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Aurora, Colorado Springs own water near Leadville. They may need to redraw a wilderness area to access it.

The first step for the Front Range cities, which want to act on their decades-old water rights, is to drill test bores for a proposed dam that would flood a Holy Cross Wilderness access road

Wetlands near Whitney Creek along Homestake Creek, where Aurora and Colorado Springs are asking for permission to drill test bores to study the viability of a new reservoir. (Brent Gardner Smith / Aspen Journalism, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Aurora and Colorado Springs want to siphon more water from Homestake Creek, even if it requires slightly shrinking the boundary of the Holy Cross Wilderness to build a new reservoir. 

The cities’ request to drill test holes to better study the viability of a new dam below their Homestake Reservoir comes as Colorado’s congressional delegation floats plans to protect more of the state’s wilderness.

The two cities have asked the White River National Forest for permission to drill up to 13, 150-foot-deep bores to test the viability and potential location of a dam on Homestake Creek. The drilling request, first reported in July by Aspen Journalism, is the first step toward the long-planned Whitney Reservoir, which could store water before moving it to the Front Range through a network of tunnels and impoundments. 

The proposed reservoir could be as small as 6,850 acre-feet or as large as 20,000 acre-feet and the cities have lobbied Colorado’s Washington delegation to support a tweaking of the wilderness boundary by 497 acres — at most — to accommodate the reservoir. 

The proposed reservoir site would flood portions of the U.S. Forest Service’s Homestake Road about five miles above U.S. 24 between Red Cliff and Leadville, “so we would require just a little bit of adjustment … a very minor adjustment” of the wilderness boundary along the road, Aurora Water spokesman Greg Baker said. 

“We are not going deep into the wilderness,” he said. “We are simply taking the border and slipping it a little bit and that would result in an improvement of the road.” 

Aurora and Colorado Springs are asking the Forest Service to drill test bores to study the potential for a new dam and reservoir along Homestake Creek. (Provided by Aurora Water)

Whitney Reservoir was proposed by the two cities in the late 1990s, and its realization is years, if not decades away. The cities in April visited with Colorado’s delegates in D.C. to discuss the possible change to the wilderness boundary. The proposed legislation comes as nearly all of Colorado’s delegation is proposing additions to the state’s collection of wilderness areas. 

The CORE Act proposed by Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse creates 73,000 acres of new wilderness and has won House approval. U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette’s plan to protect more than 600,000 acres of wilderness in Colorado — the largest land-protection package for the state in 25 years — was approved by the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday. The state’s Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton is proposing additional wilderness protections under the Colorado REC Act, which also removes wilderness protections from some areas in the Four Corners region.

An adjustment of a wilderness boundary requires a vote of Congress and presidential approval. 

The Forest Service cannot even accept a proposal for development on wilderness land without those federal approvals. The lack of congressional approval for a change to wilderness was the reason the White River National Forest objected to the City of Aspen’s long-held proposal to develop two reservoirs that would flood portions of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. (That plan, which Aspen never really acted on, was abandoned earlier this year as the city worked to find other storage possibilities in the Roaring Fork Valley for its nearly 50-year-old water rights pouring from the wilderness.)

But Aurora and Colorado Springs are taking the initial steps toward building Whitney Reservoir by asking for the so-called “fatal-flaw” study, which would bore holes into four potential sites for a dam on the edge of the wilderness boundary. Scott Fitzwilliams, the supervisor of the White River National Forest, said the request “is pretty straightforward and not overly impactive” and not unlike seismic testing requests from oil and gas developers exploring potential well sites on public land.

Fitzwilliams’ team is gathering additional information from the cities and studying the drilling request to see if it qualifies as a “categorical exclusion,” which would not require intense environmental scrutiny under the National Environmental Policy Act, NEPA. Or maybe the drilling proposal does require that level of review, especially if there are any impacts to the valley’s abundant fens, which Fitzwilliams called “some of the finest high-elevation wetlands in the forest.”

“What we want to do now is determine, as close as we can, what level of analysis this needs,” he said. “Even though this is connected to a very big and significant event, it’s something we generally do with less NEPA.”

Either way, the drilling proposal will be opened up for public comment as soon as January. And Fitzwilliams expects to hear from residents and wilderness advocates about the longer-range reservoir plan. 

“We are going to have to work very hard to differentiate that drilling fatal flaw test holes does not constitute an approval for anything. It won’t be easy, but we are going to have to stay the course,” he said. “I know that this will wake people up and people will start to really pay attention. I think a lot of people thought this Homestake plan was past after that big fight 25 years ago.”

Not so ancient history

When Congress designated the 123,000-acre Holy Cross Wilderness in 1980, it carved out an exemption allowing Colorado Springs and Aurora to develop their 1958 water rights in the wilderness area. The two cities built the Homestake Reservoir in 1968 to use about 40,000 acre-feet of water rights, leaving about 30,000 acre-feet of water rights for later development. And later starts now, as the thirsty, growing cities begin the long process of building the infrastructure needed to move that water to the Front Range.  

This is not the first time the cities have vied to funnel water tumbling east down the Homestake Valley. A more than 20-year effort foundered in 1994, when Eagle County deployed a 1970s land-use law to deny permits for construction of diversion dams and a tunnel that would move as much as 22,000 acre-feet from the wilderness into the Homestake Reservoir. The plan was not popular, with Eagle County water officials and businesses joining environmental groups in opposition. (The businesses, like Vail Associates, floated the then-fresh argument that the project’s environmental impacts could throttle the tourist-dependent economies in the valley below.) 

Eagle County’s commissioners denied the cities’ request for construction permits under its 1041 powers, which gave local municipalities the ability to regulate development beyond their boundaries when projects had impacts within those boundaries. Then came the lawsuits. In 1994, almost 20 years after the project was first proposed, the Colorado Court of Appeals sided with Eagle County leaders and the project died. 

Homestake Reservoir stores Aurora and Colorado Springs water collected from the Holy Cross Wilderness. The two cities are requesting Forest Service approval to drill test bores to study the viability of a new dam and reservoir along Homestake Creek, which would require a change in the wilderness boundary. (Brent Gardner Smith / Aspen Journalism, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Today, Colorado Springs and Aurora have partnered with West Slope communities. A 1998 agreement between Colorado Springs, Aurora, the Climax Mine near Leadville, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the Eagle Water and Sanitation District, the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority and Vail Resorts delivers 10,000 acre-feet of water a year to the West Slope and 20,000 acre-feet a year to the Front Range. A portion of that 10,000 acre-feet for the Eagle River communities was developed with the 3,300 acre-foot Eagle Park Reservoir on the Climax Mine property, but Aurora and Colorado Springs have not developed any of their 20,000 acre-feet. 

The 1998 Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding, which followed the construction of the Eagle Park Reservoir, points to potential reservoir projects along Homestake Creek, developed by the two Front Range cities. It also affirms that no partner can object to that new reservoir plan if it meets the understanding’s agreement to “minimize environmental impacts,” is technically feasible and “can be permitted by local, state and federal agencies.”

“Thirty years ago, we tried to pull the bully thing and say ’We will do it because we can do it.’ Now you can’t work that way,” said Baker with Aurora Water. “We have learned our lesson, as every utility has, that we have to work with the local community to share the resource and minimize the impacts. We all need water, so what can we do together that is mutually beneficial?”

The two cities are working with their Eagle River partners on the Eagle River Community Water Plan. The basinwide planning process involves modeling cumulative impacts from the MOU agreements, but does not break out the impact of individual projects, said Linn Brooks, the general manager of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. While the MOU prevents the partners from opposing each other’s projects, the agreement specifically notes that projects must secure local, state and federal approval. 

“Each of us has the right to pursue projects independently of the other, and we all are supportive of the other partners pursuing their right to get their yield under the agreement,” Brooks said. “The permitting process will ultimately decide whether they can construct those projects are not.”

Boulder’s Dr. Warren Hern remembers the former strong-arm development strategy of Aurora and Colorado Springs well. His Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund joined the Sierra Club Wilderness Defense Fund alongside Eagle County in opposing Aurora and Colorado Springs’ plans for diverting water from the Homestake Creek drainage in the 80s and 90s. He’s ready to fight again. 

“There are other ways for them to get the water they own without destroying the Homestake Valley and they should start by conserving water. Those wetlands and fens are irreplaceable,” said Hern, who fished in the upper valley before the development of Homestake Reservoir. “This is about greed and real estate in Aurora and Colorado Springs. No one is dying of thirst in those cities right now.”

Baker said the two cities are in a “very exploratory phase” and prepared for “a long, transparent process” as any plans undergo federal and local review. He cautions that the drilling request is not seeking permission for a reservoir. 

“People may look at this and say we are building a reservoir. Well, we don’t know what we are building until we do these borings,” Baker said. “Until we have a better idea on what the geological impacts are up there, we don’t have a project.”

Aurora and Colorado Springs want to drill test bores along Homestake Creek to study the potential for a new reservoir adjacent to the Holy Cross Wilderness. (Brent Gardner Smith / Aspen Journalism, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Environmental groups aren’t lining up just yet. But they are watching. Will Roush, the executive director of the Wilderness Workshop, said he hopes the Forest Service pursues a more thorough Environmental Assessment of the cities’ drilling plan instead of excluding the plan from NEPA analysis. 

“While there’s not a legal requirement to do an Environmental Assessment just because the public is so interested, my take is that more public process is going to be better on something like this,” Roush said. “Wilderness boundaries go through a pretty thorough vetting process … and they are there for a reason. It’s very rare, if ever, that it would make sense to change them.”

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