Lessons of Homestake: Water in Eagle County
The tortured journey of Homestake water from the Eagle River to the high plains of Colorado is amazing enough.
Twice in the case of Aurora, three times in the case of Colorado Springs, the water violates basic laws of gravity and mountain geography en route to kitchen sinks, lawns and toilets in those Front Range cities.
More surprising yet is that this elaborate and annual exaction of a vital resource occurred without so much as a shout from Eagle County individually or, more generally, the Western Slope. In 1967, when the Homestake dam was completed, headwaters counties had no real power to oppose transbasin diversions.
All that changed in 1973, when the Colorado Legislature granted new powers to Eagle and other counties over water-diversion and similar projects. It took nearly 20 years for Front Range cities to fully realize how much the playing field had tilted, but indeed it has.
Exactly how the dialogue between the water-rich Western Slope and the people-thick Eastern Slope has changed is the topic of a forum Wednesday at the Avon Library. Light refreshments will be served at 5, followed by the forum from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Those attending are asked to call the library at 949-6797 to ensure seating. The Eagle River Watershed Council and Eagle Valley Library District are co-sponsoring the event.
Dick Gustafson was a relatively new commissioner in 1987 when Aurora and Colorado Springs submitted plans for the second phase of Homestake diversions. The cities securely owned water rights in the Eagle River Basin, and so assumed that the county review would be a formality. However, Gustafson and his co-commissioners, Don Welch and Bud Gates, didn’t bat an eye when rejecting the plans.
This veto triggered several years of litigation that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as perennial political intrigue in the Colorado Legislature. Ultimately, by 1993 Eagle County had prevailed in both the courts and the statehouse.
Yet Gustafson knew that Aurora and Colorado Springs – and, Denver, with separate holdings – had significant water rights in the Eagle River Basin that would have to be satisfied in at least part. Reasoning that the Eagle Valley had water needs that might best be met in collaboration with the Front Range cities, he convened a series of no-lawyers, no-reporters meetings.
That process has been unfolding since the mid-1990s and might yet yield a reservoir at Wolcott.
How Referendum A, the bonding proposal before Colorado voters this November, might influence that process in Eagle County is a question rife for speculation. You can expect to hear some at Wednesday night’s session.
“If we get into an East Slope-West Slope battle on this issue, it has the potential of taking us a step or two backward,” says Doug Kemper, manager of water resources for Aurora. Even so, no major water provider along the Front Range has taken a position on Referendum A.
Kemper agrees that there has been a sea change in the water politics of the Eagle River since the Homestake hearings in 1987. In explaining this, he notes the amount of water that Colorado Springs and Aurora collectively own in the basin, 90,000 acre-feet of annual yield.
The two cities developed roughly a third of those water rights in the 1960s, and intended to develop the next third in the 1980s. But after the defeat of Homestake II, the cities adopted a different attitude that recognized Eagle County’s new power.
In 1998, the two cities signed an agreement that left them each with 10,000 additional acre-feet of water rights to be developed. With that, they walked away from more than a third of their water rights.
Glenn Porzak, water attorney for Vail Resorts and all the water districts along I-70 from Vail through Wolcott, was largely responsible for that agreement, called the 1998 Memorandum of Understanding. It doesn’t say how the two cities will develop their final 20,000 acre-feet of water, but it does cap the amount. The importance of that cap became clearly evident in last year’s drought, when nobody had an excess of water.
Next in Porzak’s work was Denver, which had up to 200,000 acre-feet of water in the Eagle River Basin, or twice as much as is owned by Aurora and Colorado Springs. Some of Denver’s diversion points are in East Vail, others in the area of Eagle Park, i.e. Camp Hale. Still others are on the Piney River. Contemplating future diversions, the city several decades ago purchased the land occupied by Piney River Ranch and the 4 Eagle Ranch. The latter would be inundated by even a downsized Wolcott reservoir.
As he did with Colorado Springs and Aurora, Porzak is hoping to get Denver to relinquish a large portion of its extensive water rights portfolio. In exchange, Denver would get permits to build a downsized reservoir at Wolcott. That would not mean immediate construction, but it would give Denver comfort that there would be no government opposition in the future.
Porzak is scheduled to meet with Denver officials today, and will report results of that meeting at Wednesday evening’s forum.
He will also talk about Referendum A from his perspective. “It’s a distraction at best,” he says of Referendum A, “and at the worst it potentially undercuts the process” that he is working on with Denver.