Windy Gap Firming Project update

Windy Gap Reservoir

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

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 Curran photo credit Aspen Journalism.

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.”

Map from Northern Water via the Fort Collins Coloradan.

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.

Windy Gap Firming Project: “This short-sighted lawsuit would only delay progress” — Mely Whiting

Proposed bypass channel for the Colorado River with Windy Gap Reservoir being taken offline, part of the agreements around Northern Water’s Windy Gap Firming project.

From The Loveland Reporter-Herald (Pamela Johnson):

Representatives of two of the utilities that hope to store water in Chimney Hollow say that if a lawsuit filed to halt the reservoir is successful it may not stop the water from being diverted from the Colorado River, and a leading conservation group says the lawsuit will hurt the river not help it.

“It could mean that instead of one big project that holds the 90,000 acre feet, participants use a bunch of smaller options (for water storage),” said Michael Cook, district manager of the Little Thompson Water District, one of 13 participants in the reservoir project led by Northern Water.

The participants already own the supply of water, called Windy Gap, that would be diverted into the reservoir. However, they do not have a place to store it during years when water is plentiful for use in dry years when it is needed.

This reservoir would provide that storage to firm up the supply, which is why it also is called the Windy Gap Firming project.

The Little Thompson Water District accounts for about 6 percent of the overall project and has been using some of its Windy Gap water each year.

The city of Loveland, which owns 10.5 percent of the water, has used it infrequently but is relying on the water, which it purchased with money from a bond, for future water needs as the city grows.

The city needs a place to store this water to firm up the supply and would be forced to look at other storage options for its Windy Gap water if the lawsuit were to prevail, said Larry Howard, the city’s water resources manager…

However, he, like Werner, expressed confidence that the 14-year permitting process was sound and that the reservoir project will go forward despite the lawsuit, which was filed Thursday.

An attorney for Trout Unlimited, too, expressed doubt that the lawsuit will stop the project, stating that, despite the lawsuit, water will continue to be diverted from the Colorado River as populations grow and other solutions are needed to turn the tide.

“This lawsuit likely won’t stop Windy Gap, but it could succeed in delaying real solutions to the problems,” Mely Whiting, attorney for Trout Unlimited, said in a written statement. Trout Unlimited was a leading participant in negotiations for mitigation and conservation efforts included in the project.

“Habitat restoration projects and other solutions are already being implemented and showing great success in improving the health of the Colorado River. That’s why many conservation groups who’ve been working the longest on this problem support our collaborative approach.

“These solutions offer the best hope for keeping the valuable resources of the Upper Colorado alive. This short-sighted lawsuit would only delay progress.”

Save the #Colorado, et al. file lawsuit over Windy Gap EIS

Proposed bypass channel for the Colorado River with Windy Gap Reservoir being taken offline, part of the agreements around Northern Water’s Windy Gap Firming project.

From The Greeley Tribune (Tyler Silvy):

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, questions the need for the Windy Gap Firming project, which would ensure the full complement of more than 40,000 acre feet of water is diverted from the Colorado and eventually stored in the planned, $400 million Chimney Hollow Reservoir the Front Range communities would share…

The lawsuit was filed by Save the Colorado, Save the Poudre, WildEarth Guardians, Living Rivers and the Waterkeeper Alliance, a collection of nonprofit environmental groups that have long opposed the project.

It was filed against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for their roles in approving the project in May and conducting the environmental impact statement. In April 2016, Gov. John Hickenlooper endorsed the project, as well.

Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District spokesman Brian Werner said he hasn’t had much time to review the lawsuit, but he said although he and others are disappointed, he’s confident the project will eventually move forward. Northern Water was the driving force behind the Windy Gap firming project, which was proposed as a way to ensure Front Range municipalities get the full yield they’re due based on water rights from the Colorado.

From The Loveland Reporter-Herald (Pamela Johnson):

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Denver, asks the judge to throw out the records of decision by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, claiming they violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act in approving the project.

Save the Colorado, Save the Poudre, WildEarth Guardians, Living Rivers and Waterkeeper Alliance, together, filed the lawsuit against the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, claiming that the permitting process was flawed and did not consider the cumulative effects on the river, the resulting effect on the ecosystem and tourism or alternatives for water supply…

The main target of the lawsuit is the environmental analysis, led by the Bureau of Reclamation and relied upon by the Corps of Engineers. That environmental process, which included both a draft and final environmental impact statement, took more than a decade…

“We think that the process has worked well,” said Werner. “The EIS, we don’t think that there is any basis in fact about it (in the lawsuit). In this country, anybody can say what they want about a process. We think the federal government has done it well.”

In fact, Northern Water has agreed to a wildlife mitigation plan that will benefit not destroy the river and the trout habitat, including channel work that has already begun and control of flows and diversions to boost the ecosystem for trout and other aquatic life, Werner said.

“The Colorado River below Windy Gap is better with the mitigation and enhancement and the project than it is without it,” Werner said.

The lawsuit claims that the project should have been replaced with other alternatives but that the applicants “stubbornly” continued to push forward because of how much money they had already sunk into the reservoir…

“Federal agencies must evaluate not only the impacts of a proposed project, but also alternatives to the intended course of action,” Zach Lass, student attorney at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, said in a press release. “Reclamation and the Corps fell victim to a sunk costs bias that infected the entire review and approval process when they failed to consider alternatives that did not involve spending more money trying to salvage their failed Windy Gap Project.”

[…]

One of the big issues alleged in the lawsuit is that the extensive environmental analyses failed to consider alternative sources of water besides pulling more from the river and storing it in a brand new reservoir. The applicants failed to look at conservation, efficiency and water recycling, said [Gary] Wockner…

The lawsuit does not ask for an immediate injunction to stop work that is currently being done on the Chimney Hollow site, which includes blasting of a test quarry for construction of a small version of the dam to gather information on the geology of the area.

That work, along with planned tree removal and relocation of a power line, will continue as this lawsuit is heard in court, Werner said…

No court dates likely will be set until the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have responded to the initial complaint, and they have 60 days to do so. Often, it takes at least a year for a decision in this type of lawsuit.

#ColoradoRiver: Prep work starts for Chimney Hollow Reservoir #COriver

From 9News.com (Cory Reppenhagen):

Work has started on the new Chimney Hollow Reservoir in Larimer County. Final approval was granted for a 90,000 acre foot reservoir in May, and crews are now surveying and drilling at the site, to determine the extent of building materials.

Chimney Hollow will be operated by Northern Water. It is located just west of Carter Lake Reservoir, and is going to be close to the same size of twin to the east. This location was chosen for it’s proximity to existing Colorado Big Thompson facilities, and because there were no threatened or endangered species, no existing residences to relocate, and they were able to acquire the property from a single owner, Hewlett Packard.

Nearly 400,000 northern Colorado residents will benefit from this new water supply. Those areas are Broomfield, Longmont, Loveland, Greeley, Erie, Superior, Louisville, Fort Lupton, Lafayette, and the towns in the Central Weld County Water District.

“This project specifically is to make some supplies reliable year in, and year out, for those communities. They will be able to have more of a guarantee that they will be able to pull water from the Windy Gap Project, which today, is not possible. There are some years where there is either no water available, or nowhere to store it,” said Brian Werner, spokesperson for Northern Water…

Contracts will start to get awarded in 2018, and Northern Water says that construction will likely start later next year, or early in 2019. It will be a three to four year build. The next step, which could happen this fall, is to relocate power lines that run through the middle of the property, and to also start clearing the vegetation.

Once construction is complete, they can start filling the reservoir with water. According to Northern Water, that could take several years to fill up.

“There are state regulations on dam safety, on how fast we can bring the water elevation up, so it’s sort of fill and seal, before we can go to that next incremental level. It could take 3, or 5, or even 10 years to fill it. A lot is dependent of mother nature as well, with how much water is available,” Werner said.

The water will come from the headwaters of the Colorado River, channeled back to the east from Windy Gap Reservoir.

The Chimney Hollow project has already been 14 years in the making. The permitting process began in 2003, and there have been $15 million spent in studies. The total estimated cost is $400 million.

The dam is estimated to be about 340 feet tall, which makes it the tallest dam to be built in Colorado since the Morrow Point Dam in Gunnison County back in 1968. Morrow Point is still the largest dam in Colorado at 468 feet. Denver Water has recently received approval to increase the size of Gross Dam, in Boulder County, to 471, which will make that the largest dam once it is finished.

Chimney Hollow Dam could be the first in the United States with an asphalt core. This type has been used in Europe and Canada for many years. The available land material in the area, made asphalt the more cost effective choice. The asphalt will be the inner seal of the dam, but the outside appearance will be more earthy, made of land and boulders. Arizona has also received approval to build an asphalt core dam, and could be completed about the same time as Colorado’s.

Larimer County will be handling the recreation on this new reservoir, and already has some initial plans for hiking, fishing, and boating. It will be a non-motorized boating lake and a day-use area. So far, there are no plans to allow overnight camping.

There had been some opposition to this project, and other proposals to build new reservoirs in Colorado. River conservation groups are concerned about the impacts of further taxing a the Colorado River system. Werner says they are addressing the future of the river, and the future of Colorado’s population at the same time.

“We are all for using water more efficiently, and water managers in this state are doing a darn good job of that, but the bottom line is that you have to provide some additional buckets, some additional water storage to meet our future demand, without drying up our agricultural lands,” he said.

Longmont Councillors approve asking voters for Windy Gap bond issue

Map from Northern Water via the Fort Collins Coloradan.

From The Longmont Times-Call (John Fryar):

A 5-2 Longmont City Council majority decided Wednesday night to ask voters’ authorization to sell an estimated $36.3 million in bonds to help finance the city’s share of costs for the Windy Gap Firming Project…

…the city’s water customers would pay higher rates in 2018, with rates increasing by an average 13 percent above 2017 levels. There would be another 10 percent increase in 2019 and a 6 percent increase in 2020 as the city makes annual principal and interest repayments on the 20-year bonds.

The water rate-backed bonds, along with about $6.2 million the city projects it will be getting from development fees and other sources, would cover Longmont’s costs of paying for the project that would be able to provide the city with about 10,000 acre-feet of water. A council majority continued to endorse the 10,000 acre-feet level on Wednesday night.

Mayor Dennis Coombs and council members Brian Bagley, Bonnie Finley, Jeff Moore and Gabe Santos voted Tuesday to direct the city staff to prepare an ordinance that will, when adopted, advance the bonding question to November’s ballot.

Council members Polly Christensen and Joan Peck voted against the $36.3 million bonding scenario.

Christensen and Peck instead tried to get the council to support an alternative that would have lowered Longmont’s Windy Gap Firming Project level from 10,000 acre-feet of water to an 8,000 acre-foot participation. That option would have maintained a set of 9 percent annual water rate increases that already are to take place at the start of 2018 and again in 2019, but with no rate increases above that 9 percent level in either of those years.

The Christensen-Peck approach, however, failed on a 5-2 vote, with all other council members voting against that option.

Santos said that when it comes to water delivery and supplies, “it’s incumbent on us to make decisions for the future, for the next generations.”

Coombs noted that under Longmont’s tiered water-rate system, with residents’ and businesses’ actual water bills based on how much water they actually use, “people have some control,” even with the pending increases ahead.

Customers “can take some responsibility” for conserving water, and thereby reducing the water bills they get, even with the higher rates ahead in future years, he said.

Peck, however, said she was concerned that “we’re buying more (water) than we actually need” if Longmont sticks with the 10,000 acre-feet participation level from the Windy Gap Firming Project, which is to include construction of a new Chimney Hollow Reservoir southwest of Loveland.

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

Prior to the council’s Wednesday night action to direct the staff to prepare the ballot measure language for the bonding option, a number of residents spoke about their opposition to that project and questioned its need. Some also objected to the entire concept of diverting water from the Western Slope to the Front Range.

The June 2017 e-Waternews is hot off the presses from @Northern_Water

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Chimney Hollow Reservoir receives final approval
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently signed a final Record of Decision and approved a 404 Clean Water Act Permit for the Windy Gap Firming Project. This decision paves the way forward to construct Chimney Hollow Reservoir following a 14-year federal permitting process that began in 2003. Chimney Hollow Reservoir will be located in the foothills immediately west of Carter Lake in southern Larimer County. It will store up to 90,000 acre-feet of water behind a 350 ft. tall dam, which will be one of the first constructed in the United States with an asphalt core. For further information please click any of the links below.

Map from Northern Water via the Fort Collins Coloradan.

Former Grand County manager, Lurline Underbrink Curran, given award by Colorado Water Trust — @AspenJournalism

Lurline Underbrink Curran photo credit Aspen Journalism.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

Lurline Underbrink Curran, the long-time Grand County manager, was lavished with praise Wednesday evening at the Denver Botanic Gardens, but she may have told the best joke.

Curran said she learned she was to be honored by the Colorado Water Trust after being asked to sit in on a conference telephone call with the group’s directors. The group’s mission is to restore flows in Colorado Rivers in need.

The news they purported to share seemed to comport with that mission. The new administration, they told her, had a keen interest in the Colorado River, and there were plans to remove all the dams —and make Mexico pay for it.

As she wondered what Water Trust directors were imbibing, they broke the real reason for wanting her on the phone: They wished to bestow her with the 2017 David Getches Flowing Water Award.

Getches was a law professor at the University of Colorado known to be an “inspired creator of new alternatives to old stalemates.”

Grand County long was Colorado’s best example of a stalemate. It was hit early and often for water diversions to solve Colorado’s intractable problem: about 75 percent of the state’s water originates west of the Continental Divide and almost 90 percent of people and the best agriculture lands lie to the east.

About a decade ago, at a water workshop in Gunnison, Curran described her county’s position simply: Denver, she said, had been thinking ahead—and Grand County had not.

But when two Front Range water agencies announced long-standing plans to incrementally expand diversions from the Granby-Winter Park area, Grand County chose a more sophisticated approach. It wasn’t neither hell no nor roll over.

The result is called Learning by Doing, which is premised in a cooperative effort to scientifically manage diversions in ways that cause least harm to native flows in the Fraser Rivers and its tributaries as well as the Colorado River itself.

The Windy Gap reservoir, located on the Colorado River near Granby, is part of a transmountain diversion system in Grand County. It’s been the focus of much of Underbrink Curran’s work. Photo credit Northern Water.

Sense of purpose

Eric Wilkinson, general manager of the Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservation District, which distributes water to the Boulder-Fort Collins-Greeley area through the Colorado-Big Thompson project, said he wasn’t immediately impressed with Curran when negotiations began. “I vividly remember walking out of that meeting and thinking, ‘I don’t really appreciate that woman.’”

After four years of “very extensive, intense negotiations,” he instead found Curran to be a “visionary” who was nonetheless “pragmatic but with a keen sense of purpose.”

“The Colorado River is far better now and into the future because of Lurline’s efforts and her stubborn determination to make it better,” he said.

Curran grew up in Kremmling. She had a circuitous route to public service. She managed the local bowling alley before going to work at the Grand County Courthouse in Hot Sulphur Springs, first as a secretary, then a planner before being chosen as the county manager.

Dave Taussig, a water attorney in Denver and also a director of the Colorado Water Trust, also grew up in Kremmling. His parents had a ranch at Ute Park, which is now covered by the Henderson Mill’s tailings.

“In the past, the transmountain diverters would come over and then skedaddle as quickly as they could, never to be seen or heard from again,” Taussig said.

But what Grand County did this time creates a new dynamic.

The effort is “bearing fruit already,” he said.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating on coverage of rivers and water with Sky-Hi News, the Summit Daily News, the Vail Daily, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times. the Sky-Hi News published this story on June 15, 2017.