Born in Colorado, the mighty Colorado River serves over 40 million people and irrigates nearly 5 million acres of farmland before it enters Mexico. It is the hardest-working river in the West. The river also provides some of the finest trout fishing in the country and attracts millions of dollars in associated outdoor-related revenue to local communities.
Owned and operated by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Northern Water), the Windy Gap Project collects water from the Colorado River for delivery across the Continental Divide. The project supplies water to more than half a million residents on Colorado’s northern Front Range.
The dam at Windy Gap blocks fish passage, increases stream temperature, and causes other ecological challenges. Scientists at Colorado Parks and Wildlife say that diversion of water from the Colorado River has, over the years, negatively affected the river’s Gold Medal trout fisheries.
For years, Trout Unlimited and Northern Water argued over Northern Water’s water supply projects, including a proposal to add additional storage to the Windy Gap Project.
But now, in a sign of the changing times on water supply in the West, Trout Unlimited and Northern Water are cooperating to restore the Colorado River. We are driven by a basic question: How can we collectively meet the ecological needs of the river while also meeting the socio-economic needs of the communities that depend on it?
The outcome of those conversations is to build a bypass channel around the existing Windy Gap Reservoir to reconnect the Colorado River. It will be constructed as a natural channel and be open to the public for recreation. In other words, we found a way to maintain the benefits of the reservoir while helping to restore a clean, cold, free-flowing river.
Public and private sources have committed millions of dollars to the project, but hurdles remain, including a funding shortfall of nearly $2 million and a pending lawsuit against Northern Water’s project permits necessary to build Chimney Hollow Reservoir—the anticipated new storage vessel for the Windy Gap Project. We are hopeful to overcome these obstacles and construction of the channel will begin in 2021.
This idea of working toward shared values doesn’t stop with the connectivity channel. Through collaboration with Trout Unlimited, Northern Water has committed to curtail water supply pumping from the Windy Gap Project when river levels are low or when river temperatures are high. In addition, Northern Water has committed to spend millions of dollars to improve the Colorado River’s water quality and habitat. Northern Water is also providing funding to upgrade the Fraser Valley Wastewater Treatment Plant for improved water quality along the Fraser and Colorado Rivers and has pledged water stored in Lake Granby, valued at over $45 million, that can be released for environmental purposes.
Over the years, Northern Water learned the importance of understanding the needs of healthy rivers and watersheds. Trout Unlimited’s mission is to protect fish, but we work every day with municipalities and agricultural producers to accomplish our mission. As such, Trout Unlimited has learned to appreciate the challenges of farmers and ranchers growing our nation’s food and the challenges of water utilities providing an affordable and reliable water supply to the growing Front Range.
Colorado faces many challenges in the future, and few are as acute as meeting the state’s water demands. The bottom line is that when we work together in good faith, we often find common sense solutions to challenges for the common good.
This type of collaborative stewardship is not only the future of conservation in the West—it may be the future of the region’s survival as we wrestle with climate change and its associated droughts and fire, and a growing population. It need not be so difficult to meet the needs of people and fish. In the final analysis, we cannot meet one without the other.
Chris Wood is the president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, the nation’s leading coldwater conservation organization.
Bradley D. Wind is the general manager of Northern Water, a Berthoud-based organization that provides water to more than 1 million residents and 640,000 acres of irrigated farmland in Northern Colorado.