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Fill It and They Will Come

There was a distinct atmosphere of optimism in the room last week when Commissioners Scott, Oswald and McLoud met with Travis Black and Rick Gardner of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). The purpose of the meeting: to explore potential plans for the future if permanent water in the lakes actually becomes a reality. Other stakeholders at the meeting included County Administrator Tina Adamson, KCEDF Coordinator Jan Richards and former Kiowa County Commissioner Cardon Berry.

As was previously reported by the Independent, the prospect of water in the lakes became more promising when an unexpected decision was posted online by the Amity Canal Company several weeks ago. The post—which was about 25 words long—stated that the canal company was now diverting winter storage water from John Martin Reservoir, where it’s currently stored, to the Great Plains Reservoirs in Kiowa County, where it’s been stored in the past. Although such a move has long been at the top of the wish list for the people of Kiowa County, motivation to divert to the local lakes was, as explained by water consultant Danny Richards, largely financial in nature.

According to Richards, water transported through the Kicking Bird Canal for storage in the Great Plains Reservoirs experiences less leakage than water transported through other canals for storage in John Martin Reservoir. Once stored, water in the Great Plains—specifically Nee Gronde and Nee Noshe which are 70 and 50 feet deep respectively—evaporates at a much slower rate than water stored in John Martin. In both cases, a change in diverting strategies translates into less water lost, and less water lost means more money earned.

So, for those who might have joined this story late, what is the big deal about having permanent water in the lakes of Kiowa County? Ask anyone who’s lived here for a while, and they’ll be happy to tell you. When full, the lakes of Kiowa County provide more collective surface area of water than any other body of water in the entire state. In the past, when they were full, the lakes made Kiowa County famous, not just in this state but in surrounding states as well. They provided some of the best fishing, the best water sports, the best chances for birdwatching plus one of the most thriving seasonal communities one could find.

The lakes were such a strong attraction to an otherwise unknown region that, roughly 15 years ago, a cooperative plan was developed by SECED, the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Wildlife, members of the Colorado State Legislature and Kiowa County Commissioners to make the attraction a permanent feature through the establishment of a state park complete with a visitor’s center, rest rooms, camping facilities and boat ramps.. Studies conducted by the state suggested that, once developed, the area could generate at least $5 million in additional revenue for Kiowa County and surrounding counties in Southeastern Colorado.

As a key first step of the plan, Southeastern Colorado Enterprise District (SECED) was awarded a grant for the purchase of 80 acres of land along the eastern shore of Nee Gronde, land which they then donated to Kiowa County. At that time, the BLM, that owns the land on the bottom of Nee Gronde (the deepest of all the lakes), had also agreed to donate the lake bottom land to Kiowa County. State funds were allocated to pay for the project. Only one thing was needed: a permanent commitment from Amity Canal Company to keep enough water in Nee Gronde to make all the related activities possible, a commitment for which the state was willing to pay. Unfortunately, the amount of compensation ended up being the deal breaker, and break the deal it did to such an extent that the entire plan was abandoned and the state park was attached to John Martin Reservoir instead.

For those involved, that decision was no less than heartbreaking, and, for years, nothing more was done. However, behind the scenes, it’s been somewhat of a different story. In the year and a half the Independent has been covering the story, KCEDF’s Jan Richards and the county commissioners have had periodic meetings with Amity Canal to reconsider making the guarantee of water. There were the occasional glimmers of hope but, generally speaking, all efforts seemed to be largely to no avail.

That is, until the decision to divert water reignited new hope and interest in the project.

As it stands right now, the county and CPW have shared responsibility for maintaining land around the lakes which includes cleaning bathrooms, removing trash and maintaining the boat ramp. However, prior to making any plans to increase public access, there’s an abundance of dead trees and foliage that needs to be removed.

Black with CPW gave a good report on the current fishing conditions in the lakes, stating that it was “looking great right now”. CPW has been stocking the lakes with fish and rebuilding the fish populations, largely helped by the abundant growth of vegetation which provide a great source of food. Black stated that, during the peak years, Nee Noshe was the best warm water fishing in the state. Should there be permanent water in the lakes, he said, “Conditions can be back to that same quality in two to three years.” CPW will be stocking Nee Noshe next spring.

Black suggested future land usage of the general area encompassing the lakes be viewed as falling into two categories: a park developed with multiple spaces for parking and multiple uses for camping, RVs, picnic sites, water sports, etc and wildlands which would be used for hunting, fishing and camping in undeveloped areas.

Commissioners and stakeholders were very receptive to Black’s suggestions. Commissioner Scott specifically voiced his support, stating he was strongly in favor of doing something. At that point, he said, “I think we should proceed as if there’s going to be water in there forever. So…what do we need to do to get going on development?” With that acknowledgement, there seemed to be general consensus that the project was, at least at some level, alive again and worthy of further exploration.

All signs indicate that there’s reason to hope. Jan Richards summed it up best when she said, “I’ve never heard Amity talk in such a positive way about the lakes—not even before, when we were so close to making it happen. It’s amazing. It really is.”

The meeting ended with plans for the commissioners and CPW staff to meet at Nee Gronde and look at the condition of things first hand.

 

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