Wildearth Guardians among environmental groups suing to stop expansion of reservoir project
December 21, 2018
Denver Water’s long-awaited Gross Reservoir expansion hit a potential snag on Wednesday when several environmental advocacy groups filed a lawsuit in federal court in hopes of stopping the project before construction can begin.
On Wednesday a collection of six environmental advocacy groups – Save the Colorado, the Environmental Group, Wildearth Guardians, Living Rivers, Waterkeeper Alliance Inc. and the Sierra Club – filed a lawsuit in Colorado’s federal district court against the proposed Gross Reservoir Expansion Project, alternately called the Moffat Firming Project. Gary Wockner, director of Save the Colorado, explained the aim of the lawsuit.
“Our goal is to stop this project in its tracks,” Wockner stated.
The Gross Reservoir Expansion Project is a water infrastructure construction project of Denver’s municipal water supplier Denver Water. The project looks to increase the water storage capacity of Gross Reservoir, located southwest of Boulder near Pinecliffe, by an additional 77,000 acre feet; roughly tripling the reservoir’s capacity. To accomplish that goal Denver Water plans to raise the height of the Gross Dam by 131 feet. If the project does become a reality the new Gross Dam will become the tallest dam in Colorado history.
The legal process surrounding Gross Reservoir has deep significance to Grand County. The county serves as the source for much of the water Denver Water relies upon, which is transported out of the county through the Moffat Tunnel near Winter Park Resort. The county is also party to a collaborative water management group called Learning By Doing. The group looks to improve river habitat in Grand County by conducting environmental water projects and through other means.
The lawsuit filed by the environmental groups does not name Denver Water and instead is directed at the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of the Interior and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The 57-page complaint lays out 32 separate specific claims related to alleged violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
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The alleged violations claimed by the environmental groups cover a wide range of technical issues related to the formal processes by which large construction projects, such as the Gross Reservoir Expansions, are approved by federal agencies. Many of the claims made by the environmental groups revolve around allegations that the Corps of Engineers, Interior Dept. and US Fish and Wildlife failed to exercise independent judgment related to claims made by Denver Water about the project.
“Denver Water’s proposal to build the largest dam in Colorado history will hurt the 40 million people in six states and two countries who depend on the Colorado River – a critical but disappearing, resource – for their water supply,” said Daniel E. Estrin, general counsel and advocacy director at Waterkeeper Alliance. “Waterkeeper Alliance stands united with our many Colorado River Basin Waterkeepers who are fighting to protect their waterways and their communities from this senseless and destructive water grab.”
For their part officials from Denver Water said the court filing did not surprise them.
“We expected it,” Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, said. “This is a really critical project for Denver Water. In the last 15 years we have come close to running out of water a couple of time at the north end of the system.”
Lochhead noted that those two incidents came in 2002 and 2013.
While Denver Water is not directly named in the lawsuit Lochhead said the organization will be entering the lawsuit to “provide our own perspective on the adequacy of the approvals.”
“We are confident the federal agencies follow regulations and federal law,” Lochhead said. “I think a court will uphold the findings by those agencies.”
When asked whether he believed Denver Water and the environmental groups who oppose the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project could reach some form of compromise agreement Lochhead answered, saying, “I think their position is pretty clear.”
In July 2017 Denver Water received its second-to-last permit approval for the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project. The project is still awaiting final approval of a hydropower license amendment application before any construction can begin on the project. Lochhead said Denver Water anticipates receiving final permit approval “really any time.”
Through Learning By Doing, Denver Water would provide Grand County with funds to help cover costs related to such projects as well as releases of additional water downstream from collection points in the Denver Water diversion system to help alleviate impacts from diversions. While Denver Water has already provided some funding and additional flows the majority of the resources promised to Grand County through Learning By Doing are contingent upon completion of the Gross Reservoir Expansion.
“This project really gives us the operational flexibility to deliver on those enhancements,” Lochhead said. “If this doesn’t go forward we can’t provide those benefits to western Colorado.”
Officials from the conservation group Trout Unlimited, one of several parties in the Learning By Doing group, released a statement Wednesday opposing the lawsuit.
“The Colorado River headwaters face huge challenges, and we believe that the best hope for its future lies with collaboration among the west slope, conservation interests, and water users,” officials stated. “We’ve already seen the value of such cooperation through projects like the Fraser Flats restoration near Tabernash. The extensive mitigation and enhancement measures negotiated to benefit the Fraser and Upper Colorado hinge on approval of the Moffat Firming Project, and so we hope to see that approval move forward.”
According to Lochhead the Gross Reservoir expansion will result in additional water diversions out of Grand County only in high water years and that additional diversions would not occur in drought years.