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Booming communities on the state's "Front Range" want to move forward with a plan to pump water over the Rocky Mountains for use in their cities. But conservationists say climate change should instead be prompting new thinking about how water is used in the state.
HOMESTAKE CREEK VALLEY, Colorado – Nearly 5 million people live on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, along what’s known as Colorado’s “Front Range,” where communities established on semi-arid prairie land need more water to keep expanding.
Now a water battle is brewing over whether the booming population centers of Aurora and Colorado Springs, with nearly 900,000 residents combined, can claim water from a remote valley on the other side of the Rockies, collect it in a new reservoir and pump it across the Continental Divide.
For many residents of bucolic Eagle County on the “Western Slope,” where Homestake Creek meanders through mountain meadows, lush wetlands and ancient fens on its way to the endangered Colorado River, it’s time to end transmountain diversions once and for all as the climate warms and drought intensifies.
But officials in Aurora, a Denver suburb, and Colorado Springs, argue they can collect the water in a new reservoir and make use of it without drastically disturbing the surrounding wilderness. More to the point: they’ve owned the rights to 20,000 acre-feet of average annual yield since 1952 and say it’s time to start exploring if they can use it—for drinking water and on suburban lawns.
“Because water is the lifeblood and it's so important, we have been doing a relatively good job of having collaborative conversations that are getting us to a point, but the issue is growth and climate change are both happening now so fast and historically these collaborative conversations take a really long time,” said Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr.
“Are we going to be able to address that at the scale and speed that the problem is moving?” Scherr added. “So, you hate to see this end up being essentially a war for water, but if we don't figure out how to do it in a holistic way, that could be our future.”
One acre-foot of water serves a family of four for one year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, but there are nearly 375,000 people in Aurora and 480,000 in Colorado Springs. In all, more than 40 million people in the American Southwest and Mexico rely on the Colorado River, which, according to a 2017 study, has seen a total reduction of about 2.9 million acre-feet of water per year since 2000 because of reduced precipitation and climate change.
Kathy Kitzmann, water resources principal at Aurora Water, said the cities are intent on “minimizing the environmental impacts of our project as we go forward.” She emphasized that any plan would need to “recognize that the quality of life involves both sides of the Divide.”
In other words, Aurora residents who live on the western edge of the dry Great Plains in the most densely populated part of the state love to drive the 100 or so miles west up into the Rocky Mountains to camp, boat and fish along the high-altitude streams, ponds and lakes that feed the Colorado River. But they also like to have water where they live, east of the Divide.
Bridging the Divide on Water Issues
Nature, for millions of years, has sent the Homestake Creek water flowing into the Eagle River, then to the Colorado River, where it used to flow into the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean before diminished flows caused the river to terminate in the Sonoran Desert in 1998.
This source of water has already been the subject of a lengthy court battle in the 1980s and 90s, which made its way up to the Colorado Court of Appeals. Eagle County prevailed over the two cities’ quest to develop what was then called Homestake II, and both the Colorado Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Out of that contentious battle grew the Eagle River memorandum of understanding, which was drawn up to avoid future litigation while somehow trying to figure out how the various stakeholders could utilize their water rights in the future.
Along with Aurora and Colorado Springs, other partners to the Eagle River MOU include local and statewide water districts, Vail Resorts ski company and the owners of the nearby Climax molybdenum mine. Eagle County is not a signatory.
Aurora and Colorado Springs, operating at Homestake Partners, have been working for years with the various stakeholders and water users in the area, hoping to avoid the legal wrangling of 25 years ago, but finally tap their water rights. They are considering four alternative proposals for what they’re calling Whitney Reservoir, ranging between 6,850 and the full 20,000 acre-feet of annual yield.
Homestake Partners this summer wanted to start “fatal flaw” test drilling along Homestake Creek to determine the feasibility of the $500 million dam project, which has yet to be formally proposed to the U.S. Forest Service that owns most of the surrounding land. But an intense wildfire season, including the largest ever blaze in the surrounding White River National Forest, has postponed the permitting process for the geotechnical test drilling.
But with the Grizzly Creek Fire now largely contained, the Forest Service staff can turn their attention to evaluating the drilling project, said Leanne Veldhuis, district ranger for the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District.
“We still have several steps to complete, such as consultation with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and final reviews of project findings,” she added. “Once that is complete, I anticipate signing a decision shortly after. Proponents could begin work this fall with enough time, pending weather.”
Just the prospect of test drilling drew hundreds of comments objecting to the project over the summer, and Aurora officials said the Forest Service permitting delays due to wildfires mean they likely won’t do anything in the creek drainage before the snow flies this fall.
“We’ve not received an update on the release of the decision yet,” said Greg Baker, manager of public relations for the city of Aurora and Aurora Water. “The permit would be for a year, so we would end up moving our work out until next summer, fall.”
Jerry Mallett of the environmental group Colorado Headwaters says the Forest Service should outright reject the test drilling until much bigger issues have been resolved. Of key concern for environmentalists is one version of the dam proposal that would require a nearly 500-acre reduction of the nearby Holy Cross Wilderness Area.
“I’m sure that an injunction will be filed to halt any actions or developments in the Homestake drainage this year,” Mallett said. “Until the proponents of the project can address the removal of acreage to the Holy Cross Wilderness, the impacts on the fens in the drainage, wildlife values and resources, the project will only result in damage to the region.”
Bigger picture, Mallett says much has changed since the cities acquired the Homestake Creek water rights in the 1950s, most importantly a warming climate that makes protecting wetlands and wildlife habitat crucial.
“My contention is, 20,000 acre-feet in 1952, how much water’s there now given we’ve got climate change and the Colorado [River] has dropped 10, 15 percent?” Mallett said. “Homestake is the line in the sand. No more transmountain diversions.”
Aurora and Colorado Springs already own and operate the 43,600-acre-foot Homestake Reservoir about five miles upstream from where they want to build Whitney Reservoir, and they would pump water up to Homestake Reservoir, then over the Divide to Turquoise Reservoir.
If they are able to move forward it would be a major win for water users on Colorado’s Front Range. The last two major transmountain diversion proposals—Denver Waters’ Two Forks project and Homestake Partners’ Homestake II—were both rejected in the early 1990s.
Shifting Winds in Washington
Eagle County officials say the steady rollback of federal regulations by the Trump Administration—on everything from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to Waters of the United States—puts a premium on their own limited regulatory authority. Because they will eventually have to weigh in on a permit for the project, the county hasn’t directly addressed the reservoir project. But many local officials have strongly articulated opposition to any changes to wilderness boundaries, which they view as critical for the local outdoor recreation economy.
Reducing a wilderness area would require an act of Congress and the signature of the president. In the current climate, getting such a bill through the split chambers would be a virtual impossibility and the resident of the White House could change early next year.
Congressman Joe Neguse, a House Democrat from the Front Range city of Lafayette who represents a district that straddles the Divide from Fort Collins to Vail, managed to pass a wilderness bill called the Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy (CORE) Act that’s gone nowhere in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Neguse is not in favor of anything that would reduce the size of an existing wilderness area, and he argues new wilderness is needed to preserve and protect critical wetlands and headwaters areas as the impacts of climate change intensify. He also acknowledges the many thorny issues stemming from so much water on one side of the Divide and so many people on the other side.
“Obviously, there's some serious questions that I think the state is going to have to resolve over the course of the next several years and in coming decades as the Front Range population continues to grow and the scarcity of water becomes all too real,” Neguse said.
David O. Williams is a journalist based in EagleVail, Colorado.