Water warrior | VailDaily.com

Water warrior

Allen Best

Paul Testwuide recently attended his final meeting as a director of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. By all accounts it was an orderly, uneventful -some would say ho-hum – meeting.Don’t be fooled by these placid waters. Testwuide during his 16 years on the board saw both war and peace, in the form of disputes over control of water owned by Front Range cities as well as internecine hostilities with Minturn.But from such meetings, in a series of small steps, has also emerged a vision of a strong resort valley buffered from the natural hydrological cycles of drought and low water in winter. Testwuide is considered a principal architect of that vision.”He got us focusing on the big picture,” says Rick Sackbauer, chairman of the water authority. “He got us looking at water as more of a regional issue.”But communication was also key. A careful listener, Testwuide could synthesize a waterfall of facts into a meaningful narrative. Then, by the force and gentle nature of his personality, he was able to communicate his reasoning to others.”He has the demeanor to call a spade a spade in a way that people really listen to what he has to say,” says Sackbauer.”I remember distinctly when he came on (the board),” adds former board member Chuck Ogilby. “I always liked the guy but I wondered how he would do once he was on the water board. There’s a lot of getting-up-to-speed, but Paul took right to it.”Former fellow board member Byron Brown credits Testwuide with helping consolidate upper valley water boards and at the same time, making operations more efficient.Sackbauer also lauds Testwuide for getting the board to stop micro-managing water affairs, which was too much for one-meeting-a-month politicians with an organization of that size. “He will be sorely missed in both his knowledge and his wit,” Sackbauer says.Vulnerabilities in 1988When Testwuide became involved with the board, in 1989, the upper valley’s water supply was in danger of being diverted to the Front Range and the winter ski economy was more vulnerable to drought.

Aurora and Colorado Springs posed the most immediate threat in a project called Homestake II that anticipated drawing water owned by the two cities from creeks near Mount of the Holy Cross. More menacing, from the perspective of Vail proper, was Denver’s ownership of water rights in the Gore Valley. “None of us could imagine Vail with the Denver Water Board taking half of the water out of Gore Creek,” says Ogilby. “So, if the cities won in Homestake, we just knew that Denver was going to be next. We just made a commitment to do everything possible to keep the Homestake project from being built.”Ogilby remembers Testwuide fitting in with this determined team. “He was a fisherman, and he loved to ski, but he also loved everything else about the mountains,” Ogilby says .Joining with the Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund and others, the Vail-based water district helped give Eagle’s county commissioners grounds for denying permits to the cities. That denial, when upheld by judges up to the Supreme Court during the next several years, forced the two cities – and then Denver – to work with the valley instead of colonizing its water supplies. Since then, any water project that will send water to the Front Range has to include benefits for locals.This conciliatory talk began in 1994. The first tangible benefit was an agreement by Aurora and Colorado Springs to release 500 acre-feet of water from Homestake Reservoir during winter to augment a naturally taxed Eagle River. They also agreed to forego some of their water rights while also collaborating on a project, probably in the Camp Hale area, of mutual benefit to the Eagle Valley.Denver’s story is similar. Instead of de-watering the Gore Valley, Denver will instead probably pay for construction of a dam north of Wolcott, with some benefits to local water users. The “matrix,” as one water attorney puts it, has been established for the next 20 years.Thinking storageBut even before this played out, Testwuide was thinking ahead. In the late 1980s, the moribund Climax Mine began marketing its excess water rights. While others thought Vail had plenty of water, Testwuide, mindful of drought years before, thought otherwise. In his role as a senior official with what was then Vail Associates, Testwuide in 1993 engineered purchase of water from a well along the Arkansas River at the foot of Fremont Pass. Water from this well, located on the eastern side of the Continental Divide was then pumped into the Eagle River.A comparative dribble of water, it was a symbolic giant. Vail, increasingly powerful and affluent, had achieved the first East Slope to West Slope diversion of water in modern times.

“He recognized the need for in-basin water storage, and he was right on,” says Dennis Gelvin, now executive director of the water district and then an elected board member.This deal with Climax led to cleansing of a reservoir formerly used for storing mining wastes. Renamed Eagle Park Reservoir, it began delivering water to the Eagle Valley in 1999 – in the nick of time, as it turned out, to respond the twin needs created by rapid population growth and drought.Smaller in scale, but similar in purpose, was enlargement of Black Lakes Dam, located near Vail Pass. The enlarged dam allows more water to be stored during spring for release in winter. This allows water to flow through Vail, sustaining fish, keeping the town attractive and boosting snowmaking on Vail Mountain.In these cases, existing dams were used or enlarged instead of building new dams in pristine locations. The result: little or no opposition, a rarity in water development projects.Walking the fine lineEconomic development is clearly the purpose of these projects. They accommodate additional population growth and also increased snowmaking on Vail and Beaver Creek mountains. Yet board members, both past and present, insist an equally powerful motivation was keeping local streams and rives flowing at healthy levels. The two were always considered in tandem.Testwuide’s prominence as a senior official with Vail Resorts also calls into question whom he represented while on the board. Other board members concede Testwuide has walked a narrow line of private and public interests, but in a manner beyond reproach.”People who don’t know the mood of the board during those years probably think that Paul might have been self-serving from the resort company’s point of view,” says Ogilby. That, he insists, was not the case.Gelvin acknowledges overlapping interests, but also insists that Testwuide pointedly abstained from voting and, in his recollection, even from participating in discussions when interests of Vail Resorts were directly involved.There is no doubt, however, of the common turf. A consequence has been that Testwuide got Glenn Porzak, the company’s water attorney and the source of much of this visionary plumbing, to also represent several government districts. This allowed a common voice in negotiations with Front Range cities by the key upper-valley interests.

Conspicuously absent in this coalition was Minturn. There, time has softened but not blotted memories of a dispute that lasted from 1996 to 1998 over Minturn’s water rights. Minturn grudgingly dropped its claims after Porzak brought a lawsuit on behalf of the various districts and the ski company, called the Vail Consortium. Board members still insist that the key fact in this maze of water law was that Minturn’s claims were without legal foundation. Notably, Minturn has collaborated with Porzak and the water district during the last two years.Driven by droughtTwo projects specifically benefit snowmaking, which originally drove Porzak’s interest in water. An on-mountain reservoir on Beaver Creek allows water to be drawn from the Eagle River in times of relative plenty, instead of sucking the river nearly dry, a key environmental objection to snowmaking. This idea of on-mountain storage has spread to other ski areas.During Testwuide’s time on the board, Vail Resorts built a pipe from Dowd Junction to the snowmaking intake at Lionshead that parallels a pipeline, which was laid at the same time, that connects the Vail and mid-valley water systems. With this latter pipeline the Vail and mid-valley water systems became stronger. With the pump-back paid specifically by the ski company, the snowmaking potential was enlarged.This concern with snowmaking was driven, at least in part, by Testwuide’s stinging memory of the drought winter of 1976-77. That winter, far drier than those of recent years, remains a vivid memory of those then in Vail. As Christmas approached the skies remained distressingly blue, the slopes melancholy brown, the lifts dormant as the lodges, stores, and restaurants remained empty. The season was so bleak that the ski company sponsored a soup kitchen of stew and spaghetti dinners for seasonal employees still without work and paychecks.”Once you go through something like that, you don’t ever want to do so again,” said Testwuide in an interview for Headwaters magazine last November. “It hurts everyone from the people making the beds to the people who own the ski company. It’s a disaster for everybody.”A silver lining to the recent drought, says Testwuide, is greater public acceptance of reservoirs. “People are understanding that reservoirs are good, that they’re not just some evil thing that developers need,” he said. “They’re good for the streams, and they’re good for the communities. It’s a lot better than sucking all of the water from the streams or letting it flow downhill to Utah.”

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