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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)

White River National Forest officials on Monday said Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities can move ahead with test drilling to determine whether a controversial dam on Homestake Creek in Eagle County is technically feasible.

The decision to let the Front Range water utilities move forward in taking more Western Slope water is only one of countless regulatory hurdles for a future Whitney Reservoir, but conservation groups say they are adamantly against any new water transfers to suburban water users across the Continental Divide and will oppose every approval step. 

Colorado Headwaters, which opposes any new dams and water transfers, said it expected the approval but remains steadfast against any progress on the project. “We don’t think it will ever be built,” president Jerry Mallett said. “They haven’t done a transmountain diversion in 45 years. Water on the Colorado River is dropping from climate change. We don’t want to lose those natural resources.” 

The decision from White River said the approval applies only to drilling 10 test bore holes the utilities applied for, and does not have bearing on any future decisions should the cities pursue the dam north of Camp Hale. The proposed reservoir would hold about 20,000 acre feet. (A typical family uses between a half and a full acre foot a year.)

Colorado Springs and Aurora have owned water rights in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area since 1958. The two cities built the Homestake Reservoir in 1968 to store about 40,000 acre-feet of water. A plan to develop another 30,000 acre feet has been in the works for many decades. A 20-year effort to build a tunnel moving water from deep into the wilderness area into Homestake Reservoir crumbled in 1994 when Eagle County denied construction permits. 

The cities partnered with Eagle County, the Colorado Water Conservation District, Vail Resorts and other Western Slope water users in 1998 in a deal that gave water rights to Eagle River communities and developed the 3,300 acre-foot Eagle Park Reservoir on the Climax Mine property. 

The 1998 Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding included plans for possible reservoirs along Homestake Creek. The agreement — which brought together a diverse group of downstream users as “Homestake Partners” in the Eagle River Joint Use Water Project — also affirmed that no partner could object to a new reservoir plan if it met the memorandum’s agreement to “minimize environmental impacts” and could be permitted by local, state and federal agencies.

The proposed Whitney Reservoir project is not new and “represents our continued pursuit to develop water rights in existence for many years,” Colorado Springs Utilities spokeswoman Jennifer Kemp said.

Kemp said the cities have developed alternatives to building a new reservoir in the Homestake Creek drainage but those other options have not been proposed or discussed publicly. The results of the test boring and geotechnical work will help the two cities vet possible alternatives.

“We are finely tuned to concerns regarding water scarcity and equity through our participation in statewide water workgroups and basin roundtables,” Kemp said in an email. “As such, we are committed to proceeding with a project alternative that minimizes environmental impacts, is cost effective, technically feasible, can be permitted by local, state and federal agencies, and which will provide sufficient yield to meet the project participants’ water supply needs as defined in the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding.”

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)

Environmental groups oppose new dams on Homestake in part because they would take water out of tributaries that feed the already-depleted Colorado River. But they are also focused on preserving complex wetlands called “fens” that develop over the long term and support diverse wildlife. They say fens cannot easily be recreated in any mitigation work that utilities traditionally include in dam proposals. 

The headwaters group also questions why the Forest Service would encourage any steps when completion of a dam appears impossible. The utility proposals include shrinking the size of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area to create dam access, “which Congress will never approve,” Mallett said. 

“We will appeal that decision in the next few weeks and see if we can slow it down,” he said. 

Wilderness Workshop, an environmental nonprofit in Carbondale, also was disappointed in the Forest Service decision and “will oppose this project every step of the way,” said Will Roush, the group’s executive director. 

The approval said the city utilities are “proposing to drill 10 bore samples up to 150-feet deep using a small, rubber-tracked drill rig as well as collect geophysical data using crews on foot.” The bore holes would go in about 6 miles southwest of Redcliff, the Forest Service said. Construction or widening of dirt access roads would also be part of the approved project. 

The drilling approval would give the utilities information on four different proposed dam sites in that area, according to the decision. The utilities say they need geological samples to know if dam construction is even feasible, and which locations are best.

The battle over preserving water in the Colorado is similar to other fights with Front Range water utilities, including Denver seeking to expand Gross Reservoir above Boulder, and Northern Water asking to build a series of dams near Lyons, north of Fort Collins and east of Greeley. All the dam proposals include diverting more water from the Colorado River to fulfill rights purchased decades ago for Front Range growth.

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, daughters and a dog named Gravy. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors, ski industry, mountain business, housing, interesting things Location: Eagle, CO Newsletter: The...

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...