New Agreements Spell Brighter Future for the Upper Colorado River
After years of local organizing, advocacy, technical assessment, media campaigning, and negotiations surrounding the Windy Gap Firming Project, I am pleased to share with you a true success story for the Upper Colorado River. Under permit conditions and agreements now secured for the project, we believe that impacts to the Colorado River will not only be offset but that important steps will take place to help reverse the river's decline and put the Upper Colorado on the road to recovery. You can read about this major victory in the Denver Post and the Fort Collins Coloradoan.
The majority of flows in the Colorado River already are diverted from the headwaters and we have seen trout populations decline and stoneflies and sculpin be virtually eliminated. So when the Windy Gap Firming Project proposed to further tap flows, particularly during spring and early summer, TU raised major concerns. We flagged five key issues with the project: elevated stream temperatures, the need for flushing flows to prevent the river from being choked with silt, reconnecting the river around Windy Gap to improve habitat and water quality, addressing habitat downstream that has been degraded, and building in monitoring and "adaptive management" to deal with issues that could arise in the future. Armed with strong legal and scientific arguments, we set out not to kill the project but to see if it could be fixed so that the health of the Upper Colorado could be protected or even enhanced.
Under a series of agreements, along with required conditions approved under Grand County's local permits for the project, we believe that goal has been reached. The sponsors of the Windy Gap Firming Project - the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District's Municipal Subdistrict - have agreed to a multi-tiered program to protect river health. This includes:
- Stopping project diversions when needed to prevent excessively warm stream temperatures
- Providing higher flushing flows on an every 3 year (600 cfs) and 5 year (1200 cfs) basis
- Providing funding ($2 million, plus another $2 million through the Colorado Water Conservation Board) to construct a bypass through or around Windy Gap to reconnect the Colorado River and improve water quality
- Adopting measures to protect water quality in Grand Lake
- Contributing $4 million toward river restoration on the Colorado River below Windy Gap
- Agreeing to deliver water to the Shoshone Hydropower Plant in Glenwood Canyon - even if it goes down - so that winter flows in the Upper Colorado are maintained
Collectively, these measures will address the impacts of the new project - and should help reverse the current decline of the Upper Colorado and begin to bring back a healthier river and the world-class fishing that can support.
Just as importantly, the agreements we've reached offer a model for how conservationists and water developers can find common ground for responsible water projects. Combining these "smart supply" projects with strong conservation programs, creative agriculture-urban sharing agreements, and improved reuse efforts - we can meet Colorado's future water needs while preserving the health of our rivers.
It wasn't a short journey or an easy one - and we certainly didn't always see eye to eye. Windy Gap's proponents didn't much care for our "Don't Suck the Upper Colorado River Dry" billboard in Denver. We disagreed over the adequacy of environmental analysis in the project's Environmental Impact Statement. But with persistence and a deep commitment to helping the Upper Colorado River, we got the job done.
We also didn't do this alone. In addition to exemplary work by National Trout Unlimited staff and local TU chapter leaders, these agreements are the result of leadership and tireless efforts by Grand County's Commissioners and staff, tremendous support and involvement by local landowners with the Upper Colorado River Alliance, ongoing assistance from other conservation partners, and expertise from the world-class biologists with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Together, we've made a difference.
The job isn't finished -- we need to see these agreements through, and similar protections are needed to address the impacts of Denver Water's proposed diversions from one of the Colorado's key tributaries, the Fraser River. Denver has been reluctant to agree on mitigation for its project, but Windy Gap may provide a model for how to move forward.
Ultimately it is your support and involvement with Trout Unlimited that gives us the capacity to dedicate ourselves to these kinds of efforts - and to every now and then celebrate efforts that can make a profound difference for our rivers and allow future generations to enjoy fishing the waters we love. Thank you for making successes like this possible!
David Nickum, Colorado TU Executive Director
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