FromAspen Public Radio (Elizabeth Stewart-Severy):
Healthy Rivers and Streams board members recently took a field trip to the construction zone on the Roaring Fork River, where backhoes are digging up the riverbed. By February, this should be a man-made whitewater park with two waves for boaters to surf.
Board chair Lisa Tasker said the ultimate goal of this project is to keep water in the river during low flow years, using a water right designated for recreation.
“When you get a recreational in-channel diversion water right, you have to put structures in, and then you have to prove that people are recreating in there,” Tasker said.
With a price-tag of nearly $800,000, the whitewater park is the biggest project the Healthy Rivers and Streams fund has tackled…
Now it is turning its attention to the City of Aspen, which wants to reserve the right to build reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks. The municipality filed last month with the state to keep its conditional water storage right.
“We’re a healthy rivers board, and we’re going to respond in favor of a healthy river and a healthy ecosystem,” Tasker said. “So, we’re going to come out probably fairly strongly, because that is our mission.”
At a meeting in late October, the river board agreed to urge Pitkin County Commissioners to formally file in opposition to the City of Aspen in water court. Commissioner Rachel Richards is not warm to the idea.
“Just forcing the city to relinquish those water rights actually does nothing to protect the long-term health of the Castle Creek or the Maroon Creek,” Richards said.
Richards said she’d like to see the city maintain the rights while researching alternatives, like digging into a deeper aquifer or working to change Colorado water law entirely.
If nothing else, Richards and Tasker agree, the issue has opened a new conversation and interest in local water issues.
“I think it’s going to cause people to become a lot more creative and a lot more imaginative as to how they’re going to handle a shortage of water in the future,” Tasker said.
The county has until Dec. 31 to file in opposition to the city.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
City officials [assure residents and others that], while there’s no proposal to actually build the reservoirs at this time, it would be irresponsible not to continue seeking to preserve the water rights for what may be one of many approaches for meeting future needs.
“Despite the notion that the city is poised to dam Maroon Valley, in reality this filing is an action demanded by state law to protect our rights to your drinking water,” Mayor Steve Skadron wrote in a recent letter to the editor to the Aspen Daily News.
“Without knowing more about viable alternatives for water storage, it would not be prudent water management on our part to give up these water rights. After all, climate and other changes in this region are uncertain and what our needs will look like in 2066 is not something we are poised to gamble away by letting this storage right go.”
Acting on unanimous direction from City Council, the city last week applied to keep for another six years conditional water rights it has held since 1965. Its action has riled up not just local residents but conservation groups including the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, American Rivers and Western Resource Advocates.
“I think if we need to find other places to get water, there’s probably other places to do that than the base of the Maroon Bells,” said Will Roush, Wilderness Workshop’s conservation director.
The shapely Maroon Bells are two of the most famous of Colorado’s 50-plus Fourteeners, or peaks over 14,000 feet high. Endless photos depict the twin, red-rock, snow-fringed peaks presiding in the back of a green-forested valley, their images reflected by Maroon Lake in the foreground. So many people visit the lake for that view that vehicle access in summer is mostly restricted to buses.
Castle Creek is similarly stunning, providing access to another Fourteener, Castle Peak, as well as the ghost town of Ashcroft, the popular Conundrum Hot Springs and other attractions.
Beyond issues such as aesthetics, the Maroon Bells reservoir would lie largely within the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area, and a small part of the Castle Creek one would be in wilderness. That has attracted the interest of the U.S. Forest Service, which expects to file an opposition letter to Aspen’s filing in water court pointing out that it doesn’t have the authority to allow a reservoir in wilderness.
“Actually, the president of the United States does,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest.
He said he believes the president would have to approve such an action, or sign an act of Congress redrawing the wilderness area lines to exclude such a reservoir.
Fitzwilliams said he’s aware of situations where wilderness areas have been created with a specific exemption allowing for a reservoir. But this situation would be different. Roush said while it’s possible to petition a president for an exception for a new reservoir in an existing wilderness area, this provision of the Wilderness Act has never been used, and he fears that Aspen could set a damaging precedent.
David Hornbacher, Aspen’s director of utilities and environmental initiatives, said that when the city’s water rights moved forward in 1965, the acreage envisioned for the two reservoirs didn’t overlie wilderness. That changed in 1980 when the wilderness area was expanded. Regardless, the Wilderness Act provides a presidential path forward for building reservoirs in wilderness, he said.
That issue wouldn’t be the only one on the Forest Service’s mind if the city proceeded with trying to build the reservoirs.
“Certainly, flooding the Maroon Valley, we would have a host of issues that we would bring to their attention. It’s a pretty popular spot,” Fitzgerald said, chuckling at his understatement.
But while the Forest Service could hold the city responsible for mitigating effects such as flooding wetlands, it would have to let the city exercise its legal rights to store water, within reason, he said.
“There’s a limited amount of authority we can exercise when it comes to a water right,” he said.
The Maroon and Castle creek reservoir dams are envisioned as being 150 and 175 feet high, respectively, enough to swamp more than 200 acres between them.
Roush finds the city’s position on the water rights incongruous with its good record of environmental stewardship on climate change and other issues.
“Maintaining the right to put dams on these two creeks just seems a little bit out of sync with both the City Council itself but also the character of the community,” he said.
But Hornbacher said climate change is a big factor forcing the city’s hand.
“Aspen’s water supply is snow and that is changing,” he said.
The city largely relies on the snowpack-induced river flows from the two valleys now. But with a warmer climate, reflected by an average of 23 more frost-free days in Aspen today than in 1980, that snowpack’s future reliability is in question.
“Essentially what water you do have tends to be melting or leaving the valley earlier (each year) than it has in the past,” he said.
Reservoir storage would not only bolster water supplies each year, but prove valuable in cases of back-to-back drought years.
While the city has had success in implementing water conservation measures, it also is looking to more demand as a result of a growing population, its transition from a winter resort to a more year-round one, and the possibility that second-home owners could use those homes more or convert them to their primary homes, Hornbacher said.
He said it’s important for the city to make decisions today to address the uncertainties and risks of providing a safe, secure and legal water supply in the future.
Conservationists contend the city’s own water supply study this year shows the reservoirs wouldn’t be necessary. Harrison doesn’t think the city’s population ever will grow enough to warrant their construction. She’s unnerved by the due-diligence language in the city’s water rights filing that it “can and will” build the dams. That makes her think the city is leaning toward building them.
“If that’s the case it’s like, are you kidding me?” Harrison said. “There are a lot of people that are outraged.”
Hornbacher hopes that with interest in the issue being high right now, the public can be enlisted to get involved in working with the city on evaluating existing water-supply alternatives and identifying new ones. Council directed city staff to initiate such a collaborative process when it decided to have the city proceed with filing to keep the water rights.
Among the options for consideration are rethinking the size and location of the envisioned reservoirs within the two valleys, as well as how water rights might be affected if the city looked to build them in another valley.
Roush said the Wilderness Workshop would love to work with the city on studying storage, and whether it could be accomplished in other ways, such as in tanks, underground aquifers or through water-sharing with other entities.
“There’s certainly a role for stored water but in places like (Maroon and Castle creeks), they’re certainly inappropriate,” he said of the reservoirs.
Effective immediately, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is instituting a voluntary fishing closure at a popular area on the Frying Pan River located downstream from the Ruedi Reservoir Dam. Water that normally flows from the dam and into the pool, known locally as the ‘toilet-bowl’, has been re-routed due to the need for dam maintenance. The conditions have left the fish in the pool isolated, vulnerable, and stressed.
Maintenance of the dam – owned and operated by the Bureau of Reclamation – could continue through Nov. 10; however, dam operators say it could take longer if additional work is necessary.
“We’ve received several reports from concerned anglers that fish in the pool are stressed due to the current lack of water flow coming into the pool,” said CPW Senior Aquatic Biologist Lori Martin. “Due to these conditions, it’s just not very sporting to catch these fish right now. Releasing stressed fish that have been handled could result in them not surviving.”
Anglers can expect to see signage advising of the closure and are urged to find alternative fishing locations until conditions improve.
Although the closure is voluntary, CPW officials say a more stringent emergency closure enforceable by law is an option if angler compliance is minimal.
For more information about the voluntary fishing closure, contact Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Glenwood Springs office at 970-947-2920.
For more information about work on the dam and dam operations, contact Tim Miller of the Bureau of Reclamation at 970-962-4394.
ASPEN – The city of Aspen filed two applications Monday in Division 5 Water Court for “finding of reasonable diligence” on the conditional water rights it has maintained since 1965 for the potential storage reservoirs on upper Castle and Maroon creeks.
The city told the court it has “steadily applied effort to complete the appropriation” of the conditional water rights for both of the reservoirs over the last six years, and that it has done so “in a reasonably expedient and efficient manner under all facts and circumstances.”
It then asks the court to issue conditional decrees for both reservoirs for six more years.
The “appropriation” of the current conditional water rights would mean completing the construction of the dams and the storage of water as described in the decrees, which call for a 170-foot-tall dam on upper Castle Creek to hold 9,062 acre-feet of water and a 155-foot-tall dam on upper Maroon Creek to hold 4,567 acre-feet.
The city did not cite any specific actions it has taken in the last six years in regard to investigating, designing, constructing, or financing the actual dams and reservoirs, outside of reaching agreement with two landowners in the Castle Creek Valley not to flood their property if the Castle Creek Reservoir is built.
Instead, both applications filed Monday say the reservoirs are “part of Aspen’s integrated water supply system” and are “part of Aspen’s long-range plan to maintain a water supply to meet current and future demand.”
The city’s diligence applications say it spent in excess of $6 million on its water system since 2010 and point to Colorado’s Water Right Determination and Administration Act of 1969 as to how that can help its case.
The law states that “when a project or integrated system is comprised of several features, work on one feature of the project or system shall be considered in finding that reasonable diligence has been shown in the development of water rights for all features of the entire project or system.”
The same law also says, however, that “the measure of reasonable diligence is the steady application of effort to complete the appropriation in a reasonably expedient and efficient manner under all the facts and circumstance.”
Directed to file
Aspen City Council unanimously passed a resolution on Oct. 10 directing staff to file the diligence applications, which were due on Oct. 31.
The last diligence decree was awarded on Oct. 11, 2010, which set the clock ticking on the last six-year diligence period.
In all previous filings, the city has filed one application covering both reservoirs, but on Monday it filed separate applications for each potential reservoir.
By Tuesday afternoon, both of the applications from the city had been processed by the water court clerk. The case number for the Maroon Creek Reservoir application is 16CW3128. The case number for the Castle Creek Reservoir application is 16CW3129.
The city has filed diligence applications for the reservoirs eight prior times, in 1972, 1977, 1981, 1985, 1989, 1995, 2002 and 2009, and each time has been awarded a new diligence decree for the conditional rights.
The required time between diligence filings changed from every four years to every six years in 1990, which accounts for the differing time spans between filings before and after that date.
When a water rights application is filed in water court, interested parties have two months to file a statement of opposition in the case.
And with the filing date for both of the city’s applications coming on Halloween, the deadline for statements of opposition to be filed has been set for New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 2016.
Any citizen, regardless of whether they own water rights, or might be injured by a water right claim, is allowed to file a statement of opposition in water court, although the court requires opposers to honor the court’s process, which can be time-consuming.
The opposition to come
The U.S. Forest Service informed the city in October it intends to file a statement of opposition, especially as the Maroon Creek Reservoir is wholly on U.S.F.S. land and would inundate portions of the Maroon Bells–Snowmass Wilderness.
Matt Rice, director of the Colorado River Basin Program for American Rivers, confirmed Tuesday that the national nonprofit organization also still intends to oppose the city’s diligence applications.
“We don’t believe that new water storage dams on Castle Creek and Maroon Creek are appropriate now or anytime in the future,” Rice said.
In a press release issued Tuesday by American Rivers, Rice said, “Constructing these dams would likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but the price would pale in comparison to the massive environmental impacts. American Rivers and our members urge the Aspen City Council to reconsider this decision.”
Rice said that Trout Unlimited, Western Resource Advocates, Wilderness Workshop and several private landowners are “seriously considering” filing statements of opposition.
Will Roush, conservation director for Wilderness Workshop, said Tuesday his organization has yet to decide if it will oppose the city in water court.
Wilderness Workshop sent out a press release on Tuesday, however, with a quote from Roush.
“The city of Aspen’s pursuit of dams on Castle and Maroon creeks could not be more out of step with the community’s values,” he said in the release. “These two iconic creeks, universally treasured by our community, have far too many social and ecological values to build unneeded reservoirs on them.”
And the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board unanimously agreed on Oct. 20 to direct staff to prepare a letter or resolution urging the Pitkin County commissioners to file a statement of opposition in the diligence cases.
“We’ve always felt that reservoirs were against the mission of the Healthy Rivers and Streams Board,” said Bill Jochems of Redstone, who has served on the river board for the last seven years.
He said reservoirs deprive rivers of necessary high spring runoff and “have highly undesirable aspects from an aesthetic point of view.”
Mayor proud to file
Steve Skadron, the mayor of Aspen, sent a letter to the editor Tuesday saying he was “proud” of the city for filing the diligence applications.
“Without knowing more about viable alternatives for water storage, it simply would not be prudent water management on our part to give up these water rights,” Skadron wrote. “After all, climate and other changes in this region are uncertain and what our needs will look like in 2066 is not something we are poised to gamble away by letting this storage right go.”
Aspen’s applications say “the city continues to investigate and develop more refined tools for planning its future water needs.”
Skadron also pointed out that the council directed staff on Oct. 10 to “undertake a collaborative effort to work with the community and stakeholders to find other water storage solutions.”
Reservoir size to be ‘revised’
The size of the Castle Creek Reservoir is expected to be reduced after agreements the city reached with Mark and Karen Hedstrom in May of 2010 and with Simon Pinniger sometime after mid-2012. Both the Hedtroms and Pinniger own land at the upper edge of the potential reservoir.
However, the city did not cite the size of the potentially reduced Castle Creek Reservoir in its diligence application.
“It is expected that this commitment by Aspen will result in a reduction in the volume and surface area of the Castle Creek Reservoir, and Aspen has contracted for a preliminary investigation of the anticipated revised size and volume of the Castle Creek Reservoir,” the city’s application states.
David Hornbacher, the city’s director of utilities and environmental initiatives, said on Tuesday that the city contracted for that “preliminary investigation” on Oct. 18, 2016.
The applications also include a sentence that seems to overstate how the reservoirs are referenced in the 2015 Colorado Water Plan.
“The city also participated in the development of Colorado’s State Water Plan, which resulted in the Colorado River Basin Implementation Plan, which identified the continued due diligence for the preservation of the Castle Creek and Maroon Creek storage rights as important projects for securing safe drinking water,” the city stated.
However, the two reservoirs were not identified in the basin implementation plan as “important projects” and they were specifically rejected from being included among the top three priority projects in the Roaring Fork River basin by roundtable members.
Instead, they are referenced in a broader context of “identified projects” in a chart under the theme of “secure safe drinking water.”
Under “methods,” the chart says, “Investigate the development of storage reservoirs on both Maroon and Castle creeks if no better alternative is discovered.”
And under “identified projects,” it states “Continue due diligence for the preservation of the 1972 storage rights on Maroon and Castle creeks by giving true consideration to all other potential options.”
(The rights were originally filed for in 1965 and decreed in 1971, not 1972.)
In both applications the city submitted Monday, it also says “the significant cost of permitting, design and construction” for both reservoirs “dictates that other long range plans be implemented first.”
The city did not provide estimates of costs for the dams and reservoirs in its applications.
It did say, however, that the city has spent $600,000 on water attorney fees since 2010, primarily to defend its water rights, and that expenditure should be considered as part of a finding of reasonable diligence. Those expenditures are included in the city’s overall spending figure of “in excess of $6 million” that it has spent on its water supply system in the last six years.
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 Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.
ASPEN – The Aspen City Council unanimously voted Monday night to tell the state of Colorado this month that it “can and will” build a 155-foot-tall dam on Maroon Creek within view of the Maroon Bells and a 170-foot-tall dam on Castle Creek two miles below Ashcroft.
The council passed a resolution directing staff to file a diligence application in Division 5 water court in Glenwood Springs by Oct. 31 that seeks to maintain the conditional water rights from 1965 that are tied to the potential dams.
“File and pursue an application for finding of reasonable diligence in the development of the Castle and Maroon creek conditional water rights on or before Oct. 31, 2016,” the resolution states.
It also says that “the city is obligated and intends to provide a legal and reliable water supply and to that end can and will develop all necessary water rights, including but not limited to, Maroon Creek Reservoir and Castle Creek Reservoir.”
Despite the language in the resolution stating Aspen’s apparent intent to someday build the two dams, Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron stressed that Monday’s decision to file a diligence application in water court was about maintaining water rights, and was not the same as deciding to build the dams.
He said an article in Monday’s Aspen Daily News by Aspen Journalism made it sound “as if the bulldozers are at the roundabout ready for this vote to come and they are going to go up tomorrow.”
“The question is not to build or not to build dams,” Skadron said. “That’s a false premise. The issue is whether to keep water rights alive by the can-and-will due-diligence measures the state has imposed on us, as opposed to letting these water rights become available and appropriated by others. That’s the challenge.
“And so without knowing more about viable alternatives, it simply would not be prudent water management and planning on our part to give these water rights up,” he said.
However, Paul Noto, an experienced Aspen water attorney now representing the national advocacy group American Rivers, told the council Monday night that it was a misperception on their part to think that there was room in Colorado water law to tell the state that the city “can and will” build the dams if the city really just wants to keep its options open to perhaps do so in the future.
“I want to clarify again that in order to keep these rights you have to prove that you actually will build these dams within a reasonable period of time, and that’s typically looked at within a 50-year horizon,” he said. “So this notion that we are going to file to keep our options open doesn’t really jibe with the legal standard that we have to prove in a court of law that we will build these dams within 50 years.”
Noto also said that there was still an apparent misunderstanding of what might happen if the city were to abandon the water rights.
“The rights simply go away,” he said. “No one can take them. No one can buy them. If you didn’t file, the rights simply go away. They no longer exist, and if someone came in and wanted to file for new water rights for that amount of water in that location, it would be under a 2016 or later priority date, not 1965.”
He also said it would be “legally impossible” under the Colorado River Compact of 1922 for some downstream entity, such as Los Angeles or Las Vegas, to somehow come in and control the water in Castle and Maroon creeks.
American Rivers has stated publicly that it intends to oppose Aspen’s efforts in water court to maintain the conditional water rights for another six-year period, as has the U.S. Forest Service.
At some point?
Since 1971, the city has consistently told the state, through required periodic diligence filings, that it intends, at some point, to build a dam on upper Maroon Creek, just below the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks, to store 4,567 acre-feet of water; and that it intends to build a dam on upper Castle Creek, not far below Fall Creek, that would hold 9,062 acre-feet.
In its most recent diligence filing in 2009 the city told the state “it has steadily applied efforts to complete” the dams and reservoirs “in a reasonably expedient and efficient manner.”
In 1966, an engineer working for the city told a water court judge during a hearing on the proposed rights that at least one of the dams would be needed by 2000 to meet the demands of the then-projected population of 30,000 residents in Aspen. Today, the city’s population is under 7,000.
And a recent study commissioned by the city concluded the municipality had enough water, without the reservoirs, to meet expected water demands for the next 50 years, even in the face of climate change.
The city today also has senior water rights on Castle and Maroon creeks that provide adequate water to the municipal water system.
But most City Council members on Monday said that giving up the water rights tied to the potential dams, despite their locations in pristine alpine valleys, might be doing a disservice to the city in the distant future, which could be much drier.
“I have no more interest in building dams on Castle and Maroon creeks than anybody else in this room or anyone else in this community,” said Art Daily, a council member and a veteran attorney with Holland and Hart. “At the same time, we are facing serious unknowns at the present time regarding our future water supply and storage capacity, and I can’t in good conscience cancel out an eventual water-storage resource.”
Daily added that further study of the city’s long-term storage needs in the face of climate change, including both location and amount, would be a good next step in the process.
“It is simply not in the best interest of our community to give up these conditional rights … until we know with far greater certainty than we have now that they are not going to be essential to our future water needs,” Daily said.
The resolution passed Monday night calls for city staff to “investigate alternative locations and sizing requirements” for the two reservoirs and to report back to the council.
And it says, “if appropriate,” the city could “seek water court approval for modification of one or both conditional decrees.”
Will Roush, the conservation director for Wilderness Workshop, told the council Monday before their vote that his organization wants the city to abandon the rights.
But barring that, he requested the city conduct a comprehensive study as to whether the city actually needs water storage, and if so, where a dam might best be located.
“If you were starting from scratch, I can almost bet that nobody would say ‘Let’s look at the Maroon Bells,’” he said. “So find out if those are the right places, if in fact storage is needed.”
Once the city files its diligence application in water court, parties will have 60 days to file a statement of opposition in the case. Then, typically, a water court referee works with the parties in a case to see if a settlement can be reached before going to trial in front of a water court judge.
Eliminating the city’s future possibility to build reservoirs that would inundate portions of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness would be irresponsible, given the uncertainties presented by climate change, Aspen City Council members said on Tuesday.
The board was unanimous in its direction to file a diligence application that would maintain the city’s water rights, first decreed in 1971, to build dams that would create the reservoirs on upper Maroon and Castle creeks.
“I have no more interest in building these dams than anyone else in this room,” councilman Art Daily said in the work session attended by about a dozen members of the public, most of whom wanted the city to abandon the water rights.
Yet Daily, like the rest of his council colleagues, said he would need more information about how the city could meet future water supply challenges without the dams, before he could agree to sign away a later council’s ability to pursue their development.
“I can’t in good conscious say we are going to drop these rights without knowing what the viable alternatives are,” Daily said, while acknowledging that a future where they would be necessary feels like an “almost unforeseeable possibility.”
Ann Mullins said she cannot predict what will happen in 50 years, and officials in the city utilities department have noted that the snow pack around Aspen could look very different under some climate projection scenarios.
“I think it’s the unpredictable part of climate change that is probably the scariest,” she said…
Council members were clear that the city will continue to study alternative water management strategies that will hopefully preclude the need to ever build the dams. This includes increasing conservation and pursuing other supply and storage initiatives.
Within the next year or two, for example, the city hopes to pump treated wastewater from the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District up hill from the treatment plant near the Aspen Business Center to irrigate the municipal golf course. The city is also exploring developing water supply from deep-underground wells…
Numerous parties, including environmental groups, stream-side property owners and the U.S. Forest Service have indicated they will file statements of opposition to the diligence application should it go forward.
Will Roush, conservation director at Wilderness Workshop, made the case at Tuesday’s meeting that the Maroon Bells are too important a resource to keep the possibility of the dams alive. The regulatory hurdles the city would encounter if it ever tried to develop the reservoirs would be too extreme, and would require an exemption signed by the president to federal wilderness area rules, Roush has said previously.
Paul Noto, a local attorney who is working on behalf of the conservation group American Rivers, said that once the application is before a water court judge, the discussion will enter a new phase. A judge would approve any amendment to the water rights that was mutually agreeable to the city and opposing parties, Noto said.
That means changes to the size and placement of the dams and reservoirs would be on the table. Noto, who argued Tuesday that the city doesn’t need the water that would be stored behind these dams, said there’s a strong possibility that the size of the would-be reservoirs is in for a “substantial haircut” in the water-court process.
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.