Howard Hallman: Married to Denver Water
Our Future Summit
Last month, Our Future Summit hosted a roundtable discussion that examined Summit County’s relationship with Denver Water. Our purpose was to review the county’s history with Denver Water and its Dillon Reservoir, discuss events related to the closure of the Dillon Dam Road and look at how to build a better relationship with the Front Range utility. We put an emphasis on what Lake Dillon means to us and what we mean to Denver Water. For its part, Denver Water agreed to attend future public forums with local residents.
Dr. Sandra Pritchard Mather, a local historian and author of the book, Dillon, Denver and the Dam, opened last month’s discussion by explaining that from the very beginning, Denver Water’s encounters with locals promoted tensions.
Denver Water began buying up water rights in 1913 and acquired extensive landholdings throughout the Great Depression. Then, in the early 1960s, they moved in with full force. Like it or not, the dam was going to happen. Houses were moved. Property owners were displaced. Soon the old town of Dillon was gone and buried. By most accounts, ours was a shotgun wedding, and the groom had not gotten off on a good foot.
Summit County Sheriff John Minor described our more recent encounters, including when several men of Middle-Eastern descent were found filming around the Dam Road in January of this year. Subsequently, Denver Water closed the road for two weeks in response to a “security breach” that was later disavowed by federal agencies.
On July 8, Denver Water officials summoned local leaders to meeting and informed them that the Dam Road would be closed indefinitely due to an unspecified security threat.
By July 11, a coalition of local governments formed to take legal action in opposition to the Dam Road closure. Then, on July 18, the parties reached a short-term agreement, reopening the road under special conditions. Apparently, Denver Water had relied on a study that identified earthen dams throughout the United States as potential targets despite the lack of a specific terrorist threat.
Rick Sackbauer, who represents Eagle, Grand and Summit counties on the Denver Water Board Citizen’s Advisory Council, spoke about the need for headwaters communities to come together as a unified group and make our concerns known to Denver Water. State Sen. Dan Gibbs reviewed the process Summit County communities and citizens took to get the Dam Road reopened. He recounted his own efforts and those of his colleague, State Rep. Christine Scanlan. Local forest hydrology expert Brad Piehl described his long-time association with Denver Water in fostering healthy forests and protecting critical watersheds. Our Future Summit Executive Director Sandy Briggs then emphasized that Denver Water should have a more tangible presence in our community.
As moderator for last month’s roundtable, I have some takeaway thoughts. Summit County has benefited greatly from Denver Water’s investment in our community. The Dillon Reservoir and the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnels are undoubtedly two of our biggest economic assets, putting us on the map as a major year-round resort. Back in the 1960s, constructing the Dillon Dam not only brought jobs and people, but it also created the Town of Silverthorne. Today, Dillon Reservoir is a major tourist and real estate asset.
Divorce is unthinkable. Lake Dillon is Denver Water’s single largest water storage facility and a major anchor for our resort economy. The Blue River watershed provides about 30 percent of Denver’s total water supply. Should it be severely degraded by wildfire, the city will also suffer. We are in this together; we must learn to get along.
A key to a good marriage is communication. I suspect that were Denver Water able to take a mulligan, they would have engaged our local public safety and community leaders in advance of any action. Let the recent drama serve as a lesson about the consequences of a failure to communicate.
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