loan has galvanized financing discussions among the 12 different entities – including 10 cities from Broomfield north to Greeley — who are involved in the project as members of the Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict.
“The difference that this has made cannot be overstated,” Wilkinson told the CWCB board about the loan.
Savings needed to backfill drop in severance tax funding
The $90 million loan makes up a big chunk of this year’s “projects bill,” which is submitted annually by the CWCB to the state Legislature for approval. This year’s projects bill is $165 million in all, which makes it the largest annual spending request in the history of the CWCB, which dates back to 1937.
Another big part of the projects bill is $55 million for an array of grants and loans spurred by the Colorado Water Plan, which was approved a year ago by the CWCB board and presented to the governor.
Of the $55 million, $10 million is for projects to be funded at the discretion of the CWCB directors, and $5 million is specifically for watershed restoration efforts and stream management plans, which is a nod to environmental interests in the state.
Another $10 million is used to fund the agency’s Water Supply Reserve Fund, which helps fund local water supply projects identified and approved by the nine basin roundtables around the state, including the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, which meets in Glenwood Springs.
Funding for roundtable projects is supposed to come from severance taxes paid by oil and gas producers in the state to the tune of $10 million a year. But the combination of the slowdown in the gas patch and property tax rebates given to the industry means that the CWCB is only going to see about a quarter of the severance tax revenue this year that it normally receives.
As such, the CWCB is asking the Legislature to let it spend severance tax revenue it has tucked away from the good years. That approach, however, is fraught with danger, as the Legislature is busy trying to figure out how to fill a $500 million to $800 million hole in the state’s budget, which must be balanced each year by law.
James Eklund, director of the CWCB, said the Legislature will be looking in all nooks and crannies for funds, but he’s hopeful that the approval of the state water plan last year will help convince lawmakers that the CWCB has a legitimate need for the money it has set aside for future projects.
Also in the $55 million bucket in the projects bill is a $30 million “loan guarantee fund” to help water suppliers with varying credit ratings to gain better interest rates when funding new projects together.
Eklund is sensitive to criticism that not enough has been achieved after the publication of the Colorado Water Plan a year ago, which itself was the product of an intense two-year collaborative effort among water interests in the state.
On Wednesday, he told the CWCB directors that while the Water Plan was now a year old, it was “only five days old in water years.”
“We are moving forward aggressively,” Eklund said. “And I don’t think slowly at all, especially if you look at it in water time.”
Board renews Ruedi fish-water lease
Also at last week’s CWCB meeting, Eklund said that the Ute Water Conservancy District in Grand Junction has offered to once again lease 12,000 acre-feet of water it owns in Ruedi Reservoir to the CWCB, so the agency can help maintain flows in the Colorado River, as it has done the last two years.
While the water from Ruedi benefits endangered fish in a critical 15-mile reach of the Colorado, it has also kicked up river levels in the lower Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir in the late summer and fall to the consternation of some anglers.
The CWCB board also approved a $1.7 million loan for improvements to the Grand Valley Power Plant, which controls one of the senior water rights that make up the “Cameo Call” on the Colorado River above Grand Junction.
The loan to the Grand Valley Water Users Association and the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District will help cover the costs of a $5.2 million project to modernize the hydropower plant, which was built in the 1930s.
Contracts were also finalized this week with a bevy of water consultants to prepare the next edition of the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, or SWSI, which is a more technical version of the state water plan.
The SWSI plan is slated to be finished by December 2017 and is designed to inform regional water plans created by the basin roundtables, known as “basin implementation plans,” as well as provide a base of data for the next version of the more policy-driven Colorado Water Plan.
Also, State Engineer Dick Wolfe informed the CWCB board he’ll be retiring in June 2017 at age 55, after nine years in his role as the state’s top water cop.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water in Colorado. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.
FromAspen Journalism (Allen Best) via The Aspen Daily News:
Nobody disputes that the Colorado-Big Thompson project has changed Grand Lake, the state’s largest, deepest natural lake. How could it not?
In the 1940s, Grand Lake was integrated into the giant C-BT, what the late historian David Lavender called a “massive violation of geography.” It’s Colorado’s largest transmountain diversion project. By one tally in the 1990s, it delivers an average 231,060 acre-feet annually from the headwaters of the Colorado River to cities and farms east of the Continental Divide. This compares to the 105,024 acre-feet from three tunnels through the Sawatch Range east of Aspen.
Almost immediately after the C-BT was completed in 1953, locals began to complain that the project shoehorned into the lake had sullied the lake’s clarity by introducing algae and sediments. This is, they insist, a violation of federal law.
The controversy pivots on Senate Document 80, a part of the Congressional authorization for project funding in 1937. The document describes the needs of irrigation, industrial and power production but also warns against impacts to nearby Rocky Mountain National Park.
The lake, if outside the park, has one of Colorado’s most memorable backdrops. The document specifies the need “to preserve the fishing and recreational facilities and the scenic attractions of Grand Lake…”
On that, say many locals, the C-BT has failed, and they say that until recently they got little response from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that built the C-BT.
But now, in a reversal, the bureau is working with 18 other stakeholders in an effort to solve the problem. Parties include Northern Colorado Water, the agency that manages the diversions for cities and farmers of northeastern Colorado, Grand County and other state and local organizations.
Grand Lake’s story fits into a broad theme of changed sensibilities in Colorado about 20th century river alterations. Restoration and remediation projects are starting or underway on the San Miguel River in Telluride, on the Eagle River at Camp Hale and on the Fraser River near Winter Park.
“It’s possible that at one time, the impacts of the CBT Project on Grand Lake clarity were thought to be just part of the price we pay for valuable water projects,” said Anne Castle, a fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “Now, we are more inclined to believe that the environmental values have significance, including economic significance, and that operations can and should be adjusted to better accommodate these values.”
The work at Grand Lake also illustrates the power of persistence and spunk by advocates of environmental protection. And it involves a collaborative process called adaptive management that emphasizes consensus-based decision-making in solving stubborn issues involving water diversions.
Nobody thinks solving this problem will be easy, though. In April, after several years of working together, the Grand Lake stakeholders submitted a plan to the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission. The plan approved by the commission sets an interim clarity goal for summer pumping during the next five years.
During that time, the Bureau of Reclamation is to develop a plan for long-term solutions. Alternatives include expensive new tunnels, possibly bypassing Grand Lake altogether. A preview of the alternatives may emerge at a meeting of stakeholders in late November.
Not everybody in Grand Lake thinks that reduced clarity is a problem. “There are people who think there’s a problem, but there is no problem,” says Jim Gasner, a member of the Grand Lake Board of Trustees, the town’s elected body, and a fishing “teacher” at Rocky Mountain Outfitters.
But Elwin Crabtree, a real estate agent and former Grand County commissioner, sees something different. “It’s adverse to its natural being,” he said in early August in an interview at his office along the town’s main street of knotty-pined stores and lodges. “I think we look at it as a moral issue,” he added. “I think we believe in having responsibility to be good stewards of our environment.”
The C-BT is an effort to address what one historian in the 1950s called “nature’s error.” Even as Aspen was putting on its silver-lined britches in the 1880s, farmers along the South Platte River and its tributaries were struggling with inadequate water in late summer to finish their corn and other crops.
Irrigators set out to remedy this. The first large-scale transmountain diversion from the headwaters of the Colorado River began in 1890. Called the Grand River Ditch, it’s beveled into the side of the Never Summer Range in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park, collecting water like a rain gutter from a roof.
Then came the 1930s, the decade of the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression and the New Deal. Farmers in northeastern Colorado had long been agitating for added infusions of water from the Colorado River headwaters. But they couldn’t get it done themselves. They needed federal funding.
The flawed design
But the work along the Continental Divide from 1939 to 1953 created a wound at Grand Lake. In retrospect, the design was flawed.
The C-BT at the Colorado River headwaters consists of three main bodies of interconnected water. Only one, Grand Lake, is natural.
Farthest downstream is Granby Reservoir, which is Colorado’s third largest, capable of holding 539,758 acre-feet of water during runoff of spring and early summer. This compares to Ruedi Reservoir’s 102,373 acre-feet and Dillon’s 257,304 acre-feet.
From Granby, water is pumped upstream as needed by Eastern Slope diverters to Shadow Mountain Reservoir. Shallow, no more than nine feet deep, Shadow Mountain is directly connected through a short canal to Grand Lake.
The canal occupies the original path of the Colorado River emerging from Grand Lake. From the interconnected Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Reservoir, water is then pumped through the 13.1-mile Alva Adams Tunnel underneath the national park to the Estes Park area for storage in reservoirs there and along the northern Front Range.
Shadow Mountain is a problem, though. Its shallowness allows water to be easily warmed in summer, producing algae that can float into Grand Lake. The shallowness also allows lake-bottom sediments to be disturbed more easily and dispersed into Grand Lake.
Evidence for the historic, pre-construction clarity of Grand Lake is scant: Just one measurement, taken in 1941, of 9.2 meters (30 feet).
Detailed observations during the last decade show clarity down to 6 meters (19.6 feet), but no more.
The standard adopted in April by the state agency specifies a minimum of 2.5 meters and an average of 3.8 meters (8.2 feet to 12.4 feet) during summer diversion season.
“I think the clarity standard has really elevated the discussion,” says Lane Wyatt, co-director of the water quality/quantity committee in the Northwest Council of Governments. “This is the only clarity standard in Colorado. It’s the first one we’ve ever done.”
Clarity is not the only issue, though. Water must be delivered to farms and cities. As it is flows downhill toward the Great Plains, it generates electricity distributed by the Western Area Power Authority. Purchasers of this low-cost power include Aspen Electric and Holy Cross Energy.
Canton “Scally” O’Donnell, president of the Three Lakes Watershed Association, remembers a more pristine past.
As a boy, his family summered at Grand Lake. That was in the 1930s and 1940s. “We drank the water right out of the lake, and many families did that,” O’Donnell said.
The first complaint about the sullied water was filed in 1954, the year after the project’s formal completion. In 1956, Grand Lake trustees adopted a resolution that informed Colorado’s congressional delegation of problems. The resolution was aimed at the Bureau of Reclamation.
“I think it’s fair to say that up until seven or eight years ago, the bureau pretty much stonewalled,” O’Donnell said. “They just did not want to recognize the problem, and Northern Colorado Water, the same.”
Movement has occurred during the last decade. One avenue for local protest was a proposed expansion of an existing diversion of the Colorado River at Windy Gap, about 15 miles downstream. Completed in 1985, the Windy Gap dam uses the C-BT infrastructure to deliver additional water to the Rawhide power plant north of Fort Collins, Greeley, Boulder and other cities.
The Windy Gap Firming, or expansion, plan was formally introduced after the drought of 2002. It proposes diversion of remaining water rights owned by a string of northern Front Range cities.
The effect of persistence
O’Donnell, of the Three Lakes Watershed Association, thinks the changed attitudes is explained by the persistence of individual public officials.
He singles out Lurline Underbrink Curran, then the Grand County manager. “She’s smart and she’s tough,” he said. “She just kept on beating on everybody to make it happen.”
He also points to the influence of Anne Castle, a long-time Denver water lawyer who served from 2009 to 20014 as assistant secretary for water and science in the Interior Department. Her responsibilities included oversight of the Bureau of Reclamation.
“I think part of the reason it has attention now is the fact that the Windy Gap Firming Project required the federal government to pay attention to Senate Document 80 and both C-BT and Windy Gap Firming Project do have an impact on Grand Lake’s recreation and scenic attraction. Calling attention to that issue, as both Lurline and I did, with prodding from Scally, had an impact,” Castle said.
But again, agreeing there is a problem is not the same thing as finding a solution.
“There is a lot of uncertainty about how our operations affect clarity,” said Victor Lee, an engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation.
The precise circumstances that cause algae and sediments to degrade clarity are poorly understood. Northern has been altering its diversion regimes, to see if that will improve clarity.
This year, from July until late August, pumping was conducted about 15 hours a day at 250 cubic feet per second. Clarity degraded, though. Algae growth was suspected. So the pumping was accelerated to about 20 hours a day with two pumps. Results were mixed.
It was a success, said Lee, in that they learned something. Clarity readings exceeded the minimum but did not meet the average standard. “I would say the experiment was successful, but we did not meet our objective,” he said.
Esther Vincent, water quality manager for Northern Water, said the effort to address Grand Lake’s muddled clarity is attracting attention across Colorado by water professionals. Spurring their interest, she said, is the possibility of other bodies of water being assigned clarity standards.
There’s also interest in the adaptive management process created for Grand Lake. It’s similar to but separate from Learning By Doing, which was created in response to expanded water diversions from both Windy Gap and by Denver Water’s Moffat Tunnel collection system.
Vincent also points out a deeply philosophical question. In 1937, when adopting S.D. 80, did Congress have the same notion about what constitutes “scenic attraction” as we do today?
“I am an engineer,” she said. “Asking an engineer to define what beauty is, is an interesting dilemma. It’s not a concept that lends itself very well to science.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of Colorado’s rivers and water. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.
The Longmont City Council opted for the middle-of-the road option for funding Longmont’s portion of the Windy Gap Firming Project, despite survey responses of residents that indicated most favored an all-cash option.
The decision, along with the March decision to participate in the water storage project at 10,000 acre-feet, will likely mean water rate increases of 8 percent in both 2017 and 2018, above the 9 percent increases in both years that have already been approved.
The council had three funding options to choose from, while many residents in a survey commissioned for the city expressed doubt that Longmont needs the 10,000 acre-feet of water storage instead of the 6,000 that was originally proposed.
The money for the 6,000 acre-feet is already in the bank and the rate increases and debt come into play to pay for the additional 4,000 acre-feet of storage, Longmont general manager of public works and natural resources Dale Rademacher said Tuesday.
Rademacher said the city needed an extra $16 million to pay for the extra water storage. The council chose to raise $10 million of that cost in “cash” that will come from the rate increases. The remaining $6 million will be debt, which will need to be approved by the council but won’t need to go on a ballot like a larger amount of debt would require.
Some council members expressed surprise that of the 848 households who returned a random city survey on the issue, most favored an all-cash option. Survey data was weighted to more closely match Longmont demographic data. The survey has a 3 percent margin of error.
The all-cash option to raise the money would have raised rates 13 percent in 2017 and 12 percent in 2018 above the already-approved 9 percent increases in both years.
Most people who completed the scientific mail survey favored this all-cash option, with 46 percent of respondents saying they either “strongly support” or “somewhat support” it.
The city also released a web comment form where any resident — not just the ones who received the mailed survey — could tell the council about their preferences. While not scientific, most people online said they didn’t want any of the three options, but of the three, most supported a high-debt, low-rate increase option.
The third option would have required a vote of the people to issue $16.7 million in debt and mean water increases of 5 percent in both 2018 and 2019 above the already 9 percent increase.
Former Mayor Roger Lange spoke during the public-comment portion of the meeting, urging the council to keep water rates as low as they can by reducing the participation in the project back to the 6,000 acre-foot level and use debt.
“It’s surprising that option 1 — the all-cash option — appeared to be favored by the people who got the survey,” Lange said. “In the web response survey, option 1 got the least favorable comments and many said they want none of the options. So it seems these surveys are diametrically opposed.”
Former City Manager Gordon Pedrow also spoke and reiterated that he thought the city should have stayed with the 6,000 acre-feet participation level rather than the increased 10,000 acre-feet level.
“With that rash decision, you have forced upon your residents options along with these horrible rate increases,” Pedrow said. “When residents receive their bills and realize what you’ve done, it will result in a complete loss of trust in you elected officials.”
The Times-Call published a letter to the editor from Pedrow in September that touched on many of the same points, plus urged residents to recall any “draconian” water rate ordinance so it can be put to a general vote. Nine of the respondents in the web survey referenced the letter and said they don’t see the need for the extra 4,000 acre-feet of water storage.
The amount of participation in the Windy Gap decision was strange in that the Longmont water board recommended 10,000 acre-feet while city staff recommended 6,000 acre-feet. The higher participation level passed the council 5-2 with Councilwomen Polly Christensen and Joan Peck dissenting.
Water board Chair Todd Williams spoke during the public-comment portion of the meeting on Tuesday, defending the board’s March recommendation.
Windy Gap is a relatively low-cost option to add water to the collector system, plus is the project that is farthest along in the lengthy approval process, Williams said.
“By the time Windy Gap stores one drop of water, it will have been 20 years since the project started because of all the studies and permits associated with starting it. All other projects have much more uncertainty in terms of implementation, cost and timing,” Williams said.
Williams added that the variables determining how much water Longmont will need in the future are not set in stone. If other entities that Longmont trades water with walked away from the agreement, for example, Longmont would lose some sources of water, Williams said.
Mayor Dennis Coombs said if new information becomes available on whether Longmont needs 6,000 or 10,000 acre-feet of participation, he would like it presented to council. Christensen said she didn’t vote for the 10,000 acre-feet and she would be happy to return to the lower level, but none of the other council members seemed to support the idea.
Coombs said he noticed that people older than 55 years old wanted debt while younger people seemed to lean toward cash.
“My job is to do what I think most people in the city want and not favor one age group over another,” Coombs said. “Option 2 seems to thread the needle and satisfies the most people.”
It’s been almost a century since the Colorado River Compact was created, divvying up the resources of this mighty waterway between seven states and Mexico. That means almost 40 million people are dependent on the river in some way. Traditionally, the economic value of the river was based on what the water could be used for when extracted—things like agriculture, mining, and industry. Now, more people are pointing to the economic value of keeping water in the river itself.
The Fraser River in Grand County is a tributary of the Colorado River, which starts in Rocky Mountain National Park. It runs through the heart of the town of Fraser and neighboring Winter Park. These towns attract skiers in winter and fly fishers and outdoor enthusiasts the rest of the year.
“The recreation is all based around the river… it’s the absolute base of the recreational system,” says Dennis Saffell, a real estate broker in the mountain communities of Grand and Summit Counties. Saffell says there’s a direct connection to property values and proximity to the river…
Saffell says a loss of flow in the river would likely decrease the values for all properties in these mountain communities that are dependant on the river for a tourism economy.
That’s something that others in western slope communities are well aware of, including Jim Pokrandt with the Colorado River District, the principal water policy and planning agency for the Colorado River Basin within the state.
“We understand that water left in the river is important to the economy,” says Pokdradt, “and if we have dried up rivers then we’d have degradation to our western slope economy.”
Pokrandt says the fortunes of many western slope towns hinge on understanding that the strength of local economies is beginning to shift from taking water out of the river to leaving it in.
“Rafting, that’s a big deal, skiing that’s a big deal now, hunting, fishing… this is our economy here on the west slope,” says Pokrandt. “Yes, ag is still big, and yes there’s still some mining, but our new economy is based on water in the rivers in western Colorado.”
Historically, most Colorado water rights have involved uses that divert water from the streams, but back in the early 1970s lawmakers began to recognize the need to create rights allowing water to remain in the river, to help protect ecology. But that was just a first step. Now 43 years later, a lot of water is still being taken out of the Colorado River basin and diverted to the east. There are 13 major trans mountain diversions and many other smaller ones.
It’s a concern for advocates like Craig Mackey, co-director of the non-profit Protect the Flows.
“In the 21st century we have an economic reason to have the river itself, the recreation economy, the tourism economy and I think the hardest one to quantify is a quality of life economy,” says Mackey.
Protect the Flows advocates for conservation of the Colorado River Basin, pointing to the connection between a healthy river and healthy economies.
“People want to live here, they want to locate here, they want to grow businesses here, they want to raise their families here,” says Mackey. “And water and our snow in our mountains, which becomes the water in our rivers, is a huge driver in that quality of life economy that we’re so lucky to have here in the state of Colorado.”
Protect the Flows worked with Arizona State University in 2014 on the first study on the economic impact of the Colorado River. It found that the major waterway generates $1.4 trillion in economic benefits annually throughout the entire seven state river basin. In Colorado, the tourism and outdoor recreation economy tied to the river brings in more than $9 billion annually.
The Colorado Water Plan acknowledges the need to keep water in streams, but it also acknowledges the water needs of growing cities.
Realtor Dennis Seffell says even more needs to be done.
“Now it’s time to take a new fresh look as to why it’s important to keep rivers full of water,” Saffell says.
A prolonged drought in the south west, paired with over allocation, has left the Colorado River in a sorry state. Front Range communities, largely dependent on that western water, are having some success with conservation. But with an additional 2 million people expected to move to the Denver metro area over the next 25 years, demand will only increase.
From the Loveland Reporter-Herald (Pamela Johnson):
“Chimney Hollow dam will be the tallest one constructed in Colorado in the last 50 years,” said Don Mongomery, the principal engineer who will design the reservoir project, drawing on experience from dams around the globe.
“It will be in the order of 360 feet tall,” he said, with a crest estimated at 3,500 feet long.
Final design of Chimney Hollow will pare down the specific height and construction details for the dam, spillway, pipeline and inlets that will allow Northern Water to store as much as 90,000 acre-feet of Windy Gap Firming Project water.
Northern Water, the agency coordinating the project, recently hired the Broomfield-based MWH Global with an $11.9 million contract for engineering and design. Montgomery, who was raised and went to college in Boulder and Larimer counties, is leading that process.
He said he is excited to use the skills he has honed worldwide, working on projects on the Panama Canal and in Peru among other locations, in his home state to build a reservoir that will provide recreation that he, among many others, enjoys with his family.
“To be able to bring that home is pretty amazing,” said Montgomery. “To be able to help my community is pretty exciting. Once they’re done, they become these great resources to the community.”
Chimney Hollow Reservoir is expected to be completed by 2021 to begin storing water for 13 participants including Loveland, Longmont and the Little Thompson Water District. And it will become a new recreation area managed by the Larimer County Department of Natural Resources.
The reservoir and surrounding park will be located west of Loveland near Carter Lake, Flatiron Reservoir and Pinewood Reservoir, which are all managed by Northern Water for water storage and by Larimer County for recreation.
Specific recreation plans are still in the works, but Larimer County Department of Natural Resources officials are looking at a mix of camping, hiking and non-motorized boating, including paddle boats and sail boats. Campsites reachable only by boat also are in the initial plans.
The design of Chimney Hollow should take about two years and will include determining the best type of structure to be built, whether it will have a clay core made from materials on site, a concrete face or an asphalt core, noted Montgomery. This will be determined by drilling, sampling and studying the area.
The process will fine-tune the construction details and the costs as well as the exact height of the dam at Chimney Hollow. It will, however, be around 360 feet tall, which will make it the tallest in Larimer County,.
Construction of Chimney Hollow will be the biggest reservoir project in Larimer County in about six decades.
Northern Water began applying for permits in 2003, and the federal government approved the project in December 2014. Since then, the water district has been working on the rest of its needed permits. All that is left is a federal wetlands permit, which Werner expects to be approved this year.
“This is the very last piece in the puzzle,” said Werner. “At this point, there’s nothing else. No other permits, no other agreements that we have to do. We’ve done it all.”