Drilling work gets underway amid legal threats in Homestake Valley
Removal of rock will test the feasibility of a future reservoir
Amid legal threats and protests, geotechnical evaluations are underway to test the feasibility of a new dam site in the Homestake Valley, about 10 miles south of Minturn.
In March, the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs were approved by Eagle-Holy Cross District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis to conduct the evaluations that involve the drilling and removal of earth up to 150 feet deep from 10 different spots.
Several temporary roads have been constructed for the project. Those access routes are used to haul core samples of heavy rock from the area, with four-inch core samples weighing 2,100 pounds and 8-inch core samples weighing 8,600 pounds for each borehole.
The roads also mobilize a drill rig, skid steer, water truck and crew of personnel to the boring site and back to Homestake Road each day. The work is expected to last 50 to 60 days total.
In July, a letter signed by WildEarth Guardians, Wilderness Workshop, the Colorado Chapter of the Sierra Club and other groups said they would file a lawsuit if the U.S. Forest Service or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows the drilling to commence without a comprehensive analysis on the effects of the geotechnical evaluations on endangered species in or downstream from the project area.
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Among the groups to sign the letter was the Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund, which was formed in the 1980s to stop a different project in the Homestake Valley that aimed to install dams and divert water.
Warren M. Hern of the Holy Cross Defense Fund is one of the few living people who hiked, camped and caught fish in the Homestake Valley before the Homestake Reservoir was built in 1967. Hern did not want to see a second water diversion project constructed in the 1980s and founded the Holy Cross Defense Fund to stop the plan.
That plan was to put diversion tunnels under the mountains and dams in Cross Creek, East Cross Creek and West Cross Creek, which would capture most of the spring runoff from those main and tributary streams into the current Homestake Reservoir. The water would have been funneled with the rest of the upper Homestake Creek into the Emerald Lake on the other side of the mountains.
“The cities said that these diversion dams would not take up much space,” Hern recalls. “My reply was that a pay toilet in the middle of the Metropolitan Opera wouldn’t take up much space, either, but it would an inappropriate use of the space.”
The plan never transpired, but a memorandum of understanding was drafted to create another project in the Upper Eagle River Valley.
‘They’re going ahead’
As a result of that memorandum of understanding, Hern once again finds himself fighting a water diversion project in the Homestake Valley. The latest effort is called the Whitney Reservoir, and the drilling that’s currently underway would test the feasibility of the site.
Hern visited the drilling site last week with a group of law students and photographed the impacted area.
“We saw the drilling, we stopped and we took a bunch of pictures and talked to people who were doing the drilling,” Hern said. “They were just doing their jobs; they were not in the wetlands or the stream.”
Hern said he felt the letter of intent to sue was ignored or not taken seriously.
“We were trying to get the Forest Service to pull their permit, but they’re going ahead,” Hern said. “We’re upset that they’re doing the drilling without any environmental-impact statement.”
The groups represented in the letter are clear in their intentions to sue.
“We will file suit on these violations after the 60-day period has run unless the violations described in this notice are remedied,” the July 7 letter reads.
The threat of the lawsuit has not prevented drilling from getting underway, but it has prevented the U.S. Forest Service from responding to allegations that the agency has forgone a comprehensive analysis the effects the project could have on the area’s endangered species.
However, in approving the project in March, the Forest Service said the drilling proposal met the criteria for an evaluation under a “categorical exclusion,” which the Forest Service describes as a less-detailed analysis than an environmental assessment used for proposals like short-term geophysical investigations.
“We took a hard look at potential impacts, which we expect will be short-term. The approval includes a number of stipulations to minimize impacts,” Veldhuis said in a release about the decision issued in March.
Veldhuis started in July 2020 after spending four years with the Forest Service’s partnership office.
Partners aplenty adorn the memorandum of understanding that spurred the drilling project. In addition to the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the Climax Molybdenum Co., the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority and Vail Resorts are listed on the 1998 document, which lists as its objective the development of a joint-use water project in the Upper Eagle River basin.
The project underway would test the feasibility of the area for the development of the water project.
The Forest Service requested comments on the proposed project from May 28 through June 30, 2020, and received 738 comment letters during that period. Veldhuis said another 37 comment letters were received after the comment period, and she considered all the 775 comments submitted in making her decision.
Letters arrived from hundreds of individuals and several groups, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, State Historic Preservation Office, town of Minturn, towns of Red Cliff and Avon, Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, Colorado State Senate District 5 (Kerry Donovan), State Representative House District 26 (Dylan Roberts), Eagle County Sustainable Communities, American Rivers, Ark Initiative, Center for Biological Diversity, Colorado Headwaters, Colorado Mountain Club, Colorado Wild Public Lands, Conservation Colorado, Eagle River Watershed Council, Eagle Valley Land Trust, Environmental Law Clinic, Global Water Policy Project, Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund, Save the Colorado, Sierra Club-Colorado Chapter, Quiet Use Coalition, San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, Wilderness Society, Trout Unlimited, Understanding Water Resources, Upper Colorado River Watershed Group, Wild Connections, Wild Earth Guardians, Wilderness Watch and Wilderness Workshop.
“Many individual comments received (274, or 35.5 percent) focused on the Whitney Reservoir,” Veldhuis wrote. “The remaining letters were generally a mix of concerns about the future Whitney Reservoir and the proposed Whitney Creek Geotechnical Investigation. A little more than half of the comments (50.8 percent) were in the form of two letter templates: (1) compiled Wilderness Workshop form letter (representing 217 letters received) raised concerns about impacts on wildlife, wetlands and water resources, and wilderness associated with the sound from the seismic survey and drilling and from tree clearing, and impacts within a designated roadless area; and (2) another form template (representing about 177 letters) raised the concern of the scale and scope of drilling and access road construction impacts; otherwise, the letter addressed concerns with the future Whitney Reservoir.”
Veldhuis issued a large response, with 16 individual responses to concerns from letter writers. In the response, Veldhuis described the drilling project that’s underway as discrete, defined and short-term activity with no long-term impacts other than boreholes.
As for the 10 boreholes, they are “permanent but minor,” Veldhuis wrote, “with disturbance limited to 4- to 8-inch-diameter holes at the surface, which would be completed with cement-bentonite up to the top 2 feet, then backfilled with topsoil. Less than 1 year after boring activities, it is expected that surface disturbance associated with the boring will be revegetated and not be evident to the untrained eye.“