‘We have a hole in the river’
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected. In one of the photos, we incorrectly identified a mayfly as a stonefly.
SUMMIT COUNTY — For all the sugar-coated talk of negotiation and collaboration, the latest showdown over diversions from the upper Colorado River in Grand County has the potential to turn into a bare-knuckles fight, as conservation advocates and local officials insist that Denver Water must avoid, minimize or mitigate any impacts from its planned expansion of the Moffat Tunnel collection system. Read about West Slope opposition to the plan here.
“We want to protect the resource, which is our economy,” said Grand County Commissioner James Newberry, addressing a small group of journalists during a lunch break on a day-long tour of the diversion system, which already gulps more than half the river’s native flows from the crystal-clear tributaries in the Fraser River Valley.
And Newberry made it clear that it’s not only the impacts from the proposed new diversions that are under scrutiny. Before Grand County gives up another drop willingly, Denver Water needs to address cumulative impacts from existing projects.
“We have a hole in the river from past diversions,” he said.
At issue is Denver Water’s plan to expand Gross Reservoir and increase diversions from the Upper Colorado by up to 24 percent. At maximum capacity, the system could shunt 75 to 80 percent of the river’s flows to the Front Range.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently reviewing a draft study for Moffat expansion project under federal environmental laws, and the conservation groups and local stakeholder are adamant about holding the agency to high standards of the Clean Water Act and other applicable regulations.
“I think we have very good arguments on water quality … if we don’t get adequate mitigation,” said Mely Whiting, the soft-spoken and tenacious TU attorney who has spent countless hours in excruciatingly detailed negotiations with the various stakeholders.
In addition to avoiding, minimizing and mitigating impacts, Whiting said Denver Water needs to develop an adaptive management plan to respond when there are significant impacts to the aquatic environment. That plan needs to be based on a comprehensive fish and wildlife plan, she said.
On the front lines in this battle is a group called Trout Unlimited, advocating for the preservation of trout streams around the country. And if you’re picturing a bunch of snooty Volvo-driving fly fishermen, guess again. These activists aren’t afraid to get their feet wet and a little river mud under their fingernails. They’ve helped save trout populations in many locations by re-building streams to provide habitat even in low-flow conditions.
And it’s no wonder the group has zeroed in on Grand County — “The fish in these streams are barely hanging on,” said Kirk Klancke, president of the local Trout Unlimited chapter. Klancke has another dog in this fight, since he also runs the water and sanitation district in the Fraser Valley.
As flows in the tributaries and the mainstem of the Colorado decrease, the water gets warmer — up to 65 degrees in the summer. At that temperature, trout exist near the very edge of their physiological capacity, and any additional stress pushes over the brink. As a result, the Upper Colorado was recently named to a top-10 list of threatened rivers. Read about the listing here.
“We’re nervous,” Klancke said. “They have the good words, but they’re not willing to give up yield. Their concern for the environment is non-existent,” he added.
Harsh words, to be sure, but a visit to the Jim Creek diversion seems to support his conclusion. Above the stark concrete dam, the stream burbles through lush willows. Native cutthroat trout may thrive in the higher reaches, said Erica Stock, outreach director for Colorado Trout Unlimited. But just below the diversion, the water collects in a few sickly red-stained pools covered with oily looking slicks. The rocks are covered with algae — or rock-snot, as Klancke puts it — with flows insufficient to cleanse the streambed of contaminants.
“It’s as if you cut somebody’s arm or leg off,” said Stock.
Altogether, Denver Water operates 30 diversions in Fraser River drainage. Only four of them have bypass flows; on all the rest, the streams can be completely severed, and frequently are, at maximum diversion rates.
And the mountain tributaries can’t be taken in isolation. With those flows cut off, the water level in the mainstem of the Colorado has dropped to a mere trickle at times in the past few years. At one point during the late summer, the river would have dried up completely but for the intervention of a rancher who voluntarily gave up irrigation flows to keep the Colorado flowing.
These close calls show how the entire river system could be close to a tipping point, only nobody knows exactly how close, said Klancke. “We’re the guinea pigs,” he said. The Fraser is the most de-watered river in the state.
“We’re taking so much water that it’s the first time we’ve had to ask the question about the tipping point,” Whiting said, adding that there’s concern about how and if the system could recover from such a catastrophic failure.
Filed under: Environment, rivers, Summit County Colorado Tagged: | Denver Water, Fraser River Diversions, Grand County water issues, Kirk Klancke, Moffat Tunnel collection system expansion, Summit County Colorado, Summit County News, Trout Unlimited