Locals familiar with local water challenges may be losing sight of how we might preserve the quality of our watershed and keep enough water to meet the needs of current and future building in Grand County.  In many ways we are seeing how to obtain the next glass of water while failing to recognize how to ensure water flows into the tap.

As discussed in my June 21 column, the Upper Colorado River Watershed Group (UCRWG) was founded with a US Bureau of Reclamation Grant to provide a resource to the myriad of local water agencies to help with long term planning – for both water quality and quantity.  UCRWG hopes to look beyond the glass to the tap and identify more resources to restore the 300 miles of streams and rivers in our watershed already impaired by current and future diversions.

I have heard more than once that UCRWG board members (I am Board President) are upset about the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement – signed by almost all local political entities as a method of dealing with impacts from the latest round of diversion increases by the Denver Water Board.  Admittedly, a few of us are committed to looking at the full scale of impacts to the depleted Fraser River which will need ongoing financial resources beyond the scope of the Agreement. But we do recognize this agreement provides about $11 million toward local watershed restoration, and recognize this funding source should not be threatened.

Our group views the Agreement as a part of the toolbox needed to address local and statewide water challenges. Former Governor John Hickenlooper and his team drafted the Colorado Water Plan before he left office. The Governor’s plan recognized the scale of the problem, calling for $100 million annually to address water challenges Colorado faces.  Most of the challenges are faced by Western Slope counties who provide the majority of their water to feed booming Front Range communities. Grand County, as noted by Grand County Commissioner Merit Linke, is the most diverted county “by a factor of three.”

My June 21 column did call the Agreement settlement (identified in that column as $6 million, the Agreement actually calls for $11 million in reparations) “totally inadequate” to address local water challenges.  Since June the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District has stepped up to help fund the $9 million Fraser regional wastewater plant improvement with $4 million in District funds. They will also help fund a new full-time staff member at the plant necessitated by the improvement. The partnership is appreciated, done in recognition we (east and west slope) must face water challenges together.

As described in my previous column, UCRWG is “floating” the idea of a water impact fee levied on trans-basin diverted water.  Money from this impact fee would help fix impaired streams, improve water diverter’s infrastructure (lined ditches and modernized diversion structures) and help with community costs caused by lower stream flows. UCRWG believes the impact fee is a matter of state-wide interest.

UCRWG Board Members Dave Troutman and Ken Fucik are working on a grant proposal to help address water quality challenges in the North Fork of the Colorado.  The North Fork arises in the beautiful Kawuneeche Valley, centerpiece of the Grand Lake side of Rocky Mountain National Park. My youthful memory may be faulty, but I believe there used to be an overlook sign on Trail Ridge Road, which climbs up from the valley, describing one beaver dam below as one of the largest in the world.

North Fork challenges begin with the almost total absence of dams in that valley now.  Beavers moved on or died when they could no longer find willows for both dam material and to fill their winter larder, preserved in their cold ponds.  These dams provided natural sediment ponds, keeping the river clear as it flowed into the shallow Shadow Mountain Reservoir (discussions of its problems could easily fill several columns).

The willows have been decimated by an overpopulation of Park ungulates – moose and elk.  Yellowstone has seen a recovery of its willows because Wolves harass these mowing machines – keeping them up in the timber during the day. Several local professionals, some of who are also involved with UCRWG, are looking for possible ways to restore the valley’s ecosystem.

The second challenge comes from massive sediment load headed toward the reservoir from a Grand Ditch washout.  This antiquated unlined ditch is desperately in need of help (from impact fee dollars?) – or another monster load of gravel and sediment will almost certainly be headed into the Park valley below from inevitable future washouts.

All Coloradoans will benefit from efforts to protect Grand County’s headwaters resources feeding 50 million residents in the upper and lower Colorado basin.  The Elephant in the room (the lower basin states) is thirsty and is eyeing the source of its water.

UCRWG members are not angry, we are worried and want to help coordinate energetic community groups in an effort to improve our watershed.  We believe UCRWG can help put the local and statewide water puzzle together to create a picture of how the headwaters of the Colorado might sustain fish and humans alike.