Trans-mountain diversions that supply agricultural and municipal water to Northern Colorado and the Front Range have had a significant impact on agriculture and aquatic resources in the headwaters of the Colorado River. After years of dispute, an array of partners representing local agriculture, local government, water providers, and conservation groups have come together to implement the Colorado River Headwaters Project.
The Project consists of three parts: (1) a bypass channel to reconnect the Colorado River; (2) channel and habitat improvement downstream of the bypass (Habitat Project); and (3) projects to improve irrigation, soil and water quality, and aquatic habitat downstream of the Habitat Project (ILVK projects).
When fully implemented, the Project will directly benefit 30 miles of the Colorado River and 4,500 acres of irrigated lands that provide sage grouse habitat. Up to 11,000 acre-feet of water will be available to improve the river during low flow conditions. The benefits of the project will extend from the headwaters to the state line and beyond. Communities, farms and ranches in Northern Colorado will also benefit as the implementation of the Project will enable additional trans-mountain diversions to firm up their water supplies. The project will help local communities, demonstrate innovative solutions benefiting working lands and rivers, and leverage funding to restore the headwaters of America's hardest-working river.
In an era of divisive water battles in the arid West, the Colorado River Headwaters Project stands as a shining example of what can be achieved with cooperation and some creativity among water users.
Windy Gap Reservoir Bypass (a.k.a. Connectivity Channel)
Windy Gap Reservoir is a shallow reservoir that increases stream temperature, releases sediment and organic matter into the Colorado River, and blocks movement of fish and other aquatic organisms. Stream health and the aquatic environment in this state-designated Gold Medal Trout Fishery has significantly declined since the reservoir came on line in the mid-1980s.
The goal of the Bypass project is to create a channel around Windy Gap Reservoir so as to eliminate the reservoir’s negative impacts. Following years of heated dispute, the Bypass Partners have come together with the common goal of improving conditions in the Colorado River downstream of the reservoir.
After extensive study, the Bypass was unanimously selected as the best alternative to restore these valuable fisheries and the health of the Colorado River. The total cost of the project is currently estimated at $15 million. A total of $13 million have been committed to the project so far. The partners are actively seeking funding for the remaining $2 million needed to build the project.
Colorado River Habitat Restoration
Currently, over 65% of the native flows of the Colorado River (as measured downstream of Windy Gap Reservoir) are transported across the Continental Divide for use in the Front Range and Northern Colorado. This dramatic flow reduction has left the river channel overly wide and shallow, creating poor aquatic habitat conditions.
The Colorado River Habitat Restoration project aims at improving the Colorado River channel downstream of Windy Gap Reservoir to improve aquatic habitat and restore river health. Approximately $1.2 million have been committed by Denver Water and Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District to this portion of the project.
Irrigators of Lands in the Vicinity of Kremmling (ILVK) Project
The Irrigators of the Lands in the Vicinity of Kremmling (ILVK) consist of 12 ranches and BLM land spanning over 12 miles of the Colorado River and 1.5 miles of the Blue River. Impacts to these ranches, formerly irrigated by natural flooding of the Colorado River, was specifically recognized in Senate Document 80, the document that created the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, and provision was made for the installation of irrigation pumps to enable irrigation in light of the anticipated reduction of Colorado River flows. As flows in the Colorado River dwindle due to trans-mountain diversions, the ranchers have been experiencing unsustainable problems with the elevation of the intakes and pump operations.
The ILVK Project is a collaborative effort to create solutions in the Colorado River for agriculture, soil and water quality, and aquatic habitat. The Project will create structures that will improve both irrigation and riparian/aquatic habitat. The solutions to the irrigation problems need to work within the overall river system, be sustainable, cost-effective and reduce long-term operations and maintenance. A systems-based approach to resolving the irrigation issues will directly impact other functions of the river such as flood conveyance, riparian and aquatic habitat, and sediment transport.
This project seeks funds for a long-term, regional effort to restore 12 miles of the Colorado River, 1.5 miles of the Blue River, and agricultural operations impacted by trans-mountain diversions. With support from an array of partners, the goals of the ILVK Project are to implement specific on-the-ground measures that address both irrigation and aquatic habitat issues and demonstrate that a healthy river is capable of providing multiple benefits to sustain agricultural, aquatic and wildlife habitat and recreation.
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, Municipal Subdistrict
Upper Colorado River Alliance
Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Colorado Water Conservation Board
Colorado River Water Conservation District
Colorado River Basin Roundtable
Middle Park Water Conservancy District
Irrigators of Lands in the Vicinity of Kremmling (ILVK)
American Rivers (ILVK project)
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Gates Family Foundation