$8 million aims to help mitigate river diversions

Nearly $8 million in federal funding will bolster efforts to offset impacts of transmountain diversions in the headwaters of the Colorado River Basin.

The Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has agreed to contribute $7.76 million from its Regional Conservation Partnership Program toward the Colorado River Headwaters Project, an effort to address water quantity and quality problems and deteriorated fish habitat as a result of diversion projects. This effort has come to involve interests on both sides of the Continental Divide as Front Range water entities have agreed to measures to offset the impacts of their diversion projects.

About two-thirds of the $7.76 million will go toward building a bypass channel around Windy Gap Reservoir in Grand County, connecting the Colorado River on either side so that the reservoir is turned from an in-channel to an off-channel reservoir. This will remove the reservoir dam as an impediment to fish travel along the river and result in cooler river temperatures beneficial to fish.

The remaining funds will go toward projects designed to both benefit fish and improve irrigator access to water farther downstream, near Kremmling.

The headwaters project is a response to the problems resulting from the fact that more than 60 percent the upper Colorado River’s flows are diverted to the other side of the Continental Divide. The projects the NRCS money will help fund are part of a larger effort to restore the upper Colorado River.

Other aspects include agreements with Denver Water and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District that include significant river protections and long-term monitoring and adaptive management aimed at ensuring the future health of the river. Both utilities agreed to fund river restoration projects under settlement agreements related to new diversion projects.

“That progress and collaboration is all the more remarkable coming after years of conflict between West Slope interests and conservation groups concerned about the health of the river, and Front Range water providers seeking to divert more water across the Divide,” Trout Unlimited and American Rivers said in a news release.

Trout Unlimited was the lead partner for the NRCS grant application.

“When fully implemented, the Headwaters Project will directly benefit more than 30 miles of the Colorado River and 4,500 acres of irrigated lands that provide sage grouse habitat and make available up to 11,000 acre-feet of water to improve the river during low-flow conditions,” the groups said in their release.

Drew Peternell, director of Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project, said the Windy Gap bypass project also received money from sources including the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Gates Family Foundation, and the downstream irrigation/fish project has received Colorado Water Conservation Board funding, in-kind contributions from other partners, and other sources of support.

Among other Headwaters Project partners are the Colorado River District, Middle Park Soil Conservation District, Grand County, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and a Kremmling-area irrigators group.

Peternell said the Windy Gap bypass will fix a problem resulting from the fact that the reservoir is fairly shallow, meaning the water warms up inside the impoundment, leading to the release of warm water downstream. It’s also heavily laden with sediment, which in the past has contributed to problems involving whirling disease in fish, he said.

The downstream irrigation project comes partly in response to the fact that the river channel is deepening.

“As ag producers we’re having to go deeper into the river to get this water,” said Paul Bruchez, who organized his neighboring landowners into the Kremmling irrigators group.

Part of the river channel is nearly 2 feet deeper than it historically was, thanks in part to a landowner’s decision in the early 1900s to shift the river into a more direct route that no longer followed a horseshoe-like path. Bruchez said that river deepening has been working its way upstream from that area at an accelerated rate, for unknown reasons.

With the channel deepening and water levels having dropped over the decades thanks to transmountain diversions, some irrigation pumps are now too high to draw from the river. The NRCS-funded project will allow for the installation of a number of artificial riffle areas in the river, raising the water levels to help enable irrigators to access water while also creating pools and other environments beneficial to fish. Some natural riffles along the river have disappeared over the decades, as upstream reservoirs have changed the nature of the river by eliminating large-volume seasonal flushes that help distribute sediments downstream. Sediment instead is building up to the detriment of fish habitat.

Bruchez said the 11,000 acre-feet of water that’s available to help with restoration efforts consists of water Grand County gained access to through agreements with Denver Water and Northern Water. The water can be released where partners decide it makes sense for environmental and agricultural uses. 

“We understand the resource concern and we’re all working together to try and handle it,” he said.


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