July 13, 2008

Grand Lake Cleanup, at Last

It's great news that an agreement has been struck to restore the clarity of the largest natural lake in the state. Formed by glaciers and sustained by natural sources of fresh water, Grand Lake is one of Colorado's unique natural wonders, and has been a scenic attraction for decades.

Considering that it required a year of public hearings and meetings to reach what seems to us to be an obvious conclusion, however, it is understandable that locals in the quaint town that lines the lake and shares its name remain concerned about the time frame for realizing tangible improvement in the quality of this historic body of water.

Lake activists and water quality advocates wanted the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission, which is part of the Department of Public Health and Environment, to establish a specific standard of 4 meters of water clarity depth for Grand Lake from July through September. Instead, the commission adopted what has been termed an interim "narrative standard" that defines a "goal" for the lake.

The commission's action will allow the federal Bureau of Reclamation and Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District - the state's second largest water utility - up to five years to find the best way to achieve and sustain, as the commission puts it, "the highest level of clarity in Grand Lake that's attainable, consistent with the exercise of established water rights and the protection of the aquatic life use."

The inexactness of that goal is what bothers Lane Wyatt, water quality program director for the Northwest Council of Governments. But Paul Frohardt, administrator for the water control commission, offers reassurance. "The default is that if nothing changes by 2014, the numeric 4-meter standard takes effect," he has said. And even this agreement, as vague as it may be, is a first in Colorado when it comes to water clarity standards, he points out.

Longtime Grand County residents recall that the Bureau of Reclamation promised to protect the scenic qualities of Grand Lake forever when the Big Thompson water diversion project - the cause of this unintended problem - was completed way back in the 1950s. They still remember marveling at seeing 30 feet below the surface. They wonder: Will boat tours of Spirit Lake, as the Indians called it before the first settlers arrived, ever again offer such a view?

This is a difficult time in the region surrounding old Spirit Lake. In addition to the pea green that has replaced the mirror surface of the water, hillsides and mountain slopes all over are either a sickening brown from lodgepole pines killed by the beetle blight or starkly barren, denuded by the removal of thousands of dead trees that might otherwise become fuel for a devastating wildfire. The sight makes saving the lake even more imperative.

We applaud those who have worked so hard to rescue this part of Colorado's natural heritage. And we commend agencies that are stepping up to reverse this decline. Indeed, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District is embracing big changes in its operation to answer this call to action.

To all we say, just make sure the goal is achieved.

Originally published by Rocky Mountain News.

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