The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is calling for greater protection of the Colorado River and lakes associated with the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.
In a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, both dated Feb. 6, the agency outlined its concerns with the proposed Windy Gap Firming Project, saying more mitigation needs to be tied to an upcoming record of decision.
Among recommendations, the agency would like to see a bypass channel constructed around Windy Gap Dam for times when the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and municipal subdistrict are out of priority.
The bypass channel was identified in a 2011 report by researchers of division of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The report spells out ongoing problems in the Upper Colorado River basin that have been worsening over the past half-century, primarily chronic sedimentation, high temperatures and a lack of high flushing flows that have already caused the disappearance of the mottled sculpin, a native fish.
"Two things must be done if there is to truly be any hope of enhancement of aquatic ecosystem in the upper Colorado River in the future," the 2011 Nehring Parks and Wildlife study reads. "A bypass channel around Windy Gap Dam and a major investment in stream channel reconfiguration for the Colorado River below Windy Gap Dam are both equally important and the only way true enhancement has any possibility of success. Either one without the other will have virtually no chance of succeeding."
The Environmental Protection Agency called for the final environmental impact statement of the Windy Gap project to incorporate the data from this 2011 report, saying the final EIS and the findings in the Nehring report were inconsistent - "specifically related to the magnitude of potential impacts from the proposed project."
"The EPA has the authority to tell other federal agencies whether the FEIS meets the requirements of the Clean Water Act," said Mely Whiting of Trout Unlimited. The Agency does have the ability to veto it, but that hardly ever happens. Since 1972, the EPA has only used its veto powers about 13 times.
But because the Agency has come out with concerns regarding the project, Whiting said, this may elevate discussions about the project on the federal level.
The EPA review of the FEIS is standard procedure, said Bert Garcia, director of the agency's Ecosystem Protection Program in Region 8.
"It's in the (Army) Corps' hands" now, he said. That agency will be responsible for issuing a permit for the project.
Meanwhile, the position of state agencies such as The Colorado Department of Natural Resources and Parks and Wildlife, with support of the Governor's Office, is that mitigations in the final EIS are enough, Whiting said. Concerning Parks and Wildlife, commissioners landed on their position without the scientific findings of the Nehring report, she said, which was released afterward.
"I disagree with that assertion they didn't have that information," said Jeff Drager, Windy Gap project manager of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. "That information was available to the state in the process, and the state still felt like the mitigation and enhancement taken into consideration will make the river conditions better than they are today."
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Reclamation, serving as the lead agency for project oversight, is "reviewing (the EPA's) comments to determine if there is any new information related to the analysis that we need to consider," said Reclamation spokesperson Kara Lamb.
Reclamation did review both the 2010 and 2011 Nehring Reports, she said, and specifically macro-invertebrate data from the 2010 report was incorporated into the Final EIS.
Northern officials said the Bureau of Reclamation already has spent six to eight months with the EPA, "trying to work out issues with them" in a "good-faith effort."
"They don't necessarily have to agree with EPA on everything," Drager said.
The agency acknowledges in its letter to the Bureau of Reclamation that it has been working with that agency to address key technical issues concerning temperature, nutrients, stream morphology and aquatic resources, and that Reclamation developed new modeling in an effort to improve NEPA documentation.
But "the agencies did not reach agreement in a number of areas," the letter states.
The letter goes on to outline needed monitoring, mitigation and management that should be included in the Record of Decision to offset "the foreseeable impacts to the environment."
The EPA also cites water quality issues impacting water bodies such as Lake Granby, Shadow Mountain Reservoir, Grand Lake and the Front Range's Horsetooth Reservoir and Carter Lake, all of which are on Colorado's Clean Water Act "List of Impaired Waters."
"The Windy Gap Firming Project is projected to increase nutrient loading to these water bodies and would be expected to exacerbate exceedance of the water quality standards and the levels of impairment," the EPA letter reads.
Rally for the River
River advocates, led by Trout Unlimited, are now organizing a rally at the state Capitol Wednesday, Feb. 22.
"Our hope is that having the state take a leadership role, we can sit down and hammer out the conditions," Whiting said.
Referring to the 10-mile stretch of the Colorado River below Windy Gap, "it is still one of the most popular fishing spots in Colorado," she continued. "We're just concerned we're seeing signs that the river is going downhill. And we're about to see a couple of more projects that, if approved, are going to kill it."
The record of decision on the Windy Gap Firming Project is expected to be released within the year.
Grand County officials and officials from the Colorado River District say they were not surprised by the EPA letters.
"The letters were on point with some of the things we've been speaking about," said Grand County Manager Lurline Underbrink Curran.
State agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources looked at the EIS from a narrower "fish and wildlife perspective," she said, "but there's more than the fish and wildlife, and that's what the federal agencies have jurisdiction over. NEPA law makes them look at the big picture."
Grand County, the Colorado River District, and other West Slope parties continue to negotiate with Northern for an "enhancement" package on the Windy Gap Firming Project by which entities will agree not to oppose the terms and conditions imposed by the permitting agencies.
Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603