Battle for Colorado River finds common ground at Windy Gap

Collaboration instead of competition makes Granby's Colorado River Connectivity Channel Project a reality

“The Colorado River Connectivity Channel memorializes our willingness and ability to rebalance how we utilize and enjoy such a valuable resource in Colorado,” said Brad Wind, General Manager of Northern Water, which is heading the project. (Pictured left to right): Tony Kay, Past president of Trout Unlimited and founding member of the Upper Colorado River Alliance; Chad Isaacs, son of late Bud Isaacs, downstream land owner; Mely Whiting, Colorado Water Project Legal Counsel of Trout Unlimited and CRCC lead; Sen. Michael Bennet; Becky Mitchell, Director of Colorado Water Conservation Board; Merrit Linke, Grand County Commissioner.
Meg Soyars/Sky-Hi News

As lower flows in rivers mean higher stakes for the 40 million people who depend on Colorado River for survival, a project to reconnect the flow of the Colorado at Windy Gap Reservoir broke ground on Tuesday, August 23. Project stakeholders, Senator Michael Bennet, state officials, Grand County Commissioners and environmental groups convened at the Reservoir in Granby as the Colorado River Connectivity Channel Project, which has been two decades in the making, officially kicked off.

Reconnecting the River

The Connectivity Channel Project will move the reservoir’s existing southern embankment 300 yards, reducing the reservoir’s surface area by about 30%, allowing for a new channel and floodplain. This will reconnect the river upstream of the dam and downstream at the confluence of the Colorado and Fraser Rivers. Construction will be completed in the fall of 2024.

During the groundbreaking ceremony, individuals spearheading the project spoke to a crowd gathered beside the reservoir’s soon-to-be-realized channel. The speakers represented an unprecedented collaboration between diverse groups across Colorado, including: Grand County government, state entities, Trout Unlimited, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado River District and many more. Northern Water’s Municipal Subdistrict leads the project.

Brad Wind, Northern Water’s General Manger, told the crowd the project will improve “all the ecology that make high mountain streams important to the environment and to Colorado.”

Reconnecting the Colorado will allow for the free passage of fish and sediment, plus create around 50 acres of floodplain and riparian habitat, restoring stream health. The channel will provide over 1 additional mile of public fishing access for the Gold Medal trout fishery, an important benefit for Grand’s recreation industry. Lastly, the project will support additional restoration efforts, such as improving irrigation and aquatic habitat near Kremmling.

“When I….first heard about this project, there was a broad consensus we had to make the Upper Colorado flow freely again,” said Sen. Bennet. “There was a recognition from local leaders that this project was the linchpin of the Upper Colorado.”

This project’s benefit will ripple down to everyone who relies on the river. The Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah; the Lower Basin states of Nevada, Arizona and California; part of Mexico, and 30 federally recognized tribes depend on the Colorado River for drinking water, while over 5 million acres of farmland depend on it for irrigation.

The $31 million dollar project was bolstered through $14 million dollars in federal funding, which Bennet has been lobbying for at the capitol since 2016. (This $14 million is part of the government’s climate change and healthcare bill, which set aside $4 billion dollars to restore the Colorado.)

Bennet said the project represents “people setting aside differences, working together—environmental groups, sportsmen, businesses, water districts, and government from the local level to the federal level.” He added, “Today is a credit to your partnership, your perseverance and your commitment to restore the Colorado.”

History of Windy Gap

Those who stop by Windy Gap Reservoir to enjoy picturesque views of the water and wildlife, such as geese, otters, rabbits and elk, may not realize the essential function the reservoir holds to water users on the front range. 

In the 1970’s, the communities of Boulder, Estes Park, Fort Collins, Greeley, Longmont and Loveland were growing. Northern Water’s Municipal Subdistrict constructed Windy Gap Reservoir to address the area’s water needs. The reservoir, completed in 1985, spanned the entire length of the Colorado. Water is pumped from Windy Gap, traveling six miles of pipe to be stored in Lake Granby. From Lake Granby, the water then travels on to Grand Lake, through Adams Tunnel, over the Continental Divide, finally arriving to Front Range communities. Although these communities benefitted, the Colorado River paid a price for Windy Gap Reservoir.

Damming the Colorado at Windy Gap proved detrimental— it caused sediment buildup, raised water temperatures downstream, and resulted in the loss of aquatic insect species (including the total loss of the giant stonefly), sclupin and trout populations. The idea to reconnect the Colorado began in the late 1990s with naturalist Bud Issacs. Dismayed at the loss of aquatic life, Isaacs teamed up with Trout Unlimited to secure federal funding for the Connectivity Project. Grand County eagerly joined forces with the project.

“Grand County is fueled by two major industries, one of which is tourism—skiing, fishing and rafting. The second is agriculture,” said Grand County Commissioner Merrit Linke. “Both of those industries are critically sustained by a healthy Colorado River. This tremendous project benefits not only Grand County’s residents and visitors, but all the downstream users.”

Despite these benefits, the project never moved forward to receive federal funding.

“This project had gone through all these iterations and… it seemed like we’d gone through all the funding,” said Linke. “It was sitting on some desk somewhere, and paper needed to be pushed.”

But over the past few years, all eyes have turned to the Colorado River, a precious resource at risk of collapsing if those who depend on it don’t try to save it. A dangerous trifecta—climate change reducing snowmelt that feeds the Colorado River, a megadrought the west hasn’t experienced in 1,200 years, and an exploding population in an arid landscape—prompted many organizations to pursue the Connectivity Project this year.

A barren Windy Gap Reservoir on August 24, as the area is drained for construction of the connectivity channel.
Meg Soyars/Sky-Hi News

Windy Gap Firming Project

An essential facet of the Connectivity Project is its relation to the Windy Gap Firming Project. Shortly after Windy Gap’s construction, Northern Water realized this was an inefficient means for them to draw water from the Colorado River. Their rights are for 30,000 acre-feet annually. But during wet years, Lake Granby was too full to take this water for delivery to the Front Range, so it sat in Windy Gap. Other years, especially during recent drought, Lake Granby was too low for Northern to pump the water they needed. On top of this, the Front Range population was increasing. Northern Water began creating a better storage option.

“We have a growing state. Our individual families are growing and many around the globe are finding Colorado an attractive place to live,” said Brad Wind. “Not surprisingly, such growth is linked with increased water demand, which we must plan for in a thoughtful and balanced way. One of the tools necessary to plan for added population, in fact, is storage.”

Northern began construction on the Chimney Hollow Reservoir west of Loveland to ensure the reliability of, or make “firm,” its deliveries of Windy Gap water, even during drought. Instead of being stored in Lake Granby, water from Windy Gap will travel through Lake Granby, then over the Continental Divide, to be stored at Chimney Hollow instead.  

Environmental groups including the Upper Colorado River Watershed Group in Grand County, opposed the Firming Project, stating it would strain the already overtaxed Colorado River. They also questioned if water could be diverted to the Front Range if drought conditions worsen. Some groups waged a lawsuit against Northern; it was dropped when Northern pledged to support environmental programs.

Northern decided to add an essential benefit to the firming project, taking on the long-lost Colorado River Connectivity Project. Fast forward a year later—a diverse group of stakeholders from the East Slope and West Slope (previously at loggerheads) have come together restore the river.

“For the course of 25 years, I got to watch my father watch the fight between Northern and Trout Unlimited…. but over time, we’ve been able to bridge the gap,” Chad Isaacs, Bud’s son, told the crowd, which included representatives from Northern and TU sitting side by side. The Firming Project will move forward, while also helping the environment. Bud Isaacs, Windy Gap’s environmental rescuer, passed away this February, the same day stakeholders were convening in Granby to finalize reconnecting the Colorado.

“What we like to say about great men is that they can move mountains,” Isaacs said. “What we like to think about my dad, is he was able to move the Colorado River.”

Collaboration is key

The August 23 groundbreaking meeting was a testament to how partners with seemingly competing interests can come together. Through the Connectivity Project, they achieved a common goal that saves a natural resource while also saving the livelihood of those who depend on that resource.

During the groundbreaking ceremony, Bennet told the crowd that everyone who relies on the Colorado must “do what’s necessary to turn this beautiful basin and beautiful river over to the next generation of Americans and the next generation after that.”

“I hope they will look at this project as a model for type of the collaboration that’s required for us to turn something over that we’re really proud of,” he added.

As populations from both the Upper Basin and Lower Basin face future water reductions, or are currently in the midst of dealing with water reductions, there is still much to be done on the Colorado.

“More than ever, the future of the Colorado River is in doubt,” said Bennet. “Farmers are fallowing their fields, outfitters are wondering if they’ll have a business in five years, anglers are worried what lower fish stocks are going to mean, not only for the sport, but for their way of life.” 

The fight for water is far from over, but collaboration is key. Dennis Yanchunas, president of Northern Water’s Municipal Subdistrict, said that success is not always a given when a project involves many partners with a common objective but different underlying missions.

“But what this group brought to the table was trust and mutual respect,” Yanchunas said.  “That trust and mutual respect is a beacon of light in what is otherwise right now a very dark and foreboding time along the entire Colorado River. My request is, don’t let that light be extinguished.”

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