Pitkin County reaches deal with group over reservoir projects

Pitkin County commissioners on Wednesday signed off on a legal settlement bringing to an end conceptual plans for two reservoirs in the Crystal River Valley.

The Colorado River District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District also have consented to the settlement of a state water court case. At issue has been a downsized version of the West Divide Project, which was intended for possible agricultural, oil-shale-related and other uses in Garfield, Mesa, Pitkin and Gunnison counties.

Two years ago, the river district agreed to abandon conditional water rights for a 129,000-acre-foot reservoir, which would have drowned the former coal-mining village of Redstone. Under the action, it also backed off further pursuit of a 62,000-acre-foot reservoir higher upstream on the Crystal in the area of the former Placita mining settlement, and a 14,000-acre-foot reservoir up Yank Creek in the Crystal watershed.

The river district acquired conditional water rights for those projects in 1958 during the era of big-dam-building, but the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation withdrew its support for the proposals in 1982, citing the cost and lack of adequate benefit.

After the river district’s 2011 decision, it continued to seek to hold on to conditional water rights for reservoirs of 4,000 and 5,000 acre-feet, respectively, at Placita and up Yank Creek. And it continued to face opposition from Pitkin County, residents up the Crystal River Valley, and conservation groups. The county objected to the proposed reservoirs’ locations and potential environmental impacts.

Under the new deal, the river district will abandon the Placita and Yank Creek projects. In return, Pitkin County will not oppose aspects of the West Divide Project involving potential 45,000-, 15,450- and 6,500-acre-foot reservoirs in the Divide and Mamm creek drainages of Garfield County.

Those projects are still in the conceptual stages.

Pitkin County attorney John Ely said the river district and West Divide proposed the settlement.

“It was pretty straightforward and exactly what we were looking for,” he said.

“… We didn’t have any interest in what was going on in Garfield County but what we did care about was what they were doing in our county.”

In a news release, the river district and West Divide said the settlement decision was driven partly by a desire to avoid litigation costs.

The river district long has said reservoirs up the Crystal could help maintain flows later in the year when it now can almost go dry. It predicts that curtailment of junior rights will leave many Crystal Basin residents and businesses without water in times of shortages.

“The Crystal still needs to be solved. … The problems did not go away,” river district spokesman Jim Pokrandt said Wednesday.

Garfield County’s representative to the river district, Dave Merritt, said in its release, “This is a sad commentary on the narrow view of water development in the area.”

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