Update: Comment period extended for controversial Chatfield Reservoir project

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Update: In response to requests from some groups to extend the public comment period for the proposal to increase water storage at Chatfield Reservoir -- a project that's raised several environmental concerns, as detailed in the original story below -- the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has just announced a decision to extend the comment period thirty days, to September 7.

Here's the contact information.

Comments can be e-mailed to chatfieldstudy@usace.army.mil or snail-mailed to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, CENWO-PM-AA, Attention: Chatfield Reservoir FR/EIS, 1616 Capitol Avenue, Omaha, NE 68102.

Look below for our previous coverage.

Original post, July 11: If a drought year seems like the ideal occasion to persuade people about the benefits of a $180-million water project, then the backers of the Chatfield Reservoir Reallocation Project couldn't have timed things better. But opponents of the controversial proposal, which would dramatically alter one of Colorado's most prized and used state parks, are pushing to extend the public comment period -- and questioning if the claimed benefits are worth the destruction of hundreds of acres of venerable cottonwoods and prime bird habitat.

Backed by a host of state agencies, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Governor John Hickenlooper, the long-simmering project would provide additional water storage for suburban and agricultural interests, flooding 500 acres of the park and raising the water level by twelve feet. A 544-page draft environmental impact statement was released last month, and a sixty-day comment period ends August 7.

Although the Sierra Club, Western Resource Advocates and the Greenway Foundation have endorsed the proposal, some other environmental groups contend that the EIS executive summary doesn't adequately detail the extent to which an additional 20,000 acre-feet of water storage will transform Chatfield, requiring the relocation of roads and facilities and the ripping out of key wildlife habitat.

"Everyone thought this was a pretty straightforward thing, but the impacts are quite substantial," says Polly Reetz of the Audubon Society of Greater Denver. "Some of the impacts are not mitigatable. You can't restore free-flowing stream segments and hundred-year-old cottonwoods."

Chatfield attracts 1.5 million visitors a year and a wide range of wildlife, including hundreds of species of birds and one endangered animal, the Preble's meadow jumping mouse. While the estimated cost of the project includes the purchase of additional land to offset the loss of habitat, Reetz contends that there are better alternatives to the "preferred" option of flooding roughly 10 percent of the park.

Much of the water storage is allocated to junior rights holders and may be available only three years out of ten, she notes, leaving fluctuations in the water level of as much as 21 feet.

Backers describe the project as a relatively benign expansion of an existing reservoir, compared to more drastic measures, and insist that its impacts will be minimal. But another local environmental activist, Phillip Doe, wrote a scathing article in the political newsletter Counterpunch envisioning a future Chatfield in which, much of the time, "picnickers and bathers would be hundreds of feet from water across smelly, fly-infested mud flats. But, as the stakeholders reason, use would stay high, for there's no place else to go this close to town. Only the aesthetics of the experience would change."

Reetz acknowledges that some groups are supporting the plan in part because of expectations that it will help increase stream flow further downriver on the Platte. But she maintains that any excess in wet years will be chiefly used by south suburban interests, eager to develop new sources rather than the groundwater that is now heavily relied upon in places like Douglas County.

"They say they want to stop 'mining the groundwater' -- that's a laudable goal," she says. "But why do they keep approving development that uses groundwater?"

However, a spokesman for a coalition of water agencies that would benefit from the project points out that farmers in drought-stricken Weld County will be among the beneficiaries. "This is saving more water for Colorado rather than having it end up in Nebraska," says Steve Welchert of Chatfield Water for Life. "We have to get water to Weld County."

Reetz would like to see a wider discussion of alternatives, from more aggressive conservation to underground storage to reusable return flows: "There's not a single bullet that will do the job. This project is not going to solve everyone's problems."

Most of all, the Audubon group and other skeptics would like to see an extension of the comment period to 180 days. "It's going to take more than sixty days to digest all of this," Reetz says of the massive EIS. "Most of the public is not going to read it."

Gwyn Jarrett, Chatfield project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, says her agency is evaluating the request and hopes to make a decision on an extension by the end of the week. The study took more than a decade to complete, and planning meetings on the project date back to 1994.

"We're committed to ensuring that adequate mitigation occurs and that the environment is protected," Jarrett says.

More from our Business archive: "Fracking: Polluted water in Wyoming could spell trouble in Colorado."

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