Proposed Uncompahgre basin project is a complicated solution to shortages
Ouray County Water Users Association and others are hoping to satisfy upstream water shortages with a project designed to satisfy downstream calls. The Ram’s Horn Reservoir, proposed for the headwaters of Cow Creek, a pipeline and a complex exchange would store water for the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association. The idea is that when this downstream senior user places a call, the water could be released from Ram’s Horn and Ridgway reservoirs so that junior users — like the Ouray County Water Users — could continue using their own water. Yes, it’s complicated.
But the three-pronged project is facing opposition from state agencies who say impounding and moving water around could cause impacts to fish as well as the state’s instream flow water rights for environmental purposes. According to temperature data from Colorado Parks & Wildlife, temperatures in Cow Creek already exceed a state standard for trout. Taking more water from the stream would likely increase temperatures even more and cause fish mortality. Division Engineer Bob Hurford also recommended denial of the exchange portion of the application, which he said has to be more precisely dialed-in.
Ram’s Horn Reservoir, which would hold 25,000 acre-feet, is part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Dallas Creek Project from the 1950s. The project calls for five reservoirs in the upper Uncompahgre River basin. Ridgway Reservoir is the only one of the five that has been built. There are many such potential water projects throughout Colorado that have conditional water rights and are just waiting for the water rights holders to go through water court to get their plans approved and build the projects.
The Ram’s Horn/Cow Creek project underscores the tendency of Colorado water managers to turn to expanding or creating new storage as one of the first solutions to water shortages. Ouray County Water Users Association attorney Marti Whitmore — who also serves on the board of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, another of the project applicants — is a proponent of more storage in the upper Uncompahgre River basin. She says fish flows are important and they are working to create a project that is a win-win for everyone.
The opposition covered in this week’s story are just a few of the many issues associated with this project. In addition to the state of Colorado, there are other high-profile opposers, including conservation group Western Resource Advocates and the billionaire fashion-designer-turned-Ouray-County-rancher Ralph Lauren. Aspen Journalism will continue covering the twists and turns of this project as it makes its way through water court.
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By Heather Sackett | August 30, 2021
The goal of the project is to prevent the UVWUA — one of the big senior water rights holders in the Gunnison River basin — from placing a call on the river.
By Laurine Lassalle | September 3, 2021
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