AURORA | Aurora and Colorado Springs just cleared the first hurdle toward building a controversial dam in Eagle County.
U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis approved the cities’ plan Monday to drill into the high-alpine Homestake Valley and test whether the underlying geology could support a reservoir diverting water from the Colorado River to the growing municipalities.
It’s an early, key step in the effort to build the new reservoir, which would be called the Whitney Reservoir, in the National Forest about six miles southwest of the town of Red Cliff.
The cities have long held the water rights to build the new reservoir and divert the water, usually destined for the beleaguered Colorado River, to thirsty residents in Aurora and Colorado Springs.
With approval in tow, Aurora and Colorado Springs have the green light to test for several possible reservoir sites in the Homestake Valley.
Greg Baker, Aurora Water’s manager of public relations, told the Sentinel last year the reservoir could be built in about 25 years if the complicated approval process pans out. The new reservoir in the Homestake Valley could hold between 6,850 acre-feet and 20,000 acre-feet of water, according to the Forest Service.
For comparison, Aurora Reservoir can hold about 31,000 acre-feet of water.
The turn of the screw Monday is just one of many procedural challenges Aurora and Colorado Springs will face.
Notably, the project requires environmental impact studies and possibly an act of Congress, according to Baker, to shave up to 500 acres from the popular Holy Cross Wilderness. However, he added that the plan is far from set in stone.
The plan has drawn scrutiny from conservation groups concerned about devastating the ancient wetland habitant that retains water — an increasingly scare commodity in the West. Various endangered fish species would be downriver from the dam.
The Colorado River itself has seen reduced flows in recent decades, in part because of human-induced climate change. Many environmentalists argue that as much water as possible should be left in the river, which multiple states and Mexico rely on.
On its website, the conservation group Colorado Headwaters said the project “would actually harm Colorado’s water resources in the long run” and “also destroy one of the state’s most valuable wetlands along with important wildlife habitat for elk, moose, deer, trout and a variety of bird species as well as rare native plants.”
In its decision, the Forest Service said that the geological survey had potential to impact Canada lynxes, a threatened species, but not seriously enough to prevent the study.
Baker said in an email that the drilling study is “routine.”
“We value the collaborative process involved in exploring alternatives that minimize environmental impacts, are cost effective, can be permitted by local, state, and federal agencies, and which will meet the water requirements of the project partners,” he said.
As reported by Colorado Public Radio, the project has also run into early opposition from central Colorado and Western Slope communities.
Democratic state Sen. Kerry Donovan represents seven counties that include communities like Aspen and Crested Butte. In a letter opposing the project, Donovan wrote that, “she can’t express how sternly the people in her district dislike water diversion projects to the front range,” according to CPR.