Today: ‘Rally for the River II’ — Conservationists hope to get Governor Hickenlooper’s ear regarding the Windy Gap Firming Project

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From The Denver Post (Scott Willoughby):

Building on the boisterous success of last month’s Rally for the Upper Colorado River at the Environmental Protection Agency building in Denver, a coalition of conservationists hoping to derail a pair of transmountain water diversion projects is taking its message to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s doorstep today. Sportsmen, boaters, wildlife enthusiasts and others concerned about the collapsing upper Colorado River are being encouraged to meet outside the Capitol at 11 a.m. for Round 2.

The EPA, apparently having heard Defend the Colorado’s message, recently issued a letter to federal permitting authorities at the Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers raising concerns of “critical adverse impacts” resulting from the Northern Water Conservancy District’s Windy Gap Firming Project. The agency determined the proposal to divert up to 67 percent of the upper Colorado River’s natural flows into a tunnel across the Continental Divide may cause “significant degradation” to the struggling river and recommended “a more robust monitoring and mitigation plan” to protect it. Now it’s the governor’s turn.

As reported last week by Bruce Finley of The Denver Post, state officials stand behind Hickenlooper’s contention that Northern Water’s current plan to pull an extra 21,296 acre-feet of water a year from the Colorado River near Granby “comprehensively addresses impacts to Colorado’s fish and wildlife.”[...]

To their credit, Northern and Denver Water both bolstered mitigation efforts while seeking approval of their respective projects by the Colorado Wildlife Commission last summer. Northern has committed $250,000 to study a possible bypass around the Windy Gap Reservoir, a collection pond that pumps water back uphill.

With the federal permit decision looming, the governor can expect to be asked to help broker an agreement making the bypass a reality. He might also be asked to explain his April comment: “This state has to realize, people in the metropolitan Denver have to realize, that their self-interest is served by treating water as a precious commodity and that its value on the Western Slope is just as relevant as its value in the metro area.”

More coverage from Alan Prendergast writing for Westword. From the article:

…environmentalists say the further depletion of the river will alter the temperature, kill fish and insects that a healthy river needs, increase sediment — and generally trash the tourism business for folks in places like Fraser and Granby. A state study found a dramatic drop-off in aquatic insect species over the past two decades from previous diversions, and a recent EPA report is calling for more study and better monitoring of the project.

Opponents say the Upper Colorado can survive additional Front Range incursions, but only by developing further mitigation measures, including periodic water releases to flush out sediment gathering in the depleted riverway. Hoping to bend Hickenlooper’s ear a bit, speakers at tomorrow’s rally, which starts at 11 a.m., include Drew Peternell of Trout Unlimited and Field and Stream columnist Kirk Deeter.

More coverage from Tonya Bina writing for the Sky-Hi Daily News. From the article:

In a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, both dated Feb. 6, the agency outlined its concerns with the proposed Windy Gap Firming Project, saying more mitigation needs to be tied to an upcoming record of decision.

Among recommendations, the agency would like to see a bypass channel constructed around Windy Gap Dam for times when the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and municipal subdistrict are out of priority.

The bypass channel was identified in a 2011 report by researchers of division of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The report spells out ongoing problems in the Upper Colorado River basin that have been worsening over the past half-century, primarily chronic sedimentation, high temperatures and a lack of high flushing flows that have already caused the disappearance of the mottled sculpin, a native fish.

“Two things must be done if there is to truly be any hope of enhancement of aquatic ecosystem in the upper Colorado River in the future,” the 2011 Nehring Parks and Wildlife study reads. “A bypass channel around Windy Gap Dam and a major investment in stream channel reconfiguration for the Colorado River below Windy Gap Dam are both equally important and the only way true enhancement has any possibility of success. Either one without the other will have virtually no chance of succeeding.”

More Windy Gap coverage here and here.

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