A documentary screening about the Dolores River was followed by a lively forum about the issue of low flows below McPhee Dam.
“River of Sorrows” was commissioned by the Dolores River Boating Advocates to highlight the plight of the Lower Dolores River.
The new film, which is for sale on the DRBA website for $10, had several showings April 30 at the Sunflower Theatre.
A panel answered questions from a moderator and from the audience. The panel included Josh Munson of the DRBA; Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District; Eric White of the Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch; Mike Japhet, a retired aquatic biologist with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife; and Amber Clark, of the Dolores River Dialogue.
What are the major challenges facing the Dolores River and what are the solutions for addressing those challenges?
Munson said the challenge is for people to see there are beneficial uses to Dolores River water other than just farming, such as for fishery health and boating. Changing the water rights system to allow individuals to sell or lease their water allocation so it stays in the river is one solution.
“Other uses helps to diversify the economy,” he said.
Preston said a major challenge is managing the reservoir in drought conditions. He said the goal is maximizing efficiencies in order to improve carryover in the reservoir year to year.
“High storage lifts all boats, including for recreation,” he said.
White said the film missed the compromises the Ute Mountain Ute tribe has made regarding water rights.
“Our allocation has dropped,” he said. “The tribe has fought for our water rights for a long time.”
Japhet said low flows below the dam are threatening three native fish: the flannelhead sucker, bluehead sucker, and roundtail chub.
“They have been declining precipitously,” he said.
Japhet called for more flexibility in how water reserved for fish and wildlife is managed out of McPhee. For example, 850 acre-feet diverted to the Simon Draw wetlands could be used to augment low flows on the Lower Dolores to help fish.
Clark said the big picture solution need to be collaborative and local, “or somebody from outside will find a solution for us.”
The group revealed the difficulty in finding a compromise that improves the downstream fishery and recreation boating but does not threaten the local agricultural economy.
“Use if or lose it water doctrine is a waste of water resources for farmers and conservationists,” Munson said. “The system does not allow for an individual to lease their water” for instream purposes.
Preston pointed out that in the last eight years, there has been four years where there was a release from the dam. The last one was in 2011, and this year a spill is uncertain.
“We are four for four. When we have excess water we release for boating and the fishery,” he said.
Japhet said the “elephant in the room” is if one of the three native fish species is petitioned for listing on the endangered species list.
“It would cause the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to take a very close look at what is going on with the water and fish resource,” he said. “The best solution is to be proactive and work something out locally to avoid a federal mandate telling us what to do.”
An audience member asked if the river itself has a right to water. Preston said the state instream flow program designates minimum flows for the river, including a 900 cfs below the confluence with the San Miguel. Below the dam the instream flow designation is 78 cfs.
“The river has a right to water, the fact that it was once wild should stay in people’s minds,” Munson replied. “The place itself has a beneficial use for fish, birds, otters. It’s recreation provides a way to make a living.”
Betty Ann Kohlner expressed concerns about McPhee water being used for hydraulic fracturing used for drilling natural gas.
Preston said about 4,000 acre-feet is available in McPhee for municipal and industrial purposes, including for fracking. But, he said, There has been limited use of the water for that purpose.
“If you can lease water to frack, why can’t water be leased for recreation and fish needs downstream from willing owners?” responded one man. “There is a contradiction in how we apply our understanding of how we should use water.”
Don Schwindt, of the DWCD board, pointed out that the Dolores River is part of the Colorado River compact that divides the state’s river water with several downstream states.
“Two thirds of the state’s water is required to leave by compact, and as it leaves it is available in the streams,” he said. “That two-thirds is more dominate than agricultural use.”
From the Utah Division of Wildlife via The Deseret News:
For the first time since work to recover bonytail started in the 1980s, they’re raising their own young in the wild, officials with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources say.
Bonytail are the rarest of the endangered fish that live in the upper Colorado River system.
“This finding represents a major step forward in recovering the species and ultimately getting it removed from the federal endangered species list,” Krissy Wilson, native aquatic species coordinator for the DWR, said in a statement.
In spring 2015, researchers with the DWR found adult bonytail in Stewart Lake near Jensen. The lake is a managed floodplain that’s connected to the Green River. When the floodplain was later drained in the fall, the researchers found 19 young-of-the-year native chub.
As the researchers analyzed their data, they expected the young-of-the-year chubs to be roundtail chubs. But they realized the size of the chubs did not fit with the timing of when the roundtail chubs would have spawned.
“That’s when the researchers got excited,” Wilson said. “Were the specimens they were examining the first documented evidence of bonytail reproducing in the wild?”
The researchers sent the preserved specimens to the Larval Fish Laboratory at Colorado State University. There, scale and body measurement analysis was done. Next, the specimens were sent for genetic testing. Both analyses confirmed what the UDWR researchers were hoping: the specimens were bonytail.
Wilson says the last wild adult bonytail were collected in the late 1990s. Since then, bonytail have been reared at the DWR’s Wahweap State Fish Hatchery at Lake Powell. The bonytail are reared to 12 inches long before being stocked in the upper Colorado River system.
Wilson says for the past four years, the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program and its partner, the Bureau of Reclamation, have coordinated spring releases from Flaming Gorge Dam to connect floodplain habitats along the Green River near Jensen. Connecting the floodplains provides important nursery habitat for the endangered Colorado River fish.
“So far,” Wilson says, “razorback sucker is the species that’s benefitted most from the releases. It’s exciting to see that the releases are also benefitting bonytail.”
Along with bonytail and razorback sucker, humpback chub and Colorado pikeminnow are the four fish the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program is working to recover. More information about the program and its work is available at coloradoriverrecovery.org.
BASALT — Knowing who owns, or controls, the water in Ruedi has become of greater public interest since 2013, when all of the water in the reservoir was sold, as the new ownership regime could change how much water is released from the reservoir in any given year.
And how much water is released from Ruedi has implications for the quality of the trout fishing on the lower Fryingpan River and the health of four species of endangered fish in the Colorado River below Palisade.
Given that, we thought it worth figuring out who owns the water in Ruedi, and the resulting list, signed off on by the Bureau of Reclamation, is below.
There are three types of water in Ruedi. The first is “fish water,” or water held in storage in Ruedi until it is released to benefit struggling populations of native fish in the Colorado River between Palisade and Grand Junction, in what’s known as the 15-mile reach.
The fish water is released from Ruedi and sent down the Fryingpan River, which flows into the Roaring Fork River in Basalt, which in turn flows into the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs.
The second type of water in Ruedi is “contract water.”
This is water that has been sold by the Bureau of Reclamation to recover the costs of building and operating the reservoir.
Contracts for annual delivery of water from Ruedi vary in size from 12,000 to 15,000 acre-feet (AF) and there are now over 30 individuals and entities with water contracts.
When these Ruedi water owners are called out by senior downstream water rights holders, most significantly the large diverters near Grand Junction collectively known as “the Cameo call,” then they can ask Reclamation to release their “augmentation” water in Ruedi instead of stopping their normal use of water from their local sources.
In practice, this does not happen very often. But in a dry year, it could be important to many of the contract holders.
The third type of water can be viewed as “reservoir water.”
This is water not generally released from the reservoir, and includes the “dead” pool, the “inactive” pool, the “recreation and regulatory” pool and the “replacement” pool in Ruedi.
Ruedi was built, in part, to provide a “replacement” pool for the big upstream diversions of the Fry-Ark project, but these various “reservoir” pools are not a big factor in shaping the amount of flow out of the reservoir.
The question of how much water was flowing out of Ruedi, and who owns it, became an issue for many anglers on the lower Fryingpan River in September and October last year, when the river was consistently flowing at about 300 cubic feet per second.
At that level, the river can be hard to wade across, and local fly-fishing guides began to get complaints from some regular customers, who prefer levels in the 230 to 250 cfs range.
The river was high last year because 24,412.5 AF of water was released from Ruedi to help the endangered fish. This was an increase from 2014 and 2013, when 15,412 AF and 10,412 AF was released, respectively, as fish water.
There are three sub-pools of fish water in Ruedi, totaling 15,412.5 AF.
The first pool is 5,000 acre feet of fish water under contract to the CWCB and provided to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for use in the 15-mile reach.
The second pool of fish water contains 5,412.5 AF. This pool is under contract to the Colorado River District, which acts as a custodian for the water on behalf of Western Slope interests.
The third pool contains another 5,000 AF and remains under the control of Reclamation, which considers it available for use in four-out-of-five years, or 80 percent of the time.
This third pool of fish water is, in essence, “extra” water that is provided by Reclamation to help the fish when conditions in Ruedi allow.
So while there is a total of 15,413.5 AF of fish water in Ruedi, only 10,413.5 AF of it is counted in our tally under the heading of “fish water.” We list the third pool of 5,000 AF, under the heading of fish water, but it is actually included in the “reservoir water” category.
Contract water as fish water
In addition to the 15,413.5 AF of fish water released in 2015, there was also 9,000 AF of contract water released as fish water, which was a new development for both Ruedi and the lower Fryingpan River.
The 9,000 AF of contract water released as fish water was part of a 12,000 AF pool of water bought in 2013 by Ute Water Conservancy District in Grand Junction.
Ute Water bought its 12,000 AF for $15.6 million, or $1,300 an AF, to use as a back-up source of water. But last year it entered into a lease contract with the CWCB, at $7.20 an AF, so that the water could be used instead to benefit the endangered fish.
After Ute Water and CWCB finalized a lease arrangement in August to release up to the full 12,000 AF, only 9,000 AF could be released by the end of October without bringing flows over 300 cfs in the lower Fryingpan.
This year, though, Ute Water and CWCB hope to get an earlier start on releasing the full 12,000 AF as fish water, on top of the three pools of fish water totaling 15,412.5 AF.
If they succeed, that could mean 27,412.5 AF of water could be released from Ruedi as fish water, and flows in the Fryingpan could again be in the range of 300 cfs.
Given the discussion of water in Ruedi, a lingering question is, how much of the other contract water can be turned into fish water?
Bob Rice, a contracts specialist at Reclamation, said some of the water in contracts held by the Colorado River District could potentially be used for fish water, but it is currently unlikely that they will be.
While other contracts may also include the flexibility for the water to be used for “piscatorial,” or fish, uses, almost all of the water held by other contract holders is limited to use within their individual jurisdictions, and not in the 15-mile reach. The 12,000 acre-feet owned by Ute Water is a rare case, as the 15-mile reach is within their boundary.
So while more contract water may not turn into fish water in the future, it is the case that a fair amount of contract water could also be released along with fish water, at the request of the owners of the water. And that could bring the river up.
Here’s the list of who owns water in Ruedi, by acre-feet.
Some entities have multiple contracts for water in Ruedi. In those instances, we have added up the AF in each contract and combined them and included the amount of AF in each contract in parenthesis.
Ownership of Water in Ruedi Reservoir
5,000 AF Colorado Water Conservation Board, for 15-mile reach
5,412.5 AF Colorado River District, for 15-mile reach
Subtotal: 10,412.5 AF
(5,000 AF) (CWCB, for 15-mile reach, available 4-out-of-5 years. It’s often used as fish water, but technically it is in the “reservoir water” pool).
12,000 AF Ute Water Conservancy District
11,413.5 AF Colorado River District (500, 530, 700, 4,683.5, 5,000)
6,000 AF Exxon Mobil Corp.
2,000 AF Colorado River District (tied to 5,412.5 fish water as “insurance” water)
1,790 AF Basalt Water Conservancy District (300, 490, 500, 500)
1,250 AF Battlement Mesa Metropolitan District
600 AF West Divide Water Conservancy District (100, 500)
550 AF City of Rifle (200, 350)
500 AF Town of Basalt (200, 300)
500 AF City of Glenwood Springs
500 AF Snowmass Water and Sanitation District
500 AF Town of Carbondale (250, 250)
400 AF Mid-Valley Metropolitan District (100, 300)
400 AF City of Aspen
400 AF Town of New Castle
400 AF Garfield County
330 AF Summit County
300 AF Town of Silt (83, 217)
200 AF Town of Palisade
185 AF Ruedi Water and Power Authority
150 AF Wildcat Ranch Association (50, 100)
140 AF Wildcat Reservoir Company
125 AF Town of DeBeque (25, 100)
100 AF Crown Mountain Park and Recreation District (38, 62)
100 AF W/J Metropolitan District
75 AF Town of Parachute
43 AF Starwood Water District
35 AF Thomas Bailey
30 AF Elk Wallow Ranch LLC
21 AF Owl Creek Meadows
20 AF Westbank Ranch Homeowners Association
15 AF Owl Creek Ranch Homeowners Association
15 AF Ted and Hilda Vaughan
Subtotal: 41,087.5 AF
28,000 AF replacement pool
21,778 AF recreation and remaining regulatory pool
1,032 AF inactive pool
63 AF dead pool
Sutotal: 50,873 AF
Here’s the release from Governor Hickenlooper’s office:
Gov. John Hickenlooper today formally endorsed the Windy Gap Firming Project, a water project that will serve cities and farmers on the northern Front Range as well as provide environmental benefits on the Western Slope.
The project expands the existing Windy Gap system built in the 1980s and includes the planned Chimney Hollow Reservoir southwest of Loveland to ensure more reliable supplies for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and other project participants. It also includes several protective measures for fish and waterways on the Western Slope.
“Northern Water and its many project partners have worked diligently, transparently and exhaustively in a collaborative public process that could stand as a model for a project of this nature,” Hickenlooper said. “This is precisely the kind of cooperative effort envisioned for a project to earn a state endorsement in Colorado’s Water Plan.”
The Windy Gap Firming Project has been in the process of obtaining federal, state and local permits and certifications since 2003, including the required Fish and Wildlife Mitigation Plan approved by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and, most recently, the Section 401 Water Quality Certification from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“Colorado moves the needle today with endorsement of a project that makes gains for the environment and water supply together,” said James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the agency that facilitated development of Colorado’s Water Plan. “Grand County, environmental stakeholders, and Northern Water set an excellent example of the collaboration necessary to achieve the bold measurable objectives of Colorado’s Water Plan and the Colorado and South Platte Basin Implementation Plans.”
“Northern Water worked closely with state biologists to ensure that impacts on streams and rivers – and the fish and wildlife that depend on them – were identified and addressed through mitigation for the benefit of the environment, wildlife and recreation,” said Bob Broscheid, director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “This was a thorough and unified process and shows what we can accomplish when we work together to reach shared goals.”
With necessary permits and certifications for the project in hand, Hickenlooper also today directed his staff to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the federal agency’s issuance of a Section 404 Permit, the final federal regulatory step for the project.
Here’s the release from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Brian Werner):
Chimney Hollow Reservoir close to reality
Today the State of Colorado officially endorsed the Windy Gap Firming Project and Chimney Hollow Reservoir.
John Stulp, Governor John Hickenlooper’s Water Policy Advisor, made the announcement at Northern Water’s Spring Water Users meeting in Loveland. Reading a letter signed by Gov. Hickenlooper, Stulp told the 200 attendees that this is the state of Colorado’s first endorsement of a water project under the Colorado Water Plan, which was finalized last November.
“Further, the WGFP aligns with the key elements of the Colorado Water Plan…” Hickenlooper wrote.
Hickenlooper continued, “Northern Water and its many project partners have worked diligently, transparently and exhaustively in a collaborative public process that could stand as a model for assessing, reviewing and developing a project of this nature.”
Northern Water’s Municipal Subdistrict President Dennis Yanchunas spoke for the project’s participants in saying, “It’s really exciting to have that endorsement, the first ever by the state.” [ed. emphasis mine] Colorado’s endorsement came on the heels of state water quality certification in late March.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued its 401 water quality certification for the Windy Gap Firming Project on March 25, bringing the project permitting process nearer to completion.
“This is the next to the last step in getting the project permitted,” said Project Manager Jeff Drager.
“The final step is the federal 404 wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which we believe will be forthcoming in the next few months.”
The state’s endorsement of the WGFP culminates 13 years of diligent effort and lengthy negotiations to permit and authorize a project that will assure a reliable water supply for more than 500,000 northern Front Range residents.
The federal permitting process began in 2003 under the National Environmental Policy Act. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation served as the lead federal agency and issued a final Environmental Impact Statement in 2011 and a Record of Decision in 2014 for Chimney Hollow Reservoir.
In addition, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission and Colorado Water Conservation Board approved a fish and wildlife mitigation plan in 2011. The following year the Grand County Commissioners issued a 1041 permit and reached an agreement with Northern Water’s Municipal Subdistrict on a mitigation and enhancement package.
A wide variety of organizations, including Trout Unlimited, support the CDPHE’s long-awaited ruling.
“This permit is another step toward fulfilling the Windy Gap Firming Project’s potential to be part of a balanced water supply strategy for Colorado Front Range,” said Drew Peternell, director of TU’s Colorado Water and Habitat Project.
“Through a balanced portfolio – including responsible supply projects like WGFP – along with stronger conservation and reuse programs and ag-urban water sharing — Colorado can meet its diverse water needs…” Peternell added.
The Windy Gap Firming Project is a collaboration of 12 Northern Front Range water providers and the Platte River Power Authority to improve the reliability of their Windy Gap water supplies. Windy Gap began delivering water in 1985.
The participants include 10 municipalities: Broomfield, Erie, Evans, Fort Lupton, Greeley, Lafayette, Longmont, Louisville, Loveland and Superior; two water districts: Central Weld County and Little Thompson; and one power provider: Platte River. They currently provide water to 500,000 people.
The current cost estimate for WGFP is $400 million. To date the participants have spent $15 million on associated permitting costs.
The Windy Gap Firming Project is one step closer to being more than just big dreams and big dollar signs. The project, which would allow for the construction of the Chimney Hollow Reservoir southwest of Loveland, received the first endorsement a water project has ever gotten from the state of Colorado.
John Stulp, special policy adviser for water to Gov. John Hickenlooper, read a letter from the governor at the Northern Water Spring Water Users meeting Wednesday at the Ranch in Loveland. In the letter, Hickenlooper applauded Northern Water for the Windy Gap Firming Project’s ability to bring communities together, protect fish and wildlife, and make Colorado’s water more sustainable, along with other ideals outlined in the Colorado Water Plan, which was adopted last November.
“Northern Water and its many project partners have worked diligently, transparently and exhaustively in a collaborative public process that could stand as a model for a project of this nature,” Hickenlooper said in a news release from his office. “This is precisely the kind of cooperative effort envisioned for a project to earn a state endorsement in Colorado’s Water Plan.”
While the endorsement from the state doesn’t advance the plan in earnest, it does give it credibility in the next and final step to getting its building permit completed.
“This is the next to the last step in getting the project permitted,” said Windy Gap Firming Project manager Jeff Drager in a release from Northern Water. “The final step is the federal 404 wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which we believe will be forthcoming in the next few months.”
When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considers the project for the permit, it will want to know if the state approves of it. Now, with an official recommendation from the governor, the path should be smoother for the Windy Gap Firming Project and the Chimney Hollow Reservoir, Stulp said.
“I think this (project) is being done right,” Stulp said. “Now, we have the state’s endorsement and I think that will inform the fed agencies, the Corps at this point, that this has got strong support in Colorado.”
The city of Greeley was one of the original six cities to invest in the existing Windy Gap Reservoir. Now, the city is a participant in the Windy Gap Firming Project. Once the Chimney Hollow reservoir is built, Greeley will receive 4,400 acre-feet of water per year. An acre-foot of water is roughly the equivalent of one football field filled with a foot of water — that’s almost 326,000 gallons of water, or more than 8,000 bathtubs full.
Evans, Fort Lupton and the Central Weld County Water District are also participants in the Windy Gap Firming Project.
The project is estimated to cost about $400 million and participants have thus far spent $15 million, according to the Northern Water release. The reservoir will store 90,000 acre-feet of water and will be located near Carter Lake and parts of Northern Water’s Colorado-Big Thompson Project.
The Windy Gap Firming Project’s participants are primarily municipalities, but also include two water districts and one power company. The purpose of the project is to create an alternative water source for cities and companies to purchase water from instead of resorting to tactics like buy-and-dry or competing with agricultural land for water resources.
During his presentation at the Northern Water Spring Water Users Meeting, Metropolitan State University of Denver professor Tom Cech talked population growth. He said right now, Colorado is home to more than 5 million people. By 2030, that number’s projected to rise to more than 7 million after having already grown about 30 percent since 1990. In the South Platte Basin alone, that kind of population growth will equal a shortage of about 410,000 acre-feet of water, or about 134 billion gallons. Between 133,000 and 226,000 acres of irrigated land in the South Platte River Basin are expected to dry up by 2030.
With the rapid population expansion and resulting urban sprawl happening in Colorado, projects like these are more important than ever, said Eric Wilkinson, Northern Water’s general manager.
“People need water and we’re going to grow. Obviously people like this area, people move to this area and people will continue to come and we have to find ways to provide that water supply,” Wilkinson said. “This is a good way of doing it.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper on Wednesday weighed in formally backing the long-delayed and controversial $400 million Windy Gap project to divert more water from the Colorado River to the booming Front Range.
Hickenlooper ordered state officials to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to obtain a final federal wetlands permit needed for work to begin. His endorsement is expected to aid that effort.
Northern Water would expand its existing river diversion system built in 1985 by installing a new reservoir southwest of Loveland to hold diverted Colorado River water. That 29 billion-gallon Chimney Hollow Reservoir would supply farmers and growing cities.
“This is the first time he has endorsed this project. We were certainly hoping for it. We were pleasantly surprised,” Northern Water spokesman Brian Werner said.
“This means that construction, starting in 2019, is a reality.”
Northern Water has been planning the project, working with state and federal officials on permits, since 2003. A mitigation plan, approved by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, lays out measures to protect fish and off-set environmental harm including altered river flows.
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials, responsible for ensuring water quality, signed off on March 25.
“Northern Water and its many project partners have worked diligently, transparently and exhaustively in a collaborative public process that could stand as a model for a project of this nature,” Hickenlooper said. “This is precisely the kind of cooperative effort envisioned for a project to earn a state endorsement in Colorado’s Water Plan.”
Front Range users would would siphon additional west-flowing water — up to 8.4 billion gallons a year — out of the Colorado River and pump it back eastward under the Continental Divide. That water, stored in the new reservoir, is expected to meet needs of 500,000 residents around Broomfield, Longmont, Loveland and Greeley.
Environment groups on Wednesday reacted with fury.
“This project will further drain and destroy the Colorado River and imperil endangered fish,” said Gary Wockner, director of Save the Colorado River. “We’ve registered 23 complaints with the Army Corps of Engineers. The federal government should deny the permit. This project is reckless.”
Colorado officials endorsed a long-sought water storage project that would include construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir southwest of Loveland.
Gov. John Hickenlooper on Wednesday voiced his support for the Windy Gap Firming Project, which would divert water from the Western Slope to the Front Range to shore up supplies for municipalities and farmers…
Participants in the water-storage project include Loveland, Longmont, Greeley, Broomfield, Platte River Power Authority and two water districts.
The project recently received a key water quality certification from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The certification is needed to receive a final permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build the project…
If the expected permits come through, final design on Chimney Hollow Reservoir would begin later this year with construction beginning in 2018-19, Werner said.
Chimney Hollow Reservoir would hold up to 90,000 acre feet of water. An acre foot is enough water to meet the annual needs of three to four urban households.
Larimer County would build and operate recreational facilities at the reservoir, which would be built west of Carter Lake. Carter Lake holds up to 112,000 acre feet of water.
The Windy Gap Firming Project has been under federal, state and local review since 2003. It has been challenged by environmentalists over the years because of its impact on the Colorado River’s ecosystem through increased water diversions.
In a recent email to the Coloradoan, the group Save the Colorado stated it would scrutinize the 404 permit decision from the Corps to ensure the project adheres to the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Supporters say the Windy Gap Firming includes measures that would mitigate its environmental impacts and protect fish, streams and water quality in Grand Lake and the Colorado River.
The project — formally called the Windy Gap Firming Project — calls for the construction of a new reservoir, called Chimney Hollow Reservoir southwest of Loveland. The reservoir will be designed to hold up to 90,000 acre feet of water, and reliably deliver about 30,000 acre feet of water every year, enough to support the needs of 60,000 families of four people.
It’s an expansion of the existing Windy Gap system built in the 1980s to divert water from the Colorado River to the Front Range. But the construction of a new reservoir is crucial, said Brian Werner, a spokesman for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the lead agency on the project.
Because of the Windy Gap project’s relatively junior water rights, water cannot be diverted in years when the snow pack is low. And during wet years, there’s not enough storage space in Lake Granby to store the Windy Gap water, which means it runs down the river.
“Windy Gap right now doesn’t have any firm yield,” Werner said, meaning that the system can’t be counted on to have water available for customers every single year.
“In wet years there’s no where to put it [the water], and in dry years there’s nothing to pump,” Werner said.
About 500,000 people live in the water districts that would be served by the Windy Gap Firming Project, including Broomfield, Lafayette, Louisville, Loveland, Erie and Evans. To date, the cost of planning and permitting the project has risen to $15 million, according to the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
And with population numbers expected to jump in coming years, this project and others will be needed to ensure there’s enough water for the communities to grow, Werner said.
The project’s leaders have worked on agreements to mitigate environmental impacts to protect fish, ensure stream protection and reduce water quality impacts to Grand Lake and the Colorado River.
Last month, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment this week released its final “401 water quality certification,” meaning that the state had signed off on the plans to mitigate the environmental impact of the project on the Upper Colorado River.
Trout Unlimited, said the conditions imposed by the state health department put the “threatened river and fishery on road to recovery.
“We firmly believe these permit conditions establish a strong health insurance policy for the Upper Colorado River,” said Mely Whiting, counsel for Trout Unlimited, in a statement.
It took a long time to get here. Click here to take a trip back in time through the Coyote Gulch “Windy Gap” category. Click here for posts from the older Coyote Gulch blog.
Moffat Collection System Project/Windy Gap Firming Project via the Boulder Daily Camera
Windy Gap and C-BT Granby area facilities
Windy Gap Reservoir
Windy Gap Reservoir
Site of proposed Chimney Hollow Reservoir — Windy Gap Firming Project via the Longmont Times-Call
Chimney Hollow Reservoir site
Chimney Hollow Reservoir site via the Bureau of Reclamation
Colorado fish biologists have been embroiled in a mystery surrounding Colorado’s native cutthroat trout.
For decades, biologists accepted that Colorado’s native cutthroat could be distinguished by their location: Greenbacks were east of the Continental Divide while Colorado River and Rio Grande cutthroat were in their namesake watersheds. This was important because the Colorado River and green back cutthroat are difficult to differentiate due to similar coloration and spotting.
Thought to be extinct by the 1930s, vestige greenback populations were discovered by biologists in the 1950s. Subsequent recovery efforts led to their down-listing from “endangered” to “threatened” in 1978. However, several years ago, researchers using innovative genetic technology, revealed half of these remnant greenback populations were actually Colorado River cutthroat trout.
This was a blow to recovery efforts since many of these populations were used to establish new populations. Spurred by the revelation, fish biologists tested cutthroat populations statewide and discovered that fish genetically-resembling greenbacks were numerous on the Western Slope, suggesting a possible deficiency in the genetic analyses.
At the time, genetic researchers were confident that their tests were reliable and thought the unexpected distributions of cutthroat could be reflecting the widespread sportfish stocking efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Colorado Parks & Wildlife, still wary of the findings, partnered with genetecists to develop a new genetic test to clarify the differences between our native cutthroats.
FISHING FOR INFORMATION
Fish taxonomists dug through historic federal and state records and accounts of fish stocking to develop a better understanding and a more detailed history of past events. Researchers also evaluated extensive museum collections of trout specimens assembled and preserved up to 150 years ago by explorers, before fish stocking was rampant. These historic specimens revealed that, prior to settlement, each major river basin had a distinct lineage of cutthroat trout.
It is now clear that Colorado historically had six – not three – distinct lineages of native cutthroat trout: Greenback cutthroat originated in the South Platte River; yellowfin cutthroat, thought to be indigenous only to Twin Lakes, actually inhabited cold waters throughout the Arkansas River basin; Rio Grande cutthroat continue to persist in their namesake watershed; a previously undescribed lineage existed in the San Juan River; and, two Colorado River cutthroat lineages were isolated in the Yamp/White and Upper Colorado watersheds. Historic fish stocking widely distributed fish, resulting in the inadvertent preservation of the greenback cutthroat outside of their native basin. Unfortunately, extensive searches for the descendants of yellowfin and San Juan cutthroat within and outside of their native drainages have failed.
Recovery efforts for our native cutthroat have always used what is considered to be the best science available. For a time, reintroduction efforts used fish that were not necessarily indigenous to the waters where they were introduced, but this increased the number of native cutthroat populations across Colorado, preserving the genetic diversity and resiliency of the species. As well, existing habitat was protected, rehabilitated and restored; and streams were secured from invasion by exotic fish species and disease. Now we are tasked with continuing these preservation efforts and expanding our unique remnat populations to ensure the legacy of Colorado’s cutthroat long into the future.
BASALT – Anglers, and almost certainly fish, can sense how much water is running down a river at any given time.
Last summer and fall, for example, some fly-fishermen who regularly wade in the Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir thought there was too much water flowing out of the reservoir, as the river was running at 275 to 300 cubic feet per second. At that level, the river can be hard to cross in places.
Flows were up in the Fryingpan last year because a record amount of water was being released from Ruedi for the benefit of the 400 or so remaining Colorado pikeminnow living in 15 miles of the Colorado River between Grand Junction and Palisade.
Yet there still wasn’t enough water in the river for the pikeminnow last summer, despite a total 24,412 acre-feet of water released from Ruedi and sent down the Fryingpan, Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers. The “fish water” sent out of Ruedi last summer and fall may have helped the native fish struggling to survive in the heavily depleted Colorado River, but it still wasn’t enough on many days in August, September and October to reach the target flow level of 1,240 cfs set by biologists.
The same water sent downstream to make ancient fish in the Colorado River happier made veteran anglers on the Fryingpan River crankier. A similar scenario may play out again this summer, as up to 27,412 acre-feet of “fish water” is poised to be released from Ruedi this year to benefit the fish in the Colorado. On its way down, the water could cause late summer and early fall flows to rise again in the Fryingpan to 250, 300 or 350 cfs.
“My perfect flow for the ‘Pan, where everything is gravy, dry-fly fishing is perfect, and older people can get around, is 220 cfs,” said Marty Joseph, manager of Frying Pan Anglers. “Three hundred cfs is on the high side, especially for the older guys.”
A big part of “wadability” is “crossability,” or whether someone can get across the river to fish a better hole without the water rising above their waist and sweeping them off their feet.
“There are a lot of spots on the river, especially where I like to fish, where its crossable at 250 cfs with a client,” Joseph said. “But at 300 cfs, you can’t cross at that same spot.”
Last year’s flow, especially the steady 300 cfs that ran down the ‘Pan in late September and early October, caught the attention of many of his regular clients.
“We do get most of our experienced guys at the end of season, and a lot of them are older, and a lot of them are very particular, and they’ve been coming here for 10 or 15 years, and then all of a sudden they see this hike in the flows, and they’re having trouble with that,” Joseph said.
At least 10 of his clients wrote letters to him complaining about the high flows, and those letters recently were sent to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which has a role in sending fish water out of Ruedi.
“We enjoyed our time at Taylor Creek cabins again this fall,” wrote one client to Frying Pan Anglers, “but, I should let you know that fishing was not very good attributed to the very high flows (300 cfs) in the Frying Pan (sic) River. These flows prevented us from wading in many areas of the river we are accustomed to fish. This was disappointing and frustrating.”
Frying Pan Anglers is one of the two larger fly-fishing guide services in Basalt. The other is Taylor Creek Fly Shops.
An economic analysis commissioned in 2014 by the Roaring Fork Conservancy found that anglers spend $3.3 million a year on fly-fishing trips to Basalt, factoring in their total spending from fishing equipment to guides to lodging.
A survey included with the analysis found that “wadeable flows on the river” was the second highest concern of visiting anglers after “insect hatches.” Of those surveyed, 37 percent said they would spend more days on the Fryingpan if the number of days when the river was flowing over 250 cfs was reduced.
But the flow levels out of Ruedi could be going up in the future.
There are three types of water released each summer and fall from Ruedi, a major storage reservoir for the Colorado River Basin opened in 1968 with a capacity of 102,373 acre feet. The first is a base flow, which in the absence of other water is 110 cfs. On top of that can be a fairly steady flow of “fish water” released at a rate that has varied over the last five years from 100 to 189 cfs. Last year, the flow rate of the fish water from Ruedi did not go above 175 cfs.
And on top of the layer of fish water can be a relatively thin layer of “contract water.” That’s water released in accordance with contracts the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which built the reservoir, has with 30 different owners. These pools of stored water are not often released, but the contracts do range from as little as 15 to much as 12,000 acre feet and collectively total 39,000 acre feet, so there is potential for significant future releases.
The dam manager working for the Bureau of Reclamation looks for the sweet spot on the Fryingpan and tries to deliver enough fish and contract water to meet demands while also keeping the river at a level that works for anglers. But that may be harder to do in the future, as there is more fish water than ever in Ruedi, and all of the available contract water has been sold, which means more people may call for it to be released, especially in the late summer and fall.
Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service value water in Ruedi because it only takes two days for it to get to the critical reach where the pikeminnows and other endangered fish enjoy “feeding, breeding and sheltering.”
Over the years, officials have developed a pool of 15,412.5 acre feet of fish water in Ruedi. Then last year, the Colorado Water Conservation Board gave Fish and Wildlife another pool of water by leasing 12,000 acre feet from Ute Water Conservancy District, a water provider in Grand Junction.
Ute Water bought 12,000 acre feet of water in Ruedi in 2013 for $15.6 million to use as a back-up supply. It’s the biggest pool of contract water in the reservoir. And rather than leave it there, Ute Water entered into a lease with the CWCB to use it as fish water in 2015.
The CWCB, in coordination with Fish and Wildlife, then released 9,000 acre feet of the 12,000 acre-foot pool in September and October. It would have released more if not for its self-imposed limitation of flows not to exceed 300 cfs.
Ute Water plans to lease 12,000 acre feet to the CWCB again this year to send down the Fryingpan River and on to the Colorado River to benefit the fish. Between the existing 15,412.5 acre feet of fish water in Ruedi, that could bring up releases to 27,412.5, which the ancient native fish might appreciate.
Big, old fish
The Colorado pikeminnow, which is considered an indicator species for ecosystem health in the 15-mile reach, “evolved as the main predator in the Colorado River system,” states a 1999 programmatic biological opinion, or PBO, that guides recovery efforts for the fish.
“It is an elongated pike-like fish that during predevelopment times may have grown as large as 6 feet in length and weighed nearly 100 pounds,” the PBO states.
One pikeminnow with a radio tag was tracked swimming up the Colorado River nearly 200 miles from Lake Powell to the 15-mile reach above Grand Junction between April and September 1982, a year of very high flows.
Another endangered fish, the humpback chub, likes to live in deep fast-moving water. About 1,800 to 1,900 wild native chub are still making a go of it in the Black Rocks and Westwater sections of the Colorado, downstream from Loma.
Two other species, the razorback sucker and bonytail, have had a tougher time over the years, although hatchery-bred suckers are now said to be doing fairly well.
Of AF and CFS
To make up for low flows in the Colorado where the fish live, a total of 1.3 million acre feet of water since 1998 has been sent downstream from regional reservoirs. Of that total, 329,032 acre feet came out of Ruedi and flowed down the Fryingpan. On its way, the water has apparently helped, not hurt, the trout stream, but it has compromised wadability.
Complaints about flow levels have been recognized in previous environmental reviews on the impacts of storing and releasing fish water in Ruedi. And the benchmark to try and hit was 250 cfs.
But a recent modeling effort by Colorado Parks and Wildlife suggested 300 cfs was also an acceptable wadability level, and that level was used last year to guide releases on the Fryingpan.
“We have done some surveys in the past, and using modeling, came up with 300 to 350 cfs is where you significantly lose wadablity in the river,” said Kendall Bakich, a wildlife aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “But angler experience is a little different than what a model can say, so that’s where that 300 target came from.”
But on March 21, after reading the letters to Frying Pan Anglers, officials from the CWCB and the Fish and Wildlife Service said at a meeting in El Jebel that they will try to keep releases to the 250 cfs level this summer.
“Our board said that staff should work with the Bureau of Reclamation and angling interests to try and accommodate to the extent practicable angling concerns so that releases of water under the water lease agreement shall not cause the flows to exceed 250 cfs,” said Ted Kowalski, a section chief of the CWCB, referring to the CWCB’s recent approval of renewing the lease with Ute Water for the 12,000 acre feet of water.
It’s not a firm cap, though, and if necessary to meet the goals of the endangered fish program, releases could go to 300 cfs, and the river to 350 cfs after tributary flow is factored in.
Joseph at Fryingpan Anglers said the fishing wasn’t bad at 300 cfs, and that experienced guides can still find good spots to wade with clients. But Joseph has his concerns.
“My worry is this year they say 300 is acceptable and next year it’s going to be 350, and two, four, five years, it is going to 400 cfs,” Joseph said. “They’re slowly just going to keep moving on it.”
That’s also a concern of some local officials.
“One of the fears that we’ve had from the very beginning here, and one these days it’s going to come true, its that the Fryingpan is going to be converted from a gold medal trout fishery, with a occasional high releases, to a sluiceway that does basically nothing but deliver water downstream,” said Mark Fuller, the director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, which recently sent comments on the issue to the CWCB.
Fuller and regional water managers understand the value of working to keep the endangered fish alive in order to avoid enforcement of the Endangered Species Act.
“The 500-pound gorilla in the room is the PBO,” said Larry Clever, general manager of Ute Water, referring to the 1999 programmatic biological opinion.
The PBO requires that progress be made on sustaining the endangered fish. If not, an extensive environmental reviews known as “section 7 consultations” may be required under the ESA for all new or improved water projects on the upper Colorado River system.
“If those four endangered fish don’t make it, everybody has a section 7, for everything,” Clever said. “And, oh, we did one on a pipeline expansion. It cost $2.4 million. If the PBO goes south, we’re all in trouble.”
The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program has been managing regional efforts to see what can be done for the fish both in the spring, when peak flows of at least 15,660 cfs are important to the fish, and in the late summer and early fall.
The goal is to stabilize populations through a variety of methods, including river flows, removing predatory non-native fish that eat young native fish and improving native fish passage around diversion dams.
As the 2016 runoff season approaches, water managers up and down the Colorado River are poised to again coordinate, via a weekly conference call, the release of fish water from reservoirs in the upper Colorado River basin.
They’ll do so for the sake of the remaining 400 adult Colorado pikeminnows, and their optimistic offspring, who desire at least 810 cfs of water in the fall, if it is a dry year, and 1,260 cfs if it is a normal year.
And for visiting anglers, they’ll also work to keep flows in the Fryingpan near 250 cfs.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Sunday, March 27, 2016.
Tuesday marked World Water Day, an observance by the United Nations of water issues impacting the world over that dates to the early- ’90s in order to inspire action. The country’s leading advocates for bird health, the National Audubon Society, piggybacked off the occasion to spread awareness about the importance of protecting important bird areas.
The nonprofit, focused on identifying and preserving the natural environments of these wildlife-of-the-sky since 1905, notes that almost 85 million people in the United States are amateur ornithologists, or bird watchers and photographers. But aside from aesthetics, birds are important because they can act as an indicator species.
“The lives of birds are very closely tied to water, and our own,” said Abby Burk, Audubon Rockies’ western rivers outreach specialist. “They’re the canary in a coal mine, and that’s what we’re looking at with birds and rivers.”
Habitat areas along the Colorado River Basin, where more than 400 species of bird make their homes, is a particular priority of Audubon. The Colorado River and its offshoots, which include seven states and support more than 35 million people, offer food, shelter and a migratory passageway for many of those species.
It’s why Colorado is a primary place of emphasis for Audubon. The organization, through its Western Rivers Action Network, swung its weight behind the release of the Colorado Water Plan this past November and is now concentrating on implementation of the first-of-its-kind policy for the state, hoping to secure funds for stream management and river restoration plans.
“Habitat is what’s so important,” said Jennifer Pitt, director of Audubon’s Colorado River Project. “When it’s missing or invaded, there’s something awry in how the river is being managed and how it creates natural habitats. Some species have become endangered in this region, like the southwestern willow flycatcher, and we correlate that status of the bird with the condition of our rivers.”
To assist in restoration efforts of these streamside, riparian zones — what are often referred to as “ribbons of green” because of the linear growth patterns of these forests and wetlands — Audubon asks that local citizens apply a couple conservation practices. The practices help both human and winged varieties.
First, water reduction techniques are as easy as shifting from Kentucky bluegrass lawns to native plants and low-water use landscapes. Estimates put savings of 12,000 gallons of water per 1,000-square-feet of space annually. Native plants also reduce the use of pesticides, providing improved sources of food for birds.
And then the organization asks that people support agriculture through efficiencies like water banking, a water management practice that forgoes the precious resource at points of the year and stores it for later use. Audubon also supports WaterSMART, a program from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that tries to establish collaborative partnerships to stretch water supplies to meet future demands.
“One of the biggest wrestling matches is water in the West,” said Burk. “Healthy flowing rivers, benefit all water uses and users. And when you protect water, you’re protecting a resource for a huge cross-section of wildlife.”
To some, protecting waterways merely for the sake of birds and other wildlife that greatly rely on vegetation that grows along rivers and streams is a hard sell. Which is why Burk emphasizes in so doing, people also sustain other environmental purposes, in addition to Colorado’s $9 billion recreation industry that substantially benefits the local economy.
And when it comes to birds, there’s also a considerable economic benefit from those amateur ornithologists, otherwise known as birders. In just 2011, almost 47 million Americans who participated and traveled to watch our feathered friends had a total financial impact of $107 billion nationally. So the rewards for maintaining birds’ lives is multifaceted, and once more, a measure of our own health and value of water sources used by all.
“When we having diminished or reduced numbers of birds, or less diversity present and abundance dwindling, we have to look at habitat,” said Burk. “It’s an indication of habitat for us, and the abundance of water and the quality of the ecosystem. Because if it’s broken, birds won’t be there.”
Barr Lake State Park photo via Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Southwestern Willow flycatcher
Sandhill Cranes in flight via Colorado Parks and Wildlife