Colorado Connectivity Channel gets green light after environmental assessment

Ten years after plans were finalized for a Colorado River diversion road around the Windy Gap Reservoir outside of Granby, the project got underway.

A consortium of state and commercial water entities announced Monday that in late June or early July, construction crews will begin digging up land adjacent to U.S. Highway 40, to fill part of the existing reservoir and dredge a new path for the Colorado River. flow around him.

This comes after the Natural Resources Conservation Service released a No Significant Impact (FONSI) finding from its environmental assessment of the Colorado River Connectivity Channel. The decision paves the way for construction, which will be completed in 2023 and will provide a new one-mile public fishing access to Colorado, said Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

Trout Unlimited is joined by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Municipal Subdistrict of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, Grand County, and the Upper Colorado River Alliance to create the project.

Klancke told Sky-Hi News the project is a long time coming for the health of Colorado, which has suffered since the construction of Windy Gap in the 1980s. It currently blocks the passage of fish and sediment upstream and downstream from the barrage. It also holds water in a shallow reservoir, sometimes raising the temperature of the stream below the dam when the water is released. And on windy days, the soils around the reservoir are stirred up in water and fill the river below the dam with sediment.

“This dam killed the Colorado River for miles,” Klancke said. “Sediment filled the interstitial spaces in the rocks below. The sculpin (a small fish and a food source for trout) disappeared. The giant sandfly (another main food source for trout) disappeared. And 38% of the macroinvertebrates are gone, according to a study by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, so from that dam down to the Williams Fork Reservoir, the ecosystem collapsed, they put a dam right in the middle of a mainstream, whereas today you cannot get a permit for a dam.

The connectivity project will narrow and deepen the reservoir, which stores water from the upper Colorado and Fraser Rivers. Through the Colorado-Big Thompson Water Diversion Project Agreement, Northern owns the rights to 220,000 acre-feet of Colorado water per year, which it pumps into Granby Lake, Shadow Mountain Reservoir, Grand Lake and through miles of underground tunnel to several towns on the front range.

This relates to water-related entities like the Upper Colorado River Watershed Group, which has asked agencies to do water accounting in the Upper Colorado River watershed to ensure there is sufficient water before proceeding with the project.

UCRWG President Andy Miller said that while the group does not outright oppose the project, important questions it posed to the Colorado Division of Water Resources have never been answered. .

“We have requested during this process a comprehensive accounting detailing how current and projected (given climate change) water flows from the basin balance with local, Front Range and downstream rights to this available water,” Miller said. “We cannot continue to make decisions like this without having an accurate picture of the current state of the river.”

The Colorado Division of Water Resources administers water rights, represents Colorado in interstate water pact proceedings, monitors stream flow and water use, and approves construction and repairing dams. When the Sky-Hi contacted the division’s state engineer, Kevin Rein, he sent the following:

“The right to water for this diversion is decreed by the water court. The issue of water availability is addressed at the time of application to the water court.

Once the court issues a decree for this diversion, with a priority date, the Water Resources Division will administer it under the prior appropriation system, as we do with all water rights in Colorado. If the water right can be diverted without affecting water rights above it, and the diversion complies with all terms and conditions of the decree, they can be diverted. Otherwise, the right to water cannot be circumvented.

Klancke added: “If the water is not available, Northern cannot pump. But the water in the canal will always be there because it is guaranteed in Senate Document 80 (passed June 24, 1937 by the 75th Congress). Senate Document 80 created Granby Lake and Shadow Mountain Lake. Lake Granby has certain flows that it must release. These flows must be in this channel because there are guaranteed flows below the dam. They can’t take that water and dry up the river below that dam. He has to go through this channel and down the river because it’s guaranteed to Congress.

According to the Windy Gap FONSI, the Upper Colorado River Watershed Group’s first choice to deal with the dam – the complete removal – would cost $75 million, while the connectivity project will cost $27 million.

Most of these funds will come from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Another $1 million comes from Grand County’s Open Lands Rivers and Trails fund, and Klancke says Northern has already exceeded the amount it pledged – an initial $2 million to $4 million.

Klancke adds that Northern — considered a “water buffalo” by many Grand County residents, due to its interest in diverting water to the Front Range — has “crossed the line” in supporting the project.

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s environmental assessment, the project “will have long-term beneficial effects on environmental resources (i.e., soil, air, water, animals , plants and human resources).” With FONSI secured, the Natural Resources Conservation Service can now provide funds pledged for construction of the project and can consider granting up to $9 million in additional funds still needed for the project.

The Grand County Board of County Commissioners applauded the work of the Natural Resources Conservation Department in reaching its decision and recognized “the tremendous work of the project partners and individual champions.”

This story was updated from a version printed in the Friday, 13th 2022 newspaper. Colorado’s water problems are manifold. We will continue to report on this developing story.

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