Proposed reservoirs to provide for boom in metal-rich West End

Montrose County officials are banking on the West End of Montrose County becoming the epicenter of rare-earth mineral production in the United States within 50 years.

To support this mining resurrection, the county is planning a massive infrastructure project designed to secure large amounts of water for a population influx.

The commission last December filed multiple applications for water rights to draw 6,400 acre-feet annually from the San Miguel River through a system of renovated canals, aqueducts and pipelines to proposed storage reservoirs east and west of Nucla and Naturita.

Critics say project costs are exorbitant, with estimates nearing $200 million. County officials counter that the time is now to act for the future of the West End.

The county’s applications are being contested by landowners who say the project will condemn their property and significantly hurt their water rights, which are senior to the county’s filings.

Montrose County Public Works Director Brian Wilson said those landowners’ rights would not be affected and the county is going to “do whatever it takes” to work with landowners to find solutions.

“This is going to extend the life and economic stability of the West End forever,” he said.

In April, Jim Burnell, senior geologist for the Colorado Geological Survey, gave a lecture in Montrose claiming the Western Slope is a “high-production area,” containing nine of the rarest metals found on Earth. Extraction of these metals would greatly reduce foreign dependence on China, the Middle East and Africa.

Burnell said vanadium, selenium, zinc, iron, tellurium, gold, copper, silver and uranium are all in abundance in western Colorado and have critical uses in energy development, solar power, military defense, aerospace development and auto and electrical manufacturing.

Wilson said the areas of Nucla and Naturita would grow, serving as home for thousands of miners traveling to and from these various mines.

Leading the way is the uranium industry revival and the opening of Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill in the Paradox Valley.

The mill has secured a radioactive materials-handling permit and county approvals, but is waiting on permits for air quality and proposed evaporation ponds.

Last month Edward Cotter, project manger for Stoller, a contractor working for the Department of Energy, said market demand for uranium continues to rise and many companies could resume operations within two years.

Court records indicate the county is planning to create several storage reservoirs to hold at least four years’ worth of water.

Landowners in those areas claim the county is condemning their land to be used as reservoirs.

“I don’t think they (commission) understand there will be a very expensive private condemnation action taken against all of my clients,” said Ouray attorney Andrew Mueller, who represents some seven landowners.

Wilson said plans have not been finalized and there could be only one to three “reasonably small” reservoirs. Wilson said there is a plan to expand the Nucla Town Reservoir, which now holds less than 1,000 acre-feet.

According to Roy Smith, water rights coordinator with the BLM, even if the county secures water rights there is no guarantee the BLM would sign off on expansion. A tentative multiple-day trial on the issue is to begin Oct. 29, 2012.


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