By David O. Williams
It was 1952 when the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs began to engulf water rights in a remote high mountain valley on the western slope of the state. The valley is called Homestake, and now those same towns want even more of its pure water.
In western Colorado, where only about 20% of Colorado’s population lives, all the water tries to flow to the Pacific Ocean. On the east side, where most people live, the water flows into the Atlantic. Getting water from the west side to the east side of the Rockies takes a lot of money and a lot of pipelines.
But money isn’t much of a barrier when your population is exploding: Colorado Springs, with 478,961, and Aurora, with 386,261, need more water. And they aim to get it even if it has to cross under the Continental Divide and damage a fragile, ancient wetland called “fen” in the process.
The new reservoir the two cities plan to build would be five miles downstream of their existing Homestake Reservoir, and called Whitney Reservoir after a creek that flows into Homestake Creek. There is also a Whitney Park in the nearby Holy Cross Wilderness Area, which could lose around 500 acres if the new reservoir passes.
But protesters are already active and conservation groups are threatening legal action. Meanwhile, cities have already quietly started test drilling at four possible dam sites on US Forest Service lands along Homestake Creek.
However, obstacles arise. The Forest Service says it won’t even consider a reservoir proposal that shrinks an area of ââwilderness, and cities are expected to get that approval from Congress and the White House.
District congressman rising Democratic star Joe Neguse has also made it clear that he does not support the reduction of a designated wilderness area or damage to wetlands. Local leaders are also stepping in: âA Whitney Reservoir would change and irreparably harm our community,â said Minturn Mayor John Widerman and Red Cliff Mayor Duke Gerber, who co-wrote a letter to the Forest Service. Both represent small towns dependent on tourism and outdoor recreation.
State Senator Kerry Donovan, a Democrat who grew up in the nearby ski town of Vail, also wrote to the Forest Service to oppose the dam: âI cannot express how the citizens of my district oppose plans to divert water to Front Range communities. “
Another problem, and for some it is the most critical, is the fate of the wetlands of âfenâ value which would be destroyed by a dam and a reservoir. âThis is one of the most beautiful wetlands we can find on our forest – it’s amazing,â Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest, told Aspen Journalism in 2019. âYou can mitigate it. , but you can’t replace 10,000 years of work. “
You also can’t go back to 1952, when Colorado’s population was 1.36 million, up from 5.7 million today, and the global land and ocean temperature was 1.52 degrees. Fahrenheit cooler. Scientists say climate change will cause the Colorado River to lose up to 31% of its historic flow by 2052. This prediction was a factor in a recent and first-ever federal declaration of water scarcity.
âWhen Colorado Springs and Aurora got their water properly, the [Holy Cross] wilderness didn’t exist and wetlands back then were something we were just filling in, âsaid Jerry Mallett, president of the local Colorado Headwaters conservation group. “Since then (wetlands) have become an extremely valuable resource because of what they can do for groundwater recharge, tackling climate change – all kinds of things.”
Then there’s the matter of Kentucky bluegrass, the ground cover of choice for Colorado landscaping. Kentucky gets over 50 inches of rain per year compared to the Front Range average of 17, so why pump high elevation water from western Colorado through the Rockies to lawns?
Colorado photographer and conservationist John Fielder, who says he’s been all over the nearly 123,000-acre Holy Cross wilderness area, wants people to just look at his images of the swamps along Homestake Creek, then these questions arise:
âIs there anything more sublime, fertile and invigorating than a swampy bog 10,000 years or more? You cannot âmitigateâ the loss of old wetlands by creating a man-made wetland elsewhere. More water at the Front Range.
David O. Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to sparking a lively conversation about the West. He is a freelance writer and reporter, realvail.com, who lives near Vail, Colorado.