Putting water in reserve
That still might be the case during some years, but increasingly these boisterously growing ski valleys along Interstate 70 need savings accounts – reservoirs of water filled by melting snow during May and June, to be used from mid-December to mid-March, when streams are naturally at their lowest.
The Vail Valley and Summit County have several such “buckets,” as such small reservoirs are often called. The two most important ones are near Fremont Pass, amid the abandoned workings of the Climax Mine.
Clinton Reservoir serves Summit County, and Eagle Park Reservoir was fashioned on behalf of Vail Valley interests. Without them, both areas would be in a far more frightful condition going into this winter.
Glenn Porzak, a water attorney based in Boulder, conceived both reservoirs. In his private life, Porzak spent his younger years compiling an impressive resume as a mountaineer. Twice he climbed Everest, and he also climbed most of the rest of highest peaks on each of the continents.
Just as impressive is his law practice. Porzak’s clients include all ski areas from Loveland Pass to Glenwood Canyon, plus Summit County, Breckenridge, and Vail Valley water districts. It’s a near monopoly, one that at times has distressed smaller districts. More recently, however, some officials have taken a light-hearted view of his suzerainty. Some jokingly refer to the Vail-Summit area as “Porzakistan.”
In looking over the needs of his clients, Porzak realized that the growing economy of the two valleys had different needs. They were developing wintertime needs that couldn’t solely be met by natural flows, as had the needs of ranchers and miners before. Ski areas, for example, were trying to insulate themselves from climatic vagaries by expanding their snowmaking systems.
In something of a corrolary, Porzak also was struck by how vulnerable his clients, the towns and ski areas, were to drought. The benchmark for droughts then was the 1976-77 winter. “Everybody was always operating off 1977, which was a pretty horrendous year, although nothing like this year,” he says.
What was needed, he realized, was more complex plumbing for these growing, prospering valleys.
Part of the plumbing was already in place: Green Mountain Reservoir. Located north of Silverthorne, it is upstream of Glenwood Canyon, and hence able to provide water to meet the senior call at the Shoshone power plant. Water released from Green Mountain in most years allows ski resorts in both Summit County and the Vail Valley to draw water from nearby streams that they otherwise would have been required to allow to flow down to Glenwood Canyon.
But better even than Green Mountain are reservoirs upstream of the ski areas themselves. Imagine a water tank at the ceiling of an old-fashioned bathroom. It allows the option of taking a shower, and not just a bath. That’s something of what the ski resorts needed, more flexibility.
Summit County solution first
Looking around for higher-elevation reservoirs in each drainage, Porzak realized the strategic value of the Climax Mine. There, where molybdenum mining had ceased in 1981, were the headwaters for the Eagle River and also for Tenmile Creek, a primary tributary to the Blue River.
First came Summit County’s solution. A dam at the head of Tenmile Creek had been built for flood control, but could be used to hold spring runoff instead. The trick was securing the water rights to ensure the water. Within a year the deal was done. There was a motivated seller, the mining company, and motivated buyers in the ski areas and towns from Breckenridge to Winter Park.
“The stars were aligned properly,” recalls Porzak.
It’s not the total answer, however. Most of Summit County’s needs still are met from the native flows in the creeks and rivers. And particularly in a drought year such as this, those native flows may not be enough. The higher up in a drainage, the scarcer water is. Upstream of Breckenridge it’s most scarce of all. Water can’t be had at any price.
Even before the severity of this drought, the area above Dillon Reservoir had perhaps the highest-priced water in Colorado, at $25,000 an acre-foot for firm year-round yield. That is triple the cost of just a few years ago.
Is Clinton Reservoir enough? Ski industry representatives say there’s no reason to panic. With a full reservoir, it should be enough to help Copper Mountain and Breckenridge. Keystone will be able to tap into the Roberts Tunnel water, which carries Dillon water underneath the resort. After earlier uncertainty, Arapahoe Basin maintains it will have water for its first season of snowmaking.
Eagle Valley’s solution
Eagle Park Reservoir works in similar fashion to Clinton, but on a bigger scale. After the Clinton Reservoir deal, Porzak in 1993 began seeing what else Climax might want to sell. At first just representing Vail Associates (now Vail Resorts), Porzak negotiated for water rights from a well, then examined an old reservoir site that had been created to store toxic wastes from processing of molybdenum ore.
That old reservoir, a pastiche of pastel colors, looked bleak, inviting comparisons to a lunar landscape. But Porzak saw the blue of water, and Climax saw the green of money.
It wasn’t a simple deal, though. When the cost of scouring toxic residue from the reservoir skyrocketed to nearly $12 million, the water supply was expanded and more funding partners solicited. The consortium, as it is called, now includes Vail Resorts, Eagle County, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, and all the water districts upstream from Wolcott except for Minturn and Red Cliff.
Named Eagle Park – although it is actually five miles from Eagle Park, a place better known today as Camp Hale – the reservoir filled in 1999, and water was first released in 2000.
The plumbing gets even more elaborate yet, though. Part of the water is intended for snowmaking on Vail Mountain. To make this link complete, the water is pumped from Dowd Junction up into Vail, and then onto the mountain.
The Vail Valley also benefits from a deal negotiated with Aurora and Colorado Springs. The agreement specifies that the cities will release 500 acre-feet during winter from Homestake Reservoir, which they own. In return, the cities get some agreement of cooperation in developing their water rights in the basin.
A decade ago, communities from Vail through Edwards primarily lived through the heart of winter on what was naturally flowing in the creeks. Now, after the growth spurt of the 1990s, they survive winter on water stored upstream during spring runoff.
Before these bigger reservoirs, there were also several smaller “buckets” – Black Lakes at Vail Pass and Goose Pasture Tarn near Breckenridge. But these smaller reservoirs couldn’t have pulled the two valleys through this year’s drought. Eagle Park stores 700 percent more water than Black Lakes, and Clinton Reservoir 150 percent more than Goose Pasture Tarn.
Exacerbating this year’s situation has been the short-fall of water from Green Mountain Reservoir, previously the savings deposit for both valleys in meeting the “call” of the Shoshone power plant.
What would be different if these two reservoirs did not exist? “You’d have a prohibition on all outside lawn irrigation,” said Porzak in July. “If you didn’t have Eagle Park Reservoir, there probably would be no water for snowmaking. There would be a big question mark for domestic water in winter. … It would be a real serious situation .”
As events later proved, the situation was serious enough.
What are his employers telling him now?
“They’re saying get more, and do it fast,” replies Porzak.
Major local “buckets’
Green Mountain Reservoir
Located between Silverthorne and Kremmling
152,000 acre-feet storage
Water released allows Shoshone power plant to operate while junior users in Eagle, Grand, and Summit counties are taking water from their streams.
Goose Pasture Tarn
Upstream from Breckenridge
Owned by Town of Breckenridge, with 400 acre-feet belonging to the ski company for snowmaking.
Located at Dillon
Water primarily diverted via tunnel to Denver, but Keystone allowed to divert water for snowmaking. It has done so once before.
Located at headwaters of Tenmile Creek, near Climax Mine
1,200 acre-feet firm yield
Water released during water for several ski areas and towns in Summit and Grand counties.
West side of Vail Pass
300 acre-feet storage
Water released during winter augments Gore Creek. Reservoir drawn down 10 feet in winter.
Located at headwaters of Eagle River, near Climax Mine
3,000 acre-feet storage, 2,013 firm yield (now being expanded)
Water released during early and mid-winter, primarily for snowmaking
Located at head of Homestake Creek, southwest of Red Cliff
Mostly water stored for diversion to Colorado Springs and Aurora, but 500 acre-feet earmarked for winter release into the Eagle River basin.