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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 Agree To Drop Lawsuit Challenging Windy Gap Project

Windy Gap Reservoir, near the Colorado River's headwaters, has been cited as the cause of declining numbers of aquatic insects downstream of its confluence with the Fraser River.
Nick Cote for KUNC
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Windy Gap Reservoir, near the Colorado River's headwaters, has been cited as the cause of declining numbers of aquatic insects downstream of its confluence with the Fraser River.

Environmental groups suing to halt construction of the Windy Gap Firming Project in Northern Colorado have agreed to drop their case in exchange for $15 million to address concerns about the proposed project’s water quality and ecological effects.

The Windy Gap Firming Project includes the construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir west of Loveland. The new reservoir would hold water transported across the Continental Divide from the series of reservoirs at the Colorado River’s headwaters in Grand County. The stored water would be set aside for a group of growing Front Range cities.

Environmental groups, including WildEarth Guardians, Save the Colorado, Save The Poudre, Sierra Club, Living Rivers, and the Waterkeeper Alliance, filed a lawsuit in Oct. 2017 challenging the project’s federal permits. A federal judge in Dec. 2020 ruled against the environmental groups.

In a settlement reached with Northern Water — the agency pursuing Windy Gap on behalf of a municipal subdistrict of Front Range water providers — the environmental coalition agreed to withdraw their lawsuit, while securing $15 million for projects aimed at improving water quality, river health and fish habitat. The Grand Foundation in Grand County, Colo. will be the recipient of those funds. An advisory panel will be made up of representatives appointed by Northern Water and the environmental groups, and will decide how the money is spent. The funds will be issued in installments as the project is built.

The additional environmental mitigation joins other projects already negotiated between Grand County, Trout Unlimited and Northern Water, among other partners. Trout Unlimited receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

That previously agreed to package of environmental mitigation includes the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, which is to be constructed around the existing Windy Gap dam and reservoir, and is designed to reconnect a portion of the Colorado River below its confluence with the Fraser River. The channel is meant to allow for more natural conditions to return, like allowing sediment to move downstream and providing more habitat for fish and aquatic insects. Monitoring programs and riparian restoration were also a part of the deal negotiated among those parties.

The connectivity channel was a recent recipient of a $1 million grant from the Colorado River District, becoming the first project to receive funds generated from ballot question 7A which appeared on the Nov. 2020 ballot in the district’s boundaries.

The settlement agreement signed this week signals the end of a years-long legal battle to build in some environmental protections to the Windy Gap Firming Project’s construction and operation.

Despite the additional funding, representatives from the environmental coalition that sued to halt construction remained alarmed about the project’s legal success, and said the $15 million is a drop in the bucket.

“This is not a win or a victory, but rather a minimally cushioned severe loss for the future of the Colorado River and rivers in the West,” said Gary Wockner, director of Save the Colorado in a statement. “We don’t expect any miracles from $15 million, but we hope the advisors to the fund can come up with some projects that constructively address the massive negative impacts caused by the Windy Gap Firming Project.”

Northern Water plans to begin construction on the Chimney Hollow dam this summer and on the Colorado River Connectivity Channel in 2022.

“This settlement shows there is an alternative to costly litigation that can provide benefits both to the environment in Grand County and the Colorado River, as well as acknowledging the need for water storage,” said Northern Water General Manager Brad Wind in a statement.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. 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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