EPA evaluation supports claims that new diversions will push the already ailing Colorado River toward the brink
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Colorado River advocates will once again rally in downtown Denver today, hoping to persuade Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to take another look at a plan to divert yet-more water from the already severely depleted Upper Colorado.
The rally, set for 11 a.m.on the Capitol steps, comes just a week after the EPA weighed in on Northern Water’s Windy Gap Firming Project, which would divert even more water from Colorado River through a tunnel to the northern Front Range.
At issue is an environmental study for the project prepared by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. While the study outlines mitigation measures that go beyond what’s been done in previous transmountain diversions, the EPA and conservation advocates don’t think it’s enough. First and foremost, a bypass is needed to ensure healthy flows below the diversion, along with more robust flushing flows and monitoring.
According to a Feb. 6 letter from the EPA to the Bureau of Reclamation, the conclusions reached in the study don’t mesh with the scientific data. That includes additional impacts to Granby Reservoir, Shadow Mountain Reservoir, Grand Lake, Horsetooth Reservoir and Carter Lake — which are all experiencing water quality issues associated with excessive nutrient loading.
With tactful language, the EPA made clear that the study paints a rosier picture of existing environmental conditions than is justified, and downplays impacts of the proposed new diversions.
For now, the state is taking the position that the proposed mitigation balances environmental protection with the state’s need to develop more water resources.
“The process is currently within the jurisdiction of the federal government,” Colorado Department of Natural Resources spokesman Todd Hartman said via email. “We support the mitigation steps approved by the Wildlife Commission, as well as the Colorado Water Conservation Board. We believe the plan developed after a thorough review of science-driven data and extensive analysis of options arrives at the challenging and critical balance required to address water rights and protection of the river.”
In calling for stronger protections for the river, EPA found two main areas of concern: water quality issues in lakes and reservoirs and the aquatic stream life and morphology in the Colorado and affected tributary streams.
The EPA relied heavily on scientific reports compiled by the state’s own biologists — reports that state agencies now seem inclined to ignore, according to Trout Unlimited, the cold-water fisheries group that is leading the battle to try and ensure that the Upper Colorado remains as healthy as possible.
The state reports show that aquatic insects — the linchpins of the river’s ecosystem — have declined dramatically in the past 30 years as a result of exiting diversions, which already suck about half the river’s flows under the Continental Divide. Mayfly, stonefly and caddisfly numbers are down between 40 and 60 percent and some native fish have completely disappeared from the Colorado River downstream of the diversion.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife study also documents “chronic sedimentation and clogging” of the riverbed cobbles and riffles as the primary factor that has compromised the biotic integrity of the river below the Windy Gap diversion.
The Windy Gap project, along with another proposed increase in diversions through the Moffat Tunnel, could reduce the Upper Colorado River’s flows to less than 20 percent of its historic levels.
According to Trout Unlimited, the Windy Gap Firming Project fails to include measures that will keep the Colorado cold, clean and healthy below Windy Gap — a stretch of the river that sustains local agriculture, mountain communities, and a thriving recreation economy. Unless the Upper Colorado receives stronger protections, this once-mighty river faces a long, continued decline and a potential ecological collapse.
Now the ball is in Gov. Hickenlooper’s court — he has a chance to use his bully pulpit to tell state and federal officials to “do the right thing” for the river and recommend additional protection, TU said in a prepared statement announcing the rally.
Drew Peternell, director, Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project
Kirk Klancke, water manager, Fraser Valley
Kirk Deeter, columnist, Field and Stream magazine
For more background on issue, go to www.DefendTheColorado.org