EAGLE COUNTY — 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 cost 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 the Holy Cross Wilderness 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 avoid impacting 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 maddeningly 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?
Recently, 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 we are 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. The Daily News published this story on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016.