What is so important about a connected river? Well, to trout, there is an obvious answer: connectivity gives them the ability to survive when adversity strikes. To anglers, there is also an obvious answer: a healthy fishery translates into a better experience on the water. But there is much more to a connected river, and the Colorado River, near its headwaters, is just about to be reconnected. It’s been a long time in the making.
The Colorado River Connectivity Channel is an effort by Trout Unlimited and many other partners to reconnect a mile of the river near its headwaters. Also known as the Windy Gap Bypass Project, TU and partners aim to improve this section of river near Granby, Colo., for the benefit of trout and aquatic insects, the community and its recreation-based economy. Anglers, will also enjoy the fruits of the project, and the river will be more resilient to the impacts of climate change and wildfires along the way.
The Windy Gap Reservoir blocks the movement of fish and other aquatic organisms and degrades the downstream habitat. The health of the river below this reservoir has declined continuously since it was built in the mid-1980s, with documented losses of 38 percent of macroinvertebrate diversity — including the complete loss of giant stoneflies, the loss of native sculpin populations and the decline of trout biomass in this state-designated Gold Medal trout fishery.
Owned and operated by Northern Water, the Windy Gap reservoir collects water high in the Colorado River drainage and delivers it across the Continental Divide to provide water for more than half a million customers on Colorado’s northern Front Range. With partners across the divide and years of working to find solutions to the many problems with this system, conservation groups, local governments and local businesses among many others, took the challenges to heart to realize how this channel project will benefit many.
The goal of the CRCC is to establish a natural river channel around Windy Gap reservoir to reconnect the river and eliminate the reservoir’s negative impacts. The channel is the lynchpin connecting multiple restoration efforts including removal of fish barriers, $6 million worth of channel improvements upstream of the reservoir and floodplain reconnection projects downstream, and a series of projects designed to restore both irrigation and aquatic habitats in the town of Kremmling. These projects are expected to benefit over 30 miles of Colorado River, and they couldn’t be realized without many partners, including agricultural producers as well as the efforts of Grand County’s Learning By Doing.
Over $26 million has been committed to the project from various sources, including Northern Water, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Grand County, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, GOCO, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, Gates Family Foundation, Colorado River Alliance, and corporate and private donors. Trout Unlimited and its partners are working hard to raise the additional funds and expect to see construction starting soon and last through summer of 2023.
When complete, the project is expected to restore lost and declining aquatic species and improve the river’s resiliency in the face of increasing water diversions and climate change. The channel will be open to the public, providing over a mile of Gold Medal trout quality waters for public fishing, providing significant economic benefits to the small Grand County communities that rely on recreation.
We’ll be sharing photos and information along the progress of this massive undertaking, so be sure to follow along for updates on the project.