Coloradans partner to fix Colorado River
February 6, 2017
The problems ranchers in Kremmling, Colo., faced along the Colorado River have been years in the making.
The river is part of a changing system that included water from the Colorado River being affected by three different trans mountain diversions: Moffat, Windy Gap and the Colorado-Big Thompson project.
"We've been well aware of the impact, as well as many others, of these diversions to flows, to fish, to water quality, to river function and to agriculture," said Matt Rice, director of the Colorado River Basin Program for American Rivers.
About six years ago the problems finally got to the point where the interest of getting that stretch of the Colorado River healthy again wasn't just an interest of certain groups. The problems with the Colorado River brought together a number of partners who normally are at odds with each other. That's because there were three main problems that needed to be addressed.
“All these diverse interests coming together to work and make the river better off, it’s really gratifying, and
— to me
— it’s the coolest part of the project.”
There are six ranchers in Kremmling, including Paul Bruchez, who live along the river, and among them they have 13 pumps. But the way the Colorado River was flowing — well, not flowing — there was one rancher, Bill Thompson, who could no longer pump to irrigate his land. There is a point in the river where it's about 220 feet wide, and the water flows 150 cubic feet per second. According to Bruchez, the deepest spot was about 6 inches deep. Six inches is not deep enough to pump.
That's at the lower end of the river.
Bruchez said they knew water levels would become a problem, stemming from trans mountain diversions, which shift the natural water flow. This leads to what is called "death by a thousand cuts," which is when different municipalities start taking just a little bit more and a little bit more, which hurts the aquatic system of the river, including the water levels.
"In 1980, there were some aquatic biologists that were fearful that Windy Gap would be the straw that would break the back of the Colorado River, as far as its health," Bruchez said.
Windy Gap was the last project to be implemented, with construction beginning July 1981 and finishing July 1985, according to Northern Water's website. The problem was finally seen when there was the first large drought in Colorado since the early 80s. The diversion dams project was built and worked during the wet years in the late 80s and 90s. Then drought hit in 2001, and the ranchers learned how dire the situation was.
It got to the point where those irrigating from the Colorado River needed to start using the main stem of the water from the river. That means, simply, there isn't enough water for all the users.
"So when you have a fixed-station pump, and you're trying to go chase water in the Colorado River, the very fact we're even talking about draining the main stem of the water of the Colorado River to make a legitimate call to the state that there's not enough water in the system to use, to irrigate, kind of makes it's own point, if you will," Bruchez said. "That's a scary day that we're even talking about drowning the main stem of the Colorado River to irrigate our ranch."
TRANS MOUNTAIN DIVERSIONS
With the trans mountain diversions, there is a large amount of water that doesn't flow down the Colorado to the Kremmling area like it's supposed to — roughly 60 to 65 percent of the water isn't going that way.
Through a Colorado Water Conservation Board grant it was determined the problems weren't all linked to the diversions. In the early 1900s, someone managed to eliminate more than a mile of the river forcing it to adjust, and then further barricades were made that also affected the flow.
That plays a big part in the overall health of the river and aquatic life as well. It stems back to the blocked river.
"There's no connectivity of transports, no fish migration, no bug migration and because of how it sits, it's a no-win situation because if (Northern Water) bottom dumps, it tends to release a ridiculous amount of sediments, smaller grains, smaller sized sediment into the river. If they top dump, then water temperatures are much warmer than they otherwise would be naturally," Bruchez said.
This is why conservation groups like Trout Unlimited and American Rivers got involved. They saw the quality of the river needed to improve.
"When we were seeing these low flows due to the diversions, there was a temperature hike and the fish populations were declining," said Drew Peternell, director of Trout Unlimited Colorado Water Project.
Peternell said Trout Unlimited's involvement started when Northern and Denver Water wanted to expand their diversions. There was already the low flow and temperature problems, and expanding the diversions would only make the problems on the river worse.
Trout Unlimited was in a legal dispute regarding the Colorado River before all the groups came together to come up with a group solution. The conservation group and the companies came to a settlement in the past couple of years.
With Windy Gap, rather than adding the additional diversions, a different project will allow Northern Water to do what it needs with the reservoir without continuing or worsening the problems along the Colorado River.
To see how badly the Colorado River was affected, a study was done that mirrored one done by biologists who said Windy Gap might be the tipping point for Colorado River problems in the 1980s.
They looked at the health of the river, and one way they were able to do that was through a stonefly count, which consists of monitoring insects — which trout eat — to assess the health of the river. A healthy river will have more stoneflies. They did this and focused on a number of riffles in the river. A riffle is a shallow part of a river, and what they found in the 2011 replication study, was that there was not just a decrease in stoneflies, but also none at the very bottom riffle — which is where Thompson was supposed to be irrigating his land.
Now throughout this process, Bruchez said it was hard to get some of the ranchers to agree to work with some of the conservation groups.
But the Thompson family couldn't irrigate anymore, so they became the guinea pigs to see how the groups addressed the problem in the long-term.
"It's anything from additional riffles to bank stabilization," Bruchez said. "What the project is really all about is getting that water table back up to its natural, historic water table."
They implemented more riffles in order to help push the water back and create a low flow channel of the river. This, essentially, takes the river from 220 feet wide to 80 feet wide. That's how they get the deeper water.
The deep water is key to keeping the water temperatures down, which allows trout and bugs to thrive while preventing algae growth.
And with Northern Water wanting to expand, still, there is going to be a Windy Gap bypass, known as the Windy Gap Connectivity Channel. The channel will fix the way the reservoir cuts preventing the downstream water from getting to the river — that 60 to 65 percent that wasn't flowing downstream.
PARTNERSHIPS, LASTING AFFECTS
One of the unique parts of the project was the collaboration of the groups involved. Ranchers, Grand County officials, Trout Unlimited, Colorado Rivers, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Northern Water, Denver Water, Colorado Conservation Board and more came together to find a way to fix the system.
These partnerships helped all parties involved apply and get approved for a number of funding opportunities — the ranchers and other parties also raised a substantial amount of funds to match some of those funds.
"It's pretty remarkable in my eyes that the very municipal water providers and trans mountain diverters … and water Northern provides also goes to agriculture on the Front Range … but all these different organizations, we're friends now. We're looking at this saying it's a resource concern here with the intent of the original contrast, how do we make this happen to where we have a good solution," Bruchez said.
About $5.2 million will go to the Windy Gap bypass, and $2.5 million from the Natural Resources Conservation Service will fund the repairing of the land and river the ranchers use.
But some of the grants and funding might not have come through had it not been for the partnerships. Seeing the common interest among these diverse groups emphasized the importance of the project for multiple reasons — not just one or two wants.
"All these diverse interests coming together to work and make the river better off, it's really gratifying, and — to me — it's the coolest part of the project," Peternell said. ❖