US District Court Judge Timothy M. Tymkovich’s recent dismissal of a 2017 lawsuit clears the way for construction of the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, often called the “Windy Gap Bypass”.
The Bypass will restore a direct connection of the Colorado River around the Windy Gap Reservoir just west of Granby. Currently, the aquatic habitat is severed by the reservoir, preventing the natural movement of water, fish, macroinvertebrates and more. The bypass will create a natural river channel around the Windy Gap Reservoir and will improve the valuable trout fishery downstream all the way to the popular Kemp Breeze Wildlife Area. It will also open nearly two miles of the Colorado River to the public.
“Trout Unlimited is pleased with the District Court’s decision because it paves the way for measures that will increase the river’s resiliency in light of climate change and increased recreational and municipal use,” said Mely Whiting, Colorado water project legal counsel for Trout Unlimited. “After years of negotiations, partnerships and planning, we couldn’t be more thrilled to see steps taken to move this project forward.”
Trout Unlimited has adopted an approach to protecting rivers which is based on recognizing the reality that western Colorado landowners sold their water rights to diverters many, many years ago. By working with the diverters to make the best of that reality, TU has achieved real, tangible positive results for rivers on the west slope, like the Windy Gap Bypass.
“Our partnership with Northern Water and others is vital to the health of the Upper Colorado River, so seeing this court ruling allow those collaborations to move forward is welcome news,” said David Nickum, executive director of Colorado TU. “In addition to reconnecting the channel, agreements have been made to stop diversions when stream temperatures are too high and add cold water releases from Lake Granby when water temperatures increase in late summer. But hurdles to the project still remain.”
The legal decision advances the project, but a funding gap remains.
“At TU, we are committed to seeing this project through, but without additional funding, the severed river will remain, water temperatures will increase and habitat for our beloved trout will continue to decline,” said Scott Yates, director of TU’s Western Water and Habitat Program. “We continue to seek other partners who can join us and Northern in these efforts to make the Colorado River a healthier river for trout and humans alike. “
While most environmental groups and even the Grand County Commissioners support the Windy Gap Bypass, a few have expressed concern about the project having one-time funding rather than an ongoing revenue stream to maintain the system and mitigate the impact of water diversions over the long term.
Kirk Klancke, president of the local Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited, had this to say in response to their concern. “One time payment is how the National Government runs their permit system. They don’t have the manpower to oversee ongoing funding. That is why we asked for adaptive management (Learning By Doing, often shortened to “LBD”) so that the big players in water diversion will always participate in maintaining the health of the aquatic habitat that they impact with their diversions. How much money ongoing funding will require varies so much with each person’s opinion that TU thought it more prudent to tie long term participation to the permit and tackle the funding issue as improvement projects come up. Northern has already thrown in twice as much money into the Windy Gap Connectivity Channel as their permit required. As a partner instead of an opponent, it’s probable that they will continue to invest in the impacts that science proves they have on our local aquatic and riparian habitat.”
Other funding for the Bypass is expected from a newly approved Colorado
River Water Conservation District mill levy, Great Outdoors Colorado (Colorado lottery) funds, additional Natural Resources Conservation Service contributions, private donations, and other sources.
TU’s projects in the Colorado River headwaters taken together, improve over 60 miles of the Colorado River and tributaries. Their work includes habitat improvement, other projects to reduce barriers to fish migration and working to balance human demands on the river with the needs of the ecosystem itself. Working with TU’s partners, another project involves cooperating with ranchers to improve agricultural operations in the Kremling area in an effort to keep more water in the river.
Beginning in the spring of 2021, the local TU chapter will start work on projects recommended by Colorado Parks and Wildlife to help mitigate the damage to our watersheds caused by the devastating fires of 2020.
More in-depth information, including detailed maps, and volunteer opportunities is available on the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of TU’s website at www.coheadwaters.org.