Climate Change, Water, and Population Growth in Colorado: Homestake Creek Geotechnical Proposal

Field scientist Delia Malone stands by a beaver pond near Homestake Creek, at the edge of Colorado’s Holy Cross Wilderness, on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. (Daniel Brenner, Special to The Denver Post)

Here’s an interesting article from the Denver Post with the Forest Service in the middle of a larger issue. There is a tension between climate change adaptation (may need more water due to drought) and not building (and removing current) dams. There is a bit of a mantra that “leaving things alone is necessary to stave off the worst impacts of climate change” but examples such as this tell us it may not be that simple (and fuel treatments and prescribed burns, and probably a host of others).

A few things that might be misleading in the article.. thanks to the FS folks for helping me find more accurate information.

(1) Delia Malone is not working with or on behalf of the Forest Service as stated in the article. She’s a member of a local Sierra Club chapter.

(2) There is a categorical exclusion on the geotechnical proposal, which is available here Note: there aren’t “categorical exemptions.”

(3) There is currently no proposal for a dam or a reservoir, just the current proposal to investigate whether the site would be suitable geologically. The White River would, of course do an extensive NEPA analysis with multiple opportunities for public review if they were to receive a proposal for a reservoir.

Excerpts from the story..

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.

……

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.

Does this remind anyone of Governor Tom McCall’s comment about Oregon in 1971 (50 years ago now) “come to visit, but for heaven’s sakes don’t stay?”

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.”

Anyway, I’m agnostic on this particular dam (which may not be geologically feasible anyway) but it’s reflective of a water/climate/population conundrum.

5 thoughts on “Climate Change, Water, and Population Growth in Colorado: Homestake Creek Geotechnical Proposal”

  1. Hey Sharon,

    Wilderness Workshop and other groups submitted comments on this one – see https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public/Letter/2533749?project=58221 – as did a number of the mountain towns. There is a real segmentation issue here in the NEPA context. That is, the dam proponents saying “we’re just looking, we have no concrete plans for a dam,” when they are only exploring the geology b/c they want to build a dam. If some of the impacts of a dam are foreseeable, they should be disclosed.

    Further, there is a strong argument that building dams (especially ones that swamp designated wilderness) is only one climate adaptation to drought, and perhaps not the best one. There are still gains to be made in efficient use of water and in landscaping (kill that lawn!).

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  2. “It falls to the U.S. Forest Service to determine whether a dam and reservoir project will advance.”

    Yes, that’s because the proponents have narrowed the purpose and need to building a dam. It sounds like, if the purpose is really to find domestic water for more people, then there is a range of other alternatives that don’t include building a dam on the national forest, and they all ought to be seriously investigated (and disclosed in accordance with NEPA). But our laws don’t deal adequately with this multi-jurisdictional kind of question. However, as part of its special use permit process, the Forest Service should be asking about alternatives that don’t require the use of federal lands.

    Personally, I think this question needs to be answered first (in the affirmative): 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?” Similar to floodplains and areas of high fire risk, we have to decide there are places we shouldn’t live. But that’s not the message that local governments have ever wanted to send.

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  3. First, neither I nor the DP articles states that “I was working with or on behalf of the Forest Service”. What the DP article states and that I did say, and what is true is that I have ” been digging about 20 holes a day, surveying fens for the U.S. Forest Service”. While it is true that I am a (proud) volunteer member and Wildlife Chair for the Colorado Chapter of the Sierra Club, I am also an ecologist who has been conducting riparian and wetland surveys for a couple of decades.

    Re the comment about Sarah Conner – I had to google that – I don’t have much interest in watching TV – but thanks for the presumed compliment.

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