New reservoir proposal draws fire
WOLCOTT – Water experts from both sides of the Continental Divide emphasized the collaborative nature of a major new reservoir near Wolcott, which could take away 5,500 acre-feet of water annually from Summit County.”It could be a sheep in wolf’s clothing,” said Joe Macy, a board member of the Eagle River Watershed Council, the group that hosted an informational meeting at the 4 Eagle Ranch on Wednesday evening. After all is said and done, the proposed reservoir is just another way to move water from the Western Slope to the Front Range, Macy said.Of course, that’s the point. Front Range entities hold significant water rights in both Eagle and Summit counties, in addition to the water they’ve already developed and shipped east. The Wolcott proposal seeks to balance the need to export additional water with Western Slope needs, for future development and recreation.The Colorado River Water Conservation District, the city of Aurora, Denver Water, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and an Eagle County water use consortium all sent representatives to the meeting to outline their various interests in the proposed storage facility and discuss the results of a recently completed feasibility study.But the study doesn’t come close to answering many remaining questions, said Summit County commissioner Tom Long.”The more we hear about it, the more questions we have,” said Long, who said the same information was recently presented to the Clinton Reservoir board. Located near Fremont Pass, Clinton Reservoir is a vital piece of Summit County’s water picture, helping ensure adequate water for snowmaking at local ski resorts.
Long said it’s still too early to make any definitive judgments about the Wolcott proposal. But by looking at the numbers in the feasibility study, he said that it looks like it means that at least 5,500 acre-feet of water will be lost to Summit County annually.At this point, it’s hard to see a benefit for Summit, Long said, explaining that it could all come down to how the proposed reservoir is operated – when and where its water is used.At best, it could mean more stable levels in Dillon Reservoir during the summer, according to Glenn Porzak, the Boulder water attorney who is representing Eagle County water interests in the Wolcott negotiations.”Summit County would like to negotiate a cap on what can be taken out of the Blue River system,” Porzak said. A Summit County “wish list” includes assurances for future water supplies, some sort of agreement as to what levels Dillon Reservoir will be operated at, as well as the issue of how Denver Water handles the Shoshone call. Delivering water downstream to Shoshone is seen as beneficial to Summit County, and efforts by Denver Water to “buy down” that call, could put a kink in the path to an agreement, Porzak explained.The studyThe $100,000 study outlined three storage and management scenarios. Up to 350,000 acre-feet of capacity have been decreed for the reservoir. Since the water rights are relatively junior, water would generally be diverted from the Eagle River during high flows. A diversion dam would be built across the Eagle River near the Wolcott post office. The 4 Eagle Ranch, on property owned by Denver Water, would be inundated.
The study looked at three different capacities; 55,000 acre-feet, 90,000 acre-feet and 195,000 acre-feet, with construction costs ranging between $135 million and $179 million dollars.The study found no fatal flaws, concluding that Wolcott could be built at a cost that’s acceptable to all parties, according to Peter Roessmann, education specialist with the Colorado River Water Conservation District. But one of the looming issues is the potential listing of greater sage grouse as an endangered or threatened species.”It’s probably toast if the sage grouse is listed,” said Long.The study also failed to take a close look at environmental impacts upstream of the proposed reservoir, where it could mean significant changes in Blue River and Colorado River flows. Denver Water and the other Front Range water providers plan to use Wolcott water to meet downstream obligations, including senior demand for water at the Shosone power plant and from Grand County irrigators, as well as federally mandated water – 10,825 acre-feet annually – for the endangered Colorado River fish recovery program.Without Wolcott, that demand is met with water from reservoirs higher in the system, including Dillon.
Damaged riversThe upper reaches of the Colorado are already suffering under the current management regime, said Eagle County resident Tom Gagnon, a rafting and fishing guide who said he sees the environmental degradation in the Colorado on an almost daily basis. This year, the Shoshone call delayed until recently. That means less water was flowing down the upper Colorado, resulting in warmer temperatures and an unusually early algae bloom – never a sign of good aquatic health, Gagnon said.”The namesake river of this state is being ravaged,” Gagnon said. “Now, they’re up here helping us plan our own funeral,” he added. Along with other Western Slope residents, Gagnon called on Denver and other Front Range water users to focus more on conservation as a way to meet increasing demand.Porzak said it’s not fair to point a finger only at Denver residents. Of the more than 1 million acre-feet that are diverted from the Colorado River annually, Denver Water only accounts for about 70,000 acre-feet, he said. By far the biggest demand is from irrigated agriculture, he added.None of the Front Range representatives said their agencies had taken a formal position in support of the Wolcott Reservoir yet. Long said he was not surprised to hear that those entities are downplaying their interest in the project, even though it now seems to be taking on a life of its own.Colorado River Water Conservation District chief Eric Kuhn also said the district has not formally taken a position, but that it’s “interested in a project that could be good for everyone.” Asked about a potential development timeline, Kuhn said that a “good” reservoir proposal – one that everyone agrees on – can take up to 10 years to realize.
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