The Upper Colorado and Fraser Rivers both start right here in Grand County and both face serious challenges to their health. Decreased water flow, physical barriers limiting fish movement, unprecedented high stream temperatures and “armoring” of the stream bed are some of the more notable problems.
Nowhere is there a greater combination of challenges for the Upper Colorado than at the Windy Gap Dam and Reservoir on the western edge of Granby.
On August 15, a group of stakeholders, project engineers and interested citizens met in Granby for the first “scoping meeting” to evaluate proposals to help improve the river. Greg Allington, Senior Biologist at McMillen Jacobs, was the presenter. McMillen Jacobs is the firm tasked with helping address the problems, create solutions and guiding the process to completion.
The health of the Upper Colorado is critical to our entire region. An unhealthy river will not support fish, birds, deer, moose, beaver or the other animals (including us humans) that depend on rivers to sustain life. The river could also become useless for agriculture. Tourism is a major economic driver in Grand County. Tourism relies on our region’s appeal for fishing, hiking, biking hunting and the spectacular beauty of our region. If the river dies, much of our economy goes with it.
We included some history and details of the Windy Gap project in this article, but we’ll start with the meeting talking points and proposals.
Unlike most water-related meetings, the overall tone of this meeting was enthusiastic and positive. Several members of the audience asked hard questions and expressed concerns about the “devil in the details,” but there was no detectable opposition to the proposals or project goals.
Grand County Commissioner Merrit Linke said “There’s widespread, diversified support for what’s seen as a win-win project. Everybody’s coming together for the greater good.”
Jeff Dragger at Northern Water told the crowd “We see this as a good thing that we want to happen and we’re pushing hard to make it happen.” Engaging Grand County, Northern Water, Trout Unlimited, as well as Colorado Parks and Wildlife in envisioning the project from the beginning united these disparate groups.
At the most basic level, this project’s goal is to reconnect portions of the Colorado River near the Windy Gap Reservoir. There are three primary areas that need help. Each of these three sites severely restrict the passage of fish and aquatic organisms and disrupts the normal life of the rivers by creating isolated pockets rather than a unified, healthy river.
Sites for Improvements
- The Granby Diversion is on the Fraser just west of Highway 40 in Granby. This is a location where water for municipal and irrigation use is taken, but also creates a four foot drop. Options currently being considered to reduce the Diversion’s impact include a fish ladder, additional weirs (to decrease the size of the drop at each one), a rocky ramp and even removal of the Diversion.
- The Fraser River Weir is an existing concrete flow measuring structure which creates a three foot drop in the river. Options for improvement include a fish ladder, additional weirs, a rocky ramp, removal, and downstream bank protection.
- The location requiring the most work, time and money is at the Windy Gap Dam and Reservoir itself. This is where the diversion (removal) of water for municipal, industrial and irrigation on the Front Range takes place.
The dam’s spillway is a 19 foot drop which creates an absolute barrier to all fish and aquatic organisms. It also stops the downstream migration of gravel and cobbles necessary for a healthy river. Without the movement of those larger cobbles and gravel which are normally transported by springtime “flushing flows” of water, fish have nowhere to spawn and macro invertebrates (bugs fish and birds eat) can’t survive.
Only fine silt suspended in the river can pass the dam. The result is a dead zone, almost completely devoid of aquatic life in the river below the dam.
Primary Windy Gap Reservoir improvement options under consideration are dam reconfiguration and the creation of a connectivity channel or a fish ladder. See below for more details on the preferred option at the Dam. Other options at all locations will be considered and no action is also possible.
Windy Gap Reservoir Improvements
The most important part of the entire project is the proposed modifications at Windy Gap. The favored option at this time is to construct a new dam embankment, splitting the existing Reservoir. The embankment would roughly parallel the railroad line on the south side of the current reservoir.
Once the new dam embankment is in place, a new connectivity channel would be built between the embankment and the railroad tracks. The new channel would allow the water not destined for Lake Granby and the Front Range to behave like the river did before the dam. The channel would become the main stem of the Colorado River and it would behave like a river is meant to behave. Cobble and gravel would be transported during spring flushing flows. Fish and other critters would be able to move normally up and down the river. Life would return to the river.
The strongest concern expressed was from Anna Drexler-Dreis of Trout Unlimited. While pleased with the overall plan, she expressed her concern that all three of the problem areas need to be addressed together to reconnect this entire reach of the Fraser and Upper Colorado.
As the meeting drew to a close, Paul Bruchez, a rancher, irrigator and fishing guide near Kremmling, thanked all the partners for coming together and making this project happen. A water related meeting with this sort of broad support is truly exceptional!
How to Submit a Comment
Comments on this first phase of the preparation can be submitted until August 31. Future iterations of the plan will also be open to comment. To submit a comment, send an email or call Bobbi Preite of McMillen Jacobs at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 208-985-1542.
McMillen Jacobs will refine the field reconnaissance, studies, surveys and feedback to allow creation of design alternatives and analysis. Then comes the Draft Plan Environmental Assessment and comment period. That’s followed by the Final Plan Environmental Assessment which incorporates everything that’s been learned and considers comments. After all of that, is the Significance Determination which results in one of two things: Either a FONSI (Finding of No Significant Impact) or the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
Expect a “Draft Plan EA” in about 6 months. It will take 9-12 months to get a determination on the project’s future. Projects that get through the NEPA process usually get completed.
Serious contributions to the project are being made by national and local groups. The Lead federal agency on the project is the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Project sponsors are Trout Unlimited, Grand County and Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
Funding for technical assistance (NEPA and design) as well as construction will be provided by the NRCS branch of the US Department of Agriculture.
History of Windy Gap
In 1970, six northern Front Range communities formed the Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict to plan, finance and build the Windy Gap Project. The project’s goal was to provide additional water for the future needs of those communities. The project was completed in 1985.
The Windy Gap Project can divert as much as 48,000 acre feet of water each year. The water comes from the Upper Colorado and Fraser Rivers and is stored in the Windy Gap Reservoir. From there, it’s journey to Colorado’s Front Range is complex.
Colorado River/Windy Gap water is on the west side of the continental divide and the cities which own that water are on the east side of the continental divide. To get the water from west to east the first step happens at the Windy Gap pumping station. The water is pumped uphill through the six mile long Windy Gap Pipeline to Lake Granby.
From Lake Granby, the Farr Pump Plant moves the water into the Granby Pump Canal which brings it into Shadow Mountain Reservoir. From there, it flows by gravity through a connecting canal into Grand Lake. Grand Lake, also known as Spirit Lake, is Colorado’s largest and, according to many, most beautiful natural lake.
From Grand Lake, water is pumped through the 13.1 mile Alva B. Adams Tunnel beneath Rocky Mountain National Park. It exits the Tunnel near the YMCA of the Rockies on the outskirts of Estes Park on Colorado’s Eastern Slope. From there, it is distributed to Front Range water users through a series of pipelines, canals and reservoirs.
Handy “Cheat Sheet” Terms & Alphabet Soup
NEPA-National Environmental Policy Act
SWAPAH– Resource concerns for consideration in an EA: Soils, Water, Air, Plants, Animals, Human environment
RCPP–Regional Conservation Partnership Program. This is Program Authority for this project.
USDA– United States Department of Agriculture
NRCS-Natural Resources Conservation Service. The NRCS falls under the USDA and is the lead federal agency on this project
Acre Foot of Water– The amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot. 43,560 cubic feet, or to 325,851 U.S. gallons
CFS-Cubic feet of water per second
Front Range– The portion of Colorado that runs roughly north-south at the western edge of the great plains and the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains.
Continental Divide– The drainage divide of the continent. In our case, water on the east side of the Divide flows into the Atlantic while water on the west side flows into the Pacific. Except for the Colorado River which starts on the west side of the Divide, has much of its water diverted to the east side and is completely used up before reaching any ocean.