Colorado Wildlife Commission hears input on mitigation and enhancement plans for proposed new Upper Colorado River diversions; residents call for public accountability, more money for long-term monitoring and action instead of meetings
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Grand County residents and other Colorado River advocates want more assurances that two proposed new transmountain diversion projects won’t wipe out trout populations in headwaters streams like the Fraser River.
“The bottom line is, I have a gold medal fishery with a lot of 24-inch fish. It’s a very viable fishery, but without the flushing flows, the river is going to die,” said Grand County ranch owner Ron Jones, speaking during a May 6 hearing of the Colorado Wildlife Commission in Salida.
“We all posture … they’re posturing it’s not a problem but it is,” Jones said, referring to the long-running negotiations over how to address existing impacts to fisheries in the Upper Colorado, and how to make sure that the Windy Gap firming project and the Moffat Tunnel collection system expansion won’t totally collapse the aquatic ecosystems in the Upper Colorado and Fraser River.
“If they want to take the water, then they should put the money into doing what it takes to protect the rivers. The wildlife commission has the responsibility to protect wildlife,” Jones said, asking the state agency to live up to its obligations.”It shouldn’t be about power, it shouldn’t be about money. It’s about doing the right thing. We need to hold denver water accountable in perpetuity. The standard should be, the river shouldn’t be degraded any more,” he concluded.
Summit County resident Lane Wyatt also commented on behalf of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, explaining that the diversions have already resulted in serious water quality issues.
“There’s no question that, as more water comes out, it will get worse,” Wyatt said.
The Salida hearing was intended to specifically address proposed enhancement and mitigation plans for the two projects, which are under review by federal permitting agencies. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District proposed to firm up its yield from Windy Gap Reservoir, while Denver Water is seeking to enlarge Gross Reservoir, near Boulder, and increase diversions through the Moffat Tunnel.
Both project together would increase total diversions from the West Slope to the Front Range by about 15,000 acre-feet annually. Front Range water providers already divert up to 60 percent of the Colorado River’s flows. The new projects could leave as little as 15 percent of the natural flows in the river, resulting in an additional loss of streamside riparian habitat, increased water temperatures and degraded water quality.
An acre-foot is about 328,000 gallons, enough to cover an acre a foot deep in water. It’s generally described as amount adequate to supply a normal household of four people with water for a year. The amount Denver Water currently diverts to the Front Range is 15 billion gallons. About half of that goes to outdoor irrigation like watering lawns. The proposed new project would take another 5 billion gallons.
The two utilities have proposed detailed plans to address the impacts of the diversions and to try and improve existing conditions in the dwindling streams. The wildlife commission’s role is to review those plans and make a recommendation to federal authorities.The plans are posted on the Colorado Division of Wildlife website.
One challenge is measuring the effectiveness of proposed enhancement and mitigation, said Mely Whiting, of Trout Unlimited.
“There are some minimum things that need to go into adaptive management,” she said. “Right now, there are no requirements for baseline monitoring. If you’re going to use (adaptive management) as a vehicle for mitigation, you have to have minimum elements … you need to have an enforcement mechanism that becomes part of the federal permit and you have to have public accountability. The public has to have the ability to say, “‘Hey, you’re not doing it right.’ You have to up the ante,” she said.
Trout Unlimited also says there needs to be more money in the mitigation pot to address future impacts and to ensure adequate resources for the long-term monitoring that will be needed. Read this Colorado Trout Unlimited blog post by Whiting to get a good overview of the issues from the conservation group’s perspective.
At times, the testimony was heart-wrenching, as long-time anglers described watching their favorite trout streams wither.
I’m here because water is a passion of mine,” said Grand County resident Kurt Klancke. “I’m here because this matters … We’ve had lots of promises, now the diverters are back. When I look at this mitigation package for the Fraser River … This isn’t mitigation, this is more promises. I’m begging you, please take a stance and keep those rivers available for my grandchildren,” Klancke said, his voice cracking with emotion.
Other citizens said they’re tired of yet more committees, advisory groups and studies.
“We need to flush the toilet,” said Bud Isaacs, referring to the need for stream-cleansing high flows in the Upper Colorado. “We all flush the toilet in our houses, right? If you don’t, you have a real mess. It doesn’t take a lot of commissions, we don’t need another committee,” Isaacs said, advocating for action before any new permits are issues.
Filed under: Colorado Division of Wildlife, Environment, federal government, Summit County Colorado, Summit County news, water, wildlife Tagged: | Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Colorado River, Denver Water, Environment, Fraser River, Moffat Tunnel collection system expansion, Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, Summit County News, Trout Unlimited, water, Windy Gap firming project