Firming projects to be weighted together | SkyHiNews.com

Firming projects to be weighted together

Tonya Bina
Sky-Hi News
Grand County, CO Colorado

By Tonya Bina

Sky-HI News

The Windy Gap and Moffat Tunnel firming projects won’t be considered in their own, individual vacuums, West Slope citizens learned last week during a Colorado Division of Wildlife public hearing on the Windy Gap Firming Project being proposed by the Subdistrict of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

The news that Colorado’s largest utility companies Denver Water and Northern would be working together to manage impacts of their respective firming projects was a small victory for West Slope residents, who’ve feared either project could be approved without factoring in river depletions from the other.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife is charged with working with each water provider to “create a healthy system downstream of Windy Gap,” said Ken Kehmeier, the Division of Wildlife’s senior biologist of northeast Colorado, speaking of the threatened upper Colorado River. “We hope the workshops with stakeholders can be a give and take, to come up with the most viable plan we can for the river.”

The Wildlife Commission, an 11-member board appointed by the governor, is presently hosting public meetings to gather information on what the river impacts are and would be, along with the Division’s own evaluation of river health and the data provided in Draft Environmental Impact Statements of both projects.

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The commission will then work with both Northern and Denver to come up with potential solutions – accepted by all parties – on how to protect river health.

Most or all of an adaptive management plan could become a caveat to federal permitting of water projects, Kehmeier said.

If the state – through the Division of Wildlife Commission and the Colorado Water Conservation Board – doesn’t agree the solution plan adequately addresses possible river impacts, it could “end up on the Governor’s desk for final say,” he said.

“We need to be very diligent and thoughtful about what we put together,” said John Singletary, a Pueblo rancher and one of three Wildlife Commissioners who were present at the SilverCreek Convention Center in Granby on Oct. 28, “because too often in Colorado’s past, mistakes were made that can’t be corrected. And so I hope we are very diligent … I for one am delighted to hear the Northern District and Denver are going to work together on this thing, because I don’t know how we could ever make a decision on the future of the Colorado River without having that … The Colorado is a special place, and if we don’t treat this right, this will truly be the river of no return.”

Representatives from both Northern and Denver say the pledge to approach river health jointly is simply a continuation of what the agencies have already been doing.

In April of 2009, Denver and Northern proposed a list of cooperative measures to enhance stream flows, water supplies, water quality and aquatic habitat on the Western Slope. The offerings in the joint proposal were considered a positive shift in how influential water utilities might work with the West Slope during efforts to gain federal approval to firm up more water for delivery to the other side of the Divide.

With both water projects aimed at Grand County resources, Grand County is “standing at a pivotal time,” said Grand County Manager Lurline Underbrink Curran. As much as “65 percent of native flows are going to the Front Range, and if the two projects move forward, it will be 85 percent,” she said. She encouraged Wildlife Commissioners to review data in the county’s $1 million Stream Management Plan, which evaluates river health based on fish life cycles and habitat.

Northern’s Windy Gap Firming Project Manager Jeff Drager maintains that the “accumulative impacts” of the two projects already have been addressed in the district’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement and in the joint proposal of April 2009.

But if working with Denver on the DOW’s plan “alleviates the fears from West Slope friends, then we’re fine with it,” he said.

“Maybe this finally lets people realize that we are trying to work together to address the issues.”

At a recent public meeting in Las Animas, the Wildlife Commission voiced concerns on its ability to make a ruling on one project without the other. “It became pretty apparent to the state and to Northern that it would make sense to do it simultaneously with Denver’s,” Drager said.

Northern anticipates its Final Environmental Impact Statement will be released by this January, and Denver Water is planning for a mid-2011 release of its Moffat Final EIS, presently under review by the Army Corps of Engineers.

At its public meeting in Grand County, before individuals went to the microphone for the chance to voice their views, the Colorado Division of Wildlife presented its own data of East and West Slope impacts along with data from the Windy Gap draft EIS.

The DOW highlighted a long list of river threats, such as decreases in trout populations, increased water temperatures, reduction in flows and decreases in fish food such as stoneflies and mayflies below Windy Gap, increased sedimentation, lower levels in Granby Reservoir and increased nutrient loading in Granby and Shadow Mountain reservoirs and Grand Lake. With the firming projects, the impacts would also affect kayaking and rafting on the Colorado River, create limited access to boat ramps on locations of Lake Granby, and create a detriment to fishing guide businesses – all hurting the local economy.

The Northern District is not yet convinced that the problems with the fishery in the Colorado River are solely caused by lack of flows, Drager said on Monday, listing possible other sources such as development on the West Slope, increased waste-water plant discharges, sediment captured at the Windy Gap dam, and drought.

“The bottom line is, we don’t have enough water in our rivers,” said Fraser resident Katie Soles, one of many West Slope citizens who stood before Wildlife Commissioners.

“You have a legacy ahead of you with some tough decisions and some big players to face up to. So I wish you well, and that you do your best to protect our ecosystem here in Grand County.”

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