When Deirdre Macnab bought an enormous ranch between Meeker and Rangely in 2016, she fulfilled a dream of riding horses through her own sage under broad Western skies.
She did not expect to wind up with beachfront property.
The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District wants to build a dam across a gap in the mesas above an occasional stream called Wolf Creek. The 110-foot wall would back up a reservoir onto bone-dry soil, amid the worst Western drought in more than a thousand years.
When Macnab rides her favored horse, Susan B. Anthony, on what habitat experts call the sagebrush sea, she may be the critic closest to the proposed new pool of water that would be diverted and pumped uphill from the relatively isolated White River. But she’s not the only one.
From the state engineer to river conservation groups, others have sharply questioned just what the conservancy district needs the water for in a region that isn’t growing, amid a landscape where water is increasingly a mirage. And at a time when Western growth and climate change have strained the entire Colorado River Basin compact close to a breaking point.
“I’m not just saying hell no to any reservoir. I’m saying hell no to a reservoir that the state engineer, after years of study and consideration, has looked at and said, ‘This is not necessary.’ To me, it’s lunacy,” Macnab said.
The water district said it needs a new lake because of growing demand and to hedge against a compact call from the Lower Basin states — Arizona, Nevada and California — for more water in the Colorado River.
But Rio Blanco County’s population is falling. And the state water engineer said storing water for a conjectural future compact call constitutes illegal speculation — only the state and the Upper Colorado River Commission can make such momentous compact decisions.
To me, it’s lunacy.
– Deirdre Macnab
Rio Blanco said it needed water for endangered species. The engineer’s office said there were no studies showing endangered species would benefit from reservoir water, or how much they needed. Rio Blanco said it wanted to store water for potential oil projects. Yet the Western Slope oil shale boom went bust in the 1980s, in a failure that wrecked the local economy for decades.
Finally, when the district’s application for water rights to fill the reservoir was headed for court, local officials said there was good land just waiting to grow crops, and demand would rise to meet the new supply.
And that’s where the clash of local wishes vs. local reality was underscored again — engineers said state water law is clear: the demand has to appear ahead of the bulldozers, not the other way around.
A Town Looking for Drinking Water
The seed for this project was first planted in the summer of 2009. Back then, Alden Vanden Brink was in charge of Rangely’s drinking, irrigation and wastewater systems. The White River, which supplies the town’s water, started to drop significantly in July and August. A recent transplant from Iowa, Vanden Brink wasn’t familiar with the challenges that kind of river fluctuation can present. One day, when he went out to take a look at the river intake, he found it was dangerously close to sucking air.
“The water quality gets kind of nasty,” Vanden Brink said. “We refer to it as cow water. It’s all bubbly. It looks septic.”
That day, Vanden Brink, now the manager of the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District, committed to looking for a solution. The following year, Rangely, a town of about 2,500 people, altered its diversion structure to make it deeper. A temporary fix. Vanden Brink also started to learn more about Colorado water law and how the White River operated. In 2013, the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District hired a contractor to conduct a feasibility study to determine what the need was and what the potential solutions were.
The quality and long-term stability of Rangely’s drinking water was just one problem. There isn’t enough water regularly flowing on the White River for agricultural use throughout the summer. There were also environmental and industrial shortages.
The whole region needs additional water storage, Vanden Brink said. The existing Kenny Reservoir, which is located 5 miles east of Rangely, has problems with silting and its storage capacity is declining. Some residents tank in drinking water in the backs of their trucks.
Rio Blanco regional leaders say the area’s economic and cultural survival is at stake in the search for new water sources. But opponents are lining up against them to argue that you don’t divert more water from a Colorado River tributary when the use of river water by 40 million residents of Western states is headed for a drought-driven renegotiation.
For local leaders, one dam study led to another. The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District examined potential sites for new storage. Initially, there were 24 possible locations. Then three. Then two. Today, the district prefers an off-channel storage option at the bottom of Wolf Creek gulch.
After some of the district’s proposed water uses were rejected, including compact-call augmentation, the state engineer agreed to a consent order allowing other uses at the core of Rio Blanco’s list.
Vanden Brink views the settlement before the water court trial as favorable.
“We were able to prove up several areas of our need — the municipal piece that’s so critical to Rangely because they don’t have a choice but to use river water,” he said. The town can’t use groundwater because the oil deposits in the area are so plentiful, Vanden Brink said.
“I can’t dig up one spade of dirt without oil,” he said.
Rangely also looks to the project for its future
Town officials in Rangely are supportive of the dam and reservoir.
“The actions that are being put forth in all areas is remarkable,” utilities superintendent Don Reed said. “Our lives depend on this river and what we do now will preserve it for the future.”
We are a community that’s going through a transition, what else are we going to do to pay our bills?
– Alden Vanden Brink
In addition to providing a more secure drinking water supply for Rangely, Vanden Brink also sees the project as an opportunity to bolster the ag community — something he hopes will help a region that has been devastated economically by the decline of the oil and gas boom, once plentiful in the area, and the looming closure of a coal mine near Meeker.
“We are a community that’s going through a transition, what else are we going to do to pay our bills?” Vanden Brink said. “It’s hard to pay their bills when you can’t have the water to put on agricultural land.”
Vanden Brink sees the project as an opportunity for the region to use water more efficiently, develop new agriculture markets, and enhance fisheries. According to a report prepared by Harvey Economics, the Wolf Creek project would have significant economic impact, with construction generating 300 jobs and up to an additional $1.6 million in sales tax revenue for towns in northwest Colorado. After construction, according to the report, the bump will be 360 new jobs and up to $19 million in sales tax revenue over 30 years.
“We are interested in long-term management of the river corridor to preserve the water, wildlife and uses that it supports,” Rangely town engineer Jocelyn Mullen said. “The Upper Colorado River compact states have not developed all the capacity they are entitled to under the compact and we feel that the Wolf Creek Reservoir will help with that and soften the blow of future reductions in flow certain to come with continued climate change.”
None of this will happen quickly. The next step in the project is the demanding National Environmental Policy Act permitting process.
Vanden Brink said the district hopes to make an initial filing for that permit in the next few weeks, and, if the stars align, get through that process in two years. Such a timeline for permitting a new dam in Colorado is optimistic — Northern Water on the Front Range first applied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for an off-channel Cache la Poudre River reservoir west of Fort Collins in 2004. It is hoping for a final permit this year.
Vanden Brink said the final permit — he’s eyeing storage between 20,000 and 66,000 acre-feet — will dictate what type of funding the district pursues. Vanden Brink said he envisions a local ballot measure, maybe a special district, and hopefully some state and federal dollars as well.
An acre-foot is the amount it takes to cover 1 acre in a foot of water, or about 326,000 gallons; one acre-foot is roughly enough to meet the needs of three Colorado households a year on average.
In the past, Rio Blanco has estimated the reservoir’s cost at $142 million. Other modern dam projects in Colorado have far exceeded initial budgets. The district has received initial funding from both the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Colorado River Water Conservation District for studies and launching the permitting process.
State engineer Kevin Rein, whose office negotiated with the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District in the years-long water court process, said it’s true that in wet years there is still water available to appropriate in the White River. After knocking down some of the water district’s proposed uses for their water right application, including speculating about storage against a future compact call, the parties reached a settlement approved by the judge.
The water right granted to Rio Blanco — a special district that was formed in 1990 that is funded by property taxes and the sale of hydroelectric power generated at Taylor Draw Dam — allows them to store water for municipal use in Rangely, for agricultural augmentation in the area, and to create a recreation and wildlife habitat pool.
“We did take a strong position that they needed to do a better job of supporting their amounts,” Rein said. But in the end, in that stretch of river, Rein said, “there is water available.”
Can a reservoir succeed if it’s a big park?
When Rio Blanco reached a settlement with the state engineer, one of the last remaining allowed uses for the district’s conditional water award at a proposed Wolf Creek reservoir was as a recreational pool.
Meanwhile, the previous recreation pool built by Rio Blanco on the White River, Kenney Reservoir, is silting up fast, and is too expensive to dredge back into a useful reservoir, local officials say. Time is running out for water skiing and other recreational uses. “I wonder when we’re ever going to learn,” said Matt Rice, Colorado River Basin director for the nonprofit stream restoration group American Rivers.
Motivating a vocal defense by conservation groups is the relatively pristine condition of the White River. It drains an enormous and largely unpopulated region of Colorado ranging from near Dinosaur National Monument on the north to the Flat Tops Wilderness on the south. It’s also one of the few stretches of river left in Colorado not yet declared over-appropriated, prompting river districts like Rio Blanco to grab for water rights no matter how junior to upstream users.
Whether to keep the rest of the Western Slope’s water inside its historic channels is a debate that will play out over and over in coming years. Aurora and Colorado Springs want to build Whitney Reservoir, behind a second dam on Homestake Creek, and divert the water to the Front Range. Denver is expanding Gross Reservoir in Boulder County to bring more water across the Continental Divide from the Fraser River, another Colorado River tributary. Northern Water wants to store Cache la Poudre River water in a new Glade Reservoir near Fort Collins.
“The way that you keep rivers alive is to keep water in them,” said Gary Wockner of Save the Colorado, which with affiliate groups have fought those dam projects and more across the state. “We’re trying to speak up for the rivers themselves.”
Save the Colorado does not get involved at the water rights stage, Wockner said, but is ready to move on the Wolf Creek proposal. “If the Rio Blanco Water District starts federal and state permitting, they should expect a long, vigorous, and expensive battle for decades into the future.”
Planning in an unsettled time for the Colorado River Basin
Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District’s original request to store White River water in case there is a compact call on the dwindling Colorado River was perhaps a glimpse into future policy debates, though the state engineer argued it was premature. Under the compact, the Upper Basin states of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah must deliver 75 million acre feet of water to Lees Ferry, in Arizona, below Lake Powell, in a rolling 10-year period.
If they fail, the Upper Colorado River Commission could curtail the upper states’ water use. The Lower Basin states of Nevada, Arizona and California are also suffering from the 22-year drought on the Colorado River, making severe cuts to their own use under the compact for this year.
Colorado water planners are experimenting with ways to create water banks and cut use through demand management as a compact call grows more likely. But there is no state-approved process in place to start banking water, Rein said.
“There is no basis in Colorado water law to provide for augmenting to maintain compliance with the Colorado River Compact,” Rein said.
Besides, said Rice of American Rivers, creating a massive new evaporation pool in a hot, dry place like Rio Blanco County is not a smart solution to any of Colorado’s water challenges.
“It’s still going to be a significant diversion from the White River. There’s going to be more loss,” Rice said. “And from our perspective, we should be getting very serious right now about building climate resilience for the whole state.”
Protecting the people vs. protecting the landscape
Those backing the reservoir proposal exude a sense of urgency in seeking a project that offers the potential for growth rather than retraction for the people of the county.
Farther to the north, coal-fired power plants and hundreds of accompanying jobs will be shutting down as stations at Craig and Hayden give way to cleaner, renewable energy. Big money interests in other parts of the state are buying agricultural land for the value of the accompanying water rights.
And the Western Slope mega-drought lasting longer than 20 years now threatens income from fishing, hunting and other recreation. Vanden Brink pegs the survival of Rio Blanco County towns, including Rangely and Meeker, to this new pool of water at Wolf Creek.
”The droughts are not getting better, nor are they getting less frequent,” he said. “I’m hoping our system can hang on.”
The opposition will remain equally ardent on behalf of the landscape, and bigger picture environmental questions. No dam proposals move forward in Colorado these days without expensive, time-consuming legal challenges from multiple fronts.
Macnab is slowly transforming her property into ranch land more in tune with local conditions. She’s working on soil quality, and will eventually stop cutting hay in favor of natural rangeland. Macnab was the lone resident as an official objector in the water rights case, but expects many more local voices to begin questioning the project during public permit hearings.
A reservoir at Wolf Creek, she says, flies straight in the face of decades of evolving understanding of range habitat, climate change and droughts.
“It’s kind of like that Alaskan bridge to nowhere. It’s the reservoir to nowhere,” she said. “This is not a project that deserves hard earned tax money or is going to deliver us from a drier future.”