Fisheries weigh options for, against increased diversions

Fisheries managers offer two views of plans to increase diversions from the Colorado River.

The bright side is the money set aside in current mitigation plans, which include restoring the river and populations of greenback cutthroat trout.

The dark side is the “no action” alternative, which means the water leaves the Western Slope with no mitigation promised.

Denver Water’s Moffat Firming Project (in Colorado water law, “firming” refers to firming up or guaranteeing water supplies) will take 18,000 acre feet a year, with 15,000 acre feet coming from headwater streams of the Blue, Fraser and Williams Fork rivers, tributaries of the Colorado.

The rest comes from the South Platte River (2,000 a/f) and South Boulder Creek (1,000 a/f).

Western Slope water will be sent through the 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel to the Front Range.

Northern Colorado Water’s Windy Gap Firming Project seeks to divert an additional 30,000 acre feet each year from the Colorado River near Windy Gap Reservoir.

That western Slope water will be pumped through the Continental Divide via the Adams Tunnel to the proposed Chimney Hollow Reservoir near Loveland.

Both projects call for new or enlarging current reservoirs, which requires permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

But permitting isn’t a game-breaker.

Should the water suppliers fail to receive or decide not to pursue the permits, they still can take their water and disperse it through the existing Front Range storage system.

No action is bad action, if you’re interested in the health of the upper Colorado River.

“If they get their permits, there has to be mitigation,” said Ken Kehmeier, senior fisheries biologist for Colorado Division of Wildlife’s Northeast Region. “If they don’t get permitted, they continue to take water and there is no mitigation.”

“Both Northern and Denver are actually doing the right things to put up $3.5 million to $4.5 million to fix the river plus other things,” said Sherman Hebein, Kehmeier’s counterpart for the wildlife agency’s Northwest Region.

Those dollars will help reshape the Colorado River between Windy Gap Reservoir and the confluence of the Williams Fork River.

Once the river is healthy again, the Division of Wildlife will stock it with whirling disease-resistant Colorado River rainbow trout.

Denver Water also will fund developing five streams for restoring the federal- and state-listed greenback cutthroat trout.

“We’ll move the greenbacks out of four (diverted) streams on the Williams Fork (headwaters) and move them into new waters,” Hebein said.

The selected streams will have more habitat and could triple the greenback population, he said.

Mitigation plans from both Denver Water and Northern Colorado Water address impacts to native fish downstream and include payments to the Upper Colorado River Endangered Native Fish Recovery Program.

Denver Water estimates it will spentd $5 million to $7 million in mitigation costs.

Opposition to the increased diversions has come from diverse groups such as Colorado Trout Unlimited and the Fraser Valley Lions Club.

But the two water suppliers own rights to the water and Colorado water law doesn’t require mitigation for fish and wildlife, leaving few options.

“You look at the whole (diversion plan) package,” Hebein said. “What do you want — the no-action alternative or the chance to have a river be free and breathing again?”

More information is available at: Division of Wildlife, wildlife.state.co.us; Denver Water, http://www.denverwater.org; and Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, http://www.ncwcd.org.

Public comments will be accepted through Feb. 24.


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