Boulder County should have the final say on Gross Dam expansion, and it should say no

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Michael Bandow

Denying Denver Water’s 1041 application may be our only hope of saving Coal Creek Canyon and the north shore of Gross Reservoir from many years of devastation beyond imagination: noise and air pollution, hazardous chemical exposure, road safety and extended travel times,  sharing our two-lane roads with massive trucks, and long-term extended delays on all our roadways. Expanding Gross Dam could also deplete the Colorado River to an extent it may not recover or survive.

It’s up to Boulder County Commissioners to approve or deny the project, but as someone opposed to Denver Water expanding Gross Dam and Reservoir, here are a few of the blatant issues listed in Boulder County’s Land Use Code — 1041 Permit Application (Article 8: Location & Extent Areas & Activities of State Interest). 

Denver Water intends to produce concrete for a larger dam and this process will use many acre-feet of water, disrupt soil at the dam site and along shorelines, and degrade environmental resources. This appears to be in contradiction to the purposes and intent section, especially point no. 4: “Conserve soil, water, forest resources, and Environmental Resources.” The cement industry is one of the two largest producers of carbon dioxide, creating up to 8% of worldwide man-made emissions of this gas, of which 50% is from the chemical process and 40% from burning fuel. The 1041 permit also includes a requirement (no. 5) to protect the beauty of the landscape. As noted, producing concrete, as well as making new roads and removing thousands of mature trees along the shorelines all will destroy the beauty of the existing landscape. 

The County is also required to regulate projects that would otherwise cause excessive noise, water and air pollution and would degrade and threaten the existing environmental quality of the County (no. 7). This proposed project would be the largest and most damaging construction project in Boulder County history so it only goes to prove all of these issues would be adversely affected, not only during the construction, but also for decades to come.

No. 10 requires that municipal and industrial water projects shall emphasize the most efficient use of water, including, to the extent permissible under existing law, the recycling and reuse of water. Certainly, cement production’s massive use and waste of water is in direct conflict with this requirement. Also, conservation of water in nearby metro and urban development has a long way to go since many still use Kentucky bluegrass sod and mature tree landscaping surrounding all new subdivisions and even commercial building development.

“Ensure site selection of arterial highways and interchanges and collector highways occurs so that community traffic needs are met, desirable community patterns are not disrupted, and direct conflict with adopted local government, regional, and state master plans avoided,” the regulations state (no. 13). All proposed road construction to accommodate this proposed project will disrupt, and are in direct conflict, with the two-lane state highway that is the only main road in and out of the impacted communities. Other arterial roads such as Gross Dam Road, Lazy Z, Tunnel 19 and Miramonte are unimproved and mostly single-lane dirt roads that residents must use daily as their only options. So, Denver Water’s mitigation plans are not conducive to this regulation of the 1041 permit either. 

Many of the requirements also pose regulation conflicts from Denver Water’s proposal no matter what design is chosen to mitigate usage (no. 15, 16 and 17.) Likewise, the definitions section (8-210 B, 2 c. “Will not cause significant adverse environmental impacts on the unincorporated County”; and d. “Will not overburden the infrastructure of the unincorporated County in areas surrounding the proposed service area”) addresses the problems with the massive road construction that Denver Water proposes. Since these bedroom communities have only the one paved state highway in and out of their homes, this is an impossible mitigation by the applicant and any suggestions otherwise are untrue and risk the safety and continued unhindered movements of the existing population.

The Land Use Code also requires that the Commissioners protect the public health, safety, welfare and the environment. This particular regulation cannot be achieved by this applicant for reasons too numerous to list, but here are but a few: Health of residents in Coal Creek Canyon and upon the north shore of the existing reservoir are sure to suffer air and noise pollution at levels the applicant cannot control and enough to create disease-related conditions to not only humans but also the wildlife we hold dear and live here to enjoy. Our very welfare is conditional upon the peace and quiet and natural environment of woodland and forest. Years of construction of the proposed levels have the potential to cause chronic health issues for the residents and also be the reason wildlife leaves to never return. Even the Final Environmental Impact Study (EIS) listed long-term destruction to aquatic life in a new reservoir so severe that no fish would ever live in its waters again, including stocked fish from upper South Boulder Creek. At true risk again are the Winiger Ridge elk herds and their calving grounds. Boulder County has done extensive study and the findings can be found at assets.bouldercounty.org.

The next section of the land use code (8-206) makes it clear that Boulder County has the final say on this project: “Review or approval of a project by a federal or state agency does not obviate, and will not substitute for, the need to obtain a permit for that project under these regulations.” Although the Federal Energy Regulation Commission (FERC) and Army Corps Records of Decision have approved Denver Water’s expansion, that cannot override Boulder County’s Commissioners, who represent county residents and interests and need to protect our county. Neither of those permits have the necessary guidelines to prevent the destruction of our environment surrounding the existing dam and reservoir.

 Section 8-507 has always been a point of contention between Denver Water and the opposition, not to mention Denver Water recipients and its Denver customers i.e., its own bylaws and water numbers. It requires a “detailed inventory of total commitments already made for current water in terms of taps or other appropriate measurements.” Initially Denver Water had sights on the Two Forks Dam in southern Colorado and once that project was rejected and killed by the EPA many years ago, the Denver Water Board set its sights on expanding existing Gross Reservoir. Over the course of many scoping meetings, public hearings and botched Intergovernmental Agreements (IGAs), the utility is now using a heretofore and untrue reason — storage stability for growing populations in the Denver Metro and surrounding suburbs it sells water to — to push this project through. 

 The utility has never been able to prove a need for the mere 8% an expanded Gross Reservoir might provide to the entire Denver Water system. Real conservation, reuse and recycling of water would allow the existing water system the stability and growth potential it says the expansion of Gross Reservoir might provide to support growing populations moving to our metropolitan area, not just Boulder County.

Too much time and effort has been spent to stop this destructive massive proposed project. Now that FERC’s permit to amend the hydroelectric generating station in the existing dam has put strict timelines on Denver Water’s efforts to push this application process through, it is apparent not all of Boulder County’s land use requirements, including adequate public comment review, can be done to satisfy the FERC’s time standards. In letters between FERC and Denver Water, it is most concerning that FERC does have grave concerns about who the applicant (Denver Water) will hire for any dam construction. The only possible outcome is for Denver Water to be denied Boulder County’s 1041 permit and to go on its way by doing the environmentally responsible things the utility should already be doing — real conservation. 

Anyone may submit comments regarding this proposed project via email to GrossReservoir@bouldercounty.org with Docket #SI-20-0003 in the subject line of the Email.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.