Grand Water: Clearing things up in Grand Lake |

Grand Water: Clearing things up in Grand Lake

Lance Maggart
Grand Water
Lance Maggart/
Courtesy Photo |

At the core of all the issues we face with water there is an inescapable reality; it is a finite resource.

We can divert water over or under mountain ranges to areas with little moisture. We can store massive amounts of it in man-made reservoirs. We can attempt to stretch what we have as far as possible but in the end there is only so much water and more people being born does not mean more rain or snow falls from the sky.

Unfortunately beyond hopes and prayers there is little we can do to make the heavens open and provide us with the most essential element for life. So we are left to work with what is given to us. In by-gone years the competition for those water resources sparked violence and in some cases death.

Today the struggle over water is no less contentious but instead of armed ranchers, miners and farmers the fights are now conducted by lawyers, courts and commissions. The violent edge has been sheared off the conflicts, for now, but the stakes are still every bit as high. It is encouraging then to see competing interests in the water world come together and work to find solutions rather than litigate problems.

Today the struggle over water is no less contentious but instead of armed ranchers, miners and farmers the fights are now conducted by lawyers, courts and commissions.

Over the past year several entities with disparate interests in the Colorado River and Grand Lake have formed a loose partnership to lobby the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission (CWQCC) for a framework for water clarity standards for Grand Lake.

According to Lurline Underbrink-Curran, former Grand County Manager and current contract employee for Grand County on water issues, the group that presented the proposal to the CWQCC consists of: Northern Water, Grand County, the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, the Colorado River District, the Town of Grand Lake and the Grand Lake Shoreline Association.


Their proposal was presented to the CWQCC in Feb. and a hearing on the issue is scheduled for April 11 at 10:30 a.m. in the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s headquarters in Denver. During that hearing members of the public can appear and provide comments to the CWQCC on the proposal.

The Proposal

Esther Vincent, Water Quality Manger for Northern Water, roughly outlined the group’s proposal. The group is looking to delay implementation of a specific water clarity depth standard for the next five years as alternative water clarity standards are considered and processes for insuring clarity standards can be met are evaluated.

The proposal seeks to establish upper and lower brackets for clarity standards in Grand Lake with a proposed average of 3.8 meters and a proposed minimum clarity depth of 2.5 meters. Under the proposal the upper and lower limits on clarity standards would be goals to work for and not legally binding requirements to be met.

During that five-year proposed delay of the clarity standards the various entities that presented the proposal would enter into an adaptive management agreement, along with the Federal Bureau of Reclamation. The adaptive management agreement would allow the group to experiment with various options to improve water clarity in Grand Lake, with the goal of not disrupting cross-basin water diversions to the Front Range.

“Experimentation is what adaptive management is all about,” said Underbrink-Curran. “We can run scenarios and see; should we try this, should we try that. We may have some fits and starts but it gives us time and time is what we need.

Mitigating environmental impacts in the three lakes region

“This set of water bodies (Grand Lake, Shadow Mountain Lake and Granby Reservoir) is so complicated,” she said. “They have different run offs at different times of year, they have different temps and different water deliveries. We hope to better predict and better operate the system.”

To say that water clarity in Grand Lake is a complicated issue is an understatement. Grand Lake is picturesque and Colorado’s largest natural body of water, but the lake also serves as the terminus for western slope water before heading through the Alva B. Adams Tunnel to the Front Range. The water that moves through Grand Lake supports major urban and suburban populations east of the continental divide as part of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.

Pumping Water

To insure enough water can be provided to those populations throughout the year reservoirs were developed to store water. Because the reservoirs used to store water are downstream from Grand Lake, Northern Water, which oversees the diversion process, uses pumping plants to move water back into Grand Lake so it can be transferred through the tunnel.

The water that is pumped into Grand Lake moves into that body of water through a channel from Shadow Mountain Lake. Shadow Mountain Lake is quite shallow, never reaching more than a few feet deep. If the water within Shadow Mountain Lake is not moving, being pumped into Grand Lake, the water warms quickly in the summer months and becomes a haven for the development of algae.

Pumping water from Shadow Mountain Lake into Grand Lake negatively impacts the clarity of Grand Lake though. To reduce those adverse impacts pumping from Shadow Mountain is sometimes paused. This pausing of the pumping system causes the water to become relatively stagnant and algae to develop more easily; which further diminishes clarity in Grand Lake when pumping resumes.

Clarity problems for Grand Lake are derived from this dynamic and solutions are difficult to develop let alone implement. But with entities such as Grand County and Northern Water presenting a united front in their efforts to address clarity concerns in Grand Lake there’s reason to be optimistic.

The groups that submitted the water clarity standard delay proposal to the CWQCC are hopeful their plan will be approved. They are optimistic that by coming to the CWQCC together the Commission will recognize the broad support the proposal has among the stakeholder groups of the upper Colorado River.

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