The first project to receive funding under the Colorado River District’s mill levy increase is in Grand County, but points the way for other beneficial projects, district board member Marc Catlin said.
The board earlier this month finalized its new Partnership Project Funding Program and under it, awarded $1 million to the Colorado River Connectivity Channel near Windy Gap Reservoir.
The project as described will reconnect the river around Windy Gap Reservoir, via a reconstructed river channel, and improve river health and habitat at the same time.
“This one was right up there, one of those the district thought was really qualified to be the initial (recipient),” said Catlin, of Montrose, who also represents State House District 58 in the Colorado Legislature. “Hopefully, it gets started right away, but all the communities will be able to apply for funding for projects across the district.”
Montrose and the 14 other counties that make up the Colorado River District voted in November to increase the district’s mill levy to 0.5. The same ballot measure eliminated spending and revenue caps under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, but not the tax-rate cap, and allows the district to keep and spend state and local grant funds.
The mill levy increase was projected to generate about $5 million in 2021, with the bulk going to partnerships for priority water projects.
Applications may be made for the awarding of partnership funds, which are to be direct to priority projects; the money can also serve to leverage other funds from state, federal or private sources.
“The projects supported by the Partnership Project Funding Program will protect and sustain West Slope water for all of us who rely on it,” River District General Manager Andy Mueller said, in a provide statement announcing the Windy Gap funding.
“In launching this program and funding our first project, we’re fulfilling our promise to the voters who make our work possible. This and future projects will help build a brighter water future for Western Colorado.”
Under the Partnership Project Funding framework, the river district has created a line item in its general fund budget, identifying the moneys available for such funding.
Staff analyze requests for funding and forward those that match up with several criteria to the board for further consideration. Under those criteria, the proposed project must fit with the mission of the district and language of the 2020 ballot measure.
Risk analysis is part of consideration and applicants need buy-in from their respective local governments. Mostly, the river district will offer partial financial support, although some projects may also receive technical, legal or administrative advocacy.
District funds are not intended to be the sole funding source for any project.
Projects may involve improvements related to agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health/water quality, conservation and efficiency. The framework calls for geographic equity in awarding the funds.
“They’re trying to figure out a way that’s equitable and fair. You don’t just want one county getting all the money all the time,” Catlin said.
The Windy Gap Reservoir project is intended to improve river health below the reservoir, which has been declining since the 1980s. Among the diminished macroinvertebrate diversity is the total loss of giant stoneflies and the loss of native sculpin.
The project entails modification to the reservoir to create room for the new connectivity channel; a 1-mile long natural channel that directs the river around the newly configured reservoir; a structure to divert water from the connectivity channel into the reservoir and removal or another means to improve fish passage at a weir upstream.
But projects need not be as extensive in order to be considered, Catlin said — if a proposal helps with water supply and quality, it could be a contender and will benefit everyone in the long run.
“We’re in a drought. I’m in favor of projects. If we can use less, then let’s do that,” he said. “I’m encouraged.”