Grand Water: Bypassing the Windy Gap

Lance Maggart
Grand Water
Lance Maggart/
Courtesy Photo |

Just a short ways west of Granby there’s a place where the once mighty Colorado River cut a deep groove through the ancient rock walls that surround Middle Park.

The small riparian valley that formed there over the eons funneled air currents from the surrounding mountaintops down into the valley. The pathway of the river formed a sort of channel for the air pushing it with greater and greater velocity eastward towards the continental divide and past the space carved into the rock by the river.

Today we know this place as the Windy Gap, and while the wind still howls through the trees clustered tightly along the riverbank the river itself struggles to overcome the impacts of human activity. Now local organizations are working to secure funding for a multi-million dollar project to address environmental concerns related to the river. The project is called the Windy Gap Bypass.

The Colorado River is designated as a gold medal fishery from the confluence of the Colorado and Fraser Rivers downstream to Troublesome Creek, just outside of Kremmling. That designation may be in jeopardy though as research and environmental studies indicate low levels of bug life and feeder fish in that section of the river.

“We have looked and looked,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife Aquatic Biologist John Ewitt, “But we do not find any sculpin in that section of the river, all the way to Gore Canyon.” Sculpin are a species of small fish trout rely heavily upon for food. Sculpin are highly sensitive to environmental impacts and sculpin levels are often used to gauge overall river health. Ewitt said he has also seen greatly reduced numbers of mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies, the three main species of flies trout feed on, in the area below the Windy Gap Reservoir.

The Colorado River, like the Fraser River, is a river that experiences a high percentage of diversions of its natural water flows. Those diversions environmentally impact the Colorado but according to local sources the degradation of the fisheries along the Colorado River have more to do with the effects of the Windy Gap Reservoir than diversions overall.

Kirk Klancke, President of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited and a Grand County native, explained. The Windy Gap Reservoir was built in the 1980s and was placed on the main stem of the Colorado River, a practice that rarely occurs anymore. The river itself flows into the reservoir from the east and flows out of the reservoir to the west over the Windy Gap spillway.

The reservoir causes the river to lose nearly all of its velocity and has allowed for a substantial buildup of sediment both in the reservoir and in the river downstream. Klancke said permits issued for reservoirs now typically require the reservoirs be built off channel so such impacts do not occur. Efforts to improve the health of the Colorado west of Granby have been in the works for over a decade now. The genesis of the project came from local landowners like Bud Isaacs. Back in 2000 Isaacs and former President of Trout Unlimited Tony Kay came together and began lobbying Northern Water about improving the health of the river. “Back in about 2000 Tony Kay and I decided we needed to do something to fix the problem,” Isaacs said. “The only thing we could figure was the problem was Windy Gap.”

Isaacs and other local landowners went to Northern Water, whose municipal sub district owns and operates the Windy Gap Reservoir and the Windy Gap Pump Plant, with the idea of a river bypass around the reservoir.

Those local landowners would eventually go on to form the Upper Colorado River Alliance (UCRA) to more formally promote projects to improve the health of the Colorado. “We are just trying to be an advocate for the river,” Isaacs said. “The river is abused by a lot of sources. We are a voice crying out, saying ‘you may have the water rights and may be able to transfer water, but you don’t have a right to kill the river.”

The Windy Gap Bypass project really started coming to fruition though when Northern Water began looking at expanding their water storage capabilities with the Windy Gap Firming Project (WGFP). The intention of the WGFP is to create storage space for water typically stored in Windy Gap Reservoir at a separate location. Northern Water intends to accomplish this by building the Chimney Hollow Reservoir.

When Northern Water approach Grand County government to begin the permitting process for the WGFP one of the conditions set for approval of a permit was the development of the Bypass project.

Jeff Drager with Northern Water talked about Northern Water’s position on the project. “We are convinced it (Windy Gap Bypass Project) will be an improvement and is worth doing,” Drager said. “It will be a bit of a disruption for our operation but if the river is healthier and fewer people are having concerns about the fishery that helps us.” So far Northern Water has already put in about 300,000 for environmental studies on the Colorado below Windy Gap. The municipal sub district has also put in upwards to $2 million to fund the project. The State has also committed around $2 million to the project.

The Bypass project is expected to cost roughly $9.6 million, according to former Grand County Manager and current contract employee on water issues, Lurline Underbrink-Curran. Curran said about $4.1 million in funding has already been secured for the project, with about $5 million in funding still outstanding. Preliminary engineering on the project is in development and is expected to be completed sometime this summer.

The project itself is simple enough in concept. Excavators will dig out a portion of the existing Windy Gap Reservoir and the dirt from those excavations will be used to build a berm inside the current area of the reservoir. The berm will create a smaller reservoir adjacent the Windy Gap Watchable Wildlife area and form a new channel for the Colorado River to flow through as it travels west.

Construction on the project is still waiting full funding.

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