Water wars: Deal reached on Upper Colorado diversion project

Prolonged drought and a rising population have put the squeeze on Western Slope water supplies. But Colorado River activists have something to celebrate in their long battle with Front Range development interests -- a hard-won agreement that will help limit the impact of the Windy Gap Firming Project, a further incursion on the much-depleted waters of the Upper Colorado that might otherwise have left the river all but drained of life.

As reported in previous posts, the arrival of millions of new residents along the Front Range over the next forty years is expected to boost water demands more than 50 percent above the currently available supply. That's prompted a number of grandiose water diversion proposals, including Aaron Million's plan for a $7-billion, 550-mile pipeline from the Green River in southwest Wyoming.

But the more immediate threat has to do with the dwindling Upper Colorado, which already sees more than half of its flow sucked away to Front Range communities, mostly for landscaping purposes. Critics charged that Windy Gap, an effort to direct more water through a diversion system initially launched in 1985, could reduce the river's flow even further, down to about 20 percent of its pre-dammed volume.

Opponents of the expanded diversion, including the Colorado Headwaters Initiative and other river activists, pushed for greater controls over the project and mitigation measures to prevent sediment buildup and excessively warm stream temperatures. Last year, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife study indicated that the current Windy Gap Reservoir has had a significant impact on aquatic life and habitat in the Colorado River, jeopardizing fishing, agricultural and tourism interests in Grand County.

Last week, Trout Unlimited and the Upper Colorado River Alliance, plus county and water conservancy district officials, announced an agreement that commits cash and conservation measures to the project. The permit approved by the Grand County commissioners includes a host of conditions that should help improve river health (and water quality in Grand Lake), including a $2 million bypass channel to reconnect the river and periodic "flushing flows" to cleanse the river and remove sediment.

"For years, those of us living in Grand County have seen the once-mighty Colorado in a state of serious decline," said Kirk Klancke, president of Trout Unlimited's Colorado River Headwaters Chapter, in a prepared statement. "This agreement will provide protections and new investments in river health that can put the Colorado River on the road to recovery."

While the deal doesn't give the activists everything they wanted, it does avoid the worst-case scenario some had feared. The headwaters defenders can now turn their energy to another looming threat: Denver Water's plans to expand its Moffat Tunnel diversion system, sucking the life out of the much-besieged Frasier River, as well as the Colorado.

More from our Environment archive: "Water wars: Rally asks John Hickenlooper to fix 'river-killing' diversion project."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast