Homestake Valley advocates confident in efforts to block new reservoir
Wetlands deemed too important to lose in an era of drought and megafires
As efforts are underway to study the feasibility of a new dam site in the Homestake Creek valley, a group of opponents are acknowledging the cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora have rights to the water, saying those cities are welcome to venture to Eagle County and extract it “with a bucket.”
In a panel hosted by nonprofit group WildEarth Guardians, Colorado Headwaters nonprofit founder Jerry Mallet describes the Front Range cities’ purchase of water rights on the Western Slope as a “buyer beware” situation that does not guarantee the allowance of a water diversion project in the area.
Mallet was a founding member of American Rivers in 1973 and worked with Wilderness Workshop’s founding members in the 1960s. He has followed Homestake Valley issues for decades, dating back to the 1980s when the cities also made an unsuccessful bid at a water diversion project in the Homestake Valley.
“In previous actions on transmountain diversions — we haven’t had one in 45-plus years — the local elected officials did not take it very seriously,” Mallet said. “There was plenty of water in the Colorado, their needs weren’t really what they are today, and so those entities — county commissioners, state senators and representatives — didn’t really get involved.
“They’re going to get involved this time around,” Mallet added. “The West Slope knows they can not lose water. So you’re going to have county commissioners, Republican and Democrat house of representatives and state senators come to the table.”
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Wetlands in the wildfire era
The proposed dam site would flood a wetlands area, and with wetlands being deemed more important than ever in the age of the hot, dry weather that causes more evaporation and larger megafires in the High Country, the wetlands are simply too important to lose, said Delia Malone. Malone is an ecologist with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program and is the Wildlife Chair for the Sierra Club’s Colorado Chapter.
“Wetlands, particularly in the arid West, provide a specific function — they provide habitat and food and water for better than 80 percent of our native animal species at some point in our lifetime,” Malone said. “Yet these wetlands comprise only about 2 percent of the landscape, giving them an inordinately large importance in a very large landscape … Once, we had these wetlands everywhere in Colorado. They’ve been dammed, they’ve been diverted, they’ve been straightened, and we have very little left.”
In July 2021, the Bureau of Reclamation started implementing drought operations to protect Lake Powell’s power generating capabilities; the operations project releasing up to an additional 181,000-acre feet of water from upstream.
Further downstream, Lake Mead in Nevada and Arizona will shift to a Level 1 Shortage Condition starting January 1, 2022. It’s the first time West has seen such a shift, which will reduce the portion of water Arizona receives from Lake Mead to approximately 18 percent of its annual apportionment, and Nevada to 7 percent of the state’s annual apportionment. Mexico will receive only 5 percent of the country’s annual allotment under the Level 1 Shortage Condition.
Jen Pelz, an attorney who works with WildEarth Guardians as the Wild Rivers Program Director, said the 20 percent drop in flows the Colorado River has seen in the last 50-70 years prompted the Bureau of Reclamation’s recent declaration of the first-ever Level 1 shortage, and the projects looking forward are even worse.
“And there’s predicted to be an additional 20 to 40 percent loss of flows,” Pelz said. “My sense is that upper basin communities are trying to get the last drops of the Colorado River before some larger policy change happens where it is no longer acceptable for the upper basin to develop water.”
‘A line in the sand’
Mallet said the main roadblock, however, will be something that literally blocks a road from occurring, and that’s a Wilderness area where no new road construction is allowed.
As proposed, the dam requires an access road to be constructed in an area which is currently part of the Holy Cross Wilderness.
“This is an area, where I think (wilderness advocates) have drawn a line in the sand,” Mallet said. “There’s roughly three and a half million residents in the state that use public lands on an annual basis, and that’s in addition to the 17 million visitors we get.”
Mallet says the Homestake Valley issue could turn into “the bellwether to really change the shift to how we look at natural resources” in Colorado.
“This is the one that I think is going to bring the Front Range in,” he said.
It has been a busy construction season for Leitner-Poma in Colorado…