Is the Colorado River dying? |

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Is the Colorado River dying?

Landowner and recreation groups, together with Trout Unlimited, aren’t happy with a decision made late last week by the Colorado Division of Wildlife Commission to endorse a static Upper Colorado River Basin mitigation package submitted in April by Denver Water and Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

The decision concluded a 60-day review of the Fish and Wildlife Mitigation Plans. The proposals now go to the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Gov. John Hickenlooper before coming before the appropriate federal permitting agencies.

Trout Unlimited representatives say the plans fall short of what’s needed to protect the fish and wildlife resources of the Upper Colorado River Basin. They vowed in early June to fight the projects on several fronts, including at the federal permitting level, if the plan didn’t include strong protections for the Upper Colorado River. They are now focused on other permitting levels.

“We want more,” said Drew Peternell, director of Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project.

Groups such as the Fraser River Basin Landowners and the Upper Colorado River Alliance are on board with the fight.

“While the mitigation package the commission approved is an improvement over the plans Denver and Northern offered originally, it’s not enough to protect the rivers and streams of the Upper Colorado River Basin,” Peternell said.

The proposed projects are designed to firm the yield from Denver’s existing water rights on the West Slope. Denver Water’s Moffat Tunnel project would enlarge Boulder’s Gross Reservoir and divert additional water from the Fraser, Williams Fork and Blue rivers. Northern’s Windy Gap Firming Project would draw from the Upper Colorado River, pulling water into a new Chimney Hollow Reservoir west of Loveland.

Trout Unlimited data shows that current transbasin water diversion takes about 60 percent of Upper Colorado River native flows. The proposed expansions would take an additional 15 percent.

“For years, large-scale water diversions to the Front Range have severely depleted and at times nearly sucked dry entire stretches of the Upper Colorado and its tributaries, including the Fraser River,” a Trout Unlimited statement said. “Stakeholders have warned that the proposed expansions … could push the Upper Colorado ecosystem to the brink of collapse.”

Discussions between the utility companies and the wildlife commission have been ongoing since last fall to address public concerns.

“Is it perfect?” wildlife commission chairman Tim Glenn said during last week’s meeting. “No. But staff has evaluated it inside and out and I’m confident that it’s better than where we are.”

During the meeting, several commissioners expressed concerns that the final mitigation plans may have unintended consequences for the Upper Colorado, Fraser and Williams Fork rivers, but they voted unanimously to approve them. They also authorized an intergovernmental agreement between the Division of Wildlife and the utilities to support the Upper Colorado River Habitat Project.

Denver Water and Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District have submitted several new or modified plan elements to account for impacts to the rivers.

Changes include enhanced temperature and flow protections, creation of contingency funds for unanticipated impacts and enhanced funding for river restoration plans.

Commissioners praised Denver Water’s recently announced settlement with West Slope municipalities and Northern’s pending agreement surrounding water usage as other ways the utilities are making strides to benefit the rivers.

According to the Division of Wildlife, restoration plans aren’t required by the permitting process but were offered voluntarily by the utilities. A DOW statement said the commission’s authority is limited to mitigating impacts from the proposed projects and restoring the river to a past condition is beyond the scope of commission authority.

“I think, in looking at this, the division has gone beyond and done more than that statute give us the power to do,” commissioner David Brougham said. “Denver and Northern could have said no, but they didn’t and I think that’s telling.”

But Trout Unlimited and other stakeholders are disappointed in the outcome.

“We’re disappointed that commissioners apparently believed they didn’t have the statutory authority to recommend additional protections,” said Mely Whiting, counsel for Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project. “We don’t believe that’s an accurate reading of the statute.”

Trout Unlimited and other West Slope landowners and stakeholders asked the wildlife commission earlier this month to include several provisions, they called it an “insurance policy,” to protect the health of the rivers. What’s been offered isn’t enough, they say.

Despite flow and temperature monitoring proposed by Denver Water, Trout Unlimited claimed the utility is still allowed to divert through the Moffat Tunnel even when those diversions violate stream temperature standards designed to prevent lethal effects on fish. The diversions could also negatively affect flushing flows that clean the stream of sediment, they said.

Both utilities agreed to a $600,000 “mitigation insurance policy” that falls between $3 and $5 million short, Trout Unlimited representatives said. In particular, there’s no funding for a Windy Gap Reservoir bypass, meant to improve downstream Colorado River conditions, nor was an endowment fund established to pay for future restoration projects that would be planned and monitored.

“The bottom line is, under this mitigation package, the health of the Upper Colorado River and its tributaries will continue to decline,” Peternell said.