AURORA | Aurora is determined to build another mountain water reservoir to make use of water rights currently rushing down the Colorado River.
Local officials say damming a creek between Leadville and Minturn — and routing water normally flowing into the Colorado River — is necessary to sate the future thirsts of a city growing on land where water is scarce.
Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities recently applied together for a permit to drill underground near the creek and test where a large Whitney Reservoir would be best situated.
Aspen Journalism first reported the early step to build the reservoir.
For the dam, the utilities are eyeing four possible locations about six miles southwest of Red Cliff.
But damming Homestake Creek would also require moving the boundary of the Holy Cross Wilderness, affecting ancient, pristine wetlands.
Greg Baker, Aurora Water’s manager of public relations, said the Whitney Reservoir could be built in 25 years if key steps such as test drilling on Forest Service land are approved.
Baker said it’s another creative step to make sure that Aurora doesn’t go dry.
“You don’t leave anything on the table when you’re in Colorado, because most of the water has been appropriated in river basins,” he said.
Baker said the reservoir could eventually hold anywhere from 9,000 acre-feet to 19,000 acre-feet of water. The water would then be pumped near Leadville and travel to the Front Range through tunnels to the South Platte River basin.
Currently, only Aurora and Colorado Springs would benefit, Baker said.
The project is another alliance between Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities. The two cities — the state’s largest behind Denver — are both growing quickly. Baker said the new reservoir could help ensure the taps keep flowing, especially in an era with snowpack decreases that imperil creeks and rivers.
The two city utilities, jointly called Homestake Partners, entered into a pact about 20 years ago with various mountain water authorities to build water infrastructure such as the Whitney Reservoir.
Water from these projects, including the Whitney Reservoir, are typically split between the partners. Baker said Aurora is entitled to about 10,000 acre-feet of water rights it owns but has not developed.
The Whitney Reservoir project could help make up for that deficit, Baker said.
Baker said Homestake Partners first started contemplating the Whitney Reservoir project about five years ago and conducted some preliminary research.
Homestake Partners filed its application to the Forest Service last month, which is still considering the permit request.
The plan calls for building temporary roads through Forest Service woods and drilling in four possible locations on Homestake Creek. The testing would ensure that the areas are structurally sound enough to hold the large reservoir, Baker said. He’s hoping that work can begin this summer, before the winter snow renders the sites inaccessible.
The water entity will also study how the reservoir would impact the local environment. That process in particular is slow-moving, officials said.
Building the dam would require years of environmental studies, but the drilling permit application cites important wetlands and endangered species in the area.
So-called fen wetlands in the area are are challenge. The wetlands take thousands of years to develop and are “hotspots of biodiversity,” according to the Forest Service website.
The ancient wetlands are also hard to replicate if destroyed elsewhere, but Baker said Aurora would try to. A pilot project near Leadville has seen some success, he said, and Aurora Water will work to convince the Environmental Protection Agency of the plan.
Various endangered fish species would be downriver from the dam, including “critical” habitats of Bonytail chub, Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub and razorback sucker.
That has drawn scrutiny from Trout Unlimited, a national conservation group protecting rivers.
“We will look closely at the environmental impacts of the proposal,” said Drew Peternell, director of Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project. “In particular, we will be interested in assuring that the project does not negatively impact stream flows or fish habitat in the Eagle and Colorado Rivers,” he said, referencing the river connecting the creek to the Colorado River.
Baker said the reservoir would also require moving Homestake Road, a popular route for recreation, into the nearby Holy Cross Wilderness.
Redrawing the 114,000-acre wilderness border would require Congressional legislation, Baker said. About 500 acres of the wilderness would be lost.
However, Baker said Aurora is open to buying and replacing the land elsewhere on the wilderness boundary. He said legislation is pending following a meeting with the Colorado congressional delegation.
Aurora is also buying up land that could be impacted by the Whitney Reservoir.
The city bought a 150-acre parcel of land in 2018 for more than $4 million, and plans to buy more.
Although the two-decade process for building the dam is a long one, Baker is optimistic.
“We’re not seeing anything that is a show stopper,” he said.