Colorado conservation groups urge feds to continue with careful review of massive new Colorado River diversions

A Colorado River headwaters stream just below the Denver Water diversion point.

Letter to Corps of Engineers and EPA calls for careful scrutiny

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Colorado water and environmental advocates say they’re concerned that fast-tracking the federal environmental review for the Moffat Collection System Expansion Project could lead the responsible agencies to leave out important information and not fully address the impacts of new water diversions from the Colorado River.

“We’re worried that that we’re going to hit fast forward and miss some things,” said Becky Long, water caucus coordinator with the Colorado Environmental Coalition, explaining why several groups recently wrote a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA, reiterating their concerns about water temperatures and sediment loading in the Colorado River and its tributaries.

The fast-tracking was requested by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper back in June. In a June 5 letter to President Barack Obama, Hickenlooper touted a far-reaching water agreement as “removing” West Slope opposition to the Moffat project, and urged the Corps to release a final Environmental Impact Statement by the end of 2012, followed by a formal decision in early 2013.

The letter illustrates the governor’s fundamental misunderstanding of the NEPA process, which requires agencies to take a “hard look” at impacts and alternatives. It shows that, despite claims to the contrary, the Colorado water establishment is still focused on the folly of more water development and storage as the primary answer to the state’s drought woes. It also shows that state leaders still don’t understand that Colorado could easily — and much less expensively — use basic conservation measures to save as much or more water than would be stored by the Moffat project.

And while it’s true that institutional West Slope water users agreed to not oppose the Moffat Project — a devil’s bargain to some — the environmental community still has serious concerns about the increased diversions.

On top of all that, Long said rumors have circulated that the conservation community is OK with the Moffat project and the mitigation measures that have been proposed during the early phases of the review process. The letter to EPA regional director Jim Martin and Corps of Engineers regional commander Joel Cross was sent partially to refute those rumors.

“Any suggestion that the Cooperative Agreement has somehow reduced or eliminated concerns about the Moffat Collection System Expansion Project or the need to rigorously evaluate its impacts and design mitigation is simply wrong,” the Oct. 25 letter states. “Our constituencies are not satisfied with Moffat Collection System Expansion Project moving forward without significant further environmental disclosure and mitigation requirements … Any assurances you have heard that ‘everyone’ is on board with the Moffat Collection System Expansion proceeding without the required review and mitigation are simply not true.”

Read the entire letter here.

“We’ve got a major sediment issue on the Upper Colorado … We can’t skip the hard work, we have to vet the science,” Long said, referring to the sometimes grueling, but ultimately worthwhile scrutiny required by the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act and other federal laws.

Specifically, the conservation groups pointed out in their letter that sections of Ranch Creek, the Fraser River, and the Upper Colorado are already listed as impaired for violations of water temperature standards. More diversions are likely to worsen the problems without enforceable mitigation measures.

According to the letter, sediment issues were also dismissed in the draft environmental study for the Moffat project.

The two letters show that there is still quite a bit of disagreement about the impacts of the project and how to mitigate them — the canyon dividing the two sides is narrower, but at the same time deeper, according to Long.

“We’ve identified most of the issues … the stakes are higher on both sides. They’re going to cost money,” she said. “We have to make sure that the way we say we’re going to offset the impacts is in the final record of decision … We need to make sure that collectively, we’re being very clear, so there’s permanency to the protections,” she concluded.


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