Dave Dresman, the Vail Valley Foundation’s event director for the games, has worked on the events since the foundation acquired the event in 2008. Dresman said in those few years, attendance has more than doubled and sponsorships have increased nearly fivefold. With that kind of growth, it’s no surprise that planning the event has become a full-time job.
“It really doesn’t stop now,” Dresman said.
While those plans will take some time to jell, there’s already a tentative window for the 2018 edition of the games: June 7-10.
As planning for 2018 continues, a lot of information from this year’s games will inform what next year will look like.
Much of that planning will be well-defined, from the number of volunteers to expanding bus service to finding better ways for people to navigate the events. But there’s always a wild card: weather.
This year’s games were held in virtually perfect conditions, with good, but not overwhelming, streamflows and warm, sunny weather…
This year’s games were the best-attended ever. The 2016 Mountain Games drew an estimated 67,000 people. Dresman said he expects the final tally for 2017 to approach 80,000.
What is known is this year’s games set records for registered competitors — about 3,300 — as well as more than 145 vendor tents.
A number of those sponsors set up shop in and near Adventure Town in Lionshead Village. This was the second year there have been Mountain Games events in Lionshead, with more events and action in this location in 2017 than there were for the 2016 games.
FromAspen Journalism (Allen Best) via the Aspen Daily News:
Two Front Range cities along with Western Slope parties and the Climax Molybdenum Co. hope to narrow their plans during the next 18 months for new or expanded reservoirs in the upper Eagle River watershed near Camp Hale.
One configuration of a possible new reservoir on Homestake Creek, a tributary of the Eagle River, would force a minor tweaking of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area boundary.
That adjustment along with the presence of ecologically important wetlands along where Whitney Creek flows into Homestake Creek are among the many complexities that partners — including the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs — face as they consider how to satisfy their projected water needs.
Work underway this fall and expected to wrap up next year focuses on technical feasibility of individual projects. None alone is likely to meet the needs of all the partners.
Also at issue is money. One set of projects would cost $685 million, according to preliminary engineering estimates issued by Wilson Water Group and other consultants in April.
Aurora Water’s Kathy Kitzmann likens the investigation to being somewhere between the second and third leg around the bases.
“We’re not in the home stretch,” Kitzmann said at a recent meeting.
Still to be decided, as costs estimates are firmed up, is how badly Aurora, Colorado Springs and other water interests want the additional storage.
The Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District has decided it only needs another several hundred-acre feet of yield.
John Currier, chief engineer for the river district, said that the less expensive studies have been done. Coming studies will be more expensive.
“I think we are to the point that the cost of investigations themselves are going to start driving the decisions, and I also think that the timing and need of the partners is helping drive those decisions,” Currier said.
At one time, the idea of pumping water eastward from Ruedi Reservoir was considered. That idea has been discarded as part of this investigation.
This exploration of water what-ifs is governed by a 1998 agreement, the Eagle River memorandum of understanding, or MOU.
The MOU envisioned water projects collaboratively constructed in ways that benefit parties on both Eastern and Western slopes, as well as Climax, the owner of the molybdenum mine that straddles the Continental Divide at Fremont Pass. Minimal environmental disruption is also a cornerstone of the agreement.
Long legal fight
The collaboration stems from a milestone water case. Aurora and Colorado Springs in 1967 completed a major water diversion that draws water from Homestake Creek and its tributaries.
Homestake Reservoir has a capacity of 43,500 acre-feet, or a little less than half of Ruedi, and is located partly in Pitkin County. The water is diverted via a 5.5-mile tunnel to Turquoise Lake near Leadville and into the Arkansas River.
Near Buena Vista that water is pumped 900 feet over the Mosquito Range into South Park for eventual distribution to Aurora and Colorado Springs.
But the cities left water rights on the table. In 1987, they returned to Eagle County with plans to divert water directly from the Holy Cross Wilderness.
The Colorado Wilderness Act of 1980 that created Holy Cross left the legal door open for a new water diversion. The law specified that “this act shall not interfere with the construction, maintenance, and/or expansion of the Homestake Water Development Project of the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs in the Holy Cross Wilderness.”
But Colorado had changed greatly from 1967 to 1987 and state laws adopted in the early 1970s gave Eagle County expanded land-use authority. County commissioners in 1988 used that authority to veto Homestake II.
That veto, which was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, along with the denial of the Two Forks Dam southwest of Denver at about the same time, signaled that Colorado was in a new era of water politics.
Under Colorado water law, though, the two cities still owned substantial water rights in the Eagle River Basin. Guided by the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, negotiations led to an agreement to develop projects to jointly benefit the former protagonists: 10,000 acre-feet of guaranteed dry-year yield for Western Slope users, 20,000 acre-feet of average-year yield for the cities, and 3,000 acre-feet for Climax.
Water supply options
Expansion of Eagle Park Reservoir is one option being studied.
Located near Fremont Pass at the headwaters of the East Fork of the Eagle River, it was originally created to hold mine tailings from Climax. In the 1990s it was gutted of tailings in order to hold water. A consortium of Vail Resorts, two-interrelated Vail-based water districts, and the Colorado River District combined to create a reservoir.
Aurora and Colorado Springs agreed to subordinate water rights in order to ensure firm yield for the Western Slope parties.
To expand the reservoir from the existing 3,300 acre-feet to 7,950 acre-feet could cost anywhere from $39.1 million to $70.8 million, depending upon how much work, if any, is needed to manage seepage beneath the existing dam. Test borings that began Sept. 12 will advance the design of the larger reservoir. Five possible configurations date from 1994.
Another option is to create a new relatively small dam on or adjacent to Homestake Creek, near its confluence with Whitney Creek. This is three miles off of Highway 24, between Camp Hale and Minturn.
Among the four possible configurations for this potential Whitney Creek Reservoir is a tunnel to deliver water from two creeks, Fall and Peterson, in the Gilman area.
A third option is restoration of a century-old dam at Minturn that was breached several years ago. Bolts Lake, however, would serve only Western Slope interests.
Still on the table is a new reservoir on a tributary to the Eagle River near Wolcott. That reservoir has been discussed occasionally for more than 30 years. However, like a Ruedi pumpback, it’s not part of the current discussion involving the Eagle River MOU partners.
Most problematic of the options is Whitney Creek. It would require relocation of a road and, in one of the configurations, water could back up into the existing wilderness area. For that to happen, Congress would have to tweak the wilderness boundary.
Wetlands displacement could also challenge a Whitney Reservoir. An investigation underway seeks to reveal whether those wetlands include areas classified as fens. Fens are peat-forming wetlands fed primarily by groundwater. As they may take thousands of years to develop, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service specifies that “every reasonable effort should be made to avoiding impact fens.”
“If fens are found, I expect a lengthy debate about the quantity and quality of fens required to be a fatal flaw,” said the river district’s Currier in a July memorandum. That determination will be made before drilling is authorized to determine whether a dam is possible.
Western Slope parties, said Currier in the memo, “believe an Eagle Park enlargement may ultimately become very attractive because the environmental and permitting issues are much, much simpler than a Whitney Creek alternative.”
Nearly all the alternatives being considered in the Eagle River Basin would require extensive pumping, as opposed to gravity-fed reservoir configurations. Water would have to be pumped 1,000 vertical feet into Eagle Park Reservoir, for example, then pumped again to get it across the Continental Divide.
A Whitney Creek Reservoir would require less, but still expensive pumping. Water in the reservoir would be received by gravity flow, but from there it would be pumped about seven miles up to Homestake Reservoir. Whether it can accommodate more water has yet to be determined, one of many dangling question marks.
Earlier, the parties had investigated the possibility of using an aquifer underlying Camp Hale as a reservoir. But drilling to determine the holding capacity proved maddening complex. Accounting for water depletions from pumping would have been very difficult. Further, operation of the system to prevent impact to other water users and instream flows would have been problematic. The idea was abandoned in 2013.
Currier, in his July report to the River District board of directors, outlined several questions that he said should provoke discussion among the Eagle River partners this fall: How much of the water outlined under the 1998 agreement does each party realistically need, and when? Are they ready to begin seeking permits after this new round of investigation to be completed next year?
Need for water?
This week, in response to questions from Aspen Journalism, the Eagle River MOU partners explained the need for the water to be developed between 2036 and 2050.
Both Aurora and Colorado Springs have added major projects in recent years. After the drought of 2002, a very-worried Aurora pushed rapidly for a massive reuse project along the South Platte River called Prairie Waters. It went on line in 2010 — far more rapidly than any project on the Eagle River could have been developed.
Colorado Springs last year began deliveries of water from Pueblo Reservoir via the Southern Delivery System, an idea first conceived in 1989. The Vail-based water districts also increased their storage capacity after 2002.
At a meeting in Georgetown in August, representatives of the two cities said they were unsure of the precise need for water.
Greg Baker, a spokesman for Aurora Water, describes a “delicate balancing act” about what is “going to be most reliable and what is going to be most environmentally permittable and permissible.”
Brett Gracely, of Colorado Springs Utilities, said project costs are “still in the realm of other projects are we looking at.”
The 1998 agreement specified that costs of initial studies should be divided equally, four ways. As the project progresses, the costs are to be split according to percentage of yield that each party would gain.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on the coverage of rivers and water. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – The city of Glenwood Springs is making progress toward securing a recreational water right for three potential whitewater parks on the Colorado River, but it has yet to come to terms with Aurora, Colorado Springs and the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
In kayaking terms, it could be said the city has greased close to a dozen Class II and III rapids so far since it started its run through water court in 2013. And it’s recently made it cleanly through a Class IV hole called “Denver Water.” But it is now facing two gnarly Class V rapids called “Homestake” and “CWCB.”
Aurora and Colorado Springs are co-owners of the Homestake Project, which includes a reservoir on Homestake Creek in the upper Eagle River basin that holds 43,300 acre-feet of water.
The water is stored and then shipped through the Homestake Tunnel to Turquoise Reservoir and on to the two Front Range cities, which also hold conditional water rights in the Homestake Project that could allow for development of more water.
The two cities, acting jointly as Homestake Partners, have told the water court and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) that Glenwood Springs is claiming more water than it needs for a valid recreational experience.
And they say Glenwood Springs’ proposed water right for the parks would prevent the additional development of more water-supply projects in the upper Colorado River basin within Colorado.
“Glenwood’s proposed RICD [recreational in-channel diversion] would unilaterally foreclose development in the Colorado River basin above Glenwood, affecting users both in the basin and on the Front Range,” Aurora and Colorado Springs told the water court in June 2015. “This will result in further ‘buy and dry’ of agricultural water rights, and could in addition motivate West Slope users to make trans-basin diversions from other river basins, such as the Yampa and Gunnison.”
Glenwood Springs has filed for a single water right tied to “three proposed boating parks” to be known as the No Name, Horseshoe Bend and Two Rivers whitewater parks. Each park would include two wave-producing structures.
The whitewater parks would be able to call for between 1,250 cubic feet per second of water from April 1 to Sept. 30, for 2,500 cfs between June 8 and July 23, and for 4,000 cfs for five days between June 30 and July 6.
The ability for Glenwood to call for 1,250 cfs doesn’t seem to be much of an issue in the case, as that’s the same amount of water that the Shoshone hydropower plant upstream of the proposed whitewater parks has been calling downriver since 1902.
But flows of 2,500 and 4,000 cfs are apparently a different matter.
“We see nothing substantiating that there is any demand for water-based recreational experiences beyond those that are already available in view of the current stream regimen,” wrote attorneys for Homestake in 2014.
Yet the city has so far managed to file signed stipulations in water court with Denver Water, Ute Water Conservancy District, Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, Grand Valley Water Users Association, Ute Water Conservancy District, Glenwood Hot Springs Lodge and Pool, Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Dept. of Transportation.
The most recent of those agreements approved in Div. 5 water court in Glenwood Springs was with CDOT on July 25 and with Denver Water on May 31.
The agreement with Denver Water includes a provision where Glenwood Springs will not oppose a future, and as yet undefined, project to develop an additional 20,000 acre-feet of diversions from the West Slope, as contemplated in the 2013 Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, or CRCA, which Glenwood Springs signed.
“We’ve just agreed that we’re not going to have our water right impede that project once it’s defined and agreed to by the signatories of the CRCA,” said Mark Hamilton of Holland and Hart, the attorney representing Glenwood Springs in the case (2013CW3109).
Glenwood Springs has also reached conceptual agreements with the Colorado River District, West Divide Water Conservancy District and the town of Gypsum, but has yet to file signed stipulation agreements with the court.
Also in the case, but in support of Glenwood Springs’ application, are American Whitewater, Western Resource Advocates, and Grand County.
“We’ve made a really diligent specific effort to address a whole variety of concerns from a whole bunch of different people,” Hamilton said. “We’re making every effort to get there, but until Homestake and CWCB come to rest, we can’t assure anybody we still don’t need to have some kind of hearing in front of Judge Boyd.”
Judge James Boyd oversees water court proceedings in Div. 5 water court. The city’s application is still before the water court referee, who works with opposing parties to see if settlements can be reached before referring the case to the judge.
The referee has given the parties at least until Oct. 27 to see if agreements can be reached, but extensions of time are not usually hard to obtain.
Hamilton is set to meet on Sept. 8 with representatives from Aurora and Colorado Springs in another effort to reach an agreement. It will be the fourth such meeting since February.
Joe Stibrich, the water resources policy manager for Aurora Water and a member of the board of the Homestake Steering Committee, said last week he couldn’t discuss the ongoing settlement negotiations, but did say Aurora and Homestake Partners were working in good faith.
He also said, however, that the concerns already articulated by the two cities to the court and CWCB are still outstanding.
Carving out the MOU
Aurora and Colorado Springs are both parties to the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding, which is tied to the Homestake Reservoir and Tunnel.
The 1998 agreement allows for a new water supply project in the upper Eagle River basin that would provide 10,000 acre-feet of water for a variety of West Slope entities and 20,000 acre-feet for Aurora and Colorado Springs.
Such a project is now being actively studied, and may include a new dam on lower Homestake Creek that would flood complex wetlands.
Hamilton put a clause in the draft water rights decree that Glenwood Springs “shall not use the RICD water rights as a basis to oppose” projects described in the Eagle River MOU.
“That’s something that we offered up without even having a settlement agreement with them,” Hamilton said. “It was my initial shot at trying to draft a ruling that I though would address their concerns. And so I would envision that any additional settlement terms would be laid on top of what we’ve already put in there.”
There is likely more than the Eagle River MOU of interest to Aurora and Colorado Springs.
In 2012, the two cities told the BLM and USFS, in comment letters regarding potential Wild and Scenic designation on a section of the Colorado River, that “as much as 86,400 acre feet of water supplies may be developed by completion of the Homestake Project” and that “Aurora and Colorado Springs plan to develop the remaining portions of Homestake Project.”
Even if an agreement can be worked out with Aurora and Colorado Springs, Glenwood Springs will still need to come to terms with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which recommended in June 2015 that the water court deny the city’s RICD filing.
The CWCB is charged by the state legislature with reviewing proposed RICDs and then making a recommendation to the water court.
When it came to Glenwood’s filing, the CWCB board of directors concluded in an 8-to-1 vote that it would “impair Colorado’s ability to fully develop its compact entitlements” and would not promote “the maximum beneficial use of water” in the state.
The state agency also directed its staff to oppose Glenwood’s filing in water court.
It’s not clear at this point how Judge Boyd might handle the recommendation-to-deny from the CWCB, or if Glenwood Springs might be able to get the CWCB to change its stance opposing the proposed water right.
“If we reach settlements with Homestake it’s possible that the CWCB would then reconsider and change its recommendations,” Hamilton said.
When it comes to reaching terms with Aurora and Colorado Springs, Hamilton said he remains “optimistic.”
“There is diligent ongoing discussion on all sides and good faith efforts being made,” he said. “And if it fails, it fails, and we’ll go to Judge Boyd and start setting deadlines and dealing with things more formally. But I think everybody is giving it a fair shot and seeing if we can get there shy of that.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Monday, Sept. 5, 2016.
James Eklund, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, invoked his Western Slope heritage at a “Summit on the Colorado Water Plan” hosted Saturday in Rifle by the Garfield County commissioners.
“The mantra I grew up with in Plateau Valley was not one more drop of water will be moved from this side of the state to the other,” said Eklund, whose mother’s family has been ranching in the Plateau Creek valley near Collbran since the 1880s.
Eklund was speaking to a room of about 50 people, including representatives from 14 Western Slope counties, all of whom had been invited by the Garfield County commissioners for a four-hour meeting.
The commissioners’ stated goal for the meeting was to develop a unified voice from the Western Slope stating that “no more water” be diverted to the Front Range.
“That argument had been made, probably by my great-grandparents, my grandparents and my parents,” Eklund said. “And I know there are a lot of people who still want to make that argument today, and I get that. But it has not done us well on the Western Slope.
“That argument has gotten us to were we are now, 500,000 to 600,000 acre feet of water moving from the west to the east. So I guess the status quo is not West Slope-friendly. We need something different. We need a different path. And these seven points provides that different path.”
The “seven points” form the basis of a “draft conceptual framework” for future negotiations regarding a potential transmountain diversion in Colorado.
The framework is the result of the ongoing statewide water-supply planning process that Eklund is overseeing in his role at the CWCB.
Eklund took the helm two years ago at the CWCB after serving as Gov. John Hickenlooper’s senior deputy legal counsel, and he’s been leading the effort to produce the state’s first water plan, which is due on the governor’s desk in December.
The second draft of the plan includes the seven points, even though the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, which meets monthly in Glenwood Springs under the auspices of the CWCB, is still on the record as opposing their inclusion in the water plan. That could change after its meeting on Monday.
Not legally binding
The “seven points” seeks to define the issues the Western Slope likely has with more water flowing east under the Continental Divide, and especially how a new transmountain diversion could hasten a demand from California for Colorado’s water under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
“The seven points are uniquely helpful to Western Slope interests because if you tick through them, they are statements that the Front Range doesn’t necessarily have to make,” Eklund said in response to a question. “If these were legally binding, the Western Slope would benefit.”
Under Colorado water law a Front Range water provider, say, can file for a right to move water to the east, and a local county or water district might have little recourse other than perhaps to fight the effort through a permitting process.
But Eklund said the points in the “conceptual framework” could be invoked by the broader Western Slope when negotiating a new transmountain diversion.
As such, a diverter might at least have to acknowledge that water may not be available in dry years, that the diversion shouldn’t exacerbate efforts to forestall a compact call, that other water options on the Front Range, including increased conservation, should be developed first, that a new transmountain diversion shouldn’t preclude future growth on the Western Slope, and that the environmental resiliency of the donor river would need to be addressed.
“We’re just better off with them than without them,” Eklund said of the seven points.
A cap on the Colorado?
Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River District, which is based in Glenwood Springs and represents 15 Western Slope counties, told the attendees that three existing agreements effectively cap how much more water can be diverted from the upper Colorado River and its tributaries above Glenwood Springs.
The Colorado Water Cooperative Agreement, which was signed in 2013 by 18 entities, allows Denver Water to develop another 18,000 acre-feet from the Fraser River as part of the Moffat, or Gross Reservoir, project, but it also includes a provision that would restrict other participating Front Range water providers from developing water from the upper Colorado River.
A second agreement will allow Northern Water to move another 30,000 acre feet of water out of the Colorado River through its Windy Gap facilities, but Northern has agreed that if it develops future projects, it will have to do so in a cooperative manner with West Slope interests.
And a third agreement known as the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding will allow Aurora and Colorado Springs to develop another 20,000 acre feet of water as part of the Homestake project in the Eagle River basin, but will also provide 10,000 acre feet for Western Slope use.
“So effectively these three agreements, in effect, cap what you’re going to see above Glenwood Springs,” Kuhn said.
The Moffat, Windy Gap and Eagle River projects are not subject to the “seven points” in the conceptual agreement, and neither is the water that could be taken by the full use of these and other existing transmountain projects.
“So when you add all that up, there is an additional 100,000 to 150,000 acre-feet of consumptive use already in existing projects,” Kuhn said.
But beyond that, Kuhn said Front Range water providers desire security and want to avoid a compact call, just as the Western Slope does.
“We’ve been cussing and discussing transmountain diversions for 85 years,” Kuhn added, noting that the Colorado Constitution does not allow the Western Slope to simply say “no” to Front Range water developers.
“So, the framework is an agenda,” Kuhn said, referring to the “seven points.” “It’s not the law, but it is a good agenda to keep us on track. It includes important new concepts, like avoiding over development and protecting existing uses.”
Vet other projects too?
Rachel Richards, a Pitkin County commissioner, told the attendees that she would like to see more water projects than just new transmountain diversions be subject to the seven points.
As part of the state’s water-supply planning efforts, state officials have designated a list of projects as already “identified projects and processes,” or IPPs, which are not subject to the seven points.
“We would like to see the same environmental standards, and community buy-in standards, applied to increasing existing transmountain diversions or IPPs,” Richards said, noting that the “IPPs” seem to be wearing a halo.
“They need to go through just as much vetting for concern of the communities as a new transmountain diversion would, and we’re probably going to see a lot more of them first,” she said.
At the end of the four-hour summit on the statewide water plan, Garfield County Commissioner Mike Sampson said he still had “real concerns” about the long-term viability of Western Slope agriculture and industry in the face of growth on the Front Range, but he offered some support for the seven points.
“I think the seven points is probably a good starting position,” Sampson said.
He also said Garfield County would make some edits to a draft position paper it hopes will be adopted by other Western Slope counties.
On Saturday, the draft paper said “the elected county commissioners on the Western Slope of Colorado stand united in opposing any more major, transmountain diversions or major changes in operation of existing projects unless agreed to by all of the county(s) from which water would be diverted.”
But Sampson was advised, and agreed, that it might be productive to reframe that key statement to articulate what the Western Slope would support, not what it would oppose.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times on coverage of rivers and water. The Post published this story online on July 25, 2015.
Living in the West offers many advantages. Wide open spaces, majestic mountains and amazing recreational opportunities, to name a few. Still, there are challenges and water is certainly one them.
If you’ve seen the recent news, extreme drought is taking its toll in California. In light of this, we caught up with our own water planners – Abby Ortega and Leon Basdekas – to learn if what’s taking place with our neighbors could affect our community and why we need to stay involved in what’s happening around the region.
Some of our customers many ask, could what’s taking place in California happen in Colorado?
Extreme drought can happen anywhere, and we are certainly not immune. We continuously monitor our water supply situation and maintain a storage reserve in our reservoirs to meet customer demand for at least one year.
Why should we take an interest in or follow what’s happening with drought in the West?
In Colorado Springs and across the Front Range, we are heavily reliant on the Colorado River for our water supply. The Colorado River starts in Colorado, but we only keep a portion of the flow for use in the state per the Colorado River Compact. The Colorado River also serves Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, New Mexico and California (see below for a breakdown). There is also an obligation to Mexico. When any of the states or Mexico are in an extreme drought, their reliance on the Colorado River water may increase, possibly resulting in ripple effects that could negatively impact us. At any given time, the Colorado River supplies about 70 percent of our community’s water. Drought can also affect the levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which part of the western United States relies on for power production.
Will Colorado Springs experience any impact from the situation in California?
The California drought will not have direct impacts to our community’s water supply yet. We are working closely with the Upper Basin States to create a proactive contingency plan in the event that storage levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell drop to critical levels.
What is Colorado Springs Utilities doing to help protect our community from this type of situation?
Maintaining a dependable water supply for Colorado Springs residents and businesses is one of our community’s greatest challenges. Continuous long-term water planning is the reason we have a reliable water system today that supports our economy and quality of life. For us, planning is part of our daily responsibilities and includes factors such as water sources, demand, water rights, infrastructure, storage and much more. In addition, we are currently updating our Integrated Water Resource Plan, which provides the roadmap for sustainably addressing water supply and demand issues, while reflecting our community values.
What can customers do to help?
The intelligent use of water will always be a priority for our community, which has done a great job of adapting to our semi-arid climate. Our customers continue to find ways to use water wisely and we can help. A good place to start is our website, which has free xeriscape class schedules, efficiency ideas, DIY videos, and more. Folks should also join in the conversations we’re having through the Integrated Water Resource Plan process. There are opportunities for input, whether online or at upcoming meetings.
Expansion of Eagle Park Reservoir and other storage options studied
The summer of 2002 was so hot and dry in Vail that when a rainstorm finally arrived in August, people violated the idiom about common sense and stood and then danced outside in the pouring rain.
In the offices of the local water provider, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, Linn Brooks remembers worries that Gore Creek—the primary source of Vail’s water, via wells that draw from the creek’s alluvial aquifer—might disappear altogether. Droughts from the 20th century had never been as severe.
September rains in 2002 eased immediate concerns. But 13 years later, water district still seeks to steel itself from a return of drought that severe—or worse.
Twice, upstream reservoirs have been expanded modestly and wells were drilled downstream at Edwards at a cost of several million dollars.
Now comes discussion of a much more ambitious expansion of Eagle Park Reservoir, one of several ideas for increased storage of the final waters of the upper Eagle Valley.
Eagle Park Reservoir is along the East Fork of the Eagle River, near Frémont Pass, about 20 miles south of Vail. It was built in the 1960s to hold tailings from the nearby Climax molybdenum mine. Then, in the mid-1990s, it was cleaned up and converted to water storage beginning in 1998.
Expanded minimally in 2009 at a cost of $250,000, it can now store a maximum of 3,300 acre-feet of water. The idea now being reviewed would expand storage to between 6,000 and 9,000 acre-feet.
Brooks, now the general manager for the water and sanitation district, says the project would address future population growth in Vail and the Eagle Valley, provide water to meet minimum streamflow water rights and, somewhat more nebulously, deliver water to mitigate water quality problems and benefit the river ecosystem.
But the essential driver, says Brooks, is the potential for intensified drought. Before the drought of 2002, the worst year on record was 1977 and local water planners tried to plan for three years of consecutive drought of that magnitude.
Now, they’re trying to plan for three consecutive years as bad as 2002.
“I would say we are still reacting to 2002,” says Brooks.
But stacked up behind the fresh and concrete evidence of 2002 is the worrisome potential for even more intensified drought such as occurred around 800 to 1300 AD.
Tree rings in the Colorado River Basin—including some from trees near Eagle—provide evidence of those droughts. A recent study calculated that such droughts have a 66 percent chance of occurring in the 21st century.
On top of this comes the effect of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions. Climate models have drawn no clear conclusions about effects of precipitation in places like Vail, they are clear in warning of hotter, longer summers and, when it occurs, more intense drought.
Of course, river flows have always been variable on the Eagle and other river basins of the Southwest. Since the record-shattering drought of 2002, points out Brooks, Vail has also had a once-in-100 years runoff. Precipitation in the high Rockies, she points out, has “extreme variability.”
Memorandum of understanding
The Eagle River has three significant reservoirs at its headwaters:
• Black Lakes, located at Vail Pass, at the headwaters of Black Gore Creek, which can hold 750 acre-feet.
• Homestake Reservoir holds 14,000 acre-feet, but only 1,000 acre-feet can be used for Western Slope purposes. The rest is diverted for use by Aurora and Colorado Springs.
• Eagle Park Reservoir is the newest. In the early 1990s, water attorney Glenn Porzak, of Porzak, Browning Bushong, initiated discussions with Climax about converting assets of the mine to accommodate the growing needs of his clients in Vail for water storage. He represents Vail Resorts, and Eagle River Water and Sanitation District as well as the parallel Upper Eagle River Water Authority.
The consortium was expanded to include Eagle County, the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, and owner of the mine, which is now FreeportMorgan. Climax paid to clean up the reservoir at a cost of $12 million.
But Aurora and Colorado Springs also own substantial water rights in the basin. In the 1960s, they joined to build Homestake Reservoir. In the 1980s, they proposed to further expand the water collection system within the Holy Cross Wilderness Area. The project was called Homestake II.
Eagle County thwarted that ambition. Its 1987 denial survived court challenges and statehouse attempts to yank the legal rug from under the local government.
The River District convened discussions that recognized that the water rights of the Front Range cities must be recognized—but, in developing the water, the Western Slope must benefit, too. The Eagle River memorandum of understanding inked in 1998 identifies 30,000 acre-feet of water in the Eagle River Basin to be developed in thirds: for Aurora, Colorado Springs, and the Western Slope.
Even if Eagle Park gets expanded, it’s unlikely to be the only project, says John Currier, chief engineer for the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
“It’s very likely that you can’t develop the water in the Eagle River MOU in one single project. I think it’s more accurate to say it’s one project with multiple components.”
Another long-discussed idea is a small reservoir in the Homestake Valley near the Blodgett Campground. Still another is a holding facility, called a forebay, in the same valley, along Whitney Creek, that would hold water pumped back from Camp Hale. From this impound water could be further pumped up the valley to Homestake Reservoir. Yet a third idea is a small reservoir on Red Sandstone Creek, north of Vail.
Benefits of Eagle Park, says Currier, are that it already exists, it’s on private property, eliminating need for the high level of environmental review that other projects on public land would require, and the property has already been disturbed.
The latter is a persuasive argument to Ken Neubecker, a representative of American Rivers, a conservation group.
“Without looking at the details, I would think favorably of it. Eagle Park Reservoir was an old tailings pile to begin with. It wasn’t like ripping up an undammed valley like Blodgett Reservoir would. Adding onto it would be the best use of facilities we already have.”
Expanding Eagle Park, however, will likely be expensive. No cost estimates have been delivered, but Brooks says it’s something “we cannot do on our own. We would have to have partners in a project like that.”
Porzak says Aurora could benefit by storing water from the Columbine Ditch, a water diversion across Tennessee Pass, in the reservoir.
Energy use also is problematic. The reservoir has almost no upstream. Water would have to be pumped 150 vertical feet from the East Fork of the Eagle River, says Porzak.
A small reservoir at Whitney Creek would also require pumping water, says Currier. But for diversions to the Front Range, going farther down the Eagle River is even more challenging.
Exactly what would best benefit the Vail Valley is still unclear. Brooks has turned to a tool called scenario planning that is used by Denver, Seattle and many other water planners. It tries to calculate a whole range of variables, including population growth and climate change. Expanded storage is only one of the responses. “Basically, conservation and optimization should be applied first,” says Brooks.
Expanded storage, however, will ultimately be necessary for a variety of purposes. “I don’t think we will ever be able to conserve our way out of needing an expanded Eagle Park Reservoir,” she says.
While needs of population growth can be met relatively easily, Brooks sees need to provide broader but somewhat more nebulous environmental and aesthetic benefits.
“It’s always been a little harder for our boards to wrap their heads around paying for the aesthetics in the streams,” she says. “They’ve certainly gone there in the past, paying literally millions to ensure the stream flows for health.”
Making that case is becoming easier. Water quality impacts from urbanization and other development impacts have become documented, and state water quality standards have tightened. As nutrients get washed into the waterways from stormwater, the capacity of the river gets whittled away, Brooks explains.
There seems to be no rush by anybody to build anything quickly. But there is a sense that the decisions made need to be very good. Unless the climate changes to produce more snow and rain, the upper basin will be without additional water to develop. Downstream, there could be more, but not at the headwaters.
“If it’s not the last drop, it’s darned close to the last drop in the Eagle, because you’re just physically constrained by what you can develop,” says the River District’s Currier.
Going farther downstream, as has been discussed with such “big straw” projects as the Yampa River pumpback or Flaming Gore pumpback, remains possible, adds Currier, but “at that point your energy costs are hugely significant.”
Here’s part one of an in-depth look at the Southern Delivery System from John Hazlehurst writing for the Colorado Springs Business Journal. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
Contending that the denial [of Homestake II] had been arbitrary and capricious, the two cities [Aurora and Colorado Springs] appealed the decision to the courts. In a comprehensive description of the city’s water system and possible future sources of supply given to City Council in 1991, CSU managers said that “extensive litigation is expected to continue.”
Denied by the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court, the cities appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.
City officials were stunned. They couldn’t believe that a coalition of Western Slope “enviros” and ski towns had prevented them from developing water to which the city had an undisputed right. They had believed the Environmental Protection Agency’s 1990 decision to scuttle Denver’s proposed Two Forks Dam near Deckers on the South Platte River was an outlier, not a sign of things to come…
Slow to recognize that mountain communities now had the power to kill their water development plans, Utilities officials looked at another alternative. Instead of taking water directly from the wilderness area, the city proposed to build a dam on the mainstem of the Arkansas at Elephant Rock, a few miles upstream of Buena Vista.
A grassroots rebellion against the project was soon evident, as hand-lettered signs appeared along U.S. Highway 24, which parallels the Arkansas. The signs carried a simple message: “Don’t Let Colorado Springs Dam this River!”
It soon became clear that Chaffee County commissioners would not issue a construction permit for any such project, dooming it before the first planning documents were created…
If trans-mountain diversions or dams on the Arkansas were no longer feasible, that left a single alternative for developing the city’s water rights. CSU would have to let its water flow down to Pueblo Reservoir, construct a diversion structure on the dam, and pump it uphill to Colorado Springs.
It would be, water managers believed, the easiest project to build and permit.
“It was just a pipeline,” said CSU water resources manager Gary Bostrom, who has worked 35 years for Utilities. “What could go wrong?”[…]
“We didn’t really understand the importance of partnering with and involving the public in decision-making,” said [Gary Bostrom], “until the Southern Water Project.”[…]
The plan for the Southern Delivery System was presented to City Council in 1992. Among the material submitted to councilmembers was a comprehensive description of the city’s existing water system. Water managers made sure Council was aware of the importance of the task before them.
“The massive scope of this project,” CSU staff noted, “requires a very long lead time to allow for complexities of numerous permitting processes, land acquisition, litigation, design, financing and construction.”
Of all the variables, CSU managers and elected officials gave the least weight to those that may have been the most significant…
“We weren’t worried about hydrology,” said Bostrom. “The years between 1980 and 2000 were some of the wettest years on record. The water was there for the taking. Shortages on the Colorado weren’t part of the discussion.
“We knew about the Colorado River Water Compact of 1922 (which allocated Colorado River water between Mexico and the upper and lower basin states), but it wasn’t something we worried about.”
Then as now, 70 percent of the city’s water supply came from the Colorado River. SDS would tap the city’s rights on the Arkansas, diversifying the portfolio.
“We have to plan for growth,” said Bostrom. “That’s what history tells us. We know that it will be expensive, but the cost of not building a system well in advance of need would be much greater. People complained about the cost of the Blue River (trans-mountain diversion) project in the 1950s, but we wouldn’t have a city without it — we wouldn’t have the Air Force Academy.”
But even as the project moved slowly forward, the comfortable assumptions of a wet, prosperous future began to unravel.
“Exactly 15 years ago today (April 29, 1999),” said Bostrom, “we were in the middle of a flood — remember? We didn’t know it, but that was the day the drought began.”
More Southern Delivery System coverage here and here.