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Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide communities. As an imbalance between water supplies and demands grows in the region, KUNC is committed to covering the stories that emerge.

Environmental Groups Sue In Attempt To Halt Windy Gap Water Diversion

Courtesy Northern Water
Windy Gap Reservoir sits outside Granby, Colo. and is one of the smallest reservoirs within the Colorado-Big Thompson project.

In an attempt to halt the construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir outside Loveland, and the diversion of Western Slope water to the Front Range, environmental groups filed a lawsuit Thursday against the federal government, saying an environmental analysis on the Windy Gap Firming Project failed to provide enough viable alternatives.

The environmental coalition, led by Fort Collins-based Save The Colorado and aided by the University of Denver College of Law’s Environmental Law Clinic, sued both the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers for what it says were faulty federal permits to build the project. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District proposed the Windy Gap Firming Project.

The National Environmental Protection Act requires applications for large-scale water projects to include a section detailing alternatives to the project. That way permitting agencies can assess whether new reservoirs and diversions are necessary.

“The Bureau of Reclamation did not do that at all,” says Gary Wockner, director of Save The Colorado. “The only options they looked at were continuing to further drain the Colorado River.”

The 12 Front Range cities and water districts that would receive water from the beefed-up Windy Gap project could find water savings in conservation and increased efficiency, rather than building new reservoirs, Wockner says.

“This is just bad water policy,” Wockner says. “Continuing to drain rivers to try to serve water to growing cities on the Front Range is just a 19th century idea for crying out loud.”

Brian Werner, a Northern Water spokesman, says the project is emblematic of a new way to gain consensus on water projects in the arid state.

“We’re confident that this had the best fish and wildlife mitigation plan ever put together in the state of Colorado,” Werner says. “We got all the mainstream environmentalists on board with this project.”

The planning and design process for Chimney Hollow Reservoir has already started and the lawsuit wouldn’t put an immediate halt to its construction, which is slated to begin in late 2018. Werner says this lawsuit won’t slow it down.

“We’re moving forward on the project,” he says.

The Windy Gap Firming Project builds upon existing infrastructure that straddles the Continental Divide near Granby. Windy Gap Reservoir gathers water for transport to Lake Granby, which is then pumped through tunnels to Front Range reservoirs. In years with high snowpack, water managers say they’re unable to fill Lake Granby further and the water just flows downstream. With Chimney Hollow built, that overflow water could be moved to the Front Range for use in fast-growing cities like Greeley, Loveland and Broomfield.

The lawsuit’s plaintiffs include Save The Colorado, Save The Poudre, WildEarth Guardians, Living Rivers and Waterkeeper Alliance.

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content. 

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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