Eagle River Watershed Council: A brief history of the Eagle River MOU

Ken Neubecker
The Current
The Homestake Valley is a place rich in unique ecology, county history and thirst for more water.
Steven DeWitt/Witness Tree Media

The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs have long held the dream of increasing diversions from the Eagle River headwaters. Most of these dreams lie in the Homestake Creek Valley.

Ken Neubecker

The cities already have a reservoir and diversion system in the upper Homestake, built in the late 1960s. Water is diverted from numerous tributary streams, from French Creek to Sopris Creek and the East Fork of Homestake Creek. This system siphons off an average of 28,000 acre-feet a year.

And these cities would like more.

In the early 1980s, the cities proposed building a project called Homestake II. This project would have taken more water from other streams, and from within the Holy Cross Wilderness. Tunnels would carry water under the Mount of the Holy Cross to be stored and transported east from the existing Homestake Reservoir. A provision in the legislation creating the Holy Cross Wilderness would have allowed for the incursion of roads and construction equipment to build this project.

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The Forest Service and Army Corps of Engineers approved the project and the cities had all the permits they needed, except one. That was a 1041 permit from Eagle County. Eagle County denied the permit, twice, and so the cities sued.

The case wound its way through the courts to the point where the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case, letting an appeals court decision in 1994 upholding the county’s denial stand. That killed Homestake II.

Realizing that no project would ever be built without support from, and benefit to, Eagle County, the warring parties got together in an Eagle River Assembly to try and hash out a deal that would work for the water needs on both sides of the divide. Those on the Front Range had the water rights and legal abilities to build a reservoir to divert more water, and Western Slope entities recognized they would be coming back to do so eventually. Thus, the result was an agreement known as the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding.

The MOU was signed by all the parties involved in 1998. Eagle County was not a signatory. If any project were to come before the county for a new 1041 permit, the county must be free of any real or perceived conflict.

Included in the MOU were several provisions for both a joint project, and for projects that may be considered by single parties, such as the cities. It divides up the water that might be available into two allotments — 10,000 acre feet per year for the Eagle River side, and 20,000 for the cities. There are also other water management and availability scenarios.

The MOU goes on to list four primary project focus areas. First, is the now completed Eagle Park Reservoir. Second, a possible conjunctive use project in Camp Hale, using the vast glacial aquifer for underground storage. That project was ruled out after exploration proved it untenable. Rather than a uniform deep layer of gravel, stakeholders found complexities created by numerous glacial advances and retreats, shifting river channels and differing types of sediment creating numerous disconnected pockets of alluvium.

Third, is a large reservoir in the mid-Homestake Valley, something that would have a difficult and expensive process toward questionable approval. The fourth option is for a smaller reservoir that could hold water to be pumped up to the existing Homestake Reservoir. Such a reservoir, though small, would still fill a significant portion of the Homestake Valley. This fourth option is the potential Whitney Forebay project that the cities are beginning to explore.

It should be noted that the Special Use Permit recently granted by the Forest Service for preliminary geophysical exploration for dam sites is not tied to any specific or proposed project, and as far as the Forest Service is concerned, it is completely disconnected from any future project review or permitting process. Doing the basic geophysical research is a preliminary process, not unlike making sure that the water rights are still in good condition.

There is a potential for any new joint water supply project in the Homestake Valley to be beneficial to the Eagle River and Eagle County. But there are also other means to achieve those ends. Would the cost of losing the important habitats, wetlands and fens of the Homestake be worth it?

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