Locals await grant news on Colorado River projects
November 23, 2016
The long awaited Windy Gap Bypass Project may begin moving forward in the not-so-distant future.
Officials from Grand County as well as multiple local partnering agencies and groups are patiently awaiting news on a $10 million Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) grant. The announcement regarding which applicants will receive the grant is expected sometime in Dec. this year. If the grant award is approved full funding for the Windy Gap Bypass Project will be secured.
WORKIN ON THE RIVER
The RCPP grant is administered by the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and is given to producers and landowners to provide conservation assistance. The grant application was submitted under a partnership of multiple local organizations and entities including: Grand County government, the Irrigators in the Lands in the Vicinity of Kremmling (ILVK), the Upper Colorado River Alliance (UCRA), Middle Park, the Colorado River District, Trout Unlimited, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) and Northern Water.
If awarded the $10 million grant monies will go directly to two specific projects: the Windy Gap Bypass Project and a streambed habitat improvement project in the Colorado River for the ILVK. Additionally CPW is working to secure funding from the States Wildlife Mitigation and Enhancement Plan to conduct a stream enhancement project on the Colorado River between the Windy Gap and the ILVK lands. If local organizers are able to secure funding for all three projects roughly 33-miles of the Colorado River will see stream improvements.
Lurline Underbrink-Curran is a contract employee for Grand County overseeing much of the County's efforts on water issues. She worked closely with others to develop the RCPP grant application. "This will be a big deal if we are successful," Underbrink-Curran said. "We think we have a strong application and we have a very strong partnership collaboration."
She cautioned against expecting results too quickly though, even if full funding is approved. "The things that happened to the River didn't happen over night and we won't fix them overnight. But if we have methods and plans in place we will get them fixed."
WINDY GAP BYPASS
The total cost of the Windy Gap Bypass Project is estimated at roughly $9.6 million. A total of $4.5 million has already been secured for the project and the $10 million RCPP grant would cover the remainder, with excess funds going to the ILVK Project.
The Windy Gap Bypass Project is intended to create a free flowing channel for water from the Colorado River to travel through the Windy Gap Reservoir. The Windy Gap Reservoir is located just a short distance west of Granby on US Highway 40 and is one of several water storage reservoir that make up the Colorado Big-Thompson Project's water diversion system.
Water from the Windy Gap is pumped through the Northern Water diversion and pump network eventually reaching Grand Lake before moving across the Continental Divide through the Alva B. Adams Tunnel. When the Windy Gap Reservoir was initially constructed no free flowing channel was created. As such the Windy Gap Reservoir divides the river habitat above and below the reservoir, preventing fish and other creatures from migrating freely.
Additionally the Windy Gap causes the Colorado River to lose nearly all of its velocity, allowing for a substantial amount of sediment to develop in both the reservoir and in the river downstream. The sediment buildup negatively impacts bug habitat, which has a domino effect on all other species living in the river.
The work that will be done for the Windy Gap Bypass is fairly simple in concept. Excavators will dig out a channel within the existing Windy Gap Reservoir. The dirt from the excavations will be used to construct a berm inside the Reservoir. The berm will establish a smaller reservoir while also creating a separate channel for the free flow of water down the Colorado.
The ILVK streambed habitat improvement project seeks to address two concerns: issues with irrigation infrastructure and improvements of streambed habitat for bug and aquatic life.
As Paul Bruchez, one of the ILVK landowners helping to spearhead the project explained, the project hopes to accomplish both goals through the same work; by rebuilding the pools and riffles that create healthy river habitat and focusing most of those efforts on areas where the irrigation pumping infrastructure already exists.
The ILVK is a landowners organization made up primarily of irrigating ranchers near the town of Kremmling. The ILVK holds some of the most senior water rights on the upper Colorado River; their senior water rights are recognized in Senate Document 80 and their rights precede the famous Colorado-Big Thompson Project (CBTP).
Prior to the establishment of the CBTP there were virtually no water storage reservoirs in the high country and no ditches bringing water to the landowners of the ILVK. At that time they were considered as having, "meadows act water rights" meaning they did not irrigate their fields using irrigation ditches, rather their fields naturally flooded each spring/summer as snow runoff from higher elevations made its way to the Colorado River.
When the CBTP was established irrigation pumps were constructed to provide water from the Colorado River to the landowners of the ILVK. As time has passed and additional water diversions and storage projects were undertaken above the ILVK region the flows that provided the ILVK members with irrigation water have diminished, along with the overall water table.
"We have a fixed station (irrigation) pump system with a river that is dynamic and changing," Bruchez explained. "My neighbors and family struggle with irrigation issues. But I am also watching the regress of the Colorado River from a fishery standpoint. The concept of the ILVK project is to fix and repair our irrigation systems to be sustainable while using construction techniques that will improve the health of the river overall."
In that way the ILVK project proverbially kills two birds with one stone. But for Bruchez and other landowners along the Colorado the effort isn't just about improving their ability to access the water that is theirs by right, it is about the broader health of the River as well.
"If we can cut down water temps by even a fraction we are making headway," Bruchez said. "It almost becomes a water quality issue. We are not just improving segments but improving the whole river system. We can't look at one part or another as the priority. It is a system that needs a system wide repair."