Fort Morgan Times series: Narrows Dam

Screen shot of the Narrows Dam which was proposed to be built on this Weldon Valley land located one-half mile below the Narrows Bridge. (Fort Morgan Times photo)

Here’s Part One of The Fort Morgan Times series on the proposed Narrows Dam on the South Platte River from the Community History Writers. Here’s an excerpt:

Getting a nickname

In 1870, the first settlers in Weldon Valley irrigated their crops by diverting water from the South Platte River.

This river, which Mark Twain described as “sick” and “sorry,” snakes through Weldon Valley, flanked by bluffs to the north and the south.

Towards the eastern edge of the valley, the northern bluff connects with the river and comes closest to the southern bluff. This closest gap between the bluffs is called “The Narrows.”

Early water rights

Construction of the Weldon Valley Ditch was begun in 1881 and was completed in 1883.

Colorado water rights are based on the “Colorado Doctrine,” which states that whoever uses the water gets to keep on using it or “first in time, first in right.”

Sterling built its first ditch in 1873, so they have “senior” water rights over Weldona. In years of drought, the Sterling area farmers and water rights holders can “call” for the river, and Weldona may get no water at all.

In 1910, the Narrows Dam was first conceived of and filed for by the Colorado Engineering and Construction Company. The cost estimate for this project was $5 million. No action was ever taken and the filing lapsed…

Reviving the Narrows Dam idea

Yet, in 1958, a group of northeast Colorado farmers and businessmen asked the Colorado Water Board for assistance in reviving the Narrows project.

They sponsored a petition drive, which resulted in the formation of the Lower South Platte River Water Conservancy District.

Don Hamil, a prominent Atwood rancher and former head of REA during the Eisenhower administration, helped unify support for the proposed dam and became president of the organization. Its purpose was to serve as a contracting/negotiating agency with the federal government.

In September 1964, the Colorado Water Board approved the Narrows Dam site for the project.

Flood hits

In the spring of 1965, the South Platte River overflowed its banks, causing a huge three-day flood in Denver.

Colorado Gov. John Arthur Love called it the worst disaster in Colorado history.

Due to the severity of the flood, there was an outpouring of support for flood control in general and, specifically, for the Narrows Dam project.

Flooding in the Fort Morgan area wasn’t caused so much by the South Platte River, but by the higher crests flowing out of the Bijou and Kiowa creeks. Therefore, farmers and businessmen in the area called for some kind of flood protection of the Bijou and Kiowa to be included in the Narrows Dam project.

In 1966, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers explored constructing a dam in the upper Bijou Valley. They determined that the flooding was too infrequent and so it wouldn’t be worth the cost. Due to this study, the Bureau of Reclamation dropped its original plans to divert water from the Bijou Creek into the Narrows Dam.

By 1967, the Bureau of Reclamation had completed a feasibility study of the Narrows project. The estimated cost was $61.82 million.

Colorado Congressman Wayne Aspinall held the powerful and influential office of chair of the U.S. House Committee on the Interior. He was a big supporter of the project and vowed to fight for it, but only if local water users showed that they were in favor of it.

Competing interests

In April 1970, Gov. Love complained publicly about the massive waste of water flowing into Nebraska from the South Platter River. He said he wanted the Narrows Dam built so that water could be stored for irrigation, to provide flood control, and because he claimed its reservoir would attract 1 million visitors annually.

Land speculators started buying up parcels in the Weldon Valley, and prices spiked.

Felix Sparks, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, complained that if land prices increased too much, the project’s expense might become prohibitive.

On Sept. 9,1975, a couple of buses set out from Brush to tour the Narrows project area. Sparks told the dignitaries and other passengers aboard that local opposition to the dam had died.

So imagine their surprise when the buses pulled up to the Narrows bridge and the passengers saw about 300 protesters carrying signs such as, “Hart, Have a Heart!” and “Don’t be a Rascal, Haskell!”

The buses drove on by the demonstrators and parked nearby at the future site of the proposed dam’s spillway.

As politicians made their speeches, a woman’s voice was heard saying, “What’s going to happen to our small little lives?” And then a man spoke out, saying, “How would you like to be on your fifth generation on a farm and have it yanked out from under you?”

The protesters questioned a speaker about politicians buying up land in the valley under assumed or corporate names, and the speaker replied, “You’re getting into questions that are not in the context of this tour!”

Later, Sparks pointed out that the greatest opposition to the project’s environmental impact were wealthy duck hunters from Denver. He also said that the towns in the valley had long since died as a result of the advent of the automobile. He explained to his passengers that the locals were angry, not because they opposed the project, but because it had taken so long for the government to start buying land.

Apparently, he was out of touch with the true feelings of the residents of Weldon Valley. The seeds of the Regional Landowners Group (RLG) had already taken root and were ready to sprout.

Landowners fight back

Don and Karen Christensen and other interested landowners had already reached out for help from student lawyers volunteering for the Colorado Environmental Legal Service (CELS).

On Sept. 10, 1975, the Fort Morgan Times described a memorandum written by the service. It claimed that an alternative site, upriver from Weldon Valley in Hardin, would be much more suitable than the Narrows Dam site. There would be less seepage in this dam because of its geology. Only about 50 families would be displaced compared to 175 in Weldon Valley, plus no school would have to be closed down, since Hardin no longer had a school. The Hardin site’s closer proximity to the front range was another advantage of this location for the dam.

On Sept. 26,1975, the Regional Landowners Group was officially organized at a meeting held at the Weldon Valley School.

Don Christensen and Corky Tomky were appointed co-chairs of the group. They discussed the success of the protest at the dam site and planned strategies for fighting the project, which included mounting an advertising campaign, speaking at Fort Morgan organizations’ meetings, writing letters to the editor and government officials, and soliciting funds. The group agreed that they were willing to go to court in order to stop the Narrows project.

Don Christensen vowed: “We’re going to kill the Narrows Dam one way or the other!”

Over the next four months the RLG attended meetings, asked questions, and took their concerns to state officials, including Gov. Dick Lamm, Director of Natural Resources Harris Sherman, and Felix Sparks. Sherman and Sparks listened respectfully, but refused to back down.

“I’m not going to argue with 30 years of history,” Sparks said.

Meanwhile, 106 local businesses donated money for the landowners group’s ad campaign.

For many months, “Dam Foolishness” ads kept popping up in the Fort Morgan Times; each one outlining the reasons why the group opposed the building of the dam.

One of the slogans found in the ads stated: “If you enjoy paying taxes for a lot of nothing You’ll love the Narrows. But if you really want to save a bundle, join us in fighting ‘Dam Foolishness’ on the South Platte.”

Trains at 14th St and South Platte River June 19, 1965. Photo via Westword.com

Here’s Part Two of the Fort Morgan Times series about the Narrows Dam. Here’s an excerpt:

Not really dead

The worries of the Weldon Valley residents and farmers about the proposed Narrows Dam project may have seemed like they were over when things faltered in 1952 and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation dropped the request for federal funding of the project.

However, the uncertainty of the Narrows project still hovered over Weldon Valley like a dark cloud.

In March 1953, a family who was interested in building a home in Goodrich sent a letter to President Dwight Eisenhower, asking him if it would be safe for them to build. They asked, “Is the Narrows Dam project really dead?”

Apparently not.

Their letter was referred to the U.S. Department of Interior, and its response to the family essentially was: Although we try to take in consideration the feelings of landowners, the Narrows site is the best site. We need your land and don’t worry, when the time comes, you’ll get paid fair market value for your property.

It was all too clear that this matter was far from over.

Still, the rest of the 1950s were fairly quiet in regard to this proposed dam, and the South Platte River continued its typical flood/drought cycles.

Yet, in 1958, a group of northeast Colorado farmers and businessmen asked the Colorado Water Board for assistance in reviving the Narrows project.

They sponsored a petition drive, which resulted in the formation of the Lower South Platte River Water Conservancy District.

Don Hamil, a prominent Atwood rancher and former head of REA during the Eisenhower administration, helped unify support for the proposed dam and became president of the organization. Its purpose was to serve as a contracting/negotiating agency with the federal government.

In September 1964, the Colorado Water Board approved the Narrows Dam site for the project.

South Platte River Basin via Wikipedia

Here’s Part Three of the Fort Morgan Times series about the Narrows Dam. Here’s an excerpt:

The fight over building the Narrows Dam in the Weldon Valley was burning hot in the 1970s. The federal and state governments continued to pursue it, and local landowners kept trying to push it down.

On Dec. 10, 1975, the Narrows Dam Environmental Impact Statement was published, and the Fort Morgan Times then ran a seven-part story, covering its details.

A month later, the Regional Landowners Group (RLG) and 50 other supporters met at the Denver Hilton Hotel and held a press conference expressing their resistance to the project.

They complained that the environmental impact statement was a deliberate misrepresentation of the Weldon Valley community. They said the dam flunked as a flood control project, that fishing and recreation would be unsafe because of polluted water and that the claims that agriculture would be benefited by the project were wrong because in truth, rich, irrigated cropland would be taken out of production.

“If you cannot convince someone with logic, baffle him with buffalo chips,” one RLG member remarked about the environmental impact statement.

Public hearings held

On Jan. 14 and 15, 1976, public hearings were held in Denver, where 26 of 31 speakers were against the project.

Denver attorneys Barry Satlow and W.B. Tourtillot and Colorado Environmental Legal Service (CELS) representative Renelle Rae threatened to take the Narrows Dam project to court.

Responding to the opposition during a Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District board meeting, Mark Pascoe derided the idea of locating the dam at the Hardin site.

“The dam is going to be at the Narrows or there will be no dam at all,” Pascoe said.

Then, taking an apparent jab at his opponents, he added that the RLG could take the project to court – if they could get free lawyers.

Water lawyer enters

Unbeknownst to Pascoe, the RLG had already retained Glenn Saunders, who was the former chief counsel for the Denver Water Board and the most respected water lawyer in Colorado. Saunders also was known as an adamant supporter of all dam projects.

So how and why did this long-time water project supporter agree to represent this small group of landowners from Weldon Valley?

As Marc Reisner describes it in his book, Cadillac Desert, Saunders told the story of a bunch of farmers walking into his office and asking him to stop the Narrows Dam.

“What? I’m not going to stop a dam from being built!” Saunders thought.

Yet, the farmers kept throwing a bunch of facts at the water lawyer, and the more Saunders listened, the more he realized what a boondoggle the project was. He decided to represent them, and thus began an unlikely alliance between a high-powered Denver lawyer and a small group of farmers from northeast Colorado, according to Reisner.

Saunders instructed the farmers to go home and start raising funds. He said they’d need at least $100,000 if they were to bring a lawsuit against the Bureau of Reclamation.

EPA wades in

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency also found the Narrows Dam Environmental Impact Statement inadequate.

In a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation, the EPA said that the draft didn’t adequately analyze water quality issues or project alternatives. The EPA worried about eutrophication and pesticides that would make the water unsafe for swimmers and water-skiers.

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