Minturn at a crossroads as it considers water deal
Town weighs its long-term viability vs. small-town character
- If you go …
- What: The Minturn Town Council will discuss its water situation at its meeting this week.
- When: Wednesday, July 17. The meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. with a closed-door session. The open meeting is expected to begin at 6:30 p.m.
- Where: Minturn Town Hall.
- How long: The discussion will last for about two hours, according to the agenda.
Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part story. Read the second part here.
MINTURN — Minturn’s water supply originates in a remote, alpine valley just west of the 14,005-foot Mount of the Holy Cross.
Snow melts off the peak and descends into Cross Creek, traveling as far as 12 miles through wilderness to collection systems near Maloit Park. Other town water comes from groundwater wells on the creek.
Minturn no longer has its own fire department or police department — those services are now provided by the Eagle River Fire Protection District and the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, respectively — or even a grocery store, but it provides its own water, separate from the water systems in the rest of the county.
It’s a point of pride for Minturnites.
“Mount of the Holy Cross — it’s holy water,” said Minturn resident Matt Scherr, a former mayor and current county commissioner. “It’s great water, period. The idea of the town supplying itself through that little water supply is appealing to me. I also know it won’t work into the future if there’s any growth.”
And Minturn’s aging water infrastructure has some significant problems.
Leaks plague the system. At times last winter, 60% of the water that entered the system disappeared before making it to faucets.
The main water tank is reaching the end of its useful life. Minturn’s other tank, in Maloit Park, doesn’t meet the minimum size required for firefighting.
And the town’s aging water treatment plant has problems with the quality of the water it processes, and state regulations keep getting tighter and tighter. A recent report showed unacceptable levels of turbidity — or cloudiness — in Minturn’s water during 2018.
Add up all the water infrastructure needs over the next 10 years, and the total price tag is eye-popping for a cash-strapped town of 1,200 people — $13.6 million.
The town had just $1.81 million in its water fund as of the end of 2018.
Minturn is at a crossroads.
It was born as a railroad town in the late 1800s, and its funky vibe, historic architecture, independent shops and community feel set it apart. The nearby resort towns of Vail and Avon were developed starting in the 1960s with faux European or modern mountain architecture. Despite its authenticity, Minturn lacks the revenue drivers of those other towns, particularly sales tax.
Minturn’s stated vision is to maintain that unique, small-town character — as well as its long-term viability. To stay viable, it needs millions in water upgrades, but doesn’t have the money.
It could increase its water rates, but that may threaten the ability of longtime locals to remain in town — eroding the very core of what makes Minturn Minturn.
Growth and development could pay for the water upgrades, and more. But Minturn can’t grow without more water.
And even if it could, how would growth affect its prized small-town character?
Deal on the table
An agreement now being proposed by the Battle Mountain developer would pay for some water upgrades, provide a redundant source of water in case of emergency — and bring more water to the town, allowing it to grow.
The three-way agreement involves the developer, the town, and the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.
“We believe this is the best, most cost-effective and operationally effective plan to secure both Minturn’s present and future water infrastructure needs, as well as providing water for future growth within Minturn — including our project,” said Tim McGuire, vice president of development for Battle Mountain Resort, in an email.
Battle Mountain wants to build as many as 712 homes near Maloit Park and Tigiwon Road — scaled down from 2008 plans that called for 1,700 units and included a mountaintop resort.
The agreement would give Battle Mountain the water it needs to build its scaled-back project.
The pact would fund a water pipe, or “interconnect,” from Dowd Junction to Minturn — supplementing the Cross Creek water with the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District’s supply. It would fund other Minturn water projects as well, offering about $9 million towards Minturn’s infrastructure, according to the developer.
The deal would also allow the district to build a reservoir at Bolts Lake.
The developer and the district have agreed in principle to the terms. The Minturn Town Council will consider the deal at its meeting Wednesday.
Big meeting Wednesday
The developer has brought forward the agreement with urgency, saying if Minturn doesn’t provide direction to finalize the agreement Wednesday, the deal is off the table.
Town officials say they may take longer.
“As far as we’re concerned, this is a conversation that has taken a lot of time up until now,” said Minturn Mayor John Widerman. “We’re not interested in rushing the decision, especially if a lot of information needs to be presented in one night.”
If Minturn chooses to proceed, the deal could come back for final approval at the Aug. 7 council meeting.
Approving the deal wouldn’t mean approving the Battle Mountain proposal, which has been submitted as a preliminary plan. However, if the Battle Mountain plans are not approved, the water deal becomes null and void, and the interconnect would not happen.
Minturn officials are asking residents to come to the Wednesday meeting, saying their involvement is vital.
“Really the big point is to make sure we get participation from the public,” Widerman said.
To grow, water is needed
Minturn, with a population of 1,200 people, now has enough water to grow to about 1,600 people. That’s the amount of water that Cross Creek provides in the driest months of the driest drought years.
In other words, if Minturn wants to grow substantially, it needs more water.
If the Battle Mountain development is approved, Minturn certainly needs more water.
If other developments, such as the Dowd Junction development or a redevelopment of the currently-for-sale Union Pacific railroad property, happen, Minturn will need more water.
Minturn enjoys senior water rights from Cross Creek, meaning it has first dibs to divert and use water from the stream. But those senior rights can only be used in certain areas of the town — areas that do not include the Battle Mountain development area.
Besides its senior rights, Minturn has other water rights from the Eagle River and Cross Creek, but those are junior conditional water rights — meaning that they could get curtailed, or called out, by entities with more senior rights. More senior rights include the instream flow water rights maintained by the Colorado Water Conservation Board — minimum flows that ensure ecological health of rivers.
Eagle River water?
The town could use its junior rights to draw more water from the Eagle River, but that would require a new water treatment plant, at a cost of over $4 million. A new water plant would be needed because the town’s current plant, which dates back to the 1940s and uses sand filtration, would not be able to process the water in terms of both quantity and quality.
Drilling wells and connecting the Eagle River water to the treatment plant would cost another $4.4 million.
In addition, Minturn would need to add the water back into the Eagle River — called “augmentation” — for much of the year. Because Minturn returns its water to the river downstream at the wastewater treatment plant in Avon, pulling Eagle River water at Minturn creates a “hole” between Minturn and Avon that must be filled, gallon for gallon.
That would likely require constructing a reservoir at Bolts Lake, or the town would have to buy water for augmentation — but that water can be difficult to find and expensive.
But the “interconnect” plan would render the Eagle River supply, as well as augmentation, unnecessary.
At a meeting last September, the Minturn Town Council endorsed the town pursuing the interconnect option over the more pricey Eagle River option.
Since then, Minturn officials have met with Battle Mountain and water district officials over several months to craft the proposed deal.
Terms of the deal
Under the deal, Battle Mountain would build the interconnect at a cost of about $5.6 million. The Eagle River Water and Sanitation District would supply bulk water to the town, as a secondary water source, for a cost of $11.11 per thousand gallons. The district would waive all the tap fees to serve Minturn’s existing users.
It’s not clear how the deal would affect water rates for Minturnites. Information from a water-rate consultant will be presented at Wednesday’s town meeting.
What’s in it for Minturn? First, it would give Minturn water to grow beyond 1,600 people — including Battle Mountain and other developments.
The interconnect would provide a secondary water source for the town, in case anything happened to the Cross Creek watershed, such as a forest fire, or there was another type of catastrophic event such as a water plant failure.
The developer would also pay $3 million for a new water tank near Tigiwon Road as well as improvements to the town’s current water plant.
The developer, Battle North, says the deal would contribute about $9 million in total toward Minturn’s water infrastructure.
Minturn would also no longer need to contract for storage in the Eagle Park and Homestake Reservoirs for augmentation. It is now paying around $120,000 a year for that storage.
What’s in it for the water district? It would get a new reservoir.
Battle North would convey 50 acres of land to the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District to build a 1,200 acre-feet reservoir at Bolts Lake. By comparison, Homestake Reservoir holds 42,900 acre feet.
Bolts Lake is now empty. In the mid-’90s, the dam was breached because it was deemed unsafe. The town later got water storage rights for the reservoir of 320 acre feet. Battle Mountain, which owns the land, secured 890 acre feet of water storage rights at the reservoir.
The developer and the town would give up their water storage rights in Bolts Lake to the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. The town would also have to give up its interest in Bolts Ditch, which is used to fill the reservoir.
The town would also have to subordinate its junior conditional water rights on the Eagle River to the district when the district would need to fill the reservoir. However, Minturn has never used those rights.
The reservoir would be available for recreational uses such as non-motorized boating, fishing, paddleboarding, and hiking around the lake.
The town has considered developing the reservoir in the past, but the cost is quite high.
Minturn’s water attorney, Meghan Winokur, estimated that building the Bolts Lake reservoir would cost $40,000 per acre-foot, or $48 million.