From Real Vail (David O. Williams):
With Wednesday’s move by the Trump administration to weaken one of the nation’s bedrock conservation laws – the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) – all eyes will increasingly be on local opposition and regulation when it comes to major infrastructure on federal lands.
That’s pretty much what Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry told me when I asked about the proposed Whitney Reservoir project currently being scoped out by the U.S. Forest Service along Homestake Creek in southeastern Eagle County. The reservoir is being proposed by Colorado Springs and Aurora to pump Western Slope water to the Front Range.
All that’s currently being considered by the Forest Service is a test-drilling project to detect fatal flaws and see if one of four possible dam configurations is feasible, at which point an actual proposal for Whitney Reservoir would be submitted and considered by the feds, including a possible request to shrink the Holy Cross Wilderness by up to 500 acres to realign the road.
The Forest Service was flooded with more than 500 online comments opposing the drilling and the reservoir, demanding higher levels of environmental scrutiny for a special use permit for the drilling project that could be issued under what’s known as a “categorical exclusion.” Opponents are demanding an Environmental Assessment (EA) or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)…
in the 1990s, when I first moved to the Vail area, there was a huge battle going on over what was then called Homestake II – a reservoir proposed for the same area by the same cities, which still hold 20,000 acre-feet of water rights here.
Eagle County used its 1041 permitting powers, which give counties some degree of local control over infrastructure projects with regional or statewide impacts, to deny Homestake II – a move that wound up in court and went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court before Eagle County ultimately won. Those 1041 regulatory powers were granted by a state law in the 1970s.
All of that led to the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that outlines how all the various stakeholders in the Eagle River Basin would work together going forward to resolve their issues. But one important thing remains true: Eagle County, not a signatory to the MOU, still has 1041 permitting authority.
So Chandler-Henry, the water leader on the board, had some important things to say last spring. First, on any proposal that would require redrawing the boundaries of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area: “I can tell you that’s not anything that we would ever be supportive of is moving wilderness boundaries.” Then, on the importance of local permitting power:
Chandler-Henry points out that federal protections have been stripped away by the current administration, with fens and ephemeral streams recently being removed from the definition of Waters of the United States by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Those changes, she said, are making it much easier for water providers to get their federal permits in place.
“Which means 1041 is all the more important for local considerations,” Chandler-Henry said, adding she believes her constituents oppose a dam. “I think that that is going to be a huge public sentiment, that we don’t want anything there.”
That being said, the county has to be somewhat diplomatic on both the test drilling and a possible future reservoir. Eagle County officials said they are working with the Forest Service on the test drilling proposal and may comment later.
“Eagle County cannot take a position regarding, and will not be commenting on, any future reservoir project because of its permitting authority powers,” county officials said in an email. “Eagle County must avoid prejudging a file based upon this authority.
“Eagle County plans to meet with the USDA USFS to discuss procedural questions regarding the proposed Whitney Creek Geotechnical Investigation project. Depending upon the outcome of that conversation, Eagle County may or may not choose to provide comment [to the Forest Service],” officials added.
Chandler-Henry, who talked to me well before the formal test drilling application and the recent Trump move to gut NEPA, said the county is keeping an open mind on 1041 permitting for whatever proposal eventually comes before the board. However, she reiterated that shrinking the Holy Cross boundary – something Congress would have to approve – is a non-starter…
Western Slope signatories of the Eagle River MOU were tight-lipped on the geophysical study and drilling. Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the Colorado River District, declined to comment on the investigatory test work, saying only, “Yes, we have signed the MOU. That said … we are not participating in the Whitney Creek effort.”
Diane Johnson,communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said: “The short answer is we – [ERWSD] and Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority — support [Homestake Partners’] right to pursue an application for their yield. We trust the permitting process to bring all impacts and benefits to light for the community to consider and weigh in total.” Neither organization submitted a comment to the Forest Service…
Impacts from fatal-flaw drilling
If approved by the Forest Service for a special use permit, Homestake Partners would send in crews on foot to collect seismic and other geophysical data later this summer or fall. Then crews with heavy equipment would drill 10 bore holes of up 150 feet deep in three separate possible dam locations on Forest Service land.
Crews would use a standard pickup truck, a heavy-duty pickup pulling a flatbed trailer, and a semi-tractor and trailer that would remain on designated roads and parking areas, with some lane closures of Homestake Road (703) and dispersed campsites possible.
For off-road boring operations, crews would use a rubber-tracked drill rig, a utility vehicle (UTV) pulling a small trailer, and a track-mounted skid steer. The drill rigs are up to 8 feet wide, 22 feet long, and 8 feet high and can extend up to 30 feet high during drilling, requiring possible tree removal in some areas. The rigs would also have to cross Homestake Creek and some wetland areas, although crews would use temporary ramps or wood mats to mitigate impacts.
According to a technical report (pdf) filed by Homestake Partners, the subsurface work is expected to take up to five days per drilling location, or at least 50 days of daytime work only. However, continuous daytime noise from the drilling could approach 100 decibels, which is equivalent to an outboard motor, garbage truck, jackhammer or jet flyover at 1,000 feet. If work is not done by winter, crews have up to a year to complete the project and could return in 2021.
The drilling process would use several thousand gallons of Homestake Creek water per day that engineers say “would have negligible impacts on streamflow or aquatic habitat. Water pumped from Homestake Creek during drilling would amount to less than 0.01 [cubic feet per second], a small fraction of average flows.”
Homestake Partners would avoid wetlands as much as possible during drilling, but “where temporary wetland or waters disturbance is unavoidable, applicable 404 permitting would be secured from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps).” Crossing of Homestake Creek would occur in late summer or fall when stream flows are low, and no drilling would occur in wetlands.
While no permanent roads would be built for the drilling, temporary access routes would be necessary and reclaimed as much as possible. “Access routes would be selected to reduce surface disturbance and vegetation removal, and to avoid identified or potential unexploded ordnances (UXOs) discovered during field surveys.” The famed 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army used the area for winter warfare training during World War II.