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These reservoirs near Granby, combined with Denver’s diversions from the Fraser and Williams Fork valleys through the Moffat Tunnel, remove 60 percent of the Colorado River’s flows near its headwaters before it has a chance to fully flex any muscle. The river segment from Granby to Kremmling was long ago declared a Gold Medal trout fishery by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, and in some years it still can be. But in 2006, for many reasons that unwelcomingly aligned, the river was reduced to little more than wet rocks. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which operates the Colorado Big-Thompson Project in conjunction with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, is required to release just 20 cfs from Granby Reservoir, and that’s about all that was in the river for the 28 miles between Windy Gap and Kremmling, where it is fortified by the Blue River and Muddy Creek. Pumps used by ranchers to irrigate their hay fields were left high and dry. Moss created in the low water and high temperatures was everywhere—and it stank. Anglers went home, and county officials went to work. Grand County that year secured water, now up to 3,500 acre feet annually, from surpluses at Windy Gap Reservoir. For $75,000 each year in electricity, the water is pumped back up to Granby Reservoir for storage until late summer, when it is released. This dribble can double the river’s flow, giving brown trout a place, as W.C. Fields said, “to do it.” Taxpayers have told county commissioners that the pumping costs are money well spent, says Lurline UnderbrinkCurran, county manager. And now, at least in late summer, Grand County’s status has routinely become part of the Phone Call.

Peter McBride (2)

Rights to river water

Boating down Gore Canyon’s steep chasm (above) is not for the faint of heart. While working on Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict with photographer Peter McBride, author Jonathan Waterman hangs onto his guide, who attempts to free their boat (below). The canyon is run only at specific water levels where boaters can safely navigate dangerous, jagged rocks like these, remnants of railroad bed construction.

The broader brushes of the Colorado River Basin are painted boldly by large transmountain diversions, as well as other major water rights and sizeable dams. More than a dozen ditches, tunnels and other devices defy the central definition of the Continental Divide in parting the ways between those of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. From the perspective of many who live on the Western Slope, this all amounts to moral grand larceny, whatever else the Colorado Constitution may say about the right to appropriate water never being denied. Regardless of end use, dams are indispensable to the Phone Call’s goal of ensuring sufficient flows reach the endangered fish in the Grand Valley while protecting other water uses. Five of the six largest reservoirs—Granby, Williams Fork and Wolford, plus Dillon and Green Mountain—are clustered in the broad basin upstream from Gore Canyon, the region most heavily tapped for diversions to the Eastern Slope. The sixth, Ruedi, is near Basalt. The federal government has a powerful hand on the levers of this plumbing. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees interests of the fish, having say-so in how much water must be delivered downstream. It does so steadily, if with some restraint. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation owns and manages two key dams. Ruedi Reservoir was built to serve the needs of Western Slope residents as mitigation for transbasin diversions through the federally-financed Fryingpan-Arkansas Project. Green Mountain Reservoir, which is older and larger, similarly was built to accommodate Western Slope parties in compensation for the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. Green Mountain Reservoir last year contributed 59 percent of the 97,575 acre feet released from reservoirs either directly or indirectly to benefit the fish at Grand Junction, while Ruedi Reservoir delivered another 21 percent. The balance came from Wolford Mountain, Williams Fork and Granby reservoirs. Because of this strong federal presence, Ron Thomasson, calling in from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation office in Loveland, moderates the Phone Call. He is politely but firmly insistent on forging consensus about how to get water to the fish. “There were some difficulties in the early years,” he says, “but a significant

Headwaters | Summer 2011


Profile for Water Education Colorado

Headwaters Summer 2011: The Mighty Colorado  

As the Colorado River flows through its seven-state, canyon carving traverse, it is tapped and retapped-- supporting acres of irrigated agri...

Headwaters Summer 2011: The Mighty Colorado  

As the Colorado River flows through its seven-state, canyon carving traverse, it is tapped and retapped-- supporting acres of irrigated agri...

Profile for cfwe