July 4, 2008

Grand Lake’s Clarity Made a Priority Agreement Signals 5-Year, Multiparty Restoration Effort

By Jerd Smith

Colorado has stepped forward to save one of its most important natural wonders, Grand Lake, establishing for the first time a standard to restore the renowned clarity that has drawn thousands to the lake's shores for more than a century.

After a year of public hearings and meetings, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in June agreed with lake activists and Grand County that the ancient glacier-fed lake's clarity should be re-established.

When the work is complete, sometime in the next five years, a standard similar to the rule that protects Lake Tahoe, which straddles the California-Nevada line, will be in place.

"We're excited," said Steve Paul, president of the Greater Grand Lake Shoreline Association. "Everybody has worked long and hard to get this accomplished."

Colorado has never had a clarity standard for a body of water, but the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission acknowledged Grand Lake's historic value and agreed that measures were required to protect it.

"Very few states have ever done this," said Lane Wyatt, water quality program director for the Northwest Council of Governments, which, along with Grand County and local activists, led the fight for the new standard.

How it will be enforced isn't clear yet.

The standard, to be finalized in August, gives water utilities and local communities until 2014 to experiment with different water treatment and operational plans to find the best way to improve clarity.

"The rationale is to provide encouragement for all of the interested parties to work on the clarity concerns to see what progress can be made," said Paul Frohardt, administrator for the water quality commission. "The default is that if nothing changes by 2014, the numeric, 4-meter standard takes effect," meaning the water must be kept clear at least to that depth.

The lake's health has grown more precarious each year since the 1950s, when the Bureau of Reclamation finished the Colorado Big Thompson Project to deliver water to Fort Collins, Loveland and other cities.

The project, operated by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, pumps water from Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain, both man- made, up into Grand Lake, where it is funneled into the Alva B. Adams Tunnel on its way to the Front Range.

At the time, the bureau promised to protect the lake's scenic qualities forever.

But the mixing of warmer water from Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain, the turbulence created by the pumping, and runoff from the growing developments around the lake have caused a sharp deterioration of water quality.

Last summer, the lake turned a dark pea green because of massive algae blooms, and Grand County issued a stop-drinking order. Since then, local efforts to draw attention to the lake's plight have intensified.

Paul, of the shoreline association, said he's cautiously optimistic that the lake finally will get the help it needs.

Key to restoring the view into the lake's depths is an agreement by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District to stop pumping for three weeks in August, when the water is most vulnerable to warming and huge algae blooms.

And that's no small task. Northern is Colorado's second-largest water utility, and the hard-won deal means it will have to re-time water deliveries to 750,000 residents on the Front Range and retool the maintenance schedule for the giant system of pumps and pipelines that deliver to the urban corridor.

"It's significant," said Eric Wilkinson, Northern's manager. "It's doable, but it's a significant change."

Still, Grand Lake residents are nervous that a strict standard still isn't in place.

"It wasn't exactly what we wanted," Wyatt said, "because it's vague. But policy changes are super-slow. They always happen in baby steps. That the commission acted has put a lot of pressure on everyone to do something."

Said Paul: "We appreciate what the bureau and Northern have agreed to do. It's the first time in 60 years they've altered pumping for water quality purposes.

"But talk to the old-timers and they will tell you that 40 years ago they could see 30 feet down. You can still see like that at Flathead Lake in Montana, in a lake that hasn't been subjected to the reversing of Mother Nature. It's just sad to me to see what we've done to it."

Originally published by Jerd Smith, Rocky Mountain News.

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