Lower West Divide Creek, the namesake of the West Divide Project.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

To understand the prospect of, and the evolving rationale for, the Osgood and Placita Reservoirs, it is helpful to imagine driving from Marble to DeBeque. Every day, water from the Crystal River makes this same journey.

First, the water runs into the Crystal River from several high-mountain tributaries above Marble. Then it flows down alongside Highway 133 until it reaches the Roaring Fork River at Carbondale. From there, it flows alongside Highway 82 to Glenwood Springs and into the Colorado River, which flows westerly along I-70 to Parachute and on to Grand Junction.

The idea of bringing water from the upper Crystal River, which rages with water during normal spring runoff periods, to the 40-mile- long stretch of mesas between New Castle and Parachute is actually an old idea.

“As early as 1905 consideration was given by ranchers in the Divide Creek area to supplementing the limited irrigation water available in local streams, with diversions from the Crystal River, as runoff in this river basin was in excess of irrigation demand,” a 1982 Bureau of Reclamation report on the West Divide Project noted. “After an inspection of this project, it was found to be too costly and difficult for the ranchers to attempt.”

Looking over Hunter Mesa along Mamm Creek above Rifle. It's hard to take a photo of the landscape in the area without capturing evidence of the many natural gas wells that have been drilled in the last decade. The mesas south of I-70 between New Castle and DeBeque may lack water, but they've got plenty of natural gas.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

In 1909, an engineer from Denver named Peter O’Brian filed a map with the state water court that illustrated a plan to take water from the Crystal River on a long journey to the Divide Creek area. O’Brian called his project “The Garfield County Ditch” and he claimed it would give him the right to divert 1,000 cubic feet per second from the Crystal River for “irrigation, domestic, storage and power purposes” and send it around the corner, if you will, to the arid mesas south of Rifle.

The headgate, or diversion point, for the Garfield County Ditch was to be on the west, or river-left, side of the river between Nettle Creek and Thompson Creek about four miles upstream from Carbondale.

From there, the water was to flow in a winding ditch across the mountainsides above Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, crossing Thompson Creek, Edgerton Creek, Four Mile Creek, Three Mile Creek and South Canyon Creek. Eventually the water would reach East Divide Creek and West Divide Creek before reaching East Mamm Creek, south of Rifle. In all, the water was to travel 75 miles in the Garfield Ditch.

The plan to bring Crystal River water to the mesas got a boost when the West Divide Project was included in the Colorado River Storage Project Act, which was approved by Congress in 1956. This is the same law that authorized the Glen Canyon, Flaming Gorge and Paonia dams on Muddy Creek. The legislation also instructed the interior secretary to give “priority to completion of planning reports” for another 19 dams and water projects, including the West Divide Project.

Within a year of the Colorado River Storage Project Act being passed, the River District filed for conditional water rights for the West Divide Project and successfully obtained a decree date of April 22, 1957, which is a relatively junior water right compared to senior rights that can date back to the early 1900s.

The River District’s version of the West Divide Project was similar to the 1909 “Garfield Ditch,” relying on the idea of running water through a series of canals alongside the Crystal River and then around the Glenwood Springs corner and across the mesas clear to Horsethief Creek near Battlement Mesa.

In addition to the Placita and Osgood reserviors, the plan included three other reservoirs called Yank Creek (13,695 acre-feet), which is on a tributary to Thompson Creek above Carbondale, and two reservoirs on the West Divide side, Dry Hollow (45,000 acre-feet) and Kendig (15,450 acre-feet). In all, the River District claimed 271,000 acre-feet of storage water on the West Divide Project.

The Placita dam was estimated in 1957 to cost $2.5 million and the Osgood dam $5.3 million. The Placita dam was to be 285 feet high and the Osgood dam 280 feet high. Both dams were to have hydro-electric facilities and the right to run 1,000 cubic feet per second of water through them.

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Above is the map for the Osgood Reservoir filed as part of the 1957 conditional water rights decree. Below is the map that goes with the Placita Reservoir decreed conditional rights.

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The decree states that water from the Crystal River was to be used for “generation of electric energy, domestic and municipal purposes, industrial purposes, including but not limited to the production of oil shale, irrigation purposes, and stock watering purposes.”

But the decree for the West Divide Project water rights was conditional, until the facilities to store and divert the water were physically in place, at which point the conditional water rights would become adjudicated, or perfected.

District Court Judge Clifford H. Darrow declared that the water rights “shall be and are conditioned upon the application of said water to the beneficial uses for which said decrees were awarded with reasonable diligence and within a reasonable time.”

The Crystal River flowing down through Redstone. The red cliffs in the background have been viewed by some as being the steep shoreline of a reservoir bigger than Reudi Reservoir.

The West Divide Water Conservancy District was formed on April 17, 1964, in anticipation of the West Divide Project moving forward. Like the River District, it is a taxing entity and levies property taxes across its district boundaries.

“We are paying taxes to this outfit,” said Jochems. “And those taxes are used to pay attorneys to file these diligence proofs. And that’s galling, to be paying taxes to someone who theoretically wants to put me under 200 feet of water.”

On May 4, 1966, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall submitted an official report to Congress on the West Divide Project. It was a fresh look at the project and included several major changes to the plan that the River District’s 1957 water rights were predicated on.

The first change was that the Placita Reservoir would grow in size from 62,009 acre-feet to 105,600 acre-feet and the Osgood Reservoir was not considered part of the plan.

The report to Congress said “it is anticipated that the rights to the presently planned Placita Reservoir could be obtained by combining the rights previously granted to the Placita and Osgood reservoirs since sites for both reservoirs are on the Crystal River in close proximity to each other.”

The congressional report includes a very low-tech depiction of the Placita Reservoir.

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The re-sized Placita Reservoir would back up water around the corner toward Marble far enough to cover the Bogan Flats campground. It would also require moving 4.5 miles of Highway 133, as the reservoir would have a surface area of 748 acres.

The dam itself was to be a “rolled earthfill and rockfill structure” requiring 7.4 million cubic yards of material. Standing 301 feet above the river bed, the Placita dam was to be 40 feet wide and 1,630 feet long. The plan called for diverting all but about 1,000 cfs of the Crystal River’s water under the mountain toward Silt. Overall, the 1966 reservoir and canal plan required purchasing 1,600 acres of private land and the use of 600 acres of federal land.

The second big change to the River District’s plan was to run the water under Huntsman Ridge through a tunnel and canal system instead a series of canals around the corner near Glenwood Springs.

The 1966 plan still included the Yank Creek Reservoir on a tributary to Thompson Creek, but it did away with the Dry Hollow Reservoir on the West Divide side. Instead, it added the Haystack Reservoir, with 7,590 acre-feet of storage, at the top of Willow Creek to act as a receiving reservoir from the Huntsman tunnel and canal.

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“The West Divide Project is planned to primarily provide irrigation to stabilize and expand agricultural development and to put in readiness initial municipal and industrial water supplies for processing plants and urban developments expected to be established in connection with the vast oil shale reserves nearby,” the 1966 report to Congress declared.

“A total water supply of 193,100 acre-feet annually would be obtained for project use at points of diversion,” the report stated, but noted that “flexibility is provided in the plan, however, in order that the water supplies for municipal and industrial use may be increased if found desirable as the oil shale industry progresses and the accompanying needs for water become more firmly defined.”

The report estimated there would be enough to water “for about a 150,000-barrel-per-day oil shale development” and “with only a modest revision of the plan, a much greater quantity of water could be delivered for the industry.”

That “modest revision” was the “Hot Springs Reservoir” to be built at the narrows just below the Penny Hot Springs across from Filoha Meadows. The ’66 report envisioned, if needed, storing water in the Hot Springs Reservoir to meet downstream needs so more water could be sent into the Huntsman tunnel.

“Most of the project water supply would be obtained from the Crystal River east of the Huntsman Hills, and the keystone of project development would be the diversion of large quantities of Crystal River water by the Huntsman Canal to the opposite side of the hills where the water could be utilized to best advantage.”

Elsewhere, the report observes “some releases would be made from the reservoir to Crystal River for downstream uses but most of the water would be conveyed through the 25-mile Huntsman Canal to West Divide Creek.”

Once the water reached the far side of the hill, it would be spread through lateral canals six miles to the east and 49 miles to the west, all the way to DeBeque. In addition to fueling the oil shale business, the report told members of Congress the water would also foster “new communities in now undeveloped areas.”

Looking north from Hunter Mesa toward the Colorado River valley and the ridge of the Hogback north of I-70.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

Included in the appendix of the 1966 report to Congress is a March 21, 1966 letter from Felix L. Sparks, the director of a state agency called the Colorado Water Conservation Board, to Floyd E. Dominy, the now legendary commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation.

“Many alternative plans were considered and the one presented in the proposed report appears to be the most feasible one,” Sparks wrote.

The CWCB was informing the Bureau of Reclamation, which in 1966 was near the height of its dam-building power, that it was solidly behind the idea of building a reservoir bigger than Ruedi Reservoir on the Crystal River at the bottom of McClure Pass.

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Sparks closed by saying “the State of Colorado concurs with the proposed report on the West Divide
project, and urges its earliest authorization and construction.”

Overall, the report championed how water from the Crystal River valley could fuel the boom expected from oil shale development. It also noted that “numerous oil companies have expressed interest in obtaining water from the project.”

While the report struck a bullish note overall, a required note from a budgetary official in the congressional report stated that “the West Divide project has one of the highest costs per acre ($1,710) of any reclamation project. The investment per farm would be approximately $273,000.”

The 1966 plan said the West Divide Project would cost $99.8 million, or about $678 million today. The Placita dam was estimated to cost $20.7 million and the Huntsman tunnel was expected to cost $42.7 million, in 1966 dollars. In addition to the cost of the plan, the budget official also asked if the project was even necessary.

“l also question whether there is enough demand in the near future to necessitate the immediate authorization of this project and believe it would be preferable for the project to be deferred until it is clear that there will be a real demand for the project water for the development of oil shale reserves,” the budget official wrote. “However, if the oil shale reserves are developed, it would seem to be an unwise use of resources to commit water to irrigation if the future demands for municipal and industrial water are as great as anticipated in the project report.”

That budget note may have had an influence on the outcome of the project, for while the West Divide Project was indeed authorized in 1968 by Congress, money was not appropriated to build it.

Then the Crystal River valley got organized and fought against the very concept of damming the Crystal River.

1982 BuRec plan

A 1982 planning report on the West Divide Project prepared by the Bureau of Reclamation re-worked the plan yet again. It did away with the Placita Reservoir, the Osgood Reservoir, the Huntsman Hills tunnel and canal system and virtually anything to do with the Crystal River valley. Instead, the Bureau planned to pump water up from the Colorado River from a location about three miles east of Silt up to reservoirs on the mesas and then distribute the water through lateral canals.

There was, however, one problem with the $195 million proposal.

“The West Divide Project plan as presented in this report is not economically justified,” the planning report stated right up front.

Why the move away from the dams on the Crystal?

“The plan at the time of project authorization in 1968 provided for storage and regulation of the flows of the Crystal River, east of the Huntsman Hills, as the principal project water supply,” the 1982 report stated. “Soon after authorization, strong opposition from local residents and environmental interests developed to a reservoir on the Crystal River. In attempting to find a feasible plan that would be acceptable and still utilize Crystal River flows, a number of alternatives were studied.”

Put another way, the report found that “subsequent to authorization of the project in 1968, it became evident that the likelihood, timing, and water needs of potential oil shale development in the project area were unpredictable. At the same time, conservation groups and residents of the Crystal River and Roaring Fork River valleys raised strong objections to construction of Placita Reservoir and alteration of Crystal River flows.”

In response, the West Divide District appointed a citizen’s advisory panel that reviewed ten different alternatives during 1975. And as part of the effort, the group discovered that “there were landslides” at the Yank Creek Reservoir site, making it a less than ideal place to store large amounts of water.

“As time progressed there were indications that the residents of the Crystal River Valley would oppose any diversion from the river, even without onstream storage,” the Bureau’s report stated.

It seemed to be the last nail in the coffin for the West Divide Project.

And so perhaps it is not surprising that residents of the Crystal River valley were recently jolted back nearly 30 years by the sight of the new maps from the River District showing both the Osgood and Placita Reservoirs looking like fresh possibilities again.

For while the Bureau appears to have gone out of the dam-building business, the River District and the West Divide District may not have.

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...