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Plan to reconnect the Colorado River for the first time since 1985 gets major donation

Plan championed by Trout Unlimited for 1-mile channel around Windy Gap Reservoir would restore flows and allow fish passage

Windy Gap Reservoir, built in 1985, blocks the Colorado River and inhibits a healthy fishery. A new channel around the reservoir will improve the health of the Upper Colorado River. (Provided by Trout Unlimited)
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A brand new stretch of the Colorado River is closer to reality in Grand County. 

A $2 million donation by PepsiCo has pushed a consortium led by Trout Unlimited closer to its $27.1 million plan to build a 1-mile channel around the Windy Gap Reservoir, which has blocked fish passage and separated the river since it was built in 1985. 

“It’s a very generous contribution,” said Mely Whiting, the attorney for Trout Unlimited who has led the Colorado River Headwaters Connectivity Project for more than a decade. “We are close. So close to a new mile of the Colorado River.”

Northern Water’s Windy Gap Reservoir has never been popular. It cuts the Colorado River in half, preventing unfettered flows and injuring trout populations. In the early 2000s, biologists found Windy Gap Reservoir, below Granby, harbored the worms with the parasites that cause whirling disease and was a major contributor to infecting wild rainbow trout populations in the Upper Colorado River.

For more than a decade, a group of water protectors, anglers and local landowners and communities have worked with Northern Water to change the reservoir. Windy Gap is where Northern Water collects water it pumps under the Continental Divide to serve more than 1 million municipal and agricultural users on the northern Front Range.

The new river channel stems from Northern Water’s need to improve the 420 acre-foot Windy Gap Reservoir, which will soon divert water to the district’s under-construction 90,000 acre-foot Chimney Hollow Reservoir in Larimer County, west of Carter Lake. The plan, which has been under environmental review by the Natural Resources Conservation Service for several years, narrows the reservoir, raises the dam, adjusts how the Fraser Rivers flows into the impoundment and builds a new channel for the Colorado River on the south bank of Windy Gap. 

The Windy Gap Pumping Plant on Windy Gap Reservoir, near Granby in Grand County. (Photo provided by the Colorado River District.)

The mile-long channel would restore consistent flows on the Upper Colorado River, create about 18 acres of new wetlands and restore about 50 acres of riverside habitat. It does not impact Northern Water’s ability to collect its water or change the distribution of water. 

Public comment on the 147-page Draft Environmental Assessment of the plan closed earlier this month and Whiting said the comments “across the board were positive,” with widespread support for the new channel. If all goes well, Trout Unlimited, Grand County and Northern Water could break ground on the new stretch of river this summer with completion expected by fall 2023. 

Whiting said native grasses and shrubs planted along the banks of the new channel will take a couple years to take root before the new stretch of river opens to the public. A downstream landowner has a deal for exclusive access to a portion of the new river for 10 years before it opens to the public, but Whiting said “the majority of the river” will be available for public fishing when it opens. The mile is expected to earn Gold Medal status for anglers.

The $27 million project has garnered widespread financial support. In addition to support from the Trout Unlimited and the NRCS, downstream landowners have given $1 million to the project. The project was the first to receive funding last year — $1 million — through the Colorado River District’s Partnership Project Funding Program. 

Northern Water, which drained Windy Gap last fall in preparation for the connectivity project, has provided $2 million toward channel construction. Intel and Frito Lay have donated, but PepsiCo’s donation is the largest corporate donation, Whiting said. Other donors include Grand County, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Great Outdoors Colorado and the Gates Family Foundation. Trout Unlimited has raised about $16 million for the project and Whiting said more funding from the NRCS following its final decision could be enough to complete the project.  

Trout Unlimited has championed the new channel as a critical linchpin for a series of downstream projects that include $6 million worth of habitat and channel improvements spread across 30 miles of the Colorado River above Kremmling. “Without it, the likelihood of success if this landscape-scale effort is dramatically reduced,” reads Trout Unlimited’s description of the connectivity project.

The $2 million donation from PepsiCo — part of the company’s goal to replenish more water than it uses by 2030 — also includes a “founding investment” in the Colorado River Basin Fund. That Denver-based fund formed last year with a plan to raise $5 million to invest in technologies and start-ups that could help conserve and protect Colorado River water. 

PepsiCo, which sells bottled water from municipal sources, also announced on Tuesday a new technology that captures steam from frying its potato chips. The new process reduces the water used by chip-making factories by 50%, the company said.


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