Trout Unlimited: Upper Colorado River Mitigation Package ‘Not Enough’

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Here’s the release from Colorado Trout Unlimited (Randy Schofield):

Trout Unlimited today expressed disappointment in a June 9 Colorado Wildlife Commission decision to approve without changes mitigation plans offered by Denver Water and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District for two new water diversion projects, saying the plans fall short of what’s needed to protect the fish and wildlife resources of the upper Colorado River basin.

“We appreciate the hard work the commission and its staff have put into reviewing the proposed Moffat Tunnel and Windy Gap expansion projects,” said Drew Peternell, director of Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project. “While the mitigation package the commission approved yesterday is an improvement over the plans Denver and Northern offered originally, it is not enough to protect the rivers and streams of the upper Colorado River basin from the impacts of the new projects.”

For decades, large-scale water diversions to the Front Range have severely depleted and damaged the upper Colorado River and its major tributaries, including the Fraser River. Already, transbasin water diversion projects, including Denver Water’s Moffat Tunnel pipeline and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s Windy Gap project, take about 60 percent of the native flows of the upper Colorado River basin. The proposed expansions of the Moffat Tunnel and Windy Gap projects would take an additional 15 percent of flows and further stress an ecosystem that is on the tipping point of survival.

Trout Unlimited vowed to seek additional mitigation conditions in the next phases of project permitting and urged Denver Water and Northern to do more to offset the impacts of the proposed projects on the Colorado River and its tributaries.

At the Wildlife Commission meeting in Grand Junction Thursday, several wildlife commissioners expressed concerns that the final mitigation plans submitted by Denver Water and Northern were inadequate, but the commission voted unanimously to approve the plans anyway, without changes.

“We’re disappointed that commissioners apparently believed they didn’t have the statutory authority to recommend additional protections,” said Mely Whiting, counsel for TU’s Colorado Water Project. “We don’t believe that’s an accurate reading of the statute.”

Last week, TU, West Slope landowners and other stakeholder groups urged the Wildlife Commission to include several provisions in the final mitigation package to ensure the health of the rivers:

- Reconnecting the Colorado River by creating a “bypass” around Windy Gap Reservoir.
– A halt to diversions when water temperatures are on the verge of state “impaired” standards – water warm enough to kill trout.
– Adequate spring flushing flows to keep the rivers healthy and sustain riparian areas that are critical to wildlife.
– An ongoing plan to monitor stream conditions and identify needed habitat restoration projects.
– An endowment fund to pay for those restoration projects as an “insurance policy” for river health.

TU leaders stressed that these were reasonable requests. “We weren’t asking for perfection,” said Whiting. “We were simply asking for adequate mitigation, an ‘insurance policy’ that provides the minimal level of protection needed to keep the rivers and streams of the upper Colorado basin healthy into the future. Yesterday’s decision puts these irreplaceable resources at risk.”

The Fraser River was a big loser in the decision, said TU. Under the plan approved by the commission, Denver Water can divert through the Moffat Tunnel even when those diversions violate stream temperature standards designed to prevent lethal effects on fish. And the project could take so much water that flushing flows critical to clean the stream of harmful sediment would no longer be available. The mitigation plans had several other deficiencies, including:

- Funding for stream projects to protect the Colorado River fell significantly short—between $3 and $5 million short, according to TU’s calculations, based on estimates by independent restoration contractors.
– Funding for a potential bypass of Windy Gap Reservoir, which could significantly improve downstream Colorado River conditions, was not included in the package.
– Northern’s plan allows chronic stream temperature problems and provides insufficient flushing flows in the Upper Colorado River.

TU thanked the commissioners for their efforts and acknowledged the complex, difficult nature of these mitigation decisions. But the sportsmen’s group said that the overriding goal of ensuring the future of the river’s wildlife habitat and fisheries was not achieved.

“The bottom line is that under this mitigation package, the health of the upper Colorado River and its tributaries will continue to decline,” said Peternell.

To learn more about diversion impacts on the river and watch TU’s short video “Tapped Out,” go to www.defendthecolorado.org

More coverage from Scott Willoughby writing for The Denver Post. From the article:

Several wildlife commissioners echoed the sentiment that the final mitigation plans submitted by Denver Water and Northern were not ideal, but the commission voted unanimously to approve the plans anyway. The projects’ Fish and Wildlife Mitigation Plans now move to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which has 60 days to affirm or modify the state’s position. Gov. John Hickenlooper will also have 60 days to affirm or further modify it before it’s submitted to federal permitting agencies…

Prompted by a coalition of stakeholders led by Trout Unlimited, both water utilities made concessions to plans previously submitted. Among the additional measures are improved safeguards for maintaining cool water temperatures and minimum flow protections, creation of contingency funds for unanticipated impacts and enhanced funding for river restoration plans. The restoration plans were not required by the permitting process but were offered by Denver and Northern to help address impacts from past water development. The agreements hinge on final federal approval of the water projects.

The additional measures are a step in the right direction, watchdogs say, but don’t go far enough. Trout Unlimited vowed to seek additional mitigation conditions in the next phases of project permitting and urged Denver Water and Northern to do more to offset the impacts of the proposed projects on the Colorado River and its tributaries…

Most significant among the stakeholders’ requests is a “reconnection” of the Colorado River by creating a yet-to-be- designed bypass around the 445-acre-foot Windy Gap collection pond that the group has pinpointed as a major problem area near the confluence of the Fraser and Colorado rivers. Most agree that the proposal has merit, although further study is required. “We feel that the reconstruction of the channel downstream is just as important,” DOW aquatic biologist Ken Kehmeier told the commission. “We feel that we can’t determine the necessity for a bypass until a study is done.”

More coverage from Janice Kurbjin writing for the Summit Daily News. From the article:

Trout Unlimited representatives say the plans fall short of what’s needed to protect the fish and wildlife resources of the Upper Colorado River Basin. They vowed in early June to fight the projects on several fronts, including at the federal permitting level, if the plan didn’t include strong protections for the Upper Colorado River. They are now focused on other permitting levels. “We want more,” said Drew Peternell, director of Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project.

Groups such as the Fraser River Basin Landowners and the Upper Colorado River Alliance are on board with the fight…

According to the Division of Wildlife, restoration plans aren’t required by the permitting process but were offered voluntarily by the utilities. A DOW statement said the commission’s authority is limited to mitigating impacts from the proposed projects and restoring the river to a past condition is beyond the scope of commission authority…

Trout Unlimited and other West Slope landowners and stakeholders asked the wildlife commission earlier this month to include several provisions, they called it an “insurance policy,” to protect the health of the rivers. What’s been offered isn’t enough, they say. Despite flow and temperature monitoring proposed by Denver Water, Trout Unlimited claimed the utility is still allowed to divert through the Moffat Tunnel even when those diversions violate stream temperature standards designed to prevent lethal effects on fish. The diversions could also negatively affect flushing flows that clean the stream of sediment, they said. Both utilities agreed to a $600,000 “mitigation insurance policy” that falls between $3 and $5 million short, Trout Unlimited representatives said. In particular, there’s no funding for a Windy Gap Reservoir bypass, meant to improve downstream Colorado River conditions, nor was an endowment fund established to pay for future restoration projects that would be planned and monitored.

More Moffat Collection System Project coverage here and here.

More Windy Gap coverage here and here.

One Response to Trout Unlimited: Upper Colorado River Mitigation Package ‘Not Enough’

  1. [...] “The current mitigation plan only addresses previous damage to habitats in the upper Colorado system, and it doesn’t address future impacts of the project,” said Scholfield.  Scholfield is referring to the impact of the existing diversions by Denver Water and Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (NCWCD), which amount to around 60 percent of native flows of the upper Colorado River basin. NCWCD’s proposed Windy Gap Firming Project, combined with Denver Water’s Moffat expansion project, will draw an additional 15 percent of native flows from the upper Colorado basin, according to a TU press release. [...]

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