Boulder County judge’s Colorado River ruling has Eagle County implications
Judge rejects reservoir expansion request from Denver Water
A Boulder County judge’s ruling stops — for now — Denver from diverting more water out of the Colorado River system and its High Country tributaries.
Boulder District Judge Andrew Macdonald ruled that Denver Water must have Boulder County’s approval before it can expand the Gross Reservoir dam from 131 feet to 471 feet tall.
Boulder is not likely to grant that permission. The Boulder County Commissioners voted unanimously to halt the project, citing their authority under House Bill 1041, passed by the Colorado lawmakers in 1974. That bill gives local governments the right to review and regulate state matters through their local permitting process.
When Boulder County denied Denver Water’s request earlier this year, Denver sued Boulder County for forcing Denver Water through Boulder’s permitting process. MacDonald’s seven-page ruling, issued Friday, said Boulder County was within its authority to force Denver through its approval process.
Ruling’s reach into the Vail Valley
Judge MacDonald’s ruling reaches into Eagle, Summit and Grand counties along the Colorado River’s many tributaries.
The Gross Dam is across South Boulder Creek in Boulder County, which takes water from the Colorado River and its tributaries through the Moffat Tunnel.
In Eagle County, a defeated reservoir project in the Homestake Peak wilderness area could be resurrected if Aurora and Colorado Springs have their way. Homestake Creek pours into the Eagle River, which pours into the Colorado River at their confluence in Dotsero.
Either project — Gross Dam or a resurrected Homestake II reservoir, would mean new diversions out of the Colorado River system, said Gary Wockner, the executive director of the board for Save the Colorado. The Fort Collins-based group opposes new water diversion projects.
“Either or both would mean less water,” Wockner said.
Eagle County’s water win
Eagle County invoked its 1041 authority in the 1980s to stop Colorado Springs and Aurora from building a massive dam in the Homestake Peak wilderness area. After a legal fight that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, that dam was finally halted in 1994.
However, Aurora and Colorado Springs are back at it, asking the Forest Service for permission to drill test holes in the Homestake Peak wilderness, to determine where a 30,000 acre-foot dam might go. It would divert an estimated 10 billion gallons of water per year away from the wilderness area.
For now, projections put the Homestake project somewhere “above Minturn,” but construction is years away.
The Homestake dam proposal is among several large new dam/diversion projects in Colorado and the Upper Basin States, all opposed by Save the Colorado, especially in the face of Arizona, Nevada and Mexico agreeing to divert less water from the Colorado River, under the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan. That agreement will hopefully help reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell survive for the next several years.
“The science is clear — we have to divert less water out of the Colorado River, not more,” Wockner said. “We are fighting to stop every proposed dam, including this scheme in Eagle County.”
Save the Colorado embraces Boulder ruling
Any ruling that keeps water in the Colorado River is welcomed by Save the Colorado.
“The headwaters of the Colorado River are continued to be threatened by the Front Range. If you’re in Grand, Summit or Eagle counties, this ruling —that Denver cannot drain upper the Colorado without Boulder County’s permission — has enormous implications,” Wockner said.
In response to that Boulder ruling, Denver Water spokesman Travis Thompson said in an email: “As we continue to follow the process of determining the appropriate permitting methods, we will review the order and evaluate our next steps. No matter the path forward, we remain committed to considering input from Boulder County and from community members to minimize and mitigate the impacts of the Project.”