Washington, D.C. — Today, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet celebrated the final authorization of construction and the receipt of $8.4 million for the Colorado River Connectivity Channel project at Windy Gap in Grand County.
“I’m grateful for the hard work of Northern Water, Grand County, Trout Unlimited, Colorado River District, Colorado Water Conservation Board and many others, who persisted in getting this done for our state,” said Bennet. “A healthy future for the Colorado River — and the communities that rely on it — will depend on partnerships like the one that brought the Windy Gap project to reality.”
The Colorado River Connectivity Channel project constructs a new connectivity channel from the Colorado River, upstream of Windy Gap Dam, to the Colorado River downstream of the dam restoring the Colorado River to its free flow in the region. The project includes a new diversion structure to divert flows into the channel and which will also control flows between the reservoir and the channel. Wetland and riparian plant life along the new channel will match the Colorado River riparian corridor upstream and downstream from the project. The Fraser River weir upstream from the Windy Gap Reservoir will also be modified to provide for fish passage and improved river habitat.
For more than a decade, water conservationists, anglers, and community stakeholders have been working toward making the new connectivity channel a reality. Grand County and Trout Unlimited worked with stakeholders including Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Northern Water), the owner of the Windy Gap project, to lead the concept, design, and funding for the connectivity channel. The project addresses shortcomings in the original Windy Gap Reservoir system constructed in 1985 and will restore approximately 50 acres of riverside habitat, improve instream flow and reverse decreasing wild rainbow trout population levels, and create over 15 acres of new wetlands.
“Trout Unlimited is humbled by the overwhelming support for this project,” said Mely Whiting, Colorado Water Project legal counsel and the project lead for TU. “We are incredibly thankful to Senator Bennet, the NRCS, and the many partners that contributed to this bold effort to prepare the headwaters of the Colorado River for a much hotter and drier future.”
"The Colorado River Connectivity Channel project is a collaborative stakeholder effort that will provide immense benefits to our aquatic species and restore natural processes. The Colorado Water Conservation Board is honored to be a long-term supporter of this critical project - including financially - and we are excited to see this important additional funding secured by Senator Bennet," said Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Becky Mitchell.
"This project is an example of the hard work Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff are doing behind the scenes every day," said Heather Dugan, Acting Director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. "Once complete, the reconnection section of the river will provide over a mile of Gold Medal trout quality waters for anglers today and for future generations."
"On behalf of all Colorado River users that will benefit from the Connectivity Channel (especially our aquatic invertebrates and fish), the Grand County Board of County Commissioners would like to acknowledge NRCS for the additional funding to make this important project a reality. Thank you to Senator Bennet and his staff, as well as all project partners and elected officials, for the diligence and continued dedication to move this project forward," said the Grand County Board of County Commissioners in a collective statement.
“The Colorado River Connectivity Channel is a vital project for Colorado’s Western Slope and exemplifies how diverse interests can collaborate and remain solution-oriented. This project is long-needed to remedy the negative impacts resulting from an on-channel reservoir and will significantly improve the health of the Upper Colorado River. Funded in part by Colorado’s West Slope voters, we’re excited to see the project achieve full funding thanks to Senator Bennet’s leadership and strong voice,” said Andy Mueller, General Manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
“We are excited to start construction on a project that will allow the Colorado and Fraser rivers to operate as a natural system, and we appreciate the help of our partners to fund and implement this important effort,” said Northern Water General Manager Brad Wind.
Bennet has championed this project for over six years, sending multiple letters in support of project funding, and touring the project site in August 2016. In late December 2017, the project received $5.7 million in federal funding from the NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program following a letter of support from the Colorado Congressional Delegation led by Senator Bennet. However, between 2017 and 2022 the engineering and project build costs continued to be revised upward creating an additional gap of over $8 million. In the spring of 2021 during the Senate confirmation hearing of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nominee, Tom Vilsack, Bennet posed a question for the record (QFR) asking Vilsack for assistance in securing the final funding. Bennet continued to work with USDA-NRCS and local partners in the plan authorization and final approval of over $8 million in additional funding.
A limited Notice To Proceed for the project was initiated in June while NRCS and Northern Water finalized the Plan Authorization and Construction Agreement. The final funding and the work on the project is under the authority of the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act (Public Law 83-566).