Conservation groups want better mitigation to protect stream flows and trout
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Plans for increased diversions from the headwaters of the Colorado River to the Front Range will once again be under scrutiny this week, as the Grand County Commissioners this week hold hearings on a 1041 permit for the Windy Gap firming project.
The Windy Gap Project consists of a diversion dam on the Colorado River, a 445-acre-foot reservoir, a pumping plant, and a six-mile pipeline to Lake Granby. Windy Gap water is pumped and stored in Lake Granby before it is delivered to water users via the Colorado-Big Thompson Project’s East Slope distribution system.
Colorado Trout Unlimited wants the county commissioners to deny the permit unless the project includes better protections for the Upper Colorado River, but Grand County recently signed on to a far-reaching water agreement that, among other things, sought to ensure that West Slope entities wouldn’t oppose the Windy Gap project.
“This agreement is one small piece of a very big problem,” said Gary Wockner, director of the Save the Poudre coalition. “It’s a great deal for water users, but it sucks if you’re a river … All I see is a bigger dam and more diversions from the Colorado River … There was a lot of backslapping by a lot of important people, but all we see are bigger dams, more diversions, more water use, more impacts to Colorado’s rivers, including the state’s namesake river,” he said.
Aside from the specifics of any mitigation for the Windy Gap firming project, Wockner said he fears that new diversions from the Colorado River to the Front Range will subsidized yer more unsustainable growth. More diversions are the easy way out, he said, advocating for more investment in water conservation, recycling and cooperative agreements with farmers
“In addition, it provides more water for a coal-fired power plant north of ft Collins. Draining a river for coal power plants is bordering on insanity,” he added.
“The Upper Colorado River is under severe stress from multiple impacts, from drought to diversions,” said Kirk Klancke, president of Trout Unlimited’s Headwaters chapter. “This is the last best opportunity for Grand County officials to push for stronger protections to ensure that the Windy Gap project doesn’t destroy the health of our rivers.”
He added, “Without stronger protections, this river faces a long, slow decline. And so do our communities, ranches and recreation economy. That’s just not acceptable. I want my grandchildren to be able to fish here and enjoy this river, as I have. I want our local businesses to thrive. I know that many other Grand County citizens feel the same way.”
The Grand County Commissioners are currently accepting comments and have scheduled a two-day hearing in Hot Sulphur Springs that will include public testimony on August 1-2.
Northern’s Windy Gap diversion is already taking about 60 percent of flows out of the Upper Colorado and pumping it through the Continental Divide to Front Range communities. The proposed expansion of the project would take another 15-20 percent of flows, putting the river at a dangerous tipping point for aquatic life and ecosystem health.
State studies show that the Upper Colorado below Windy Gap Reservoir has suffered a sharp decline since the construction of the reservoir , including an almost total loss of once-plentiful stoneflies and mottled sculpin — key aquatic species that are an important link in the food chain for trout and other fish. The studies point to the reservoir’s contribution of silt combined with a lack of healthy flows, which has caused a spike in water temperatures, algae, sediment and other negative impacts on river and fishery health.
“Under present plans, expanding Windy Gap would make a bad situation worse because it would increase periods of low flows and significantly reduce runoff, which is critical to clean the river of excess silt and sediment contributed by Windy Gap Reservoir,” said Mely Whiting, counsel for TU’s Colorado Water Project.
Conservation advocates are pushing for a bypass around Windy Gap Reservoir to maintain adequate flows in in the heavily impacted stretch of the Colorado River below the reservoir.
“Without a bypass, it’s hard to see how the river can remain healthy when even more flows will be taken out,” said Whiting. “Grand County must press Northern to build the bypass.”
TU called on the BOCC to include several requirements in the permit, including:
- Northern should stop Windy Gap pumping when stream temperatures approach State acute and chronic standards.
- Northern should be required to not only study a bypass channel around the Windy Gap Reservoir, but also build it if the study determines that a bypass is beneficial.
- Northern must work with Grand County to monitor spring river flows and provide an adequate flushing flow to prevent sediment from collecting in the river bed and smothering aquatic habitat.
- Northern must fund a robust stream monitoring program that can accurately track the health of the aquatic species in the river and react to any declines that can’t be explained by normal fluctuation.
Trout Unlimited will present testimony at the BOCC public hearings in Hot Sulphur Springs on Aug. 1-2.