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Colorado: Wrangling continues over proposed new transmountain diversion, reservoir enlargement

Boulder County gets high-level backup on request for comment period extension on major new transmountain water diversion

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Will the public get more time to review and comment on the final environmental study for the largest proposed water project in years?

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Boulder County’s request for more time to comment on the proposed Moffat Tunnel Collection System expansion got some high-level backup this week, as Sen. Michael Bennet formally asked the federal government for an extension.

Denver Water’s proposed new diversions from Colorado River headwaters in Grand County, specifically the Fraser River, are under federal scrutiny as the Corps considers issuing a permit for the enlargement of Gross Reservoir in Boulder County. The federal agency released the final version of a massive environmental study in April, setting a June 9 deadline for comment.

The agency received about 400 requests for an extension, many of them via a form letter. Boulder County also requested an extension, citing the need for more time to read the detailed technical reports and other documents that are part of the study, but regional Corps of Engineer Commander Joel Cross decided not to provide more time.

But he didn’t provide a reason, which raised some hackles in Boulder, where elected officials are far from satisfied that the final study addresses local concerns.

In his June 5 letter to Cross, Bennet said Boulder County officials are still working overtime on addressing the impacts of last autumn’s floods, and that Denver Water, the project proponent, doesn’t object to an extension.

Federal law doesn’t require a formal comment period at this stage of the process, but refusing requests for an extension runs counter the spirit of the National Environmental Policy Act, which emphasizes transparency and public involvement, according Colorado River activist Gary Wockner.

The final study runs more than 16,000 pages. Often, federal agencies routinely grant more opportunity for comment when the request comes from a local government whose constituents will be affected by the federal decision.

In this case, Denver Water’s proposal includes tripling the size of Gross Reservoir, creating an industrial construction zone  an area designated by Boulder County for its natural resource values.

The initial rejection of the request for an extension took Boulder County by surprise, said county commissioner Elise Jones, who emphasized that the request wasn’t a stalling tactic, but an sincere request to gain more time for county experts to scrutinize the study.

So far, other members of Colorado’s congressional delegation “very involved in ensuring regulatory agencies listen to the concerns of Coloradans,” according to spokesman Mike Saccone.

Udall helped ensure that there would be a public comment period with the release of the final environmental impact study — but he has not interfered in the science-and-fact-based EIS process beyond working to ensure the voices of concerned Coloradans are heard, Saccone said.

Meanwhile, the Boulder County Commissioners also sent a followup letter to the Corps, citing concerns about the study. Based on an initial review, the county doesn’t believe that all the concerns it raised during earlier comments were addressed.

The commissioners also questioned whether the Corps truly chose the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative.

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