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Groups threaten legal action in Homestake valley reservoir project

Conservation groups intent on stopping ground sample study approved by Forest Service in March

Homestake Creek seen below Homestake Reservoir south of Red Cliff. The U.S. Forest Service in March approved an application from the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs for geotechnical drilling in the Homestake Valley. The approval brings the cities one step closer to the construction of a new dam and reservoir.
Chris Dillmann/Daily file photo

EAGLE COUNTY — Warren Hern says the time for compromise is over.

“The public needs to rise up and say ‘don’t do this,'” Hern said Wednesday.

The longtime defender of the Homestake valley has rallied his Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund to join five other conservation organizations in threatening legal action against the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding the recently approved effort to drill 10 bore samples up to 150 feet deep in an area of national forest roughly 10 miles south of Minturn.



The bore samples, says Hern, are of illegal intent, as they represent the first step in an effort which would, if realized, encroach into the Holy Cross Wilderness area.

The letter is also signed by WildEarth Guardians, Colorado Headwaters, Save the Colorado, the Colorado Chapter of the Sierra Club and Wilderness Workshop, and issues both federal agencies a 60-day notice of intent to sue for violating section 7 of the Endangered Species Act regarding the special-use permit for the Whitney Creek Geotechnical Investigation in the White River National Forest.

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Peter Hart, staff attorney at Wilderness Workshop, said the true impacts to listed species, including lynx and cutthroat trout, haven’t been adequately considered or disclosed in the Forest Service’s analysis.

“After reviewing the record, it’s clear that the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act,” Hart said Wednesday.

Aurora and Colorado Springs, in their application for the boring project, say the cities need to conduct “a fatal-flaw level reservoir siting study,” necessitating the project. The Forest Service acknowledges that the cities hold water rights in the Upper Eagle River Basin and are parties to a memorandum of understanding to develop a joint water use project in the basin.

Hern says regardless of the results of the fatal flaw study, the end result of any of the proposed ideas for a reservoir in that area will bring an impact to the Holy Cross Wilderness, which will necessitate the involvement of the U.S. Congress.

“I think people need to call their elected representatives, they need to write their elected representatives, and I think both the U.S. senators from Colorado are quite open to hearing these kinds of complaints,” Hern said.

Readying for another round

For Hern, the issue is all too familiar. He also fought efforts to create dams in the Homestake valley in the 1980s, also under the auspices of the Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund.

The proposed Whitney Reservoir would pump water from lower Homestake Creek back to Homestake Reservoir, about five miles upstream. Then it would go through a tunnel under the Continental Divide to Turquoise Reservoir, near Leadville, and then to the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs.
Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

The opponent hasn’t changed in the effort, as in the 1980s, a report financed by the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs, along with the U.S. Forest Service, contended that no adverse chances in wetlands hydrology would be foreseen as a result of the dams in the Homestake valley. That report triggered the involvement of Hern and the Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund.

The Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund hired its own hydrology team, which concluded that hundreds of acres of wilderness would be affected by the lowering of stream levels as a result of the diversion.

The issue eventually went to the Colorado Supreme Court, where the Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund won the case, halting the development of the Homestake II project.

For Hern, the issue was personal, as he deeply regretted seeing the first reservoir constructed in the Homestake valley, calling it “an unforgivable crime against nature.”

Hern is a physician who grew up in Colorado, graduating from Englewood High School in 1956 and the University of Colorado School of Medicine in 1965.

His father served in the Army Corps of Engineers and helped build Camp Hale in the 1940s. It was during that experience, Hern said, that his father discovered the Homestake valley. In 1948, Hern’s father took him there.

“I was 10 years old,” Hern said. “And I went back there virtually every summer with my dad.”

They would camp in Gold Park and then hike alongside Homestake Creek to the naturally formed Homestake Lake, and higher still to the beaver dams and small pools above the lake, where Hern said his father taught him to fish.

Hern wrote about the experience in the Eagle Summit Wilderness Alliance newsletter in October.

“I always thought that I would like to bring my own children to this wonderful place someday,” Hern wrote.

However, after leaving the state to pursue his career in medicine, Hern returned in 1975 to discover a dam had been built at Homestake Lake.

“I was overcome with grief,” he wrote. “That moment explains a lot of what I have done since then.”

The road ahead

The U.S. Forest service, in approving the proposal from the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs on March 22, was careful to point out that the approval only allows the cities to drill bore samples, not construct a dam.

“Our analysis and approval only apply to the limited geotechnical investigations,” Eagle-Holy Cross District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis said in the March 22 announcement. “If we were to receive a proposal for a reservoir in the future, it would be subject to a detailed environmental review with multiple opportunities for public involvement.”

Veldhuis and White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams are among the addressees in the notice of intent to sue; on Wednesday, Fitzwilliams said he couldn’t comment on the matter for that reason.

“Unfortunately, our policy is when a project is in litigation or the threat of litigation, we cannot comment,” Fitzwilliams said in an email.

In previous comments, however, Fitzwilliams has said the Forest Service won’t accept a land-use application for Whitney Reservoir until the wilderness boundary issue has been worked out through federal legislation.

But Fitzwilliams also suggested that the final version of the reservoir, which will be better defined following the boring project, could be a version which does not affect the Holy Cross wilderness boundary.

Hern said he does not share that view.

“They can’t put a reservoir in that site without changing the road. And to change the road they need to change the boundary of the wilderness,” Hern said.

—This story was edited to reflect the Homestake II project proposing dams, but not a reservoir, in the Homestake valley.


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