One Step Forward, Into the Wind

By Sarah Harvey

After more than a decade of negotiations and permitting, the Windy Gap Firming Project is preparing to move forward, despite pending litigation.

Currently, the Windy Gap Project consists of a diversion dam and pump plant built in the 1980s. This system delivers water from the Colorado River to Lake Granby, where the water is stored before being piped across the Continental Divide to Front Range communities. In low-runoff years the water cannot be diverted because of Windy Gap’s relatively junior water rights, but wet years also pose an issue. Since there is no storage for the project on the Eastern Slope, the pump plant is unable to operate once Lake Granby is full.

The Windy Gap Firming Project is a series of proposed updates to the existing system, and includes plans for a new East Slope reservoir. If the project moves forward, Chimney Hollow, the new 90,000 acre-foot reservoir, will be constructed southwest of Loveland to provide storage space for water diverted for use by 12 fast-growing Front Range communities, creating an annual yield of about 30,000 acre-feet.

Environmentalists have long been divided over Windy Gap. Conservation organization Trout Unlimited objected to the Windy Gap Firming Project at first, but ultimately collaborated with water managers on several settlements for the project. “When we evaluated the whole big picture and asked, ‘What’s best for the Colorado River?’ The answer—reaching this agreement—was much better than fighting the project itself,” says Mely Whiting, legal counsel for Trout Unlimited.

One of the key settlement items, a bypass channel around Windy Gap Reservoir on the West Slope, will reconnect the Colorado River, allowing flows, fish and sediment to move unimpeded down the river. The channel will also expand riparian habitat and isolate the reservoir from the river so that problems with temperature, nutrients and algae don’t affect the Colorado River.

Others still have concerns about the project’s environmental impacts. In fall 2017 a coalition of environmental groups, including Save the Colorado and Save the Poudre—both led by executive director Gary Wockner—along with WildEarth Guardians, Living Rivers, and Waterkeeper Alliance filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers challenging their analysis of need for the diversion and sufficiency of environmental review. Since the filing, the Sierra Club has also signed onto the suit.

In the meantime, Northern Water is hoping to start construction by late 2018, or, more likely, early 2019. Construction is anticipated to take three to four years.