Wildlife Commission approves mitigation plans for diversions on upper Colorado River

Jim Creek, a headwater tributary to the Colorado River, is barely a trickle because its flows are taken by Denver Water for its customers on the Front Range. Denver Water is proposing to take an additional 18,000 acre feet per year from the upper Colorado River Basin.

The late, lamented Colorado River.

Sounds strange in this year of neck-deep snows and waist-deep floods.

But even high water isn’t enough to save the Colorado.

For that, you’ll need deep pockets.

When the Colorado Wildlife Commission on Thursday reluctantly approved mitigation and enhancement plans for two proposed water diversions on the upper Colorado River, the word heard most often was “money.”

Money for mitigation from expected impacts to a river already 60 percent depleted and money for enhancements to fix a river broken by decades of trans-mountain water diversions.

The projects are the Windy Gap Firming Project, proposed by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, and the Moffat Collection System Project, proposed by Denver Water.

Both of these are firming projects, meaning the agencies are guaranteeing reliable water supplies for Front Range consumers under existing water rights.

Mitigation must be provided for future impacts but there’s no requirement to fix what’s already broken.

However, in the face of immense public outrage at what some opponents are saying is the death knell of this once-great river, both agencies have set aside money to address past wrongs.

Those of us living near the end of the Colorado River spigot don’t see all the impacts of losing basin-top water to the Front Range.

But people in the upper reaches of the Fraser and Williams Fork rivers, major tributaries to the Colorado where most of the diversions are occurring, have seen their streams dry up with all the accompanying impacts.

And anglers and landowners downstream of Windy Gap Reservoir have seen trout populations depleted, irrigation water hard to come by and wetlands disappear.

The two water projects are expected to draw another 20 percent of the native flows from the Colorado River.

Which means, when the firming projects are online, nearly 80 percent of the upper Colorado River will be flowing east, toward money.

Time and space don’t allow a complete description of the plans submitted Thursday to the Colorado Wildlife Commission, but in response to the criticism the two agencies have attempted to offset low flows and resultant high water temperatures at critical times.

Additionally, both Northern and Denver Water agreed to fund a $4.5 million Colorado River restoration project and also set aside $600,000 each as an “insurance fund” to address any future mitigation requirements.

It’s an attempt to rejuvenate a river beaten to its knees from decades of abuse.

A river nature built to handle seasonal flows of 12,000 cubic feet per second now sees a gaunt 1,200 cfs.

In some places, the riverbed has dried to where it’s too hard to pound in steel posts, and stoneflies and other aquatic life are gone.

The two water agencies are “committed to do whatever mitigation is required” by the federal permitting agencies, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, said Jeff Drager of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

David Little, director of planning for Denver Water, said the water agencies have committed “$7 million and a lot of water for the environment.”

Most of that money is for the Colorado River project, under the direction of the Division of Wildlife and aimed at rebuilding a 14-mile stretch from Windy Gap Reservoir to the Kemp-Breeze State Wildlife Area near Parshall.

But Mely Whiting of Trout Unlimited said “that’s nowhere near enough,” noting that group’s research says more like $10 million is needed for stream improvements.

In any case, there isn’t much the wildlife commission can do.

The plans don’t have to be approved by the state although it’s certain the federal agencies will consider the state’s comments when issuing final permits.

And the commission’s reluctance and frustration was obvious Thursday.

“We can’t stop the projects,” said wildlife commission chairman Tim Glenn of Salida. “We’re not totally comfortable (with the mitigation and enhancement plans) but what we have here is better than if we did nothing.”

Commissioner Bob Streeter, a wetlands restoration consultant from Fort Collins, said the money allocated for the Fraser River is “totally inadequate” to address “acutely lethal water temperatures.”

Still, the vote was 9-0 to accept both plans.

“I have no doubt that if we vote no, the river remains the same,” said wildlife commissioner David Brougham of Denver. “This way, it will be a better river.”

The plans still must be approved by the Corps, the Bureau and ultimately the Environmental Protection Agency.

Water-watchers remember the EPA slamming the lid on Denver Water’s proposed Two Forks Dam.

Sometimes, even the deepest pockets aren’t enough.


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