Specter of Hydropower Project on Colorado's Gunnison River Finally Ended

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A proposed hydropower project on the Gunnison River in Colorado languished for 25 years before finally being laid to rest in December. The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association had proposed to construct a facility that could have diverted over 1,000 cfs from flowing through the famous Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park year-round.Trout Unlimited challenged the Association's expiring water rights, leading the Association to back down from their proposal on December 27, 2004. The Association also failed to receive a FERC license after unsuccessful bids in the mid-1980s.From Trout Unlimited's press release: Contact: Drew Peternell, 303-440-2937CONTROVERSIAL PROPOSED GUNNISON RIVER HYDROELECTRIC PROJECT LOSES ITS WATER RIGHTS AB Lateral Project would have damaged two watersheds in western Colorado Boulder, CO – A proposed hydroelectric power project which could have taken more than 1,000 cfs of water from the Gunnison River has relinquished its water rights, eliminating a substantial threat to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Trout Unlimited opposed the water rights in water court because the AB Lateral Hydropower Project would have diminished the amount of water available to the trout fishery in the Gunnison and would have caused flooding, erosion and other adverse environmental impacts in the Uncompahgre basin as well. "Had this project been allowed to go forward, it would have had devastating impacts on both the Uncompahgre and Gunnison Rivers, including the reach of the Gunnison flowing through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park," said Drew Peternell, an attorney for Trout Unlimited's Colorado Water Project. The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users' Association held two conditional water rights for the proposed AB Lateral Hydropower Project. Currently, the Association receives Gunnison River water for irrigation use in the Uncompahgre Valley through the Bureau of Reclamation' s Gunnison Tunnel facility, which diverts Gunnison water immediately upstream of the Black Canyon. Under the conditional water rights, instead of taking water only during the irrigation season, the Water Users would have diverted 1135 cfs of Gunnison water to the Uncompahgre basin year-round for hydropower production. The Water Users' Association filed applications with the Division Four Water Court in Montrose in November 2002 asking the court to allow its conditional, or unused, water rights to remain in effect. Trout Unlimited opposed the applications, and a trial was scheduled on the applications for June of 2005. In preliminary pleadings to the water court, TU argued that there is not enough water available in the Gunnison River to support the project, that the project was economically infeasible, and that there were substantial regulatory hurdles, including the need for congressional legislation, before the project could be completed. Last week, the Water Users' Association asked the water court to dismiss the applications and cancel the conditional water rights. "It is likely that the arguments we made in our preliminary filings caused the Water Users' Association to reassess the prudence of continuing to pursue this project," said Peternell. " The case represents a major victory in Trout Unlimited's continuing effort to protect and restore the trout fishery in the Black Canyon and demonstrates that conservation groups can use the water courts to block ecologically harmful water projects."