A view of the Placita dam and reservoir site on the upper Crystal River. The photo was taken from Highway 133 on McClure Pass. The road to Marble is just out of the bottom of the frame. The river is flowing through wetlands toward a narrow point in the valley, where a dam could potentially be built, creating a reservoir with 4,000 acre-feet of water. That's a reduction from a much larger potential dam that would have held 62,000 af of water, almost as much as Ruedi Reservoir.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The boards of the West Divide Water Conservancy District and the Colorado River District both voted unanimously last week to abandon the conditional water rights for almost 200,000 acre-feet of water storage in the Crystal River drainage, which is twice the amount of water stored in Ruedi Reservoir.

The decision takes away the long-simmering prospect, however thin, that two Ruedi-sized dams would be built on the Crystal River, including the 129,00-acre-feet Osgood Reservoir, which would have put Redstone underwater.

“It was not economical, it wasn’t politically feasible, and there certainly was not institutional or local support for such a project,” Chris Treese, the external affairs director for the Colorado River District, said about the Osgood Reservoir. “There is no support for, or frankly, desire by the staff or the River District board to flood the town of Redstone.”

The districts are walking away from most of the conditional water rights tied to what’s called the West Divide Project, which was good news to Bill Jochems, a Redstone resident who has called for the rights to be abandoned as a member of the Crystal River Caucus, the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Agency and the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board.

“The Osgood Reservoir seemed so outlandish that I don’t think it was a real palpable fear, yet there was always this possibility that future conditions might change enough so that someday it might be economic and might actually happen, so there was that haunting prospect,” Jochems said.

The action by the two districts, however, may increase the likelihood that a more feasible — and less threatening — small reservoir gets built someday on the upper Crystal River at Placita, the site of an old coal mine at the bottom of McClure Pass.

The districts voted to reduce the size of a potential Placita reservoir from 62,000 acre-feet to a 4,000-acre-foot reservoir, which is about a quarter of the size of the 16,000-acre-foot Paonia Reservoir on the other side of McClure Pass.

But Jochems didn’t think that a even smaller Placita dam and reservoir would be well-received by his fellow Crystal River Caucus members.

“I suspect a fair number will say, ‘We’ve got a free-flowing river at present and there is only one other free-flowing river of this size in the state, the Yampa,’ and so the idea of creating any reservoir on the Crystal will not be attractive to some of us,” Jochems said.

But members of the West Divide Water Conservancy District board said the day may come when residents of the Crystal River Valley see a small reservoir at Placita as a benefit, as it could store water in the spring and release it in the fall when the lower Crystal is nearly dried up from heavy irrigation diversions above Carbondale.

Samuel Potter, the chair of the West Divide district board, said the drought of 2002 did cause a severe water shortage on the Crystal River.

“Without the voluntary participation of large water users on the Crystal, it would have been a dry stream,” Potter said. “As long as you have that voluntary participation, you’re OK, but when the day comes when owners of those properties decide they are not going to voluntarily give up their water rights to make somebody happy that the Crystal’s got water in it, then people will come to West Divide or the River District and say ‘We need another solution to this problem.’”

Bruce Wampler, a West Divide board member, also stressed that the West Divide district builds water projects only in response to local needs and requests.

“We’re not going to sit around here and say, ‘Ah well, we have nothing better to do, let’s go build the Placita Reservoir,’” Wampler said. “We’re going to respond when people come and start saying, ‘You need to fix the late summer flow problem in the Crystal. You’ve really got to do something about it, it’s gotten so bad.’ We’re not going to do anything until that happens, or until there is a demonstrated demand.”

And another West Divide board member, Dan Harrison, pointed out that the districts do plan on maintaining the water rights for a hydropower facility at the smaller Placita Reservoir. The plant would be powered by 150 cubic feet per second of water, which is nearly three times the amount of water proposed for a new hydropower facility in Aspen.

“The uses there could include supplementing the flows in the river, depending on what the future brings, and also help with the electric power generation up there,” Harrison said. “All those things would be dependent on how the area grows and the character of the area.”


Public comments on how to manage water in the Crystal River from the board of directors of the West Divide Water Conservancy District are rare, despite the fact that the organization has held a large portfolio of conditional water rights on the river for more than 50 years.

The district, which levies taxes on property north of the Crystal River and south of the Colorado River, is rarely in the public eye. Until last week, no board member had ever seen a reporter at one of the meetings in the organization’s small office in Rifle.

Kelly Couey, the vice president of the West Divide district’s board, said some press coverage of the district’s conditional water rights definitely caught his attention.


“The one that just always made the hair on my neck stand up was when they’re talking about us flooding Redstone,” Couey said. “I don’t think there is anybody on the board who ever thought we would flood Redstone — on our board or the River District board. But you read that kind of stuff and boy that gets people all up on the hype and everything, but the actuality of it was that nobody was ever considering flooding Redstone. That water right was placed there, but it could have been moved up or moved down. But you read some of those articles and you reach up on your head to see where the little horns are.”

Jochems, looking at the issue from the other side of the river, also thought the coverage of the upcoming diligence filing helped shaped the districts’ decisions.

“For years, this has gone through its every-six-year diligence filings without much noise being made by any opponents,” Jochems said.

But this time around, the Crystal River Caucus and the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association were urging Pitkin County’s new Healthy Rivers and Streams Board to actively oppose the diligence on the districts’ water rights, which is required to be submitted to the state water court in Glenwood Springs in May.

“Couple that with the publicity, the best feature being your lengthy article (in the Aspen Daily News), and for the first time these boards are realizing ‘Hey, there is substantial opposition and these folks are making noise,’ and it forced them to really seriously think about it,” Jochems said.

Couey, who left his muddy boots by the door and was checking voicemails about a sick calf during Thursday’s West Divide board meeting, said the district had practical concerns about defending the conditional water rights tied to the large dams on the Crystal.

“The cost to maintain the rights was appearing to be more than what it was worth for this board to keep pursuing,” he said. “Our tax dollars that we collect for this board would be better spent developing small projects than in fighting to do a large one.”

The decision by the water districts would also allow for another potential small dam in the Crystal River watershed, as the districts plan to retain the right to build a 5,000-acre-foot reservoir on Yank Creek, which is off of Thompson Creek, which in turn flows into the Crystal above Carbondale. The original Yank Creek Reservoir was planned to hold 13,700 acre-feet of water.

Another significant result of the boards’ decisions is that water from the Crystal River will likely never be diverted and transported to the dry mesas south of Silt and Rifle, a scheme that was first registered with the state water engineer in 1909.

“One of the things that was envisioned in the original West Divide Project was bringing water into a very water-short area, from Divide Creek all the way down to Parachute and beyond, to irrigate lands that were short of water, particularly in dry years, but almost in all years,” said Potter, the chair of the West Divide board. “The tributaries that flow into the Colorado on the south side of the river are all over-appropriated and generally around July … a lot of the more junior rights adjudicated on those creeks are out of priority. And the West Divide Project was envisioned to remedy that situation.”

But Potter conceded the idea of bringing Crystal River water to the dry side of the hill seems to have finally run its course.

“It’s a change in atmosphere, the local economics of things, how people view reclamation projects and water storage projects, and so forth,” Potter said. “I don’t know whether it is appropriate or not, only time will tell, depending on what our climate situation does and what demands evolve in this area for water.”

Editor’s note: This story also appeared in the Aspen Daily News and a version was also broadcast on KDNK.

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...