Wolcott Reservoir part of water web

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vaildaily.com Water Attorney Glenn Porzak at the Waterwise Wednesday meeting about the Wolcott Reservoir.

Cliff Thompson
August 12, 2004

WOLCOTT -If the Wolcott reservoir is built as proposed - one mile north of the Eagle River - it will more than likely cause the flow of Summit County's Blue River, more than 50 miles away, to dwindle.

If this seems to be a bit of sophistry, welcome to the complicated world of water use in Colorado where every stream and lake seems to be connected.

The Wolcott Reservoir is a joint Eastern Slope-Western Slope proposal to provide water when it is most needed. It was the topic of an Eagle River Watershed Council Waterwise Wednesday meeting at the 4Eagle Ranch north of Wolcott. Nearly 120 people showed up.

As proposed, the reservoir could cost as much as $180 million to build and will store up to 105,000 acre-feet. Eighty percent of water filling it will be pumped from the Eagle River from a pump station and diversion dam near the existing Wolcott Post Office and the remaining will come from Alkali Creek.

Water would be released during low-flow months to fulfill a variety of water demands ranging from protecting spawning habitat for endangered fish in the lower Colorado River to fulfilling water exchanges that would provide Denver with more water that it could take from Summit County's Blue River via Lake Dillon.

That would slow the flow of the Blue River from Dillon to Green Mountain Reservoir 20 miles to the north.

But don't expect to be boating on the new reservoir next year. Participants in the Wolcott feasibility study generally agree it may be 10 years before it's built.

"We move at a fast snail's pace," said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Conservation District.


Because of the intertwined nature of water use in Colorado, the decision when to build the Wolcott facility is connected to the fate and pace of other water projects in Summit, Grand and other counties, said water attorney Glen Porzak.

It's also connected to a water-sharing agreement between Front Range and Summit County water users that's in the formative stage.

Those agreements are similar to Eagle County's Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding - a water-sharing agreement signed in 1998 whereby the cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora abandoned most of the huge water rights they held in Eagle County and agreed to jointly develop and share water projects with water users here.

That happened after a decade-long and expensive court battle by the cities to expand Homestake Reservoir south of Minturn, in which local water users prevailed.

If Wolcott is built, Denver would abandon its huge water rights in the Eagle and Piney basins in return for the water stored in the new reservoir. But getting to that point will be dependent as much on what happens outside of Eagle county as what happens here.

"I really see this as kind of a multi-group cooperative deal that ultimately gets intertwined," said Porzak about the Summit County negotiations.

Porzak - who represents local water districts and Vail Resorts - and others, like the Denver Water Board's David Little, declined to list the specifics of the Summit County agreement because it's too early.

"We're working to help solve some of Summit County's water and recreation issues," Little said. "Denver wants to feel comfortable in what it can expect from a future Blue River decree. The easiest thing is to fight - it takes a lot of work to cooperate."

Little and others say an agreement on water development in Summit County is a year or more away.

Denver has huge water rights in Summit County, and a water-sharing agreement would limit the amount that could be diverted there.

Cooperation on water projects in Colorado on deciding who will get what water is becoming more widespread, as fear of expensive legal battles is driving people toward cooperation. But it doesn't mean there won't be conflicts.

Environmental issues

For Colorado Trout Unlimited, which seeks to enhance and protect cold-water fisheries, Wolcott Reservoir creates some environmental issues on the Blue River and in the upper reaches of the Colorado River. More water released downstream will result in more water being taken from the headwaters regions, leaving long stretches of rivers with less water.

"If you take nice clean, cold water out of the top of the system, you're putting cold water fish at a disadvantage," said Trout Unlimited's Melinda Kassen.

The flow of the Colorado River between Green Mountain and Glenwood Canyon has been supported during dry months by one of the state's oldest water rights, which is used to generate electric power at Shoshone Dam in Glenwood Canyon. It requires 1,250 cubic feet per-second.

Behind the water issues in the state is geography and meteorology. Most of Colorado's population, 85 percent, lives in the cities of the arid Eastern Slope. Most of the state's water - 80 percent - falls as snow on the mountains on the Western Slope of the Continental Divide.

Many Western Slope rivers and reservoirs are connected to the Front Range by pipelines that take water over the Continental Divide.

For the parties paying for the Wolcott feasibility study - the Denver Water Board, Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (which serves users in Ft. Collins and Loveland, the cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora as well as Eagle County water users) - the proposal to build the reservoir is a means of deciding how much water they will receive and what it will cost.

One issue that's injecting urgency into deliberations is a deadline, now six years away, on supplying 10,825 acre-feet of water for four species of endangered fish that live in the lower Colorado Basin which are nearly extinct because there is not enough water for them to spawn. Water users and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to supply those fish with the water during spawning season.

That water now is being provided by Denver and by the Colorado River Water Conservation District, but as the state grows, that water won't be available much longer.

Sage grouse, too

There are other environmental concerns, too. The area that will be flooded if the Wolcott Reservoir is built, is habitat for sage grouse, a species being considered for protection under the endangered species act, and also is critical winter habitat for mule deer.

Porzak said he expects the effects of the Wolcott Reservoir on Summit County and the effects on what Summit County and Denver agree upon will end up being a "wash."

Front Range cities aren't as eager to develop Wolcott as are local water users. There's a proposal to build another, smaller reservoir near DeBeque's Sulfur Gulch, 20 miles east of Grand Junction, which could be used for the same purpose as Wolcott.

Complicating deliberations is the fact that 75 percent of the flow of the Colorado River is untouchable by Colorado water users. It's needed to fulfill a larger water sharing agreement - the Colorado Compact -between the seven states in the Colorado River Basin.

Staff Writer Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 450, or cthompson@vaildaily.com