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2005 Prize Winning Series

Part 5 – Eagle County: Highland vs. Flatland
Talks under way on landmark water project in Eagle County

By Jerd Smith
Rocky Mountain News, Oct 6, 2004

Eagle County successfully battled in the 1980s to protect its wilderness from a proposed reservoir for Front Range utilities.

Today, officials in Vail's home county are negotiating what could become a landmark water project to benefit Eagle and metro residents while preserving the environment.

On a rainy June morning in a small conference room deep within Denver Water's headquarters, rural Eagle County has the Front Range outmanned, if only for an hour or so.

Seven men from the tony resort region face four powerful urban utility officials - two from Denver Water, one from Aurora, and one from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which serves Fort Collins, Boulder and other northern Front Range cities.

Among those at the table, in jeans and a leather vest, is Vail ski resort executive Paul Testwuide, a man who has spent much of the past 40 years fighting to keep Eagle County's water at home, available for snowmaking, condos, kayak courses and fish.

Across the frigid conference room in a starched blue shirt and tie is Dave Little, Denver Water's manager of water resource planning. He is a 23-year veteran of the agency, the man charged with ensuring that the state's largest municipal water supplier has access to water rights it claimed decades ago but has never used.

For more than a year, West Slope power brokers and their urban counterparts have gathered quietly, holding nearly a dozen such meetings.

"In the water world, it's all about negotiations," Testwuide said. "The beautiful thing about these (talks) is that we will end up knowing how much water there is in Eagle County and how it's going to be used."

They are working toward a landmark agreement to build what would become the largest cooperative water project in Colorado - Wolcott Reservoir.

The project would transform a radical not-one-more-drop Western Slope county into a sort of demilitarized water zone. It could help keep a thriving resort county lush and moist, its wilderness areas intact, its future water supplies guaranteed.

At the same time, Wolcott would bring some - not a lot, but some - new water to Denver, Aurora, Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, among others.

Rick Sackbauer, president of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, hopes Wolcott will provide enough that the Front Range will agree never to come back for more, to leave behind most of the water that dances through Gore Creek, Cross Creek, Homestake Creek and countless others.

"We want Denver out of Eagle County," Sackbauer said.

But to get Denver out, these West Slope power brokers first have to get Denver in.

Everyone at the table, including Jim Pearce, a water engineer at the Colorado River Water Conservation District, knows that Denver must be carefully courted.

"Supplies are tight in Eagle County," Pearce said. "We can get a lot more done (with Denver) than we can without them."

A water pinch
Testwuide has called Eagle County home since he started work on the Vail ski patrol in 1966. But the Vail Valley isn't the carefree place of his youth.

Like other mountain counties whose streams feed the Colorado River, Eagle is expected to double its population in the next 25 years, growing from about 43,000 to 87,000 people. Water demand here will nearly double, according to a new state study.

Where once Eagle County's idyllic towns could simply pull water from streams each day as it was needed, now there are times - in dry spells and during the winter - when those streams can't satisfy everyone's immediate thirsts. When flows drop too low, Vail and other Eagle County communities ban outdoor watering.

Testwuide and others say the county needs more storage, another bucket to capture water when stream flows are high.

"Right now I believe Vail has enough water, but when streams hit low flows, it causes a lot of public concern. Will people start to look at Eagle County as water poor and then, not as nice a place to come?" Testwuide wonders.

As Colorado wrestles with a lingering five-year drought, on this Thursday morning at Denver Water, there is some good news besides the welcome rain.

The first Wolcott feasibility study indicates the reservoir would cost about $180 million to build, depending on size. Cautiously, all the players, including Denver, say they're interested.

"To the extent this project isn't 'Denver against the world,' our board would probably be interested," Little tells the group. Everyone agrees to ante up more money to see if the project can work. Collectively, they've already spent about $100,000 on studies.

The utility owns most of the land at the reservoir site and most of the water rights that could be tapped to fill it.

Key to making the Wolcott deal go is an agreement from Denver to permanently cap the amount of water it takes from the Eagle River. It would mean leaving behind millions of acre-feet of undeveloped water rights, known as "paper water." In exchange, Denver would get a minimum of 5,000 acre-feet of usable "wet water" at Wolcott without a protracted court fight. That's enough for up to 10,000 urban households a year.

Aurora and Colorado Springs signed a similar deal in 1998.

But Denver hates the idea of abandoning any of the water it has claimed in Eagle County. "We try never to use the "A" word," Little said.

Denver Water Board members are reluctant to limit access to a potential water source.

"Personally, I hate the idea of giving up water rights," said Denver Water Board member Denise Maes. "That's our future."

It's also a lot of water - the utility's 200,000 acre-feet of undeveloped rights amounts to about two-thirds of what its 1.2 million customers use in a year.

Denver may ultimately agree to that deal but would want everyone to share in the cost of building Wolcott.

Money has become a big issue for Denver Water this year. Though it still has more than $145 million in cash reserves and the ability to borrow more, water sales have fallen as customers have cut back to cope with the drought.

"Our board knows there are water rights in Gore Creek (an Eagle River tributary) that we will have difficulty putting to use," said Denver Water Manager Chips Barry. "I'm delighted that we have really good discussions going on about what gets traded off and who benefits.

"But you know what hasn't been talked about yet? Money. Everybody thinks somebody else will pay for the construction of Wolcott Reservoir. The West Slope thinks, 'Oh, this is Denver's reservoir. They'll construct it, and we'll get some benefit.' We're saying, 'Hey, we're not getting that much benefit. Somebody else is going to have to pay.' "

Environmental concerns about sage grouse and salinity, among others, also remain. Sage grouse, which live on the site, may be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, making reservoir construction more difficult.

And farmers downstream, in Mesa County and elsewhere, worry that trapping the comparatively clean water of the Eagle River before it enters the Colorado River could make portions of the Colorado too salty to irrigate their fruit orchards.

How the public views a potential agreement could also affect what happens.

Caroline Bradford, executive director of the Eagle River Watershed Council, pushes quietly day in and day out to open up water talks that historically have occurred far from public view.

Two years ago she began running water education sessions at the Avon Public Library that attract dozens of people. And when water officials get together, however informally, she makes a point of being there.

But she wasn't aware of the June meeting in Denver, and it irks her. "I think they usually try to keep me informed," she said. "But I have to be persistent. . . . I don't think people mind not being considered experts, but we want to be part of the conversation."

By late summer, the utilities had agreed it was time to start showing the concept to the public and talking to West Slope environmental groups, farmers, ski areas and anglers.

Eyes on Eagle
For the first half of the 20th century, geography buffered Eagle County from Front Range water prospecting.

Back then, the Front Range focused on bringing water across the Continental Divide from Summit and Grand counties, which lie about 70 miles and one mountain pass west of Denver. Diversions from Eagle County, two passes and nearly 100 miles away, were harder and more expensive.

By the 1950s and 1960s, however, Denver, Aurora and Colorado Springs began seeing Eagle County as a sort of untapped water bank.

They began spending long hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars staking vast claims to the Eagle County streams that water some of Colorado's wettest and wildest places, including what are now two prized wilderness areas, Holy Cross and Eagles Nest.

In 1968, Colorado Springs and Aurora completed Homestake Reservoir, high in the headwaters of the Eagle River at the top of Homestake Creek. The project in the White River National Forest transports about 28,000 acre-feet of water across the Continental Divide each year, according to Colorado Springs Utilities.

The cities faced little opposition. Only about 5,000 people lived in Eagle County then. At the time, cities with water rights and the proper federal permits could build water projects regardless of what rural counties thought.

But during the 1970s, environmentalists and politicians began building up their defenses, led by such activists as Chuck Ogilby, a former Vail councilman and former member of the Eagle River Water Authority Board.

Ogilby helped lock up thousands of acres of key Eagle County watersheds in federal wilderness areas, first the Eagles Nest in 1976, then the Holy Cross in 1980. President Ford, a Vail resident at the time, signed the authorizing legislation.

With critical mountain watersheds suddenly classified as wilderness, water plans up and down the Front Range were thrown into disarray. Wilderness areas, after all, aren't supposed to be disturbed by anything, let alone bulldozers, pipelines and pumping stations.

But Aurora and Colorado Springs, growing fast and with far fewer water rights than the behemoth Denver Water, came back in the late 1980s to try to take a second big drink out of Eagle County. They proposed building Homestake II reservoir high in the Holy Cross Wilderness.

This time, Eagle County took up every political weapon it could muster. The county's biggest bulwark against Homestake II was a 1974 state law known as 1041 for its legislative bill number.

The law said, among other things, that counties could stop construction on projects within their boundaries.

Eagle County did just that. There would be no water projects below the Mount of the Holy Cross.

"Someone had to take a stand and draw the line on what the Front Range could do here. Homestake II was that line," said Dennis Gelvin, manager of the Eagle Valley Water and Sanitation District.

At one point, Front Range utilities sought a federal exemption that would have allowed them to tunnel under the wilderness areas. Ogilby took a delegation to Washington, D.C., and squelched the proposal.

By 1992, the courts had upheld the defeat of Homestake II, offering strong proof that Eagle County was capable of waging holy war where water was concerned.

But the county's savvy, determined power brokers didn't rest.

"The Homestake fight didn't solve any problems. It just put the conflict off for another day," Testwuide said.

He and others knew the cities would return again, thirsty as always. Almost as soon as Homestake II was defeated, Testwuide, water attorney Glenn Porzak and others insisted that all the former combatants come back to the table.

It worked.

During six years of negotiations in the 1990s, Eagle County water users, the powerful Colorado River Water Conservation District and environmentalists persuaded Colorado Springs and Aurora to give up millions of gallons of undeveloped water rights. In exchange, the cities agreed to take a much smaller amount of "wet water" from the Eagle River.

The water diversions aren't finished, though. Under that 1998 agreement, the two cities can pull as much as 20,000 acre-feet of additional water from the river, nearly double their current draw.

A mound of paper water
Denver has never sought to take any of its undeveloped water from the Eagle River Basin. That's partly because it hasn't needed those supplies and partly because the wilderness areas make extracting the water difficult.

But with Denver looking to ensure a steady supply for its growing number of customers, the utility's water rights hang like a heavy cloud over Eagle County.

Using the rights would require finalizing them in water court, where they almost certainly would be contested if county water users and environmentalists aren't happy with the Front Range.

And Eagle County has made clear no permits for new water projects will be forthcoming if Denver doesn't agree to permanently cap future diversions and if the county doesn't get some water from the deal, Porzak said.

Denver could try to develop all of its "paper" water, if it had the stomach and the cash for a big battle. But that's a big if.

"To firm up how this water is going to be used by talking is better than fighting each and every water right application in court," Testwuide said.

That talks have progressed this far still represents a sea change from the bitter, angry 1980s.

"We're building trust," said Gelvin of the Eagle water district, which supplies the majority of water to the county, along with the Upper Eagle Regional Valley Authority. "I don't know whether they trust us fully or whether we trust them fully. But I do think we've come a long way."

Suspicions still linger
As Gore Creek, frothy and white, muscles its way past Chuck Ogilby's log cabin in West Vail, the gray-haired water activist is uneasy.

"Up here, we're peanuts compared to the big boys," said the former town councilman and water board veteran. "But we have had a big voice. We've spent a lot of money shoring up our water rights and protecting the water in our streams. Bit by bit, we've made it very difficult for cities to do anything."

That urban water bureaucrats are sniffing around more frequently saddens Ogilby, a self-described, not-one-more-drop West Slope idealist.

"I know in their hearts, Eagle County people believe they're doing the right thing. And I won't fight Wolcott. But in my heart, I'm worried they're going to compromise all of our water away."

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