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Drought, climate change push Eagle County to rebuild a scuttled dam, as growth brings water needs

A plan to revive Bolts Lake in Minturn could provide an additional 1,200 acre-feet of water storage

A view of the Bolts Lake area where Eagle County water providers are planning to construct a reservoir with 1,200 acre-feet of water storage. (Provided by Eagle River Water & Sanitation District)
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The impacts of climate change have pushed water providers in Eagle County to pursue a new strategic water reserve — a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency supply officials say they need amid fears of increasing water scarcity. 

The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District and The Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority — sister agencies that collectively serve 27,000 residents from Vail to Wolcott, a number that can more than double at different times of the year — looked at their modeling during the past several years and were particularly concerned about the possibility of getting through an extremely dry spell like 2002, a year when the average Colorado River Basin snowpack sat at a dismal 30% in May.

“Our system is going to be vulnerable if 2002 happens again,” said Jason Cowles, director of engineering and water resources at the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District.

The district and the authority recently took an important step in building this new strategic stash of water by finalizing a deal to purchase the site of Bolts Lake, a 45-acre plot of land that sits at the south end of Minturn. The two agencies acquired the spot from Battle North, a developer that owned the land and is planning to build a housing development in that area. 

Once the site of a recreational pool of water, the state determined in the 1990s that the dam at Bolts Lake was unsafe. The state ordered that the dam be breached. Now, the Eagle County water providers want to build a new dam and develop the old Bolts Lake site into a storage reservoir that could hold up to 1,200 acre-feet of water, a project that would likely take around 10 years and has a preliminary price tag of between $50 and $65 million. (An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover an 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)

Cowles said that in a low-water year like 2002, based on new development that’s already been approved and planned for, the district and the authority would be cutting it close based on current supply.

“We looked at just historical hydrology and saw that, particularly in the water authority service area, that they would use all their in-basin reservoir storage in a 2002-type drought scenario — and that completely ignores climate change,” Cowles said. “And so if there’s an event worse than that, we have no water for that, and then you get into shortages and more dramatic cutbacks and things of that nature.” 

A critical deal

The finalized deal for the purchase of the Bolts Lake site — an intergovernmental agreement between the two water authorities and the town of Minturn — also includes additional water for Minturn. Initially, the town will get 20 acre-feet of water. The town will get a little more once the project is further along. 

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Minturn mayor Earle Bidez said he views this as one of the most important deals the town has made in the 40 years he’s lived there. 

“Everybody understands how critical water is going to be moving forward with climate change,” Bidez said. “We’re not a town interested in growth but I do believe we need to grow some in order to reduce the cost of the water system, which we’re having to replace now.” 

Bidez said that Minturn is eyeing eventually adding about 450 new single family units and that the initial 20 acre-feet of additional water will help make that possible. “The citizens and the council are wanting as little growth as we can get away with without forcing people out of town because they can’t afford to live here anymore,” Bidez said.  

The other important thing about this deal, Bidez said, is that the conversations that made it possible helped build a good relationship between the town and the Eagle County water providers. “It’s been a great relationship reset with the district and water authority, and I think it’s set us up for future good relations,” Bidez said. 

The original Bolts Lake, constructed in 1890 by Ben Bolt, was intended as a recreation spot for the local mining community. The new water body will also allow for some recreational use — nonmotorized boating and fishing — so long as that use doesn’t interfere with the lake’s main purpose as a water supply.

The Eagle Mine closed in the early 1980s. In 1986, the 235 acres around the mine and the abandoned town of Gilman were listed as a Superfund site, with millions of tons of heavy-metal mine waste threatening Eagle River fish and Minturn’s water supply. The Bolts Lake property is not included in the Superfund area. Cleanup of the portion of the Superfund site next to the lake was deemed complete Dec. 22, 2021 by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. 

The Eagle River Watershed Council, a nonprofit that advocates for the health of the streams and rivers in the area, supports the Bolts Lake project. 

“Though we’re still waiting on official plans, the Watershed Council feels that this is a win for the watershed,” executive director James Dilzell said. “This secures a water supply for our community’s future, which will in turn help to augment flows within the Eagle River. Plus, the planned reservoir is off-channel and to be placed in an area disturbed by a past reservoir, so environmental impacts are thought to be minimal.” 

Accelerated change

Linn Brooks, general manager of the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said the pace at which climate change has started to accelerate some of the challenges they’re trying to address with this water supply has been particularly eye-opening. 

“You know, we’ve known about climate change for 20 plus years,” Brooks said. “We knew it was coming. We knew it was going to reduce our water supply. And yet, there are things that have happened just in the past couple of years that are kind of making us go ‘holy cow.’”

For instance, Brooks said, dry soil soaking up valuable spring runoff has been a difficult problem. Brooks pointed to the fact that in 2021 the Colorado River watershed above Lake Powell had around 86% of average snowpack but that that only translated into 36% of the average amount of water flowing into the Utah reservoir. “That’s the effect of the soil,” Brooks said. 

Brooks said she also often hears from people who wonder if less growth is the answer to water supply challenges in the district, but she said growth isn’t what’s driving the need for Bolts Lake. 

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Since 2000, Brooks said, the number of single-family units in the district and authority service area increased 25%. At that same time, total water use went down 6%. Brooks attributes that drop to some combination of more efficient indoor water fixtures, new developments that include smaller, more efficient units and a general awareness about a need to be more conscious of water use. 

Cowles said the long-term plan is to be able to keep a reserve water supply of at least 10% of their annual demand at all times. That target will shift with growth, but he said that Bolts Lake should help meet the needs of the service area for at least another 30 years. “Our modeling shows that this gets us beyond 2050,” he said.


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