Conservation groups raise issues with fast-tracking the Moffat Collection System Project

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Here’s the text of a letter from the Colorado Environmental Coalition, et. al., to the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers:

We write to express our serious concerns with the permitting process for the Moffat Collection System Expansion Project proposed by Denver Water. Governor Hickenlooper has submitted a letter calling for the permitting process to be expedited, and our understanding is that finalizing the Environmental Impact Statement has been put on a fast track for completion. While we certainly support the agencies in working promptly and efficiently on this project – indeed on any of their permitting work – the desire for speedy completion should not come at the expense of completing the studies and analyses needed to accurately assess and disclose impacts, and to honestly determine the “Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative” pursuant to the Clean Water Act.

The Governor’s letter touts the benefits of the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement between Denver Water and west slope interests as an important factor in moving Moffat permits forward. We agree that the Cooperative Agreement takes many important steps in addressing the current challenges facing the Upper Colorado River watershed. What it does not do is address the impacts of the new Moffat Collection System Expansion Project. 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. Our constituencies are not satisfied with Moffat Collection System Expansion Project moving forward without significant further environmental disclosure and mitigation requirements.

Our organizations remain gravely concerned with the potential impacts on the Fraser and Williams Fork watersheds and the Upper Colorado River due to the depletions proposed under the Moffat Collection System Expansion Project. Specific concerns which have been raised previously in the public process surrounding this project include:

Temperature. Already sections of Ranch Creek, the Fraser River, and the Upper Colorado exceed water quality standards for temperature and are listed on the Colorado 303(d) list of impaired waters. Further flow depletions during the summer months, as proposed under the Moffat Collection System Expansion, cannot help but extend and worsen these problems absent operational restrictions (such as curtailment of diversions during periods of elevated temperature) or strong mitigation (channel reconfiguration, riparian restoration). The Draft EIS can, at best, be said to have given short shrift to this issue – particularly since it is a water quality issue where the affected environment is already experiencing water quality standard violations.

Sedimentation. This issue was similarly given a dismissive treatment in the Draft EIS. However, as evidenced by a sediment transport study completed by Dr Brian Bledsoe (previously submitted to you and shared with us by Trout Unlimited) – and as is obvious to all of us who have spent time in the Fraser River and seen the evidence of excessive sediment building up with our own eyes – sedimentation is a significant issue and one that will be worsened by the loss of flushing flows under the Moffat Collection System Expansion. As with temperature, operating requirements (such as mandatory flushing flows) or mitigation measures (such as channel reconfiguration to promote sediment transport at a lower flow) are needed.

Impacts to Recreation and Tourism. The river-based recreation and tourism economy of Grand County and the Colorado River basin are highly dependent on predictable and sufficient streamflows to attract visitors to the area seeking world-class rafting, kayaking, and float-fishing opportunities. In the Upper Colorado River, commercial rafting alone contributes nearly $10 Million dollars in economic benefit, and is enjoyed by over 32,000 visitors a year. Our concern is that not enough analysis has been made of how the Moffat Collection System Expansion will reduce streamflows that support this important industry. The impacts from additional depletions out of the Fraser and Colorado River Systems on existing river-based recreation have not been adequately disclosed, nor have the project proponents made available to the public the models of how future streamflow conditions are likely to change – attributable to the Moffat Collection system solely. Changes in streamflow, and the potential loss of a sustainable recreation economy in Colorado is very concerning to us, and we feel deserves a more substantive review.

Adaptive management. Even if the Corps and EPA were able to complete thorough impact studies that gave adequate guidance to disclose impacts and design mitigation for temperature and sedimentation – a premise that we fear may in itself be flawed given the rush to move forward a Final EIS – there will still be major uncertainty about the impacts associated with Moffat Collection System Expansion. Simply put, there is a real risk that diversions at the level proposed for the Fraser – with a cumulative total of 75% of water being removed from the environment – may cause unanticipated adverse effects. Scientists call these “nonlinear” responses, points where passing a certain threshold can lead to dramatically increased impacts.

Front Range Impacts. In addition we remain seriously concerned about impacts that would occur on the Front Range, namely in Boulder County where Gross Reservoir and dam would be dramatically increased in size. These impacts—and the concerns of County property owners— have not be adequately addressed yet either.

In light of these unpredictable impacts, coupled with the apparent desire to quickly complete analysis of even more predictable impacts, we urge you to include strong monitoring and adaptive management requirements in any permit for Moffat Collection System Expansion. These should include monitoring of the physical, chemical and biologic conditions of the streams affected by the project and require implementation of measures to prevent degradation of aquatic and riparian ecosystems, to be paid for by the project beneficiary—Denver Water. Monitoring must be broad and thorough enough to determine changes in fish, aquatic invertebrate, and plant populations, as well as assessing water quality, and particularly water temperature as indicators of degradation.

While these efforts should be coordinated with the “Learning by Doing” effort from the Cooperative Agreement, they must be a specific and separate requirement of the permit. Learning by Doing – like the rest of the Cooperative Agreement – was not designed to address the impacts of the new Moffat Collection System Expansion, indeed by its own terms it does not address mitigation. It is the job of the Corps and EPA to ensure mitigation as a condition of any approved permit, and a robust adaptive management plan should be required. Given the inherent difficulty of predicting impacts at such high levels of diversion from a river, and in light of the Governor’s stated desire to expedite permitting for Moffat Collection System Expansion, a program by which river health continues to be monitored and Denver Water remains responsible for mitigating the actual effects of their project – not just those that can be accurately predicted in the current EIS process – offers the best opportunity for moving the project forward while ensuring that water quality and ecosystem health can be protected for the future.

In short “fast tracking” this process will only undercut the good work that has been done to date. 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. Our organizations and the more than 180,000 members we represent remain deeply concerned about what the Moffat Collection System Expansion will mean for the health of the Fraser, Williams Fork and Upper Colorado watersheds. We support the permitting process moving forward only if it includes thorough assessment and mitigation to address temperature and sedimentation concerns, and a robust monitoring and adaptive management requirement.

As Colorado moves forward in planning for our water supply future we must ensure that we “do it right”. This is both an enormous opportunity as well as an incredible responsibility. Let’s work together to ensure that the river, our communities and our state are not short-changed in an effort to move quickly.

The letter was signed by: Becky Long, Colorado Environmental Coalition; Bart Miller, Western Resource Advocates; Steve Glazer, Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Sierra Club; Nathan Fey, American Whitewater.

Update: A thousand pardons. I left three signatures off in the list above: Gary Wockner, Clean Water Action; Jen Bock, High Country Citizens Alliance; Matt Rice, American Rivers.

Thanks to Coyote Gulch reader Doug Pflugh for the heads up.

More coverage from Bob Berwyn writing for the Summit Daily Voice. Here’s an excerpt:

“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.

More Moffat Collection System coverage here and here.

2 Responses to Conservation groups raise issues with fast-tracking the Moffat Collection System Project

  1. Doug Pflugh says:

    Three additional signatures on the letter:

    Gary Wockner
    Clean Water Action

    Jen Bock
    High Country Citizens Alliance

    Matt Rice
    American Rivers

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