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Environment
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. Reporter Luke Runyon heads up our water beat, covering the Colorado River, snowpack and areas dependent on scarce water resources. We also partner with news organizations throughout the southwest to fully cover water issues in the sprawling Colorado River basin.

Federal Judge Rejects Lawsuit Challenging Windy Gap Firming Project

LightHawk
Nick Cote for KUNC/LightHawk
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Nick Cote/Aerial support provide
Windy Gap Reservoir, seen here in Sept. 2018, would be partially redesigned as part of the project to allow the Colorado River to bypass the storage lake.

A federal judge has rejected a challenge to the Windy Gap Firming Project, a proposed Front Range water supply project with plans to build a new dam and reservoir southwest of Loveland.

The Windy Gap Firming Project proposes to move water from the Western Slope to the planned Chimney Hollow Reservoir to satisfy demands from fast-growing cities like Longmont, Greeley, Erie and Lafayette.

Federal judge Timothy M. Tymkovich ruled in Colorado’s U.S. District Court in favor of water agencies pushing for the project, and found claims made by environmental groups to be without merit.

Environmental groups, including Save The Colorado, WildEarth Guardians and Living Rivers sued in 2017 to halt the project. They said its federal approvals were in violation of environmental law. Water to fill the new reservoir is proposed to come from the Colorado River’s headwaters in Grand County. The project also plans to benefit fish by constructing the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, a bypass around the existing Windy Gap Reservoir.

As planned, Chimney Hollow Reservoir will store 90,000 acre-feet of water for use by 12 participants, which include Front Range municipalities, energy providers and rural water districts. Northern Water is pursuing the project on behalf of those water users.

“This ruling marks an important milestone for the participants in the Windy Gap Firming Project,” Northern Water general manager Brad Wind said in a statement. “Chimney Hollow Reservoir and the Colorado River Connectivity Channel will serve as examples of how statewide cooperation can produce water supply solutions and environmental improvements that benefit everyone.”

Meanwhile, environmental groups are criticizing the ruling.

"The court decision today is disappointing," said Jen Pelz, the director of the wild river program at WildEarth Guardians, one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs. "However, it is ever more disappointing that as climate change significantly diminishes what water is left in the Colorado River that we continue to use tired solutions of pouring concrete for dams and diversions instead of finding a new sustainable path forward.”

Pelz said the plaintiffs will review the opinion before making a decision whether to appeal.

A contractor to build Chimney Hollow Dam has already been chosen, and construction is slated to begin in 2021.

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

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