Feds Sued to Halt Fix of Failed Colorado River Project

DENVER (CN) – Environmentalists sued two federal agencies Thursday, claiming a project to divert 90,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River annually exists only to bail out a 30-year-old failed government project.

The Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers were jointly responsible for generating and reviewing an environmental impact statement for the proposed $440 million Windy Gap Firming Project. In a complaint filed Thursday, Save the Colorado and other organizations accuse the agencies of “inadequate analysis and poor decision-making resulting in significant water diversions from the already depleted Colorado River.”

The original Windy Gap project, built between 1981 and 1985 for $120 million, promised to divert 56,000 acre-feet of water from the river each year to residents of Colorado’s Front Range and Western Slope. For nearly 20 years the reservoir’s deliveries have averaged 20 percent of its predicted quota. The Firming Project was then proposed in the 2000s as a remedy.

“Despite determining that water supply was the basic project purpose, the Corps decided that the basic project need was to firm water deliveries from the original project – that is, to fix the broken project,” the environmentalists say in their lawsuit.

In addition to ignoring non-structural solutions, like reassessing water rights and supporting better water conservation, the groups say the Bureau of Reclamation used faulty models, over-estimated demand, and failed to consider the impact of other recent construction on the river.

“Even though the Colorado has long been overtaxed, the river continues to face new demands, often without adequate identification of the actual need for the proposed diversions or adequate consideration of the long‐term consequences for the health of the river,” the complaint said.

According to the groups’ attorney Kevin Lynch, of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, “This case is a clear example of the sunk cost bias in action, because they refused to even consider other ways to meet the water needs for these communities.”

The environmentalists seek a finding that the project violates the National Environmental Protection Act and the feds’ approval of it was an abuse of discretion. They also want a judge to halt the project.

This suit comes days after the state of Colorado attempted to dismiss a separate case involving the river, one that seeks to establish personhood and the right for the ecosystem to exist.

While the Colorado River runs from the Rocky Mountains through the Southwest across seven states and 246,000 square miles of land, massive trans-basin diversions often prevent the water from reaching the Pacific Ocean.

After nearly 14 years of gathering permits and approval for the Windy Gap Firming Project, Northern Water spokesman Brian Werner said they are currently on site and plan to break ground at the beginning of 2019.

The Bureau of Reclamation declined to comment for this story.


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