Last year, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and Grand County announced a "deal" on the Windy Gap Firming Project, a proposed water supply project to divert more Colorado River water from the Western Slope in Grand County to the sprawling towns on the northern Front Range.
If the project is ultimately permitted by the federal Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers, the Northern Water and Grand County deal will provide some protections and restoration for a short 12-mile stretch of the Upper Colorado River at its headwaters in Grand County. Those benefits are a good thing, for sure, but the deal also carries with it a vast array of negative tradeoffs that will further imperil all of Colorado's rivers and lead us even farther down a path of river destruction throughout the state.
First, the Project takes even more water out of the Upper Colorado River - already reduced by 60 percent from its natural flows - and ships it over the Continental Divide to the Front Range. Even worse, some of this water will be sold to oil and gas drillers and frackers. In fact, many of the very same cities that are participating in the project are selling vast amounts of water for fracking right now, the most egregious of which is Greeley.
Moreover, these depletions may potentially impact endangered fish and trigger federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections downstream. A huge amount of money and time has been invested to protect and restore these endangered fish species; more depletions may result in even more threats to their survival.
Second, the project ships a massive amount of Colorado River water to the Rawhide Station, a coal-fired power plant north of Fort Collins. Rawhide is the single largest pollution source in northern Colorado. At a time when our economy, our public health, and Colorado's landscape are increasingly in need of cleaner energy solutions, draining the Colorado River to further fuel and subsidize coal power seems nearly insane.
Third, the project will fuel and subsidize a continuation of the unsustainable population growth and suburban sprawl along the Front Range. In fact, nearly half of all water the project will divert out of the Colorado River will be used to keep suburban grass green for three months per year in Colorado's hot, dry summers. This is a waste of a precious resource that should be put to a higher and better use in the Colorado River, where it sustains local communities, the tourism economy, and fish and wildlife.
Fourth, the $300 million investment in this project may be wasted, as the water may not even be available. The water rights used in the project are very "junior" rights and thus may be imperiled as less snow and precipitation falls in Colorado's mountains due to ongoing drought and climate change.
Finally, the project may be used to help fill another extremely controversial proposed reservoir and project: the Glade Reservoir for the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP). If NISP is ever built, it will drain and destroy the Cache la Poudre River of Northern Colorado, and thus the Windy Gap Firming Project could collude in a tsunami of river destruction on both sides of the Divide. Our organization, Save The Poudre: Poudre Waterkeeper, is opposed to NISP, and we will do everything we can to stop the Poudre River from being destroyed.
The negotiations that led to the agreement between Northern Water and Grand County were not public. Our organization was not invited to this table, although we, and many others, have been actively involved over the last few years in raising all of the concerns above with Northern Water, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Army Corps, which so far have done nothing to address our concerns.
We agree with Grand County Commissioner Gary Bumgarner, who voted against this "deal," as he was quoted in the Sky-Hi News: " 'The river is in decline now. I'm not sure how taking more water out of it is going to make it better,' he said after Tuesday's vote. He fears the firming project may just be the "straw that breaks the camel's back."
So far, this deal is a bad deal for Colorado.
Gary Wockner, PhD, is the director of Save The Poudre: Poudre
Waterkeeper, which helped lead the "Colorado River Protection Coalition" in 2012 to help stop the proposed Flaming Gorge Pipeline. He may be reached at email@example.com