Grand County Approves Windy Gap Firming Project Permit, Agreements

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Here’s the release from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District:

The Grand County Board of County Commissioners, after extensive public hearings, testimony and deliberation, have approved a permit and related agreements for the Windy Gap Firming Project. Today’s approval marks a major step forward in the permitting process for the Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict’s proposal to build Chimney Hollow Reservoir west of Carter Lake near Loveland.

Chimney Hollow Reservoir will provide dedicated storage to improve the reliability of the Windy Gap Project, which diverts Colorado River water from Windy Gap Reservoir and moves it through Colorado- Big Thompson Project facilities for delivery to Northeastern Colorado. The Municipal Subdistrict is coordinating the firming project’s permitting on behalf of 13 municipal entities.

By granting the permit, the Board of Commissioners established mitigation measures to offset impacts of the Windy Gap Firming Project in Grand County. Commissioners also secured environmental benefits to address current river conditions, and they provided a process that keeps the Municipal Subdistrict committed to working to improve and stabilize the Colorado River. The Municipal Subdistrict’s Board of Directors is expected to formally accept the permit on Thursday.

“Grand County has secured protections for water quantity and quality in the Colorado River that never would have happened without the project and this permit,” said Grand County Commission Chair Nancy Stuart.

The permit requires implementation of several other agreements that address additional Grand County and West Slope concerns, including the clarity in Grand Lake. The permit secures Northern Water’s support for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to address the lake’s clarity, an important issue for residents and visitors alike.

Grand County also gains access to up to 4,500 acre feet of Windy Gap water stored in Lake Granby for release to benefit aquatic life in the Colorado River, based on an agreement between Grand County, the Municipal Subdistrict, the Middle Park Water Conservancy District, the Colorado River District and the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. This is in addition to more than 5,400 acre feet of water that will be released each year to help endangered fish while also increasing flows in the Colorado River between Grand County and Grand Junction.

The permit advances another agreement, drafted in cooperation with Trout Unlimited and the Upper Colorado River Alliance of landowners, which addresses the potential construction of a bypass through or around Windy Gap Reservoir in order to improve river habitats. The Municipal Subdistrict committed $2 million toward construction as well as ongoing maintenance of facilities for a bypass that will be built if studies show it would benefit habitat conditions in the Colorado River.

“The permit and bypass agreement are the product of good faith negotiation and compromise,” said Mely Whiting, legal counsel for Trout Unlimited. “The subdistrict and project participants are to be commended for their efforts to address our concerns and do the right thing for the river.”

When he voted to approve the county permit conditions, Grand County Commissioner James Newberry said, “It is one thing to know the right thing to do, but it is entirely another to have the guts and conviction to make it happen. We just did that for the future of Grand County.”

Jeff Drager, Northern Water’s project manager, said, ”The permit conditions, along with the benefits they will provide to the Colorado River, demonstrate a great deal of dedication and commitment from the 13 firming project participants to address Grand County’s concerns.”

The participants – 10 cities, two rural water districts and a power provider – are relying upon the proposed Chimney Hollow Reservoir to help meet their growing needs. The municipal water providers are expected to serve about 825,000 residents by 2050. The firming project will increase their supplies and add flexibility to their operations.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is expected to issue a final decision on the firming project in 2013.

Here’s a release from Colorado Trout Unlimited (Randy Scholfield):

TU supports Windy Gap project in light of new river protections: Says new permit conditions put threatened river and fishery on road to recovery

Trout Unlimited today praised a multiparty agreement reached with the Municipal Subdistrict of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Municipal Subdistrict) that provides significant protections for the Upper Colorado River to offset impacts from the proposed Windy Gap Firming Project (WGFP). The package of protections—negotiated among the Municipal Subdistrict, Grand County staff, Trout Unlimited and the Upper Colorado River Alliance (UCRA)—was approved today by the Grand County Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) as part of a permit issued for the Windy Gap firming project.

“These permit conditions provide critical measures for protecting the health of the Upper Colorado River and its world-class trout fishery,” said Mely Whiting, counsel for Trout Unlimited. “TU has not been able to support this project in the past. But the subdistrict and the project participants have gone the extra mile to try to address our concerns and do what’s right for the river.”

Already, water diversions remove about 60 percent of the native flows of the Colorado headwaters. The proposed Windy Gap expansion would further reduce native flows. Without additional protections, said TU, the water-deprived river would be on life support.

“For years, those of us living in Grand County have seen the once-mighty Colorado in a state of serious decline,” said Kirk Klancke, president of TU’s Colorado River Headwaters Chapter. “This agreement will provide protections and new investments in river health that can put the Colorado River on the road to recovery.”

A Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist’s study last year pointed to Windy Gap Reservoir as a primary cause for steep declines in aquatic life and habitat in the Colorado River.

The study flagged the need for periodic flushing flows to help scour the river bottom and prevent the buildup of choking algae and sediment, along with a “bypass” channel around or through Windy Gap that would reconnect the river, improve water quality, and boost river health. Trout also depend on cold water, and excessively warm stream temperatures have been a problem, with the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission listing the Colorado River as being impaired due to high water temperatures. The conditions included in the permit approved by the BoCC today include restrictions on water diversions and other requirements that address each of these needs by:

  • preventing stream temperature impacts during low flows in the summer.
    providing periodic “flushing flows” to cleanse the river during runoff.
    requiring the construction of a Windy Gap Reservoir bypass to reconnect the river, in accordance with the bypass study and funding agreement.
  • The bypass agreement is one of the most important components of the WGFP approval package, said TU leaders, who called the bypass “critical” in addressing the root causes of habitat problems in the Upper Colorado. A bypass study, paid for by the subdistrict, is expected to be completed by October 2013. If river benefits are shown, WGFP participants committed up to $2 million to construct the bypass. An additional $2 million would be available from the Colorado Water Conservation Board if approved by the Colorado Legislature during its upcoming session.

    In addition, the permit includes measures to address impacts to water quality and clarity in Grand Lake and to riparian vegetation and wetlands, as well as monitoring requirements.

    The overall package also includes an agreement with Grand County to enable pumping and storage of water to deal with summer low flow problems and the subdistrict’s commitment—approved by the state Wildlife Commission last year—to contribute $4 million and in-kind services for stream improvement projects in the Colorado River downstream of Windy Gap Reservoir.

    “This is not a perfect deal,” said Whiting. “This is the product of compromise. But looking at the entire package, we firmly believe it offers the best chance for the upper Colorado River’s recovery. It also offers an opportunity for a new way of doing business—where stakeholders work side by side with water providers in an effort to protect our valuable streams. TU is proud to be a part of this effort to find balanced, pragmatic solutions.”

    TU noted that the agreement is the product of years of hard work, negotiations and collaboration. “We thank Grand County for its leadership role and tireless efforts to improve the conditions of the Colorado River,” said Klancke. “The efforts of our landowner partners, UCRA, were instrumental. And, of course, we commend the subdistrict and its participant water providers for their willingness to listen to our concerns and work together to find solutions.”

    Drew Peternell, director of TU’s Colorado Water Project, said the agreement had larger lessons for Colorado water planning.

    “In our Filling the Gap report, we said that WGFP, if done right, had the potential to be part of a smart supply portfolio for Colorado’s Front Range, along with stronger conservation and reuse programs and better ag-urban water sharing strategies,” said Peternell. “We’re pleased that Northern’s subdistrict has stepped up to address WGFP’s impacts on the Colorado headwaters so that it can achieve that potential as a smart supply project. Through a balanced portfolio including smart supply projects like WGFP, Colorado can meet diverse water needs, from municipal needs to recreation, while keeping our rivers healthy.”

    Peternell added, “The job of protecting the Upper Colorado isn’t finished. Denver Water needs to step up to provide additional protections for the Fraser River in its Moffat expansion project, which if done right, also has the potential to be a ‘smart’ project. We’re not there yet, but this agreement provides a roadmap of how we can get there.”

    More coverage from Scott Willoughby writing for The Denver Post. Here’s an excerpt:

    After years of negotiation, a multiparty agreement was approved Tuesday by the Grand County board of commissioners. The agreement is expected to provide significant protections for the threatened river by offsetting impacts from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s proposed Windy Gap Firming Project (WGFP). The agreement negotiated in part by Trout Unlimited, the Upper Colorado River Alliance and Grand County staff is part of a permit issued in order for the WGFP to move forward…

    For the moment, though, impacts to fish and wildlife dependent upon the state’s namesake river appear reduced to some degree because of the conditions included in the permit approved by Grand County Commissioners. Highlighting the requirements for water diversion:

    • Prevent stream temperature impacts by restricting the ability to divert water during low flows in the summer.
    • Provide periodic “flushing flows” every third and fifth year to cleanse the river bottom during runoff.
    • Require the construction of a Windy Gap Reservoir bypass to connect the river, in accordance with a bypass study and funding agreement.

    The bypass requirement is considered the linchpin of the agreement after a Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist’s study last year pointed to Windy Gap Reservoir as a primary cause for steep declines in aquatic life and habitat in the Colorado River. The study flagged the need for periodic flushing flows to help scour the river bottom and prevent the buildup of choking algae and sediment, along with a bypass channel around or through Windy Gap that would reconnect the river, improve water quality and boost river health.

    From the Sky-Hi Daily News (Tonya Bina):

    In a 2-1 vote, with Commissioner Gary Bumgarner dissenting, commissioners granted the Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict a boost in their plans to build the Chimney Hollow Reservoir west of Carter Lake near Loveland.

    During the board’s initial approval on Nov. 20, Commissioner James Newberry called the arrival to a consensus among various parties “a historic moment.” The words echoed from the signing of the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement earlier this year, which also drew the interest various West Slope stakeholders…

    The permit’s package includes critical measures that may resuscitate the Upper Colorado River, listed by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission as being impaired due to high water temperatures.

    A commitment from the subdistrict, Trout Unlimited, Grand County and the Upper Colorado River Alliance spells out how a possible river bypass at Windy Gap may be paid for.

    And in spite of Northern’s earlier contention that the Windy Gap 2012 permit — allowing for a greater supply of water to municipalities on the Front Range — should not be weighted down by past ruins of the federal Colorado-Big Thompson Project, an agreement tied to the permit secures the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s support for addressing Grand Lake’s clarity along with the Bureau of Reclamation.

    The municipal subdistrict is expected to formally accept the permit conditions on Thursday.

    But Commissioner Bumgarner, a Middle Park rancher, is still not convinced the collaboration that resulted in these agreements is enough to save the river and repair the “cloud” that plagues Colorado’s largest natural lake.

    “The river is in decline now. I’m not sure how taking more water out of it is going to make it better,” he said after Tuesday’s vote. Of the conditions and agreements tied to the permit, “there’s no guarantee that’s happening,” he said, saying he fears the firming project may just be the “straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

    The permit package has the support from Colorado’s Trout Unlimited, as well as expected endorsements from the Upper Colorado River Alliance, The Middle Park Water Conservancy District and the Colorado River Water Conservation District, among key players…

    In the permit package, Grand County gains up to 4,500 acre feet of Windy Gap water stored in Lake Granby for release to benefit aquatic life in the Colorado River, based on an agreement between Grand County, the subdistrict, Middle Park Water Conservancy District, the Colorado River District and the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. This is in addition to more than 5,400 acre-feet of water to be released each year to help endangered fish while also increasing flows in the Colorado River between Grand County and Grand Junction.

    On the Windy Gap bypass through or around Windy Gap in order to improve river habitats, the Municipal Subdistrict is committing $2 million for it to be built. An additional $2 million would be available from the Colorado Water Conservation Board if approved by the Colorado Legislature during its upcoming session. Grand County and an alliance of landowners and Trout Unlimited also are committed to helping finance the bypass.

    The construction of the bypass would be based on findings from a $250,000 study the subdistrict is currently funding, a report expected to be out by October 2013…

    The subdistrict’s participants of 10 cities, two rural water districts and a power provider, are relying on the proposed Chimney Hollow Reservoir to help meet their growing water needs. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is expected to issue a final decision on the firming project in 2013.

    More Windy Gap Firming Project coverage here and here.

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