Grand County: Windy Gap Firming proposal ‘illegal’
January 15, 2009
In its countless pages of written comments dated Dec. 29, 2008, Grand County, Colorado, plays hardball against the proposed Windy Gap Firming Project.
Regarding the water project, which would take additional Colorado River water across the Continental Divide for use by cities and utilities on the northern Front Range, Grand County calls the Northern Colorado Water Conservation Municipal Subdistrict’s proposal “illegal.”
“An illegal alternative is not a reasonable alternative,” states a line out of comments prepared for Grand County by a team of water rights experts, water attorneys, water engineers, National Environmental Policy Act specialists and water scientists.
The county backed its comments with citations from Supreme Court and state water cases.
The county maintains that the Windy Gap Firming Project cannot be decided in a vacuum without including the federal water-delivery system that will enable it ” the Colorado-Big Thompson Project (C-BT) that incorporates Grand County’s “Great Lakes.”
Grand County is opposed to the Subdistrict’s proposal to store municipal water in Granby Reservoir as well as “federal” C-BT water in a proposed Front Range reservoir built near Carter Lake called “Chimney Hollow.” These measures are known as pre-positioning.
“You can’t store C-BT water in a non-C-BT facility,” said Grand County Manager Lurline Underbrink Curran, “and Chimney Hollow is not a C-BT facility. It’s our opinion that Senate Document 80 must be amended.”
That would require an act of Congress, according to the county.
Senate Document 80 was ratified by President Roosevelt and the U.S. Congress in 1937, in effect approving the trans-basin diversion project that would deliver water to the northern Front Range for agricultural use, and later, municipal and utility use.
Today the project supplies water to 29 cities and towns, 620,000 irrigated acres and a population of 725,000 people.
A different view
But the Northern Colorado Water Conservency District, the water-delivery agency, disagrees with the county’s assessment that pre-positioning water is illegal.
“We disagree,” said Northern spokesperson Brian Werner, who said he just received Grand County’s comments the day prior. “The bureau has stated and has told Grand County that they have the authority to do pre-positioning; they have the legal standing to do so.”
Senate Document 80 outlines five “primary purposes” of the project’s operation. The purposes highlight “conditions of river flow,” preserving “vested and future rights in irrigation,” and preserving “fishing and recreational facilities and the scenic attractions of Grand Lake, the Colorado River and the Rocky Mountain National Park.”
“The clarity of Grand Lake (Colorado’s largest natural lake made part of the C-BT system) has diminished 70 percent since the project was enacted,” Underbrink Curran said.
Grand County’s DEIS comments cite other impacts such as insufficient flows for irrigators on the Colorado River, insufficient flows for Hot Sulphur Springs pumping for the public water system and a list of threats to fisheries and river habitats.
“We believe that the carriage facility, the C-BT facility, has some major problems, and that needs to be addressed before future water is carried through the project,” Underbrink Curran said, referring to firmed Windy Gap water. “We believe it’s the Bureau’s (of Reclamation’s) responsibility to fix them.”
To that, Werner said, Grand County is venturing onto a “slippery slope.”
“Who’s responsible for past wrongs? And who decides what’s wrong?” he said,
adding that the Bureau’s C-BT system was part of the baseline modeling when Windy Gap was originally constructed.
The Bureau is performing a balancing act as both the agency that owns the C-BT system and the agency that is overseeing the Windy Gap project’s NEPA process.
Fundamentally, the county takes issue to modeling and figures used in the DEIS to reflect current and future river flows.
Modeling reflects monthly averages converted to daily averages.
“This is too important of a decision to be made with blinders on,” Underbrink Currant said. “You can’t use monthly averages in our most critical period. … Fish can’t hold their breath all day and they can’t wait for that monthly average to be OK.”
Grand County also maintains that it has permitting authority over a possible change to the Windy Gap system, as it did when the system was originally permitted in the 1980s.
“We’re not buiding anything in Grand County, it’s an existing project,” Northern’s Werner countered. “Obviously, there will need to be more discussion on that.”
Grand County officials said the county stands at a pivotal position regarding water use, referring to it as: “A perfect storm.”
Not only is it involved in Windy Gap Firming process, Grand County sits on a hornet’s nest of possible water deals, with Northern included, that could impact Grand County stream systems. Colorado River Basin negotiations regarding 10,825 acre-feet of water to a 15-mile reach above Grand Junction to help endangered fish recovery, a pending Moffat Tunnel Firming Project that will require more Denver Water diversions out of Grand County rivers, Colorado River Wild and Scenic designation processes and the county’s own Stream Management Plan are among them.
Both Northern and the county acknowledge that key players are working together more than in the past, and the entire West Slope is watching Grand County closely to see what precedence may emerge.
“We have at least a willingness by those in control (East Slope diverters) saying ‘maybe’ we could figure something out,” Underbrink Curran said. “That ‘maybe’ is big, but we’ve never had a ‘maybe’ before. We’ve always had a ‘no.'”
Water negotiations feel “positive,” she said, but with no concrete results as of yet.
“If none of that works, if none of that comes into fruition, then yes, we have to be prepared for litigation,” Underbrink Curran said.
“It’s the most complicated thing I’ve ever been engaged in, and commissioners have been so proactive that little ol’ Grand County is sitting in the eye of the storm,” she said.
“But we’re doing everything we can to have a positive outcome, whatever that may be.”
” Tonya Bina can be reached at 887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.