EPA wants further review of water-diversion project to protect Colorado River

02-17-2012 // Bruce Finley - The Denver Post

This excerpt is from The Denver Post

Federal authorities say a long-planned project to divert more western Colorado water to growing Front Range suburbs may cause "significant degradation" of already deteriorating ecosystems along the upper Colorado River.

An Environmental Protection Agency review of data used in planning the project found mathematical errors and a downplaying of "critical adverse impacts" from the $270 million project, which Colorado leaders consider crucial for millions of residents.

EPA reviewers cited a separate 2011 state study that documented the disappearance of all native sculpin fish and 38 percent of aquatic insect species over 20 years as a result of existing water diversions.

An EPA document, sent to federal permitting authorities last week, recommends further analysis of the Northern Water Conservancy District's Windy Gap Firming Project to prevent new violations of state water-quality standards and "a more robust monitoring and mitigation plan" to protect the river.

"The EPA has not recommended delaying this project," EPA regional administrator Jim Martin said. "Our recommendations are intended to provide a path forward that also protects the Colorado River."

But Gov. John Hickenlooper contends the current project plan "comprehensively addresses impacts to Colorado's fish and wildlife." This week, state officials stood by that position.

Colorado Department of Natural Resources executive director Mike King discussed the diversion recently with U.S. Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary Anne Castle.

This week, he was unavailable to comment. His spokesman said the state believes the current plan "strikes the difficult balance" of supplying more water to Front Range cities while protecting the river.

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Conservation groups say the EPA review backs what they have been saying for years.

They are hoping the report will bolster their push for a bypass around Windy Gap Reservoir, which has broken the flow of the river. They also want to make sure at least 2,400 acre-feet of water — or 1,200 cubic feet per second — is released every other year to clear sediment. The state's own study found such flushing flows are essential. But the Northern Water Conservancy District has agreed to devote only about half that much water to ensure ecosystem health.

"This project could be done in a way where the Front Range gets its water and the river is protected. But to do that, we need more mitigation and monitoring. You have to make sure you have enough high flows," said Trout Unlimited attorney Mely Whiting. "Our hope is to have folks see the light on this and come to an agreement. Litigation is an option."

The National Wildlife Federation supports "any mitigation measures that will increase flushing flows adequately," regional representative John Gale said. Otherwise, "the proposed firming projects at Windy Gap and the Moffat Tunnel are only going to exacerbate" the damage.

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