Gross Reservoir Expansion Project takes a giant step forward

State certification moves this critical project closer to reality, and cooperation is the key.

July 6, 2016 | By: Matt Wittern

As a native Coloradan and lifelong fly fisherman, I’ve spent a good portion of my life trying to sell trout a line. I’ve encountered many frustrated fishermen in my day, and remember too many days when I’ve counted myself among them.

No matter what you hear or read about how to be successful in the sport — tippet size, line length, fly pattern, cast placement — success all comes down to one word: approach.

Gross Reservoir has a surface area of 418 acres. Once the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project is completed an additional 424 acres will be added to the reservoir’s surface area.
Gross Reservoir, pictured here, has a surface area of 418 acres. Once the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project is completed an additional 424 acres will be added to the reservoir’s surface area. Photo credit: Denver Water.

And that same word, as it turns out, applies to how Denver Water recently secured Gov. John Hickenlooper’s endorsement and a state water quality certification for the proposed expansion of Gross Reservoir that found the project will result in a net environmental benefit for the state.

Here are the technical details: The Section 401 certification under the Federal Clean Water Act, or more succinctly, a 401 certification, comes from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The certification is one big step forward for the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project.

Without diving too much into the weeds (where personal experience teaches that you’re just going to get snagged and lose a couple flies), this is a REALLY big deal, and not just for Denver Water, but for the environment and interests on the West Slope, too.

“I think there are benefits on both sides of the Divide on this project,” said Jon Goldin-Dubois, president of Western Resource Advocates, one of Colorado’s most respected and influential environmental groups. “Denver Water has guaranteed that when there are temperature fluctuations that threaten the health of the river, there will be additional releases. In the driest years, Denver Water can release additional water downstream, and that helps rivers across the West Slope.”

Let’s face it: In the past, Denver Water’s approach to these issues has been flawed, and like a fisherman using an explosive as a so-called DuPont lure, shockwaves and damage were left in its wake. But today’s Denver Water is much more like a successful fly fisherman who takes into account the environment, notices nuances in the currents, and observes and reacts to changes in the hatch.

Denver Water changed its approach to one of cooperation and relationship building, and in so doing found solutions to this challenging project.

Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead (left), accepts the 2016 River Stewardship Award from Colorado Trout Unlimited executive director David Nickum.
Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead (left) accepts the 2016 River Stewardship Award from David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited. Photo credit: Denver Water.

“We were involved in a very lengthy battle with Denver Water over the Two Forks project some 25 years ago,” recalled David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited.

“At that time, the idea of Trout Unlimited and Denver Water working together would have been difficult to imagine. I think that we’ve seen just a sea change in Denver’s attitude toward really trying to work with partners in those basins, to understand that those are legitimate concerns and considerations — that we can actually achieve win-wins by all working together, listening to each other, understanding our various concerns and looking at the fact that we do have a common interest in watersheds like the Fraser.”

The conditions included in the 401 certification provide for long-term monitoring of stream temperature, nutrients, metals and aquatic life with an adaptive management strategy for responding to water quality impairments, if detected. The certification builds upon the cooperative process that helped get us here and the manner in which fishermen hone their skills in the sport. It’s called Learning By Doing.

The state health department describes Learning By Doing as:

… a cooperative process that has a goal of maintaining or improving the “stream environment” in the project area. An adaptive management strategy is employed to make decisions about allocating resources to meet the goal. The management committee includes representatives from Denver Water, Grand County, the Colorado River Conservation District, Middle Park Water Conservancy District, Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Municipal Subdistrict), Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and Trout Unlimited.

Beyond working collaboratively, Denver Water has made additional commitments and earmarked millions of dollars in funding to enhance the environment as part of our broader approach to secure approval for the project. These include committing additional funds to multiple water improvement and stream restoration efforts in collaboration with West Slope county officials, Trout Unlimited and other interested parties.

Kind of like when you hook a magnificent trout with a perfect cast, this approach is instructive, rewarding and encourages us to do it more.

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