Colorado River: Balancing river health and human need

Posted: Dec 9, 2019


When is a river no longer a river? Once its ecosystem has dried up, forcing the few remaining native species to struggle for survival? Or does a river become something else when it no longer has any use for people? Perhaps we will only notice the loss of a river when it no longer provides the escape and solitude to those of us fortunate enough to enjoy it.

Anyone who visits what used to be the Colorado River Delta knows what a dead river looks like. At its end, the once great river becomes a mere trickle, divided into many irrigation ditches in the Mexican desert. While many bemoan the loss of the delta’s natural state, the real battle is now far upstream in the Colorado Rockies. Here, where the Fraser River meets the Colorado River, it is now feared that two new water projects could threaten the delicate ecosystem at the headwaters, impacting local economies and prized fly-fishing areas.

The threat comes from two of the biggest water utilities in Colorado, Denver Water and the Northern Conservancy District, who face the challenge of supplying a growing population with a shrinking supply of water. Therefore, they are focusing on future water projects that will produce the most water, cost the least, and cause minimal political fallout. Previous attempts have taught these utilities that this means improving upon already established water collection systems or making small reservoirs that add onto these systems instead of creating large new reservoirs.

For Denver Water, the most logical choice is to increase the size of the Gross Dam by 125 feet to siphon an extra 18,000 acre-feet of Fraser River water a year through the Moffat Collection System. In conjunction with this plan, Northern is hoping to take an additional 30,000 acre-feet from the Colorado below its confluence with the Fraser, and pumping it through its Windy Gap distribution system and storing it in the proposed Chimney Hollow Reservoir, located on the east slope by Carter Lake. For these utilities these projects are perfect as they both involve minimal investment in new infrastructure and don’t require the damming of a new river, which makes them more politically palatable.

However, these projects potentially have large environmental costs. Denver Water is already taking 60 percent of the Fraser's native flows, and after the Gross Dam project is completed, they will be taking 80 percent. The river’s ecosystem is already struggling, and removing half of what’s left will only imperil it further. As it stands, the Fraser’s temperature has been rising to levels that have led to increased algal blooms and killed off many of the prized trout that bring people to the area and keep the local economy rolling.

According to Jeff Ehlert, the Fraser and upper Colorado “is a system that is on the brink of collapse. If more water is taken out of it we could lose this fishery altogether.” On top of this, further reduction of stream flows could lead to dangerously high levels of bacteria below the sewage treatment plants, making the river unswimmable without installing state of the art facilities.

Denver Water and Northern have produced a mitigation plan that includes dealing with the temperature issues by bypassing a 250-foot section of the river to cool the water, and enhancing the river through whatever methods prove to work best in the long run. This plan appears to have initial approval from the Colorado Wildlife Commission. Many anglers and others fear that this will not be enough to ensure the health of the river. Instead, they want to see funds set aside, if things go wrong, to address any unforeseen issues and to do some baseline monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to restore the rivers to health. According to Mely Whiting of Trout Unlimited, “You have to have public accountability. The public has to have the ability to say, ‘Hey, you’re not doing it right.’”

The simple reality is that we will need water to supply the huge number of people who are moving here in the next 40 years. Denver Water and Northern have the power and money to get it and, barring a repeat of Two Forks, they will. At the same time, we are at a critical point where we must ask how much water is needed to keep our rivers and their ecosystems healthy. As those who use the rivers for both play and daily life, it is our responsibility to ensure that these projects and plans are structured to ensure an optimum balance between our increasing need for water and the health of our rivers.

Fortunately, these projects are still in a phase where the public can make their voices heard. By sending a comment to the Colorado Wildlife Commission, you can ensure that those who are deciding the future of these rivers know their mitigation plans should include a strong focus on the protection of the river, while allowing for future growth across the state. These may seem like two opposing ideas, but we need to find a way co-exist, for our sake as well as for the sake of the river.

Learn how to write an awesome comment or, if you already know what you want to say, make your voice heard by emailing the Colorado Wildlife Commission.

-Nevill Wilder

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