Investigative drilling near Holy Cross Wilderness threatens imperiled species, NOI filed

The investigative drilling proposed along Homestake Creek in Eagle County, Colorado could dewater and destroy valuable wetlands. Photo by Marjorie Westermann.

Readers of The Smokey Wire may recall that Sharon posted about this project last November. You can check out that post and discussion/debate here. Below is the latest development.

—To safeguard irreplaceable wetlands and imperiled species in the headwaters of the Colorado River, a coalition of conservation groups today warned the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that they will file a lawsuit in federal court if the agencies do not complete a comprehensive analysis of the effects of the planned and permitted geotechnical investigation on the greenback cutthroat trout and Canada lynx.

The Forest Service issued a special use permit for the Whitney Creek Geotechnical project on March 22, 2021. The feasibility assessment is the first step by the Cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora to build another large dam and reservoir in the Homestake Valley in the White River National Forest for diversion out of the Colorado River Basin to the Front Range.

“Nature’s bank account is severely overdrawn due to climate change and unsustainable use,” said Jen Pelz, the Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “The solution is not to build a bigger bank, but to conserve water, protect land and wildlife, and start living within the river’s means.”

The letter sent by WildEarth Guardians, Colorado Headwaters, Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund, Save the Colorado, the Colorado Chapter of the Sierra Club, and Wilderness Workshop details how the agencies failed to consider the effects of the investigative drilling, as well as the forthcoming dam and reservoir project, on listed species in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Listed species identified that exist in or downstream of the project include the threatened Canada lynx, Greenback cutthroat trout, and Ute Ladies’-tresses orchid, and the endangered bonytail chub, Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, and razorback sucker.

“After reviewing the record it’s clear that the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act. The real impacts to listed species, including lynx and cutthroat trout, haven’t been adequately considered or disclosed,” said Peter Hart, Staff Attorney at Wilderness Workshop. “Today’s letter puts the agencies on notice of the violations we’ve identified; they now have 60 days to respond. If the issues we’ve raised remain unresolved, we could pursue a legal challenge in federal court.”

In addition to the harm to imperiled species detailed in the notice letter, the investigative drilling proposed along Homestake Creek in Eagle County, Colorado could drain and destroy valuable wetlands. Further, the exploration will lay the foundation for a destructive reservoir that would inundate hundreds of acres in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area while stealing more water from the Colorado River to the thirsty front range for use by the Cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora.

The groups urge the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the effects of the geotechnical investigation and related activities on threatened and endangered species as required by the Endangered Species Act before any investigatory drilling or other activities are undertaken in the Homestake Valley. If the agencies fail to do so, the groups will file a lawsuit in federal court after the 60-day notice period is complete.

“Colorado has not seen a transmountain diversion in 45 years. With climate change and the Colorado River losing 1% of flows each year, the Aurora and Colorado Springs’ Homestake project will never be built,” said Jerry Mallett, President of Colorado Headwaters

“Not one drop, not one,” said Gary Wockner of Save The Colorado. “Buckle up, because we will fight to stop this proposed new Colorado River dam and diversion project for as long and as hard as it takes.” Gary Wockner, Executive Director, Save The Colorado

“It is unfortunate that the U.S. Forest Service has chosen to facilitate the construction of a dam near a wilderness area in order to transfer yet more water from the West Slope to cities in the Front Range. The proposed dam and reservoir would drown wetlands and riparian habitat, which are naturally rare in the arid west comprising just 2 percent of the landscape,” explained Ramesh Bhatt, Chair, Conservation Committee of the Colorado Sierra Club. “Despite their rarity, wetland ecosystems are needed by greater than 80 percent of our native wildlife during some phase of their life cycle. Building this dam would be another devastating blow to Colorado’s biodiversity, which is already in crisis. This action by the Forest Service is not only contrary to its mandate to protect natural areas but is also illegal because the Service chose to cut corners to make its decision.”

“The proposed Whitney Creek project starting with destructive drilling of the irreplaceable Homestake Creek wetlands is an environmental atrocity and must be abandoned. The permit for drilling must be revoked. It is premised on several fallacies: that it will not damage the wetlands, that it will determine that there is no geologic reason not to build the proposed Whitney Creek Reservoir, and that the reservoir will be built. None of these things are true,” said Warren M. Hern, Chairman, of Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund. “The permit assumes that Congress will approve a loss of 500 acres from the Holy Cross Wilderness, which we will oppose, which the public will oppose, and which will not be approved by the Congress.  Aside from irrevocable destruction of the Homestake Creek wetlands at and downstream from the proposed reservoir, the proposed reservoir is placed over a major geological fault, the Rio Grande Rift, which is a tectonic divergent plate boundary. Placing a reservoir at this site is pure madness and terminal stupidity. It would endanger the lives of those living downstream.  We will oppose it by every legal means available.”

3 thoughts on “Investigative drilling near Holy Cross Wilderness threatens imperiled species, NOI filed”

  1. It would be interesting to read an impartial analysis of this proposed project.

    ” ‘Not one drop’ ” isn’t particularly informative.

  2. Another one of these…
    the issue is really between the ENGO’s (environmental NGO’s) and the cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora and their legal rights. Another case where the Forest Service ends up in the middle of basically a legal problem. Another 40 pages of lynx, trout or chub analysis isn’t going to help that. Also I have never seen why they shouldn’t separate the decisions. It seems like that is usually done for exploration, but this sounds like they’re doing both at the same time? It’s a little confusing.

    What I like about this is that basically the spokespeople say that they don’t want the reservoir and litigation is the means to that end. No shilly-shallying about .. “if only the FS analyzed it properly, we’d be fine.”

    If my memory serves me correctly, Long Draw reservoir expansion went on for some years and at the end of the day a deal was done with TU. IMHO the NEPA should be done by contractors funded by the proponent (with FS oversight of course) from the get-go. At that point (before decision) the FS could just say… you two work it out and tell us. Lawyers, $, ideas change hands, and as long as the FS doesn’t find anything legally or ecologically reprehensible by a review of the agreed upon conditions, they’d put that into the ROD. End of story. More time for the poor White River to handle its millions of visitors, and other work that no one else can do.

    • It seems at least possible that a thorough analysis of how much water these at-risk fish need might find that, in order for the Forest Service to meet its ESA/NFMA requirements for instream flow (see natural range of variation), the amount of removable water projected under future climate conditions won’t justify cost of the project and its other effects.


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