Growing thirst from Front Range cities threatens Holy Cross Wilderness

Comment period ends Tuesday

The view on Homestake Reservoir in 2014. The reservoir is a key component of the upper Eagle River watershed and is part of a system that diverts water from the basin to the Front Range.
Brent Gardner-Smith | Aspen Journalism |

The public’s chance to comment ends Tuesday in the U.S. Forest Service’s consideration of a permit that would allow the first action in a process which could create a new reservoir in the Homestake Valley near Red Cliff.   

The special use permit would allow the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs to build roads and drill holes in an area of the White River National Forest which is near the Holy Cross Wilderness, 6 miles southwest of Red Cliff.

Ultimately, if constructed, a 20,000-acre-foot reservoir would flood a corner of the wilderness area and would also relocate Homestake Road, requiring the removal of 500 acres from the Holy Cross Wilderness area. 

But at this time, the Forest Service is only seeking comments on the impacts of the drilling, not the dam. The drilling would give crews information about the feasibility of dam sites, but the drilling in itself would have impacts to the forest as 8-foot-by-22-foot drill rigs could cross wetlands and cut down trees in the path to their drilling destination, where holes of 150 feet would be dug. 

June comment period

In soliciting comments in June, “we are focusing solely on the potential impacts from this preliminary geophysical work,” said Marcia Gilles, acting Eagle-Holy Cross district ranger. “Any further proposals that might be submitted after this information is collected would be evaluated separately.”

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Gilles will return to her former position of deputy district ranger in July when Leanne Veldhuis takes the reins as new district ranger. While she has not yet started the position, Veldhuis has already received intense criticism of the reservoir project. 

On Sunday, Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund Chair Warren M. Hern penned a letter to Veldhuis, denouncing both the drilling and the dam project. Hern further denounced the Forest Service for implying that “the impact of the drilling must be separated” from the impact of the dam.

“The two issues cannot be separated,” Hern wrote. “Without plans to build the dam, drilling is pointless destruction for the sake of destruction.”

Hern said putting roads through the wetlands and driving tractors and drilling rigs around on them will destroy those wetlands. And as for the dam itself, Hern points to numerous concerns including seismic activity from the Rio Grande Rift in the Homestake Valley, the destruction of 10,000-year-old fens in the area, and outcrops of a rare mineral deposit which “reflects surface exposure of extremely deep tectonic shear zone activity that has been brought to the surface and illustrates the degree of uplift within the zone and tectonic boundaries.”

The discovery of this mineral deposit, called pseudotachylyte, “is so rare that (Joseph Allen, chairman of the Department of Geology at Concord University in West Virginia) regularly brings scientific colleagues and students from around the world to view this extraordinary geological phenomenon,” Hern wrote. 

‘Homestake III’

For Hern, who began camping in the Holy Cross area in 1948, long before the area received its federally protected status as wilderness, the new reservoir — now being called the Whitney Reservoir — is all too familiar. 

“They’re calling this the Whitney Project; I’m calling it Homestake III,” said Mike Browning, a former water attorney in Colorado who is now the chair of the Eagle Summit Wilderness Alliance

The “Homestake III” handle is in reference to the project known as Homestake II, in the early 1980s, which bears a strong resemblance to the Whitney Creek effort. The Homestake II project also sought to build another reservoir beneath the existing Homestake Reservoir, which was constructed in 1964. The Homestake II idea was eliminated in large part to Hern’s efforts. 

“(Hern) was really the spokesperson and really the leader of that movement in the 1980s,” Browning said. “The Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund was marshaling the local comments and local opposition.”

In his Sunday letter to the Forest Service, Hern said the Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund, which he co-founded In 1982, has not changed its stance on the project.  

“The people of Colorado love this wilderness and have supported our efforts for over forty years to establish it and preserve it,” Hern wrote. “You should not underestimate the intensity of these feelings and the attitudes of the public in this matter.”

Project or projects

In the years that followed Hern’s efforts, a memorandum of understanding was drafted between the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs; Climax Molybdenum Company; the Colorado River Water Conservation District; the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District; the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority; and Vail Resorts. The memorandum of understanding says the groups will work together to develop a joint-use water project in the Upper Eagle River basin.

The memorandum allows for the development of a project or projects with an annual yield of 30,000 acre-feet, from which Aurora and Colorado Springs would receive an average annual supply of 20,000 acre-feet, and the remaining 10,000 acre-feet would go to the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority and Vail Resorts. 

ERO Resources Corporation and RJH Consultants, Inc., which prepared the technical report for the special use permit application, referenced the memorandum of understanding in its report. 

“The objective of this study is to evaluate opportunities to construct reservoir storage to develop a portion of the yield contemplated in the (memorandum of understanding),” according to the report, which was published in November. “Specifically, the subsurface explorations described below would provide valuable information regarding the suitability of the area for reservoir development. The cities are currently considering and evaluating multiple reservoir sizes with potential storage capacities between 6,850 and 20,000 acre-feet.”

Browning said anyone who cares about the Holy Cross Wilderness area or the Homestake Valley should consider commenting on the project. 

“It’s going to have a major impact on the public’s enjoyment of the Holy Cross Wilderness,” Browning said. “Anyone who loves the lushness of the riparian area or the wetlands, it’s a threat to all of that, and anybody who loves that area should be concerned about it.”

USFS Comment on Homestake W… by Vail Daily on Scribd

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