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A slight tweak to a pile of rocks deep in the woods could flood a Colorado town

State water engineers removed stones in a ditch, which directed more water toward Twin Lakes homes and less toward a proposed luxury community.

Twin Lakes, Colorado. (Photo by Gene1138 via Flickr)
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TWIN LAKES — About a half mile above this historic village, there’s a pile of rocks in a shallow ditch.

The Colorado Division of Water workers who neatly stacked those stones changed how water flows in Bartlett Gulch, saying they were returning the gulch to its natural state. But come spring, when snowmelt flows down the fluted faces of Mt. Elbert and into Bartlett Gulch, homeowners in Twin Lakes fear their village will be flooded.

“We could lose our cabin,” said Jo Pustizzi, a retired teacher who, along with her husband Jim, has owned a cabin next to a dry streambed in Twin Lakes for 14 years. “Why did the state not tell us our houses could be gone with this change?”

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

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In Colorado, not a drop of water is unaccounted for. When snow melts and rivulets become rivers every spring, a vast network of ditches and diversions direct water hither and thither. The tiniest of tweaks in the trickling system — like rearranged stones in a ditch deep in the woods — can have rippling impacts, both in byzantine water court proceedings and downstream communities. 

That’s what’s happening in Lake County’s Twin Lakes, an unincorporated village on the flanks of Mt. Elbert. It’s a troubled tale, with a developer eager to build a scattering of luxury homesites, beavers building their own network of reservoirs, water engineers adjusting historic flows and a small community with homes built in locations that are, thanks to rearranged rocks, suddenly in a flood zone. 

“How could we have known,” asked Jim Pustizzi, whose cabin is tucked between two stream beds that feed into a small culvert he feels will be inundated thanks to new flows directed into the Twin Lakes village. “Who is benefitting from directing all this water into the village instead of spreading it across the mountain like it has been done for decades?”

Some residents in Lake County’s village of Twin Lakes fear a state adjustment to small ditch above town will increase flows during the spring that could overwhelm the community’s small culvert and flood homes or damage septic systems. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Division of Water Resources engineers said they noticed a man-made structure diverting water from Bartlett Gulch above Twin Lakes in the fall. It had been there for years, maybe even decades, but was recently rebuilt, said Kevin Rein, the director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources in an emailed statement. 

That structure, despite its age, was not legal. The division determined it was “injuring water rights,” Rein said, and mucking up a Lake County plan that needed water in Bartlett Gulch to flow into Twin Lakes reservoir to augment water the county was diverting higher up the mountain.

So the water engineers last fall removed the old diversion, which increased flows in Bartlett Gulch into the village of Twin Lakes. They also “placed more materials intended to keep more of the water in the natural stream” of Bartlett Gulch, Rein said. (Those are the neatly stacked stones mentioned above as well as some downed trees.)

Rein said that his engineers have reviewed the new materials they placed in the stream and now plan to remove them, “which may allow some water to flow out of the gulch and reduce the amount of the increased flow of the natural stream near the village of Twin Lakes going forward.”

“However, due to the removal of the man-made diversion structure in the natural stream, it is anticipated that the flows in the natural stream near the village of Twin Lakes will still increase from what has been experienced in the past,” Rein said. 

The Division of Water Resources will work with Lake County and the Colorado Department of Transportation to make sure the village’s 30-inch culvert is not overwhelmed in spring runoff and will work with residents in the village as well, Rein said. 

Developer Alan Elias acquired land in Twin Lakes in August 2017. He initially proposed 70-plus luxury homes on the hills above the reservoir, just east of the Twin Lakes village. He’s whittled that down to 17 or so now. He’s applied for water rights for his Angel View project — both underground and some flows in Bartlett Gulch. The state water court is still considering those applications. 

Elias wishes the state’s water engineers had waited until the resolution of his applications in Colorado water court before adjusting diversions and the flow of water in Bartlett Gulch. 

This 1939 U.S. Geological Survey map of the eastern flank of Mt. Elbert above Twin Lakes shows Bartlett Gulch splitting into an eastern and western fork. (USGS Historical Topographic Map Explorer)

Elias directed a reporter to U.S. Geological Survey maps dating back to the 1930s showing Bartlett Gulch forking into two drainages above the village of Twin Lakes. More than 80 years of maps show Bartlett Gulch water flowing through his Angel View property, Elias said. But more recent maps have removed that eastern drainage through his property, he said. 

When the Colorado Department of Transportation realigned Colorado 82 through Twin Lakes in 1978, they built seven culverts running under the highway below the Angel View property, versus one in the village. 

“Water has flowed through these beaver ponds and fens on the Angel View property for hundreds of years,” said Elias, who has hired four water attorneys and two water engineers to study flows in Bartlett Gulch and his property. “There is no way the culvert in Twin Lakes can handle this new flow. No way at all.”

Elias said his development plan permanently protects 56 acres of beaver ponds, wetlands and fens. But if the full flow of spring runoff down Bartlett Gulch remains diverted toward the village of Twin Lakes and not spread across his property, “it could impact wildlife and the ecology of the entire area,” Elias said.

“This is not just important for my development but for all of Twin Lakes,” said Elias, noting decades of septic issues in the unincorporated village of roughly 50 homes. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Elias said property above swollen beaver ponds below the diversion is now flooding because of the state change. Those beaver dams could burst and inundate the community and the 30-inch culvert beneath Colorado 82, he said. 

“It’s like someone has not really thought this through. There is enough water to meet all the obligations and send it both directions. So why change the water flow and run it through an area with no infrastructure from a water flow management standpoint and through an area with known septic issues? It just seems ludicrous,” Elias said. “It’s irresponsible to make this change without any sort of risk assessment. It’s just begging for a disaster to happen.”

Willem Scott, a deputy water commissioner with the Division of Water Resources, said the change to the old diversion structure was “basically an enforcement issue.”

“It’s our obligation to shut those kinds of things down,” he said. 

Scott said some homes in Twin Lakes are built not just in a flood plain, “but in the actual channel” of a stream. 

The Twin Lakes General Store in Twin Lakes, Colorado. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun

The Division of Water Resources’ engineers have surveyed the region and determined the water’s path and the division will work with the owners whose properties may be affected by spring runoff “to make sure they are educated and know about it,” Scott said. 

“We are not responsible for making everybody’s house bulletproof against all kinds of weather events,” he said. “We are in the water administration business.”

The Division of Water is working with Lake County and property owners and hopes to have the issue resolved by spring runoff. 

“We have some work to do. What we were doing was basically preventing an unauthorized diversion and in doing so we put water back to where we believe it should be,” Scott said. “When you build next to a stream system, you can expect a fair amount of water coming your way in certain times of year.”

The Visitor Center in Twin Lakes Colorado. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun

Robert Krehbiel is a water engineer with homes in Twin Lakes. He’s seen the old diversion, which sent about 2.5 cubic-feet-per-second, or cfs, east, toward the new Angel View project. A 100-year flood would send about 100 cfs down Bartlett Gulch into the village, he said.   

“So that old diversion will only help about 2% in a 100-year flood. It is insignificant,” Krehbiel said. “The developer has a monetary interest in getting more water to his property. He’s selling 17 lots for something like a million dollars each. The value of those lots depends on water. Now he’s saying that if the water is not diverted onto his property, it will flood everyone in town. That is a leaps-and-bounds conclusion.”

Bartlett Gulch runs next to the Twin Lakes Lodge. Steve Erickson has owned the lodge for 26 years. If anybody should be concerned about increased water in Bartlett Gulch, “it should be me,” he said. He sees increased water in the gulch possibly causing problems for the state transportation department and its culvert beneath Colorado 82, “but it is not going to be a problem for homeowners,” he said.

“I think this is all a ploy by the developer,” Erickson said. “This is the first time a developer of this size has ever come to Twin Lakes and the people are not quite sure how to handle it. We are kind of a sleepy village and we are not used to seeing the magnitude of this kind of development. It may work and I do wish him luck. But  he’s got to know that it takes a long time for a newcomer coming into Twin Lakes to gain the respect and trust of the people who have lived here for many years.”


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