As we reported back in 2012, the long-simmering proposal has set off alarm bells among environmentalists, bird fanciers and many park users because it involves flooding more than 500 acres of the 5,378-acre park and raising the water level by twelve feet. Critics say that will wipe out groves of cottonwood trees, destroy bird habitat, wetlands and walleye spawning areas, and leave an unsightly “bathtub ring” of barren mud flats around the reservoir when water levels are low. The lawsuit claims that the Corps improperly evaluated the project’s impacts and dismissed a number of less damaging alternatives to the current plan.
Chatfield draws 1.6 million visitors a year and hosts 375 different species of birds — fourteen of which are listed as protected by state or federal authorities. Audubon’s attorneys contend that the project will cost the state around $3.4 million in lost park revenues, much of which is used to support less popular parks.
But the most intriguing claim in the suit has to do with whether the project will actually be of much use in boosting water storage for various agricultural and suburban interests. Several of the parties who initially signed on to the project, including the Parker Water and Sanitation District and the City of Brighton, have since dropped out and sought to meet water needs from other sources. Others, including the City of Aurora, “are trying to leave the project or have already left,” the complaint states.
The reason for all those defections? While the project claims an estimated 8,539 acre‐feet of water per year as its average yield, the estimated “dependable yield” is zero. While the project has been presented as a “restoration” of the South Platte, the Corps’ own studies predict that the river’s flows would actually decrease nine months out of twelve after the project’s completion and increase only one month of the year. Much of the water storage is allocated to junior rights holders and may be available only three years out of ten.
“It’s a bad deal for the public and for Colorado,” said Polly Reetz, conservation chairman of Denver Audubon, in an statement announcing the lawsuit.
But the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and the Colorado Water Conservation Board remain solid supporters of the project, and backers insist that the overall effect on Chatfield will be minimal. Denver Audubon and other environmental groups have said they would prefer to see more conservation measures and less drastic storage projects.
Federal water engineers on Thursday launched the long-planned and controversial Chatfield Reservoir water supply project, closing a deal with Colorado sponsors.
Audubon Society opponents filed a lawsuit in federal court trying to block construction.
A reallocation of the South Platte River water that is captured in the reservoir, created in 1975 for flood control, is expected to add 2.8 billion gallons a year to water supplies.
But the project will inundate 10 percent of the premier state park.
Col. Joel Cross, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Omaha district commander, signed an agreement with the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and the Colorado Water Conservation Board — clearing the way for state-supervised construction after 15 years of negotiation.
“This completes the study and gives approval to move forward. This is a huge milestone,” Army Corps of Engineers project manager Gwyn Jarrett said.
Colorado natural resources director Mike King on Oct. 6 signed for the state. Colorado water supply planners have estimated that, by 2050, the state’s population probably will grow to between 8.6 million and 10.3 million people, up from 5 million in 2010. Today’s water supplies are expected to fall short by 390,000 to 450,000 acre-feet.
“As we look to meet our state’s future water needs, taking advantage of existing infrastructure and maximizing yield from Chatfield is by far the most environmentally responsible option available,” King said.
“This project will not pull any additional water from the West Slope, and the environmental impacts can and will be mitigated through an aggressive plan to ensure that Chatfield remains a tremendous recreational and wildlife viewing site,” he said. “At the same time, the new project will provide additional water to the already stressed farms and communities along the South Platte.”
The 20,600 acre-feet of water stored in Chatfield Reservoir, located 25 miles southwest of downtown Denver, has been reallocated for municipal and industrial water supply along with other purposes, including agriculture, environmental restoration, recreation and improving fish habitat.
Federal engineers said using Chatfield to augment water supplies is better than building a new dam and reservoir elsewhere.
The plans say the water level will rise by up to 12 feet and the project will provide an average of 8,539 acre-feet of water (about 2.8 billion gallons) for municipal, industrial, environmental and agricultural use.
This will inundate 10 percent of the 5,378-acre Chatfield State Park, which draws 1.6 million visitors a year.
Lengthy reviews and negotiation among federal engineers, state officials and water users led to plans to mitigate adverse impacts.
The plans describe new habitat for birds and replacement of park structures and roadways. State officials said water providers purchasing storage space in the reservoir must place funds to pay for mitigation work in an escrow account before construction begins. And no new water can be stored until on-site recreational and environmental work is done.
The Army’s assistant secretary for civil works, Jo-Ellen Darcy, has deemed the Chatfield project “technically sound, environmentally acceptable and economically justified.”
Bird-watchers opposed it. Cottonwoods that serve as bird habitat likely will be lost.
The Audubon Society of Greater Denver this week filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court, arguing that federal authorities arbitrarily dismissed better alternatives and that the Clean Water Act allows only the least-damaging alternative. It argues that federal documents show the “dependable yield” of water from the project is zero and that project reviewers’ “segmentation” in evaluating impacts led to an improper analysis.
“They need to take another look at alternatives they dismissed,” Audubon Society member Gene Reetz said. “Everybody realizes that demands for water are growing. And, especially with climate change, water is going to be very short. We all have to get more serious about conservation.”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
The state of Colorado has signed an agreement to boost Front Range water storage, one of the things a growing chorus of Western Slope voices has been calling for to ease the demand for more transmountain diversions. Gov. John Hickenlooper on Friday announced the agreement between the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide for greater water storage at Chatfield Reservoir in Chatfield State Park. The action will result in an increase of up to 75 percent in storage for uses other than flood control.
It comes after Club 20’s board last month weighed in on an ongoing state water planning process by calling for measures including prioritizing “the storage of Front Range water on the Front Range.” That’s a position that also was endorsed earlier as part of a position paper on the state water plan that was signed by numerous headwaters counties, towns, water utilities and other entities. That paper specifically mentioned Chatfield as an example of such a project that could be undertaken.
The storage project announcement comes amid increasing Western Slope concern that the new state water plan will result in yet more transmountain diversion projects being pursued. In August, Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado sent Hickenlooper and Colorado Water Conservation Board director James Eklund a letter urging them to oppose any more diversions of water across the Continental Divide.
“The Western Slope in Colorado has no more water to give,” said the letter, signed by AGNC Chair Mike Samson, a Garfield County commissioner, and Vice Chair Jeff Eskelson, a Rio Blanco County commissioner.
It also was signed by former Western Slope state lawmakers Ron Teck and Jack Taylor, several local office holders in the region including Mesa County Commissioner John Justman, and ranching, energy and other business interests.
The AGNC refers to a letter from several Front Range water interests this spring calling for assurance that a new water project involving Colorado River water will be part of the state plan for meeting future needs.
“This would be too much of the same old story,” says the AGNC letter, which argues that for too long the thirst of the Front Range has been quenched “at the sacrifice of Western Slope communities.” It notes that western Colorado already provides more than 400,000 acre-feet of water a year to the Front Range.
Club 20 didn’t specifically oppose more diversions, but said the state plan should contain provisions including prioritizing municipal conservation, “including a statewide conservation goal and measurable outcome, and a higher goal for water providers that are using water supplies of statewide concern such as permanent dry-up of agricultural land and/or need a new transmountain diversion from the Colorado River basin.”
The idea of more Front Range storage of water originating there has received additional attention after last September’s Front Range flooding caused some to lament about water running downstream that might have been stored instead.
The Chatfield project has been in the planning and permitting stages for more than a decade, Hickenlooper’s office said in a news release.
“The Chatfield Reservoir Storage Reallocation Project will help farmers irrigate crops and assist communities working to replace limited groundwater with sustainable surface supplies. The project also has the benefit of storing more Front Range water and easing demand for water from the Western Slope. Importantly, as well, the project increases the capacity of an existing reservoir, reducing the impacts to the environment that could be associated with an entirely new reservoir site,” the news release said.
The state water plan principles endorsed by the headwaters jurisdictions don’t include outright opposition to more transmountain diversions, but lay out numerous conditions for more diversions occurring, including that existing diversion water first be “re-used to extinction to the extent allowed by law.”
Here’s the release from Governor Hickenlooper’s office:
Gov. John Hickenlooper announced today that the State of Colorado and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have signed an agreement that will provide for greater water storage – up to a 75 percent increase for uses other than flood control – at Chatfield Reservoir, a project in the planning and permitting stages for well over a decade and one securing important new water supplies for the Front Range and northeast Colorado.
The Chatfield Reservoir Storage Reallocation Project will help farmers irrigate crops and assist communities working to replace limited groundwater with sustainable surface supplies. The project also has the benefit of storing more Front Range water and easing demand for water from the Western Slope. Importantly, as well, the project increases the capacity of an existing reservoir, reducing the impacts to the environment that could be associated with an entirely new reservoir site.
Possible impacts that may occur from the project, located within the popular Chatfield State Park, will be mitigated to highest standards required by the Army Corps and State of Colorado. Water providers purchasing new storage space in the reservoir are required to mitigate impacts and to place funds for such mitigation in escrow before construction begins. Additionally, no new water will be stored until key on-site recreational and environmental mitigation milestones are complete.
With the signing of the storage agreement, the early phases of mitigation work can begin. The State of Colorado now has the ability to contract with water providers who wish to purchase space in the reservoir. The project will support agricultural partners including the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District and municipal partners, such as the Centennial Water and Sanitation District and other members of the South Metro Water Supply Authority.
The Army Corps of Engineers has approved an expansion of Chatfield Reservoir that will also bring some infrastructure improvements to the park, but patrons shouldn’t expect to see work done any time soon. According to Army Corps of Engineers project manager Gwyn Jarrett, it could be three to four years before work is underway and two to three years after that before it’s complete.
The project was approved in late May and has been in discussion since the mid-1990s. The expansion will add 20,600 acre feet of water capacity — which could raise water levels in the reservoir by 12 feet — for joint use, flood control and water conservation. The $183 million project will help supply water providers in the metro area and across the Front Range as population and demand increases.
“This project will meet a portion of the expected demand in Colorado,” Jarrett said. “It’s not going to solve the problem, but it will help with the growing population.”
Once construction does start, most of the work will be done in the off-season, but people can expect that certain portions of the park could be closed at times. Part of the construction will include improving some of the amenities at the park such as new recreation buildings, picnic tables, beach areas and bathhouses.
“A lot of amenities date back to the mid-to-late 1970s when the project was constructed,” Jarrett said.
Chatfield State Park manager Scott Roush said the park doesn’t have to do much to get ready for the construction, but his staff will be involved with the design process when that kicks off, possibly this fall.
Part of that discussion will include the marina, which may have to move because of the rising water levels.
Public feedback had not been all positive, as some organizations feel that this project will damage some environmental aspects of the park.
The plan will flood more than 500 acres of the park and inundate some cottonwood trees near the reservoir, destroying habitat for several species of birds.
“We initially thought at first that (the project) was fairly benign, but we didn’t know that it will do massive environmental damage on one of the largest parks in the metro area,” said Polly Reetz, conservation chairperson for the Audubon Society of Greater Denver.
Reetz had other problems with the plan, saying that increasing the capacity of the reservoir doesn’t guarantee more water. She was also displeased that the state passed legislation to permit loans to water providers in order to pay for the project.
Roush said that while they will lose some trees, some would be relocated to other parts of the park.
“There’s been a lot of feedback about the cottonwood trees. We’re going to lose some trees; they will come back eventually,” he said.
But Reetz said there is no guarantee that the trees will come back and she was surprised the corps went with the proposal, saying it was the most harmful environmentally.
“It’s a really bad deal for the public,” Reetz said. “This a premier state park, and it’s going to have the heart knocked right out of it.”
It’s been a long time coming, but we’re glad to see the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers give its blessing to a proposal to expand Chatfield Reservoir south of Denver.
The Chatfield Reallocation Project, as it’s officially called, would cost $184 million and raise the lake by 12 feet. There are a dozen participants in the project, including the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District in Greeley.
Without the approval of the Army Corps, the project wouldn’t move forward. But the Corps last week officially signed off on the plans, including its wildlife-mitigation efforts and other efforts to minimize the impacts of the project.
“It’s a major milestone,” said Randy Knutson, president of Central Colorado’s board of directors. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we at least have the needed approval now to do that work.”
One might wonder why Greeley-area farmers would be interested in a reservoir expansion project south of Denver. The reasons are complicated, but in essence the new Chatfield water will allow some groundwater wells in this part of the state to begin pumping again.
Central Colorado oversees two subdistricts providing augmentation water to farmers in the LaSalle and Gilcrest areas and other parts of south Weld.
For someone to legally pump water out of the ground in Colorado, most wells must have an approved augmentation plan to make up for depletions to the aquifer. But because of increasing water prices, some in the ag community — many in the Central Colorado’s boundaries — have struggled to find affordable water they can use for augmentation.
For example, the price of a unit of Colorado-Big Thompson Project water has more than doubled to over $20,000 per unit since January 2013.
Thousands of groundwater wells in the area have been curtailed or shut down in recent years, and the Chatfield project will help get some of those wells pumping. Through some water exchanges and trades, Chatfield will provide an additional 4,274 acre-feet of water annually to some of Central Colorado’s water users.
It’s not easy to get Army Corps approval for water storage projects. That’s a “big deal,” as Knutson says, to help irrigate thousands of acres in Weld County that have been dried up in recent years.
Water officials estimate it will be 2017 before the new Chatfield water can be used in northern Colorado, but nonetheless we join many farmers and Central Colorado water users in celebrating the news.
Here’s the release from the Corps of Engineers (Gwyn Jarrett/Eileen Williamson):
The Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, Jo-Ellen Darcy, approved the Chatfield Reservoir, Colorado, Storage Reallocation Project in a Record of Decision sent to the Omaha District on May 29.
In the accompanying memo, Darcy said, “The proposed reallocation project alternative is technically sound, environmentally acceptable and economically justified.”
The Omaha District released the final Feasibility Report and Environmental Impact Statement (FR/EIS) in July 2013, regarding the request from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources to evaluate using Chatfield Reservoir as a solution for meeting future Front Range water needs while balancing the health of Colorado’s rivers and streams.
Gwyn Jarrett, project manager said, “The Corps has worked with the Department of Natural Resources’ Water Conservation Board in Colorado, 15 water use districts, multiple interested stakeholders and non-governmental organizations, including environmental groups, through a highly collaborative process, which helped lead to the approval of this complex, comprehensive project.”
The feasibility report and environmental impact statement aligns with the guidelines of the National Environmental Policy Act, to ensure public input plays a major role in the decision making process and that impacts to wildlife, vegetation, ecosystems, water and air quality, flood control, cultural resources and other factors are properly mitigated.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Director of Civil Works, Steven L. Stockton, requested approval of the FR/EIS earlier this year. In his request, Stockton included an addendum to the report, which provides an update to project costs for Fiscal Year 2014, as well as a summary of public and agency comments on the Final FR/EIS, completed biological opinions related to the South Platte River and the Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse, and the finalized Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act Report.
On learning of the Record of Decision, Jarrett said, “The Corps worked with many outstanding agency and organization representatives on this project to assist the State of Colorado in meeting a portion of its growing water demand.”
The project will allocate 20,600 acre feet of storage in Chatfield Reservoir for municipal and industrial water supply and other purposes including agriculture, environmental restoration, and recreation and fishery habitat protection and enhancement.
By reallocating storage from the exclusive flood control pool into a joint conservation/flood control pool, the conservation pool level at Chatfield will increase by 12 feet, and provide an average of 8,539 acre feet of water per year for municipal and industrial use at less cost than other water supply alternatives.
Implementation of the pool rise and use of the reallocated storage will occur incrementally as recreational and environmental mitigation projects are completed. The reservoir operations plan will also be modified to reflect the changes.
In addition to water supply benefits, the FR/EIS states that flood control capabilities at Chatfield and within the Tri-Lakes system will not be affected. The pool raise and more frequent fluctuations in pool elevations will require significant modifications to relocate and replace existing recreation facilities, resources and project roads with new facilities and roads.
The plan includes expansive environmental mitigation to replace or compensate for habitat on Chatfield project lands inundated by the pool raise, including wetlands, bird habitat and habitat (including designated critical habitat) of the federally threatened Preble’s meadow jumping mouse. The selected plan includes up to five years of monitoring the environmental mitigation features and adaptive management to ensure mitigation success.
Associated costs including the updated cost of storage, water supply infrastructure, recreation area modifications and environmental mitigation will be funded at no cost to the Federal government.
A Southwest Colorado water district can expect $1,575,000 from the Legislature to help build a dam just off the La Plata River. It’s one of the few water projects statewide the Legislature is funding this year.
Long Hollow Reservoir, about five miles north of the New Mexico border, is being built to help farmers and ranchers in southwestern La Plata County keep water through the dry months, while at the same time letting the state meet its legal obligation to deliver water to New Mexico.
“Part of the reservoir would be for interstate compact compliance when Colorado has a difficult time making deliveries to New Mexico,” said Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwest Water Conservation District…
With the money from the state’s water projects fund, Long Hollow reservoir should be finished by fall, he said. Most of the money to build the reservoir was set aside when the Animas-La Plata Project was scaled down.
The Legislature’s annual water projects bill, House Bill 1333, often has something for water users all across the state. But this year, Long Hollow is the only construction project to get direct funding. The bill also makes up to $131 million in loans to two projects on Denver’s south side – an expansion of Chatfield Reservoir and a water-efficiency and reuse project in the southern suburbs.
The bill has passed the House on a 61-1 vote, and it is on track to pass the Senate early this week.