War and peace | VailDaily.com
YOUR AD HERE »

War and peace

Tom Boyd

For now, it remains a tribute to the Old West: Cowboys tell stories around log fires, leather boots stomp in unison on a wooden dance floor, and horse-drawn wagons give ranch guests a tour of one of Colorado’s most popular entertainment Ranches: 4-Eagle Ranch.Most of the people who come to 4-Eagle for weddings, receptions, parties, or just to ride horses and enjoy the view, probably don’t know that most of what they see around them is destined to disappear underneath millions of gallons of cold Eagle River water. But local and state officials all agree that sometime in the future whether it be three years from now or 20 the Wolcott Reservoir will be built, burying 4-Eagle Ranch under a minimum of 55,000 acre-feet of water and transforming the landscape of Wolcott in an unprecedented fashion.”There’s generally a recognition that there are going to be some (water) projects,” says Glen Porzak, the West Slope’s overall water-law guru and representative of Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority and Vail Resorts. “We’ve got to make sure that they’re the right ones, and that any future projects aren’t single-purpose, that that they be multi-use projects that solve a multitude of issues for a multitude of users.”The Wolcott project is certainly the front-runner to become the next big water project on the west slope. The “Wolcott Reservoir Feasibility Assessment: Phase I Investigation” report just came out in June, outlining the results of an initial study which looked at the possibility of building a lake sized from 55,000 to 105,000 acre-feet. An acre-foot of water is enough to completely cover one acre in one foot of water.The plan calls for a dam just below 4-Eagle Ranch on Alkali Creek. The Creek would supply about 20 percent of the water for the reservoir, and water pumped out of the Eagle River just above the dam would provide the other 80 percent of the water. Total construction costs for the reservoir are estimated between $135 and $180 million, and anticipated pumping costs from the Eagle are approximately $33 to $37 per acre-foot of water.This isn’t the first study that has come out about the possibility of building a reservoir at the Wolcott site in fact, the idea of a reservoir at the site has been around since at least 1971, when the Denver Water Board first filed for water rights at the location. Since then, Front Range water interests have come up with several different incarnations of the Wolcott Reservoir, including a massive, 350,000 acre-foot dam which was intended to suck water out of the Eagle and pump it over to Lake Dillon, where it would then be pumped again over the Continental Divide and into the Front Range’s water supply. Eagle County and the West Slope, for all intents and purposes, got nothing.Needless to say, that didn’t go over so well with Western Slope water interests.But the Denver Water Board is quite a force to be reckoned with, mostly because they have water rights to much of Eagle County’s water and they also have the land needed to build water storage projects. They’ve owned the land under 4-Eagle Ranch since 1985, and 4-Eagle Ranch owner Tom Backhus has been leasing the land from them since 1991.Backhus knows that there is a good chance his ranch will end up underwater some time in the next six – 10 years and perhaps sooner but he’s doing his best to take it all in stride.”I knew what I was getting into when I leased that land, and we run our business accordingly,” he says. “I’m not opposed to (the dam) at all if it’s what our valley needs, then that’s what we need.”Backhus admits, however, that he’s a little leery of the cooperation between all the people involved in initiating the Wolcott Reservoir Feasibility Assessment (WRFA).And it’s no wonder. People like Backhus raise an eyebrow when they hear about who’s working to make this dam happen, mainly because the groups who now are cooperating on the project were once pitted against each other in one of the most vitriolic water wars of Colorado’s recent history.The Front Range raisesa white flagFor Front Range water users, the most annoying number in existence during the early 1990s was “1041.” Sounds rather harmless when it’s put in print, but that’s the code of law that allowed Eagle County Commissioners to put the kibosh on Homestake II, an Aurora/Colorado Springs water grab that would have pumped thousands of acre-feet of Eagle watershed water to the faucets and fields of the Front Range. A 1041 has nothing to do with water (the Front Range has all the water rights they could want). A 1041 is actually a construction permit, and it was necessary before the Front Range could begin building the dam and accompanying apparatus for sucking water over to the other side of the Divide. The County Commissioners saw no benefit to our County in the Homestake II plan, so they denied permission to build. The Front Range big guns went to court, lost, and the West Slope patted itself on the back for winning a major victory in the long-contested water wars of the West.The long and the short of it is this: The Front Range realized that the days of busting through the door and demanding a dam were over. If they wanted one drop of West Slope water, they were going to have to cooperate with the West Slope and trade out some of their own water rights.Thus was born the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding a document with all the importance of the Magna Carta when it comes to Colorado water wars. The MOU, as it is fondly called, created a new peace between Eagle County’s water officials and Front Range water officials in 1998. Since then, things have been rather rosy, and now much to the disbelief of pundits who followed the water wars of the last few decades Front Rangers and West Slopers are working together, hand in hand, mano y mano, smiling all the way.Or so it seems.It certainly is a testament to the power of the MOU to see the bold words that are written on the cover of the WRFA: “In cooperation with: City of Aurora, Colorado River Water Conservation District, Denver Water, Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, and Vail Associates, Inc.”It’s enough to make a water-wise Westerner’s jaw drop don’t these people hate each other?”I think it’s a real case of, we’ve been proactive, and the Front Range has come to understand that, in order for everybody to get what they need, they have to cooperate with us,” says Linn Schorr, Engineering Manager for ERWS. “If all these entities work together then we can all get more than we could if we didn’t work together.”The Front Range, in essence, raised the white flag, called a truce, and agreed to make major concessions to help get a water project built and now, especially for Denver and Northern Colorado WCD, it’s a matter of getting it done, fast. Wolcott, it seems, is the best solution to the current problems facing those Front Range entities and, of course, Eagle County.Water for the fishSo what are those problems facing the various water authorities involved? Well, the first one is simple: fish.Especially endangered fish that live in what’s known as the 15-Mile Reach a stretch of the Colorado River that Front Range and West Slope water authorities have vowed to protect. And the way they must protect it, according to an agreement signed four-and-a-half years ago, is by making sure that 10,825 acre-feet of water reach that portion of the river near Grand Junction. Right now, the Front Range is borrowing from Peter to pay the fish and they’ve got six-and-a-half years to find a new way to get water downstream at the right time of year: The Wolcott Reservoir is a seemingly tidy solution to that problem, allowing them to release water into the Lower Eagle while keeping water from the Upper Colorado and the Blue (Lake Dillon) for themselves.Meeting the 15-Mile Reach requirement is one of the major reasons the Wolcott Dam has come back to life, but there are some other major considerations, too: If the Denver Water Board is allowed to build and manage their portion of the reservoir, they’ve agreed to give up on the bold concept of building a reservoir up at Piney Lake (which is another piece of land they own and currently lease to an entertainment ranch) and other parts of the Upper Eagle River.”This is a huge driving force for (the West Slope’s) cooperation,” Porzak says. “If Denver gets yield out of Wolcott they have to give up on getting water from Piney and the Upper Eagle.”Western Slope interests are also facing the possibility of having a major water crunch over the next 20-50 years as the population, by modest estimates, is expected to reach and surpass the 80,000 mark in Eagle County. The Wolcott Dam would provide more water for the County, which immediately translates into more growth.Furthermore, the possibility of having an area for flatwater recreation has been brought up. Certain species of trout or other fish could thrive in the lake, and the possibility of allowing water-skiing and other motorized craft on the lake has been floated though not yet seriously considered.All of this could happen very quickly. Aurora’s Peter Binny says Aurora wouldn’t really need the project to happen until about 2020, but the Denver Water Board, Northern Colorado WCD, and the West Slope entities are much more enthusiastic about the issue.”The (15-Mile Reach) agreement has one key factor: within 10 years, which is now down to six-and-a-half years, there needs to be a permanent way to provide the 10,825 acre-feet,” Porzak says. “Unless we come up with that water, everybody’s shut down. If this project becomes the one that solves that issue, then there’s really advantages on both sides.”Miles to go before we drinkOld enemies are shaking hands, water problems are vanishing into thin air, cooperation and collaboration are replacing enmity and spite so does all of this sound too good to be true?”It does sound good,” says Trout Unlimited’s Ken Neubecker, “Unless you happen to be Grand County or Summit County.”The important thing to remember here is that all the water in the Colorado River Watershed is connected, and what we do here will drastically effect what happens in Grand County (which houses Lake Granby, Williams Fork Reservoir, and Wolford Mountain Reservoir), and Summit County (home to Green Mountain Reservoir and Dillon Reservoir).The releases from Wolcott would, according to all involved, be beneficial for the environment, stream flow, and water supply of Eagle County. Water would be released from the Wolcott Dam to meet senior water calls from Shoshone and Cameo (the two big players on the Colorado River) as well as to meet the 15-Mile Reach call. The result is that there would be more water coursing through the Eagle during low-flow months. And if it’s managed correctly, says Neubecker, there can still be enough runoff flow to wash the riverbed of smothering, harmful sediment.But the Blue and Colorado may see negative effects, but that isn’t looked at in the WFRA. The WRFA does a good job looking at the impacts of the dam on the Eagle River, but it lacks very important information about what would happen to the Upper Colorado River and the Blue River.Or, as the Eagle River Watershed Council’s Caroline Bradford puts it: “We’re eager to be a part of the phase II assessment and asking questions about the impacts that have not yet been identified.”The problem comes when Summit County sees their water pumped out of their county (via the Roberts Tunnel), and the Blue River reduced to a steady, small, unhealthy trickle. Front Range interests won’t have to worry about releasing very much from Dillon anymore because Wolcott will be taking care of downstream calls. So Dillon becomes a major diversion for the Front Range, and the Roberts Tunnel begins sending more and more water over the Divide to Denver.This spells bad news for the Blue, which then feeds into the Colorado, which then flows back into Eagle County. The same fate may befall the Upper Colorado, unless a different solution is found.”No project is going to succeed if you’re just going to leave Summit County out in the cold,” Porzak says, pointing out that Vail Resorts has interests in Summit County. “We are in the process of meeting with all the major water users in Summit, and there is an ongoing process here that mirrors what happened with respect to Eagle County and Denver (with the MOU). The bottom line is that we’re not going to be able to look at the Wolcott Reservoir in a vacuum.”Jim Pearce of CRWCD agrees.”We’re at the conceptual stage,” he says. “We have an idea, and it seems like it’s of interest, but we still have a long way to go.” VTFive things you can do to be good to your rivers1) Keep the riparian zone in tact the riparian zone is the lush area around or near the river. Although it may seem messy looking and full of bugs to some, it’s the most critical river zone to aquatic life. Keep it that way put a trail through it, but don’t mow it or remove it.2) Don’t over-fertilize lawns better yet, consider Xeriscaping, a water-friendly alternative to traditional landscaping.3) Water at night or better yet, change over to drip irrigation.4) Consider using plants that are drought and wildlife tolerant. There are many beautiful plants that can withstand browsing from wildlife as well as dry years and minimal watering.5) Build a small, 18-inch birm at the edge of your lawn if you live near a river. Pesticides and fertilizers will drain to this birm and soak into the ground there rather than flowing into the river where they are harmful to aquatic life.Issues important to locals1) Water quality/quantity2) Air quality3) Scenic/visual quality4) Local economy5) Wildlife habitat6) Health care services7) Parks/trail system8) Recreational opportunities9) Wildland fire management10) Education 9k-12)11) Transportation infrastructure12) Arts & Culture13) Public transportation14) Local workforce housing15) Adult education


Support Local Journalism