Gross Reservoir expansion gets one step closer to approval |

Gross Reservoir expansion gets one step closer to approval

In the one of the final steps in a bureaucratic journey that began 13 years ago, Governor John Hickenlooper formally approved a project that will triple the size of Gross Reservoir southwest of Boulder and increase the amount of water drained from the Fraser and Colorado Rivers for use on the Front Range.

In a letter to Denver Water CEO James Lochhead released on July 6, Hickenlooper endorsed the Moffat Collection System Project, calling it a key infrastructure project that will make public water supply more reliable and provide environmental benefits to the East and West Slope. Denver Water also released a video of the governor and other officials discussing the benefits of the project.

The Governor’s approval came in conjunction with the clearing of one of the final regulatory hurdles the project faced: A water quality certification from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment based on section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act.

Now, only final permits from the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are required for Denver Water to break ground on a project that will cost roughly $380 million and add 18,000-acre-feet of water per year to Denver Water’s current 350,000-acre-foot capacity.

The additional diversion through the existing Moffat Collection System will take water from the Williams Fork, Colorado, Fraser, and Blue Rivers.

Approval of the Project would also trigger several million dollars allotted toward addressing water quality and aquatic habitats in Grand County, but exactly how that money would be used is unclear. The environmental mitigation of the project is being conducted under the banner of “adaptive management” and “learning by doing.”

“Learning by doing means you don’t know what you’re doing,” said Gary Wockner, International Waterkeeper Alliance board member and director of Save the Colorado, an organization opposing the Moffat project. Wockner said the roughly $10 million allocated toward mitigating the effects of the additional diversions won’t be enough to prevent substantial ecological damage.

Current diversions through the Moffat system, the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, and the Windy Gap reservoir have already reduced the natural annual flow of the Colorado River by 80 percent. If new diversions in the Moffat project and the Windy Gap Firming Project, also endorsed by the governor and awaiting approval from the USACE, are approved, that number will jump to 90 percent, leading to what Wockner called the complete annihilation of a river system.

According to the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the project submitted to the USACE in April 2014, the overall impacts on rivers and streams in West Slope streams would be negligible, except for what the report calls “minor to moderate adverse impacts to fish and invertebrates in the upper Fraser River, most of the tributaries of the Fraser and Williams Fork rivers, and the Blue River downstream of Dillon Reservoir to Rock Creek.”

These effects would likely be due to increased temperatures in the water due to low flows, causing fish death and algae growth. The FEIS projects on average a 35 percent reduction in flows in the Fraser river during normal years and an 11 percent reduction in flows during dry years as a result of the project.

The driver behind both projects is a rapidly growing population in the city of Denver, nearly 2.8 percent between 2014 and 2015. Denver Water’s projections show a 34,000-acre-foot increase in demand by 2032, 16,000 of which will be addressed through conservation. The other 18,000 would come from the Moffat and Windy Gap projects.

But in 2014, Denver’s water use was the lowest it’s been since 1973, largely due to conservation efforts. Wockner said the Front Range can do a lot more to reduce use, rather than increasing diversions.

“It’s time to say stop,” he said. “This is a 19th century idea to dam rivers and run the water to cities. It’s the 21st century, we’re way smarter than this.”

If the project’s permit applications are approved by the USACE and FERC, Wockner said his organization would closely examine the decisions and consider challenging them in court.

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