HOMESTAKE CREEK — A hundred miles from Colorado’s Front Range house-building boom, field scientist Delia Malone dug her fingers into spongy high-mountain wetlands at the edge of the Holy Cross Wilderness.
She found, about 15 inches underground, partially decayed roots, twigs and the cold moisture of a fen. These structures form over thousands of years and store water that seeps down from melting snow.
Malone has been digging about 20 holes a day, surveying fens for the U.S. Forest Service, to better understand nature’s water-storage systems — which sustain vegetation and stream flows that 40 million people across the Colorado River Basin rely on in the face of increasing aridity.
Aurora and Colorado Springs are planning to flood these wetland fens and replace natural storage with a man-made system: a $500 million dam and a reservoir that may require changing wilderness boundaries.
The cities each own rights to 10,000 acre-feet a year of the water that flows out of the wilderness and would pump what the reservoir traps, minus evaporation, through tunnels under mountains to other reservoirs and, finally, to pipes that deliver steady flows from urban faucets, toilets, showers and sprinkler systems.
“The natural processes that enable water storage are more efficient in a changing climate,” Malone said. “Think of our mountains as big towers of water. Why would you want to destroy that natural storage system?”
Three decades after the federal government killed the proposed $1 billion Two Forks Dam project along the South Platte River southwest of Denver, Front Range cities again are taking first steps toward moving more water across mountains. Their reservoir partially inside the Holy Cross Wilderness, between Leadville and Minturn, would sacrifice natural processes for the purpose of sustaining population growth and a development boom — harnessing nature to slake human thirsts.
City officials say continued urban growth depends on moving more water. But their first steps, starting with seismic investigations this fall, have hit turbulence.
Fens play a key role ensuring that streams and rivers still flow after winter snow melts. And as climate warming leads to earlier melting and depletes surface water in the Colorado River, natural wetlands increasingly are seen as essential to help life hang on. The benefits stood out this summer as the West endured record heat, wildfires and drought.
Environmental groups led by Colorado Headwaters, the Sierra Club, Save the Colorado and WildEarth Guardians strongly oppose the dam and reservoir.
Yet Front Range developers’ desire for more water is intensifying. Across the mountains at construction sites on high dusty plains, roads and power lines have been installed, heavy dirt-movers beep and carpenters thwack atop roofs.
Local governments already have approved permits allowing house-building at a pace that in some areas is projected to nearly double water consumption.
Colorado Springs officials issued 3,982 permits for new single family homes last year, 18% higher than the average over the previous five years, according to data provided to The Denver Post. They estimated the current population around 476,000 will reach 723,000 “at build-out” around 2070. This requires 136,000 to 159,000 acre-feet of water a year, city projections show, up from 70,766 acre-feet in 2019.
Aurora officials estimated their population of 380,000 will reach 573,986 by 2050. They’ve approved entire new communities, such as the 620-acre Painted Prairie with more than 3,100 housing units in the “aerotropolis” that Denver leaders have promoted near Denver International Airport, and projected current water consumption of 49,811 acre-feet a year will increase to 85,000 acre-feet and even as much as 130,158 acre-feet in a high-growth, rapid-warming scenario.
Delivering Colorado Springs’ share from the Holy Cross Wilderness “is absolutely important. What we’re looking for is a balanced portfolio of water supply options,” said Pat Wells, water manager for Colorado Springs Utilities, which diverts water from as far as 150 miles and relies on Colorado River Basin sources for 70% of city supplies.
Whether elected leaders should approve new development given water challenges “is a good question, something that water supply managers are always considering,” Wells said. “Should we be factoring in water supply considerations in land-use approvals?”
To make a new dam and reservoir more palatable, the cities are exploring unprecedented “mitigation” of digging up and physically removing the underground fens, then hauling them and transplanting them elsewhere to restore damaged wetlands. An experiment on a ranch south of Leadville, officials said, is proving that this could help offset losses of Homestake Creek wetlands.
This would challenge a federal policy laid out in 1999 at Interior Department regional headquarters in Denver that classifies fens as “irreplaceable.” The policy says “onsite or in-kind replacement of peat wetlands is not thought possible” and that “concentrated efforts will be made to encourage relocation of proposed reservoirs… that might impact fens, when practicable.”
Covered by grasses and shrubs, water-laden fens blanket the Homestake Valley — wetlands filled with porous peat soils that receive minerals and nutrients in groundwater. Moving such wetlands, if attempted, would require massive hauling of soil blocks combined with the delicate precision of an organ transplant to retain ecological functioning.
“We’re looking at what is possible,” said Aurora Water Manager Marshall Brown, who testified in Congress about the reservoir last year.
This push for more mountain water “is related to growth,” Brown said in an interview. “Colorado is dealing with a lot of people who want to move to Colorado. Most of the cities are growing, dealing with trends associated with growth. It’s a popular state, with popular cities. We’re all struggling with how we deal with the growth that is coming our way.
“Cities are going to have to look to develop additional water supplies. The water in Colorado is primarily on the Western Slope. … For eastern slope growth to be supported, some of the water has and will continue to need to come from where the water supplies originate on the Western Slope.”
Tapping wilderness water
When Congress in 1980 established the Holy Cross Wilderness, lawmakers included provisions allowing Colorado Springs, Aurora, the Climax Mine, Vail Resorts, Eagle Valley authorities and others in western Colorado to tap a total of 30,000 acre-feet of water a year. A first dam on Homestake Creek, built in 1968, already had reduced flows and natural fluctuations.
Now U.S. Forest Service officials must decide whether to grant a special-use permit allowing Aurora and Colorado Springs to conduct geologic testing along Homestake Creek — a first step, without the participation of Vail and Eagle Valley water suppliers. Forest managers decided against a full environmental review for this proposed testing, saying bore holes drilled in forests qualify for a “categorical exemption” of the sort frequently granted for fossil fuel drilling and road work in forests.
American Rivers and Trout Unlimited raised concerns about the lack of scrutiny.
“The Front Range municipalities need to realize that there’s no more reliable water supply available from the West Slope and Colorado River Basin. And that was true before the impacts on water from climate change were really incorporated in our thinking,” American Rivers’ Colorado projects director Ken Neubecker said. “A large new reservoir would be pretty devastating.”
Colorado’s state-generated water plan lists dozens of potential new water supply projects, including this effort to tap Eagle River headwaters along Homestake Creek — for which collaborative consultations are encouraged.
Gov. Jared Polis recently said he opposes trans-basin diversions of water in general. But Polis has declined to take a position on this specific effort. “Projects of this kind are complex, often take years to develop and require a thorough review and understanding of their impacts, so it is not something we can weigh in on at this juncture,” Polis press secretary Conor Cahill said.
But Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, who represents seven counties across western Colorado and chairs state lawmakers’ Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, adamantly rejects the project, even feasibility testing, she said in an interview at her cattle ranch. “I will fight this down to my last breath,” Donovan said.
Harnessing nature for growth
Colorado historically has sacrificed nature to enable growth and development. The population has nearly doubled since 1980 to 5.8 million. Front Range cities and farmers annually siphon more than 500,000 acre-feet of water (1 acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons) from rivers in western Colorado, redirecting Pacific-bound flows eastward through tunnels under the Continental Divide.
Over the past decade, the economy has shifted away from resources extraction toward high-tech innovation and a booming recreation and tourism industry — built by touting pristine unaltered nature.
Dams and reservoirs, once routinely pursued to enable growth in the arid West (there are an estimated 37,000 dams west of the Mississippi River), increasingly aren’t built due to the destruction dams cause in wetlands and wildlife habitat.
Colorado’s last major water projects were done in the southwestern corner of the state. The McPhee dam and reservoir on the Dolores River was completed in 1985. The Animas-La Plata dam and reservoir, authorized by Congress in 1968, was completed in 2011.
Denver Water devoted 17 years to seeking permits before receiving final federal approval in July to enlarge the existing Gross Reservoir west of Boulder, by raising the dam 131 feet — a project that when completed would enable storage of more water diverted out of the Colorado River Basin.
When the Environmental Protection Agency in 1990 killed Front Range cities’ proposed Two Forks Dam, officials cited “unacceptable environmental damage.” That reservoir would have met urban water demands for decades, and city officials warned they’d be hard-pressed to sustain more people.
But Aurora adapted by building a $653 million water treatment plant that uses filters, chemicals and more than 9,000 ultraviolet light bulbs to purify and recycle up to 50 million gallons a day. Local governments between Denver and Castle Rock turned to pumping of underground water from aquifers to sustain growth. Those aquifers no longer produce water as easily. (A state study found water tables fell by up to 16 feet since 2008.) Castle Rock has tapped aquifers for up to 70% of its water.
And conservation made huge gains, with urban water use decreasing from an average around 120 gallons per person a day to as low as 76 gallons in Colorado Springs, according to utility data. (Agriculture requires 85% of water supplies in Colorado and cities are looking at farms, too, as a source to enable more growth and development.)
Wildlife and wilderness
The Holy Cross Wilderness covers 122,797 acres around the 14,006-foot Mount of the Holy Cross, where snow in crevices forms a crucifix. Bears, deer, elk, lynx, beaver, ducks, fish and myriad other species — some rare and endangered — inhabit the area.
While wetlands cover about 2% of the West, ecologists have determined that 80% of species require wetlands habitat. And these include species such as deer and elk that in parts of Colorado are declining.
Colorado Headwaters president Jerry Mallett, joining Malone along Homestake Creek recently, said building a dam and reservoir would be ruinous for fish and wildlife and would violate wilderness protections that many Americans hold sacred.
“This is a train wreck. Much of our country is shifting toward recycling and re-using water, because that’s cheaper and we increasingly have water treatment facilities in place. And, will Colorado Springs and Aurora outgrow this water in 25 or 30 years?
“They’re probably going to want to continue to grow. This project is not going to solve their problem,” Mallett said. “And now we’ve got the recreation industry. If the cities want to continue to build, great. But find another way to do it. They have to look at that. If you grow, you’ll get more concentrations of traffic, poor air quality, crime. It’s up to them. But they cannot take our resources, which we depend on. Look at our $60 billion recreation industry.”
A fundamental battle over how tightly to harness nature has begun. Water providers argue that, with climate warming, increased “variability” and uncertainty requires construction of more reservoirs to capture mountain snow runoff during wet years. It’s unclear how much more water urban residents will conserve in maintaining habitable cities.
Opposing all new dams and reservoirs, Save the Colorado director Gary Wockner counters that an ideology of “growth-ism” pervades government and is driving the destruction of nature.
Colorado Springs, Aurora and possible Western Slope partners pushing for a reservoir reflects the grip of growth-ism that is “eviscerating the soul of the natural and cultural history of our state,” Wockner said.
Some environmental groups are preparing for legal combat should the cities seek required state, county and federal permits. Others haven’t weighed in. Conservation Colorado leaders declined to comment on this water push.
Transplanting fens as mitigation to try to restore wetlands elsewhere “for our convenience” is impossible, WildEarth Guardians attorney Jen Pelz said. “Fens and other sensitive high-elevation wetlands are quite beautiful and mysterious, more art than science, not something we can re-engineer.”
Dams and diversions proposed in recent years around the West “are just as destructive as those built a century ago, and building dams today is actually more irresponsible because we know that dams disconnect aquatic and riparian habitat, cause species extinction, disrupt ecosystem function, dry rivers and harm native cultures and communities,” she said.
“We need to start removing dams, not building more. This project is one of many where water managers are looking to cash in on their undeveloped rights or entitlements at the expense of people and the environment. … It’s time to draw a line in the sand.”
Public concerns about wetlands
It falls to the U.S. Forest Service to determine whether a dam and reservoir project will advance.
A decision is expected before fall on whether Colorado Springs and Aurora can begin testing potential dam sites along Homestake Creek. If the testing shows that building a dam and reservoir would be feasible, the cities then would prepare a formal proposal.
The size of the reservoir hasn’t been set. City officials said storage between 6,000 and 20,000 acre-feet could suffice for catching surplus flows — their water rights priority date is 1952, relatively junior in Colorado’s allocation system — which could be pumped through existing tunnels to larger reservoirs near Leadville and in South Park. (Aurora plans to construct a new reservoir to store 96,000 acre-feet of water southeast of Fairplay.)
Forest managers said they received more than 700 comments from Colorado residents, many opposed to building a dam and reservoir. Among those, Dr. Warren Hern, 82, recalled fishing along the creek in the wetlands as a boy with his father starting in 1948. The first Homestake dam hadn’t been built. It was a wilder place with water cascading unpredictably from a glacial tundra cirque. In 1982, Hern helped organize the Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund that teamed with the Sierra Club to fend off city efforts to install a second reservoir.
“This place is my spiritual home,” Hern said in an interview. “So beautiful. So peaceful. I became attached to this place.”
Forest managers were reviewing all comments, said Marcia Gillies, deputy district ranger in the White River National Forest’s Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District. “There are public concerns about these fens and wetlands,” she said.
“They are spongy, grassy, swampy peat bogs, and when you step on them it is almost like stepping on a water bed. It moves under your feet. They’re definitely unique. No doubt about that. And once they are destroyed, they cannot easily be restored because they take thousands of years to develop,” Gillies said.
But the decision to be made won’t address the issue of whether to build a dam and reservoir. It will focus only on the cities’ request to conduct geo-technical testing, frequently allowed in forests.
The cities have proposed to drill 10 bore holes, 150 feet deep. Their contractors would minimize impact by using rubber-tracked vehicles, she said. And they would drill the holes away from fens just for the purpose of assessing the bedrock below.