The Crystal River along Highway 133 below McClure Pass as it winds slowly toward Placita, an old coal-mining town. A dam that would have blocked the river here is being taken off the books after an aggressive challenge by Pitkin County.
The Crystal River along Highway 133 below McClure Pass as it winds slowly past Placita, an old coal-mining town. A dam that would have blocked the river here is being taken off the books after an aggressive challenge by Pitkin County.Smith / Aspen Journalism Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism / Aspen Journalism

Pitkin County has reached a settlement agreement that will eliminate conditional water rights for two potential dams in the Crystal River watershed.

The agreement was reached with the West Divide Water Conservancy District and the Colorado River District.

The agreement removes the prospect of a dam being built across the Crystal River at Placita — below McClure Pass and before the road to Marble — as well as a dam on Yank Creek, a tributary of Thompson Creek, which flows into the Crystal near Carbondale.

The agreement also removes Pitkin County’s opposition to potential new dams and reservoirs on Mamm and Divide creeks in Garfield County on land south of I-70 between New Castle and Parachute.

“The agreement basically says to the West Divide District, ‘You get out of our county and we’ll get out of the rest of your jurisdiction,’” said Pitkin County Attorney John Ely.

A June 20 memo from Ely to the members of Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board outlines the settlement agreement.

“This proposal will remove the necessity of a trial on this water court application and will achieve for the county all of its objectives in opposing the West Divide project,” Ely wrote.

A trial is set for August but is expected to be canceled once the settlement agreements are presented to the court. The settlement agreement must still be approved by the Pitkin County commissioners and the boards of the two water districts. Ely said he expects all three entities to approve the agreement.

The West Divide board is set to meet today (June 20, 2013) in Rifle to discuss the agreement, according to Samuel Potter, the chairman of the West Divide Water Conservancy District.

Potter wasn’t pleased about the settlement agreement, but sounded resigned to the district’s likely acceptance of it.

“Pitkin County is, as far as I’m concerned, doing their constituents in that area a disservice,” Potter said.

West Divide board members have expressed in the past that a reservoir at Placita could someday help landowners along the lower Crystal River manage a shortage of water during low-flow months.

Jim Pokrandt, communications and education director for the Colorado River District, said the district’s litigation committee is set to meet on June 25 and has the authority to approve the settlement without a vote by its full board.

The Pitkin County commissioners have been discussing the case with Ely in executive session and he is confident the board will approve the settlement.

Bill Jochems, the chair of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams board, said he expects his board to approve the settlement at a meeting today (June 20, 2013).

Jochems also said the settlement already has been endorsed by the Crystal Valley Caucus, an advisory board to Pitkin County, and the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA).

The lawsuit, in water court, stemmed from a diligence filing by West Divide and the Colorado River District in May 2011. Opposition filings came from Pitkin County, the Crystal River Caucus, CVEPA, the nonprofit organization, American Rivers, Trout Unlimited and Paul Durrett of Redstone.

“We’ve been talking about this and worrying about this since 1972,” said Jochems of CVEPA, of which he is a member. “So of course we’re pleased.”

Matt Rice, the director of conservation for American Rivers in Colorado, said via email Tuesday that “the possibility of settlement is very encouraging” but didn’t want to comment further until after the West Divide board had approved the deal.

The county, through the healthy rivers and streams board, has spent $336,709 on attorneys fees and studies related to the West Divide project since March 2011.

The money has come from a .1 percent county sales tax approved in 2008 and dedicated to “maintaining and improving water quality and quantity within the Roaring Fork watershed.”

“Saving rivers is not a task for the faint of heart and fortunately every level of the county, from my office to the river board, to of course the elected BOCC, felt that this was a goal worth pursuing with all our resources,” Ely said via email.

The county commissioned three studies at an unknown cost to help make their case against the Placita dam. Ely said the studies showed the project would have cost $68 million and was not practical or desirable from a hydrologic or engineering standpoint.

The conditional water rights for the West Divide project date back to 1958. The project included a proposed dam on the Crystal River, just downstream from downtown Redstone, that would be big enough to hold 129,000 acre feet of water in what was called the Osgood Reservoir.

By comparison, Ruedi Reservoir on the Fryingpan River above Basalt can hold 102,000 acre feet of water.

The West Divide project also included a dam on the Crystal at Placita that would hold 62,000 acre feet and a dam on Yank Creek to back up 14,000 acre feet.

In April 2012, the West Divide District and the Colorado River District agreed to drop the idea of a dam in Redstone, but still asked a judge in state water court to extend the conditional water rights for a dam on the Crystal at Placita big enough to hold back 4,000 acre feet of water.

It also asked for the rights tied to a potential dam on Yank Creek that would hold back 5,000 acre feet of water.

Now both those potential dams are being taken off the books. The districts have said in the past that the dams could play a valuable role in helping late-season irrigation demand on the Crystal River, as well as generate hydropower.

The other side of the divide

The West Divide project was originally devised to bring water from the reservoirs on the Crystal River to the land that rises south of I-70 between New Castle and Parachute in Garfield County.

Now the project’s scope will likely be limited to potential dams and reservoirs in that area, which is drained by Divide and Mamm creeks.

The potential facilities include 45,000 acre-feet of storage in the Dry Hollow Reservoir; 15,450 acre-feet in the Kendig Reservoir on West Divide Creek, and 6,500 acre-feet in the West Mamm Creek Reservoir.

None of those reservoirs would receive water from the Crystal River, as they would have under the long-standing plans for West Divide project.

As such, Pitkin County has agreed to not to oppose the extension of conditional water rights for the potential reservoirs in that area.

The settlement agreement also recognizes that the West Divide District will have the right to contract for 9.16 cubic feet per second of water from either the Crystal River or Avalanche Creek, a tributary of the Crystal, for augmentation purposes.

And it recognizes that the district may ask for up to 30 cfs more of augmentation water from the Crystal River or Avalanche Creek in the future.

Augmentation water allows a water district to sell water from one source to offset the impact of water use by an owner in another location.

For example, a homeowner drilling a well in the Colorado River valley might buy augmentation water in the Crystal River from the West Divide District in order to offset their depletion of water from the Colorado River.

Ely said the agreement with West Divide requires that any water from the Crystal River or Avalanche Creek used for augmentation must flow at least as far as the Crystal’s confluence with the Roaring Fork River near Carbondale, so they would not harm the river’s ecosystem.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of issues related to land, water and wealth in Pitkin County. The Daily News published a version of this story on Thursday, June 20, 2013.

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...