Federal environmental study could bring big changes to Three Lakes System | SkyHiNews.com

Federal environmental study could bring big changes to Three Lakes System

This file photo from 2011 shows Grand Lake at the point where water from Shadow Mountain Reservoir dumps into the lake. The upper photo shows a rare summer when no water was being pumped into the lake. The lower photo shows what Grand Lake looks like when pumping is ongoing.

Big changes could be coming to the Three Lakes region of northern Middle Park as the Federal Bureau of Reclamation and numerous local stakeholders initiate the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process looking at water quality in Grand Lake.

James Bishop, a spokesman for the Eastern Colorado Area Office of the Bureau, said the agency is, "considering modifying operation and/or features of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project to assist in improving Grand Lake water clarity."

The process involves 21 agencies from the federal, state and local levels, including Grand County government, while the process is being overseen from Reclamation's Eastern Colorado Area Office. Under the NEPA process, the various cooperating agencies will be collecting data regarding water quality within the Three Lakes, developing various strategies for addressing clarity issues, assessing environmental impacts from possible solutions, and issuing proposed actions.

"The NEPA process will yield a proposed action and alternatives," stated Bishop. "The NEPA process will include public scoping to identify issues and concerns associated with the proposed action."

Part of the process includes development of an environmental assessment to, "evaluate and disclose potential environmental effects associated with the proposed action and alternatives," Bishop stated.

Transparency with the public is a key factor in the NEPA process, said Geoffrey Elliott, a local NEPA consultant with Grand Environmental. Elliott is not working on the Grand Lake process but has an extensive background as a consultant working with multiple local entities such as Grand County Water and Sanitation, the Town of Fraser and Winter Park Resort on NEPA studies those entities went through for various projects.

"NEPA is a procedural law. It does not require a particular outcome, but government agencies must follow certain procedures," Elliott said. "NEPA was signed by Richard Nixon. The idea was to stop making stupid decisions. If it is out in the public and open we will make better decisions. In general, it has worked."

Much of the process, and the eventual decisions that will be made are formed from data collected on the lakes. "A large group of agencies and interested parties has been studying Grand Lake water clarity for about 10 years," Bishop stated. As such, there is a mountain of data available.

"I just looked at a data set on Northern Water's website. I looked only at Shadow Mountain and Grand Lake," said Elliott. "They had 63,000 entries between 2013 and 2016. These are massive data sets." Elliott explained that part of the NEPA process requires that data used to inform decisions must be made available to the public in.

"They are required to share the information in a way the public can understand it," he said. "These are federal waters and federal facilities and every single American has a tiny little piece of ownership of this stuff and we have a right to understand how it is managed."

How long the NEPA process will take depends on the alternative actions and solutions that are posited and the time needed to evaluate the environmental effects those proposals. "Reclamation intends to first prepare an environmental assessment to determine if a finding of 'no significant impact' is appropriate for the proposed action," Bishop said. "If the NEPA process identifies significant environmental effects associated with the proposed deferral action, Reclamation would be required to prepare an environmental impact statement selecting an alternative."

Bishop said a variety of different actions and proposals could result from the process, but noted that at this stage of the process "alternatives are not well defined." Modifications could include, "changes in timing, volumes and duration of pumping at the Farr Pump Station on Lake Granby," he said.

Other possible actions include, "aeration systems and mixers that either reduce algal production or increase clarity in Grand Lake. Structural features that bypass Shadow Mountain reservoir and/or Grand Lake may also be considered." Bishop added that any alternatives carried forward would need to, "preserve and maximize Colorado-Big Thompson Project benefits consistent with the exercise of established water rights, protection of aquatic life, protection of water quality in the Three Lakes System, Colorado-Big Thompson Project's primary purposes, and other Federal laws, regulations and policies."

For his part Elliott said he hopes the NEPA process will create, "a better understanding of how these lakes work and what we can do to get better water quality."