Six different parties have now filed statements of opposition in state water court against the Colorado River District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District, which are seeking to solidify their rights to someday build a dam on the upper Crystal River.

The two water districts are asking a judge to grant a conditional water right to dam the Crystal River at Placita, an old town site along Highway 133 just below McClure Pass.

The dam would create a 4,000 acre-foot reservoir and allow for the installation of a hydropower plant fueled by 150 cubic-feet-per-second of flowing water.

Pitkin County, the Crystal River Caucus, the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association, American Rivers and Trout Unlimited are all opposing the districts’ efforts.

Also in opposition is Paul Durrett of Glenwood Springs, who goes by his middle name of Gregory. He served on the board of the West Divide Water Conservancy District for 16 years, starting in the 1970s.

“The Placita Power Plant and Placita Reservoir fills no need in the Crystal River drainage by any credible water user,” Durrett told the court in a hand-written legal filing. “This application is a ploy to retain some interest in the Crystal River and continue the falsehood that the taxpayers in the Crystal and Roaring Fork River drainages have anything to gain from the continued taxation by the WDWCD.”

The conditional water rights tied to the West Divide Project date back to 1958.

In the mid-1960s, Congress authorized, but did not fund, a diversion system to take water from the Crystal River and send it across miles of hillside, or through a tunnel, to the dry mesas to the south of I-70 between New Castle and West Rifle.

The project included two large dams and reservoirs on the Crystal, one at Redstone and one at Placita, where the Crystal River today winds through a series of flat wetland areas.

The West Divide Water Conservancy District was originally formed to manage the project’s conditional water rights. It has taxing power and its members are appointed by a district court water judge.

The conditional water rights for the West Divide Project are currently controlled by the two water districts. The rights are conditional until the water is actually being diverted.

The West Divide board and the River District board voted in April to abandon the majority of the conditional water rights on the West Divide Project, but reaffirmed their intent to build a smaller dam at Placita that would still back up 4,000 acre-feet of water.

They also want to preserve the right build a dam on Yank Creek, a tributary of North Thompson Creek above Carbondale. That dam would create a reservoir big enough to hold 5,000 acre-feet.

None of the statements of opposition mentioned the Yank Creek Reservoir.

Holders of conditional water rights are required to file a diligence application with water court, which is a division of the state’s district court system.

The diligence filing, which is now Case No. 2011CW93, is meant to convince a judge that the owners of the conditional water rights are working to divert water and put it to beneficial use under Colorado water law. (It includes a lengthy attached exhibit).

The opponents

The filing has now brought opposition from one old foe of the idea of dams on the free-flowing Crystal River, the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association, which was formed in the 1970s to fight the Placita and Redstone dams.

In a review of the West Divide Project in the early 1980s, a BLM report said the environmental association had helped keep the project on the shelf.

Bill Jochems, the chair of Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association, told the court that “from its [CVEPA’s] beginning, one of the paramount goals of the organization has been to maintain the Crystal River as a free-flowing stream. Thus, CVEPA opposes any dam on the Crystal River.”

The Crystal River Caucus, which is a citizen’s advisory board to Pitkin County, has also been vocal in the past about its opposition to damming the Crystal River. The group’s statement of opposition was signed by the chair of the caucus, biologist Dee Malone of Redstone.

“Among the reasons given for opposing these structures was destruction of the highest quality riparian, in-stream and wetland habitats in the lower Crystal watershed as determined by a recent watershed wide survey,” Malone wrote. “Furthermore, members of the caucus were concerned about the interruption of normal stream flow dynamics including the resulting habitat rejuvenation by spring floods.”

For their part, American Rivers and Trout Unlimited did not offer specific reasons for their opposition to the districts’ diligence filing.

Both of the national organizations did tell the court, however, that applicants for conditional water rights must be held to strict proof of each element of their claims, and that the applications must prove that they “can and will” divert the water and put it to beneficial use.

Pitkin County, which has a seat on the Colorado River District board, had signaled its intention to oppose the conditional water rights earlier this year, as the county’s attorney, John Ely, sits on the River District Board.

Pitkin County’s water attorneys told the court in their statement of opposition that “Pitkin County owns numerous surface water rights, water storage rights, and groundwater rights in the Roaring Fork River basin that may be materially injured by the granting of the application unless any decree entered herein contains adequate limitations and protective terms and conditions.”

The Crystal River flows into the Roaring Fork River in Carbondale.

The Colorado River District, which has taken the lead in preparing the diligence filing, had no formal response to the six statements of opposition filed on July 28, according to Jim Pokrandt, communications manager for the district.

The districts did issue a short joint statement in late July after the Pitkin County commissioners voted to file a statement of opposition, saying that “we will respond at an appropriate time.”

The Colorado River and West Divide districts have made a case to the court that they have been working diligently on specific aspects of the West Divide project, as well as other issues connected to the Colorado River watershed.

“The Boards of Directors of the River District and the West Divide District have maintained their intent to develop the conditional water rights,” the districts told the court.

The districts said the water rights should be kept on the books because the Colorado River District has conducted numerous studies related to the water in the Crystal River, including future demand for the water, how much water is legally and physically available, and the options to generate hydroelectricity.

And the district said it had studied “alternatives that would allow the Districts to maximize the beneficial use of all the project components. This assessment will take into account water demands and environmental issues.”

Officials from the districts have said in the past that a small reservoir on the upper Crystal River could help manage low late-summer flows on the lower Crystal River caused by the many irrigation diversions along the river.

“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,” said Dan Harrison, a West Divide District board member, at a meeting in April. “All those things would be dependent on how the area grows and the character of the area.”

A status conference in the case has been scheduled for Oct. 13. The parties in the suit are expected at that time to discuss the case with a water court referee.

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...