Bugs offer clues on #AnimasRiver health — #Colorado @TroutUnlimited

Macro Invertebrates via Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge Water Quality Research
Macro Invertebrates via Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge Water Quality Research

From Colorado Trout Unlimited (Randy Scholfield):

If you want some good clues about river health, check out the bug life.

Trout Unlimited, Mountain Studies Institute and partners today announced plans for a multi-year monitoring of the Animas River in southwest Colorado to gauge the overall health of the Animas River and whether the Gold King Mine spill in 2015 is impacting aquatic health in the world-class trout waters through Durango.

“We’re lucky that our community’s Gold Medal trout fishery wasn’t immediately damaged by the Gold King spill,” said Ty Churchwell, TU’s San Juan Mountains coordinator, in a release. “But long-term, it’s unclear what the effects of the spill might be. Trout Unlimited wants to make sure the aquatic health of the river—and specifically, its bug life—is closely monitored in coming months and years.”

Why look at bugs? Scott Roberts, aquatic biologist with MSI, pointed out that aquatic macroinvertebrate orders—such as mayflies, caddis and stoneflies—provide the foundation of the aquatic food chain, not just for trout but for a range of wildlife, from birds to mammals.

“Aquatic bugs are widely considered an excellent indicator of water quality,” said Roberts. “That’s because they live in the water column as well as river sediment. We’re going to learn a lot by seeing which bugs are doing well and which aren’t.”

Salmonflies (Pteronarcys), for instance, are present in the lower Animas watershed—a good sign because they are considered sensitive to pollution.

TU is committed to following up on the Animas spill in coming months and years and making sure the EPA and others in charge of cleanup don’t lose sight of the health of this amazing recreational fishery.

For more info, check out http://www.WeAreTheAnimas.com.

Vail’s Gore Creek looks pristine, but bug counters tell a different story — The Mountain Town News

Gore Creek is healthy as it emerges from the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area, but has problems soon after, via The Mountain Town News. All photos by Jack Affleck.
Gore Creek is healthy as it emerges from the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area, but has problems soon after, via The Mountain Town News. All photos by Jack Affleck.

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Gore Creek originates in splishes and splashes among tussocks of grass in the eponymously named range of 13,000-foot peaks in north-central Colorado. There, the water is as pure as the driven snow. Emerging from the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area, the creek passes a national forest campground, located along Interstate 70. Still, everything remains good, as attested by a profusion of bugs. Bugs provide food for fish, and what is a healthy stream, creek or river without fish?

Downstream as Gore Creek flows through Vail for 10 miles, it has a more checkered life. As the creek flows through lawns and parks and under city streets, the bug counts decline, not uniformly, but enough so that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in late 2011 put Gore Creek on a state list of impaired waters. It’s still supporting fish. Four miles of Gore Creek remain classified by the state as a gold medal trout fishery. But it’s not what it could be.

Gore Creek is not alone among waterways in mountain valleys that look pristine—but aren’t. Also listed on the impaired lists are segments of creeks and rivers at Breckenridge, Silverthorne, Aspen, Winter Park, and Telluride Colorado has 65 stream segments with impaired aquatic life because of high water temperatures, mining-related impacts or, as in the case of Vail and other mountain towns, the impacts of urbanization.

It’s a story of a thousand minor, seemingly innocuous cuts:

  • Lawns grown to the creek edge, kept in mint weed-free condition by the application of herbicides and pesticides.
  • Twin frontage roads and a four-lane interstate highway, altogether eight lanes of pavement in a narrow mountain valley, along with paved areas for bus stops, traffic roundabouts, and all the other impervious surfaces of a transportation system that, together, provide an expedited pathway for pollutants to the creek.
  • An ill-advised community stormwater system.
  • Even the most minor of infractions, the slop from solvents used to clean windows that can, from blocks away, eventually get into the creek.

But this is also a story about a community decision to confront the problem sooner, not later. The town council in March approved the first $2 million of what could ultimately be $9 million in actions to address urban stormwater runoff. Vail is an affluent resort community, yes, but also one that says that having a creek that doesn’t measure up, no matter how good it still looks, just is not OK.

This nexus between land use and water quality is something that state water officials see as an emerging area of understanding.

“It’s just so important to have that local dialogue about land use and water,” says Tammy Allen, restoration and protection utility manager with the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission.

The creek long ago was put into a channel to accommodate the golf course, highways and roads. Photo Jack Affleck via The Mountain Town News.
The creek long ago was put into a channel to accommodate the golf course, highways and roads. Photo Jack Affleck via The Mountain Town News.

The Gore Creek Action Plan identifies 27 immediate actions to be taken from a total of 217. Some actions have already begun. In cooperation with the Colorado Department of Transportation, plans are being readied to address the mass of impervious surfaces at the East Vail interchange. The town also plans to modify its snow dump, ironically created 20-plus years ago to avoid putting contaminants from plowed roads directly into the creek. For some reason, it’s not working as well as intended.

Then there are the manicured buffers along the creek, both along the parks and golf course. Can they be restored to more closely resemble what existed before in the riparian zones? On a cost-sharing basis, can those riparian areas of private property owners also be restored?

Education is a big part of the project. The town budget includes funding for a full-time employee during the next two years. The employee will be assigned to work with the community, advising residents how to adopt what are considered best-practices to avoid pollution of Gore Creek.

Yet other actions being launched are more tentative. What grounds does the town have for limiting how far property owners can mow the grass to water’s edge? What authority does the town government have to limit pesticide use on lawns and gardens?

A more familiar story of water pollution once existed in the nearby Eagle River, to which Gore Creek becomes tributary at Dowd Junction. Extensive mining had occurred between the towns of Minturn and Red Cliff beginning in the late 1870s. Extraction of zinc, lead, gold, and other minerals at the Eagle Mine continued until the late 1970s, but with a lingering legacy familiar to nearly all places of hard-rock mining: the orange water that results from contact with fractured sulphur-based rock faces. At one point, the Eagle River ran so orange that water drawn from the creek to make snow at Beaver Creek, located several miles downstream, had an orange hue.

Streets and other artificial impervious areas result in rapid runoff of pollutants into the creek. Photo via The Mountain Town News and Jack Affleck.
Streets and other artificial impervious areas result in rapid runoff of pollutants into the creek. Photo via The Mountain Town News and Jack Affleck.

The story of the Eagle River had turned around by the mid-1990s, thanks to the deep pockets of Viacom, the corporation that had swallowed the mining company – and took on its obligations— and the stick of the federal Superfund law. The Eagle River had fish again at Minturn. But just as they proclaimed success immediately below the abandoned mine, state wildlife biologists announced they had detected another problem. Shocking fish on the Eagle River at Edwards, about 10 miles downstream from both Vail and Minturn, they found disturbing evidence of declining sculpin and other fish. The problem, they said, was probably the result of urbanization in what had become known as the Vail Valley.

In Vail, both the Forest Service and the Town of Vail had conducted periodic sampling of insects in Gore Creek. There was an awareness of a problem. Then sampling of bugs along the creek was stepped up in 2008 as the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District prepared for new state regulations governing nutrients from wastewater treatment plants. The district maintains a plant in Vail, just below Lionshead.

Bracketing samples were taken up and down the creek: above and below the treatment plant, for example, and above and below the commercial area. This took time, but it also provided a clearer definition of problem areas. It also yielded a surprise: the area downstream from the treatment plan actually showed elevated counts of insect populations. Sewage effluent wasn’t the problem.

“What immediately struck us was that the creek was probably going to get listed as impaired, and it had nothing to do with the point source, the treatment plan,” says Linn Brooks, general manager of Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. Reduced bug counts were being found upstream, “and so they must have to do with urbanization of the town. We didn’t know exactly what it was when we started, but we knew it wasn’t the wastewater treatment plant.”

Riparian areas were crowded or completely eliminated as the town was developed. In this, Vail is hardly alone. Photo by Jack Affleck via The Mountain Town News.
Riparian areas were crowded or completely eliminated as the town was developed. In this, Vail is hardly alone. Photo by Jack Affleck via The Mountain Town News.

Driving all this was the Clean Water Act. Adopted by Congress in 1972 in response to outrages, such as the burning of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, the federal law was used to address the worst problems of point-source pollution. Examples include untreated sewage and pollutants released from factories into rivers and creeks. Administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, in the case of Colorado through the state government, the law has also been used to address the more prickly problems of urban and agriculture pollution.

In the late 1990s, the EPA began implementing the law and refining the implementation.

“Colorado mountain streams are generally in good shape,” says Karl Hermann, senior water quality analyst for the EPA Region 8 in Denver. “It’s typically mining impacts that cause water quality problems. But you do have this other situation of stormwater runoff that causes water quality problems. There’s a strong correlation with water quality problems and development, and typically stormwater is the cause of that.”

But confusing in Vail, and some other locations, was the lack of a clear trigger to explain problems. “If you just measured metals in Gore Creek, you would never suspect something is going on,” says Hermann.

One metric of stream health in Colorado’s high country is the state’s wildlife department’s specified listing for gold medal trout streams. Colorado has 322 miles, give or take. Included are the last four miles of Gore Creek, below the wastewater plant and before the creek flows into the Eagle.

The state in March added a 24-mile segment of the Colorado River while delisting a 19-mile stretch of the Blue River, from the northern edge of Silverthorne to Green Mountain Reservoir. The river segment has not met the criteria of gold medal water for production of trout for some time. Jon Ewert, an aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, pointed to the cumulative effects of unnatural stream flows, sparse aquatic invertebrate populations, low nutrient content, and degraded habitat.

Vail’s listing on the state’s 303-D list of impaired waters provoked community meetings. Dozens were eventually held. Key stakeholders—the town, the river district, the Forest Service, Vail Resorts, and C-DOT, among others—were engaged early on. Many were looking for a single cause, a smoking gun, that could be addressed. Some suggested the pine beetle epidemic was the problem. Others pointed the finger at I-70 and the use of mag chloride on roads.

“Everybody was hoping that we would have a silver bullet, just one, two or three things, that we could get done by 2013. But early on, it became apparent that this was death by a thousand cuts,” says Diane Johnson, communications officer for Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.

This revegetation project uses log cribbing to hold the bank of Gore Creek in place while the plants get established. The logs will slowly decay. Photo credit Jack Affleck via The Mountain Town News.
This revegetation project uses log cribbing to hold the bank of Gore Creek in place while the plants get established. The logs will slowly decay. Photo credit Jack Affleck via The Mountain Town News.

Vail’s problem can be seen as flip sides of the same equation. Pollutants have been created in the long, narrow valley that end up in the creek. It’s no one thing. That’s partly why the town’s action plan calls for just $2 million in spending at the outset, to give time to figure out what makes a difference.

In addition to the pollutants that end up in the creek, it’s also the pathways to the creek. Large impervious areas provide easy pathways for pollutants to go to the creek. But the creek itself has been extensively modified, mostly brazenly where it was channelized during the construction of I-70, now sandwiched by a frontage road and a golf course.

In many places in Vail, the creek’s messy riparian areas have been sheared, manicured lawns installed right to the water’s edge. This might have an aesthetic appeal, but those native riparian areas served a function.

Brooks, of Eagle River Water, calls the riparian area the creek’s immune system. Without that riparian area to filter and treat the water, pollutants directly enter the creek and impair the waters. This was part of the simplified message that she said had to be taken to the public.

Vail’s story, says Brooks, is not unlike stories occurring all over the country, including other resort areas of Colorado. They differ in some particulars. Aspen, for examples, doesn’t have an interstate highway paralleling it, nor does Telluride. They do, however, have urban impacts, too.

Where Vail stands out, she believes, is that the town was quick to react. “The political will was already there, and the science was already there.”

As this is fundamentally a land use issue, the onus is on Vail, the municipality, as it owns 40 percent of the streambanks. But a majority is in private ownership.

There was some pushback in Vail. Some thought C-DOT should have accepted greater responsibility. And at le ast one homeowner along Gore Creek protested that “bugs and beavers don’t pay taxes.” But that was not the dominant mood. There was, says Kristen Bertuglia, the town sustainability director, much less controversy than when Vail banned throw-away plastic grocery bags or mandated curbside recycling. Instead, the dominant response was “This is our creek; this is our home.”

As for the measures in the action plan, they’re not particularly novel. For the most part, says Bertuglia, they were picked out from the EPA’s watershed manual.

In the case of Vail, a community process was absolutely crucial, and it will be in other places, too, she says. “We don’t have a smoking gun, and they won’t either.”

That’s another way of saying that with urban runoff pollution, there’s no one guilty party, but everyone is part of the problem —and everyone has to be part of the solution. That’s a long, involved conversation to have.

Please support Allen’s journalism by subsribing to The Mountain Town News.

Happy(?) #EarthDay 2016 #ClimateChange

earthday2016

Click here to go to EarthDay.org to learn about opportunities and celebrations.

Map: Land and ocean temperature departure from average for March 2016. (NOAA NCEI)
Map: Land and ocean temperature departure from average for March 2016.
(NOAA NCEI)

SDS: #Colorado Springs councillors OK stormwater agreement with Pueblo County

Southern Delivery System map via Colorado Springs Utilities
Southern Delivery System map via Colorado Springs Utilities

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Billie Stanton Anleu):

The City Council committed Colorado Springs on Wednesday to spend more than $460 million over 20 years on a stormwater projects pact with Pueblo County.

The intergovernmental agreement, negotiated chiefly by Mayor John Suthers, is expected to resolve Fountain Creek stormwater problems for downstream residents and avert lawsuits threatened by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through the Department of Justice and by Pueblo County.

Further, the accord would allow Colorado Springs Utilities’ Southern Delivery System to start pumping water as scheduled on April 27.

Pueblo County officials threatened to rescind that $825 million project’s 1041 permit, which they issued in April 2009, if the city didn’t ante up enough guaranteed funding for stormwater projects.

The deal now hinges on a vote by Pueblo County’s three commissioners, set for 9 a.m. Monday.

Any delay of the SDS would reduce the worth of warrants on equipment and work while leaving four partner communities – Colorado Springs, Pueblo West, Fountain and Security – without the water deliveries they expect.

The council, meeting in special session Wednesday, didn’t hesitate to approve the pact. Only Councilwoman Helen Collins, a steadfast foe of government spending, dissented in the 8-1 vote.

The agreement calls for 71 stormwater projects to be completed by 2035. Engineers for Pueblo County and Colorado Springs chose the projects and will review them each year to allow for fluctuating priorities.

The money will be spent in five-year increments, at a rate of $100 million the first five years followed by $110 million, $120 million and $130 million. Any private developers’ projects or other efforts would be in addition to the promised amounts.

If the projects aren’t completed in time, the accord will be extended five years. And if Colorado Springs can’t come up with the money required, the city-owned Utilities will have to do so.

The agreement was tweaked slightly Wednesday, on request of the Pueblo County commissioners, to increase one miscalculated payment to a water district by $332, to add the word “dam” to references to a study of water-control options, and to add “and vegetation” to a clause about removing debris from Pueblo’s city levees. A clause was added to note that after the agreement expires, both sides agree to coordinate and cooperate with one another, as they always will be upstream-downstream neighbors.

“This is basically an investment in this city,” said water attorney David Robbins, a consulting lawyer for the council. “The stormwater facilities would have ultimately had to be built anyway. They benefit your citizens, not just the people downstream.”

Asked about the option for a dam, Robbins said, “It has been studied, studied again, and another study may add to our knowledge, but doesn’t require this city to contribute any more money. The dam would require moving two railroads and an interstate highway. Just the facility relocation costs make it quite expensive.”

Colorado Springs has failed to properly enforce drainage regulations, conduct adequate inspections, require enough infrastructure from developers or properly maintain and operate its stormwater controls, the EPA found during inspections in August.

The downstream victim has been Pueblo County, which saw Fountain Creek sediment increase at least 278-fold since the Waldo Canyon fire in 2012, degrading water quality and pushing water levels higher, Wright Water Engineers Inc. found during a study for the county last year.

Sediment increased from 90 to 25,075 tons a year, while water yields rose from 2,500 to 4,822 acre-feet, the engineers found.

As Colorado Springs development sprawls, the amount of impermeable pavement grows. So the city also is beefing up its long-underfunded Stormwater Division, increasing the staff of 28 to 58 full-time employees, mostly inspectors, and more than doubling the $3 million budget for compliance to about $7.1 million.

The city and Utilities negotiated for nearly a year with Pueblo County, as Colorado Springs has beefed up its stormwater program to fix the problems and fend off the threats of lawsuits.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The Pueblo Board of Water Works would like to see up-front bonding and longer term for an intergovernmental agreement between Pueblo County and Colorado Springs.

Still, it’s probably the best deal possible, the board agreed during comments on the proposed deal at Tuesday’s monthly meeting.

In February, the board provided its input with a resolution recommending certain actions to Pueblo County commissioners.

Colorado Springs City Council approved the deal Wednesday, while Pueblo County commissioners will meet on it Monday. It provides $460 million for stormwater projects over the next 20 years, triggers $50 million in payments over five years for Fountain Creek dams and adds $3 million to help dredge and maintain levees in Pueblo.

“One of the things we encouraged Colorado Springs to do was bond the projects up front,” said Nick Gradisar, president of the water board. “It would be to everyone’s advantage to do the projects sooner rather than later.”

Board member Tom Autobee said the agreement is comprehensive, but was uncertain about the 20-year timeline for improvements.

“What I’d like to see is to extend it beyond 20 years for the life of the project,” Autobee said. “We need to look at that.”

Board member Jim Gardner was assured by Gradisar that Pueblo County is guaranteed a voice in which projects are completed.

“They have a priority list and can’t switch unless both sides agree, as I understand it,” Gradisar said.

“This is a great opportunity to correct the issues,” said Mike Cafasso.

“What we said got listened to,” added Kevin McCarthy. “I think this is the best deal we’re going to get.”

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Colorado Springs won’t need the full use of the Southern Delivery System for years, but some can’t wait for the $825 million water pipeline to be turned on.

Pueblo County commissioners heard testimony supporting a proposed agreement with Colorado Springs designed to settle issues surrounding the City Council’s decision to abolish its stormwater enterprise after the county had incorporated it into conditions for a 1041 permit in 2009.

“One in five people in Pueblo County live in Pueblo West and are impacted by SDS,” said Jerry Martin, chairman of the Pueblo West metro board. “With the newest break, we will depend on SDS for a very long time.”

Pueblo West joined the SDS project as a costsaving alternative to a direct intake on the Arkansas River downstream of Pueblo Dam. It shared in the cost of permitting and building the pipeline.
Last summer, it used SDS when its own pipeline broke.

Pueblo West’s main supply comes from the South Outlet Works and crosses under the river. The new break is more severe, Martin explained.

An agreement reached last summer allows Pueblo West to use SDS before it is fully operational, and settled some lingering legal issues related to Pueblo West’s partnership in SDS.

Security Water and Sanitation District, located south of Colorado Springs, also needs SDS to go online before summer, said Roy Heald, general manager of the district.

“Security has an immediate need for water because there are emerging contaminant in our wells,” Heald said.

Seven of the district’s 25 wells into the Fountain Creek aquifer were found to be contaminated earlier this year. The solution is to blend water from the Arkansas River with the well water to dilute contaminants. Right now, Security gets enough water from the Fountain Valley Conduit to make its supply safe. But in summer, water demands will increase, Heald explained.

Larry Small, the executive director of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District, said the agreement paves the way for flood control projects seven years after the district was formed.

Small was on City Council when the stormwater enterprise was abolished on a 5-4 vote. He voted against eliminating the fee that was then in place. He was hired to run the Fountain Creek district two years later. The district has representatives from both Pueblo and El Paso counties.
The district was formed by the state Legislature out of concerns about the effect of El Paso County’s growth on Fountain Creek and the danger that is posed to Pueblo.

The $460 million for Colorado Springs stormwater projects over the next 20 years is needed to slow down Fountain Creek, but that doesn’t mean Pueblo would be protected. There are at least 18 projects south of Colorado Springs involving either detention ponds or dams that the district wants to get started on.

That process would get a kick start with $20 million in the next nine months if the agreement is approved by commissioners and Colorado Springs City Council in the next week. Three more payments of $10 million over the next three years would follow under terms of the 1041 agreement.

“This agreement says that we’re not just going to put something in place, but that we’re going to monitor it,” Small told commissioners. “It’s a cooperative, collaborative process. We don’t have to rely on rumors and innuendo.”

The city of Pueblo also would benefit from a potential $6 million in Fountain Creek dredging or levee maintenance projects that would cost the city only $1.2 million over the next three years. Pueblo Stormwater Director Jeff Bailey last week told The Pueblo Chieftain that the city has projects lined up, depending on how the funds are structured.

A separate $255,000 project to dredge between Colorado 47 and the Eighth Street bridge already is in the works. It would be funded by Pueblo County, the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, the Fountain Creek district and the state.

For Colorado Springs, SDS is a 40-year solution to provide water both for future growth and redundancy for the major water infrastructure it already has in place. Earlier comments to commissioners from Colorado Springs officials indicated only about 5 million gallons per day initially would flow through the SDS pipeline to El Paso County. It has a capacity of 75 million gallons per day.

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said warranties on the project kick in when testing on SDS is completed at the end of this month, however, so Colorado Springs also would like to see the pipeline up and running by next week.

EPA initiates lawsuit over Nelson Tunnel/Commodore Mine Waste Rock Pile Superfund Site

From The Denver Post (Kirk Mitchell):

The Environmental Protection Agency has sued a mining company operating in Mineral County in federal court to recoup hazardous waste cleanup costs.

The U.S. sued Coca Mines Inc. for cleanup of hazardous substances in the Nelson Tunnel and the Commodore Waste Rock Pile Superfund Site.

The superfund site is in the San Juan Mountains less than 2 miles from the town of Creede. Shafts were dug in a series of hard-rock silver mines operated between 1889 and the 1980s tapping the “Amethyst Vein.” Horizontal tunnels also were bored, including the Nelson Tunnel.

The Nelson Tunnel is partially collapsed but continues to drain acid runoff.

The Commodore Waste Rock Pile, just outside the entrance of the Nelson Tunnel, included a water conveyance system that failed around 1995, releasing mine waste containing heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, lead, manganese and zinc into West Willow Creek.

The creek flows into the Rio Grande River 4 miles below the site.

In 2008 and 2009, the EPA conducted waste removal studies at the waste pile site.

The EPA is now in the process of completing a feasibility study of remedial actions for the site.

Through June 30, 2015, the EPA incurred nearly $10 million in costs. Some of those costs were covered by the Asarco Environmental Trust.

The lawsuit says the discharge each day from the Nelson Tunnel into Willow Creek carries 375 pounds of zinc, 1.37 pounds of cadmium and 6.39 pounds of lead. Zinc levels have hit 25,000 parts per billion, hurting fish reproduction for more than 4 miles down to a confluence with the main stem of the Rio Grande, where dilution eases the impact.

Left Hand Creek restoration community meeting set for Tuesday — the Longmont Times-Call

From the Longmont Times-Call (John Fryar):

Boulder County and federal officials are inviting residents and owners of property along flood-damaged portions of Left Hand Creek west of U.S. 36 to a Tuesday night community meeting.

The meeting, set for 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Altona Grange, 9386 N. 39th St., will include updates about designs and plans for restoration projects on portions of the creek, as well as a construction time frame for those projects.

More information about county-sponsored flood-restoration programs for the streams and creeks damaged in September 2013 is available at http://www.bouldercounty.org/flood/creekrestoration/pages/default.aspx. People can also contact stream restoration project engineer Clarissa Hageman at 303-441-1610 or chageman@bouldercounty.org.

Map via Boulder County
Map via Boulder County

#ColoradoRiver: Windy Gap Firming project gets Gov. Hickenlooper’s endorsement #COWaterPlan #COriver

windygapparticipantmapnorthernwater

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.”

The Windy Gap Firming Project includes several measures to mitigate environmental impacts to protect fish, ensure stream protection, and reduce water quality impacts to Grand Lake and the Colorado River. These and other agreements were key to building support for the project across a spectrum of interests and for earning endorsement from the state. [ed. emphasis mine]

“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.

From The Greeley Tribune (Nikki Work):

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.

Governor Hickenlooper, John Salazar and John Stulp at the 2012 Drought Conference
Governor Hickenlooper, John Salazar and John Stulp at the 2012 Drought Conference

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.”

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

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.”

From the Fort Collins Coloradan (Kevin Duggan):

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…

Map from Northern Water via the Fort Collins Coloradoan.
Map from Northern Water via the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

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.

From the Denver Business Journal (Cathy Proctor):

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.