Group flags Upper Colorado Rivers as ‘endangered’ |

Group flags Upper Colorado Rivers as ‘endangered’

Julie Sutor
Summit correspondent
Summit Daily file photoRafting on the Upper Colorado

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado – New water diversions could sap the life from the Upper Colorado River Basin, according American Rivers, a national conservation group.

The organization declared the Upper Colorado the U.S.’s sixth most endangered river earlier this month in its annual survey of the health of the nation’s rivers.

“We can’t continue to take and take water from the Upper Colorado without accounting for the serious impacts to fish and wildlife habitat,” said Ken Neubecker of Colorado Trout Unlimited. “This river is on the brink. A vibrant, healthy river system in the Upper Colorado is every bit as important to the future of Colorado as the water it supplies to our farms and cities.”

Neubecker nominated the Upper Colorado for its designation on American Rivers’ 2010 list.

The diversions of concern to conservation groups (and headwaters communities like Summit County) are the proposed Moffat Project and Windy Gap Firming Project. Both proposals would expand reservoir storage capacity on the Front Range to move more West Slope water from the Colorado River and its tributaries, including the Blue River in Summit County and the Fraser River and Williams Fork in Grand County.

Denver Water and Northern Water, the two Front Range water providers behind the projects, say habitat protection and water conservation are big priorities, and such principles already figure into their project plans and their daily operations.

“I think we’re going to take care of a lot of their concerns,” Northern Water spokesman Brian Werner said of the Windy Gap Firming Project, which would increase supply for a number of Front Range communities including Loveland, Broomfield, Longmont and Greeley. “We’ve been working long and hard to reach some West Slope compromises, and we’ve proposed some stuff that’s never been proposed in this state before, in terms of taking care of the Upper Colorado.”

However, water suppliers don’t have unlimited funds for environmental measures that would offset the impacts of diversions. And the agencies’ primary obligations are to an ever-growing population of water consumers – not to the river ecosystem.

“We value all the streams and rivers that feed into our system, and we work with diverse stakeholders to protect them,” said Stacy Chesney, Denver Water spokeswoman. “These are ongoing efforts we make not just related to the Moffat Project or the Upper Colorado. But everyone consumes water every day, and a water utility has a responsibility to bring water to its customers.”

More conservation needed

According to Trout Unlimited’s Neubecker, both Denver Water and Northern Water have made great strides in water conservation, but much more needs to be done, both in raising awareness and curtailing use. To wit, about half of residential water use in the Front Range is for irrigating lawns and outdoor landscaping.

“We’re getting to a point in this state where people are going to have to make a decision between our lawns and our rivers. But most people on the Front Range have no idea where their water comes from and what the impacts are right across the Divide,” Neubecker said.

Neubecker doesn’t feel either the Moffat Project or the Windy Gap Project necessarily equates to a death sentence for the Upper Colorado. On the contrary, if done in the right way, both have the potential to enhance protections for the river’s aquatic ecosystem and adjacent riparian habitat. But for that to happen, he says, the projects must do two things: First, they should take into account the cumulative environmental impacts of existing water diversions and not just examine the impacts of the proposed projects in a vacuum. The Colorado headwaters have been subject to major water depletions for more than 100 years, and wildlife has paid the price, according to American Rivers. Second, guidelines for future diversions and flow management should be flexible enough to adjust for unforeseen environmental impacts – a concept called “adaptive management” – something Werner said Northern Water supports.

“We need to have some serious and meaningful mitigations and have the proponents of these projects recognize the impacts they’re having on these rivers beyond the narrow legal concepts under Colorado water law. Lawns recover a lot faster than rivers do. For a river to lose that water is a matter of life and death,” Neubecker said.

SDN reporter Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-4630 or

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