Reservoir decision pleases foes

Residents up the Crystal River Valley south of Carbondale are praising a decision that could end the decades-long fight over a reservoir proposal that has threatened to dislocate hundreds of people.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District board this week voted unanimously to abandon most of the Crystal River conditional water rights associated with the West Divide Project.

The river district originally acquired the rights and now holds them on behalf of the West Divide Water Conservancy District. The West Divide board is scheduled to consider the matter today. The conservancy district has been working with the river district on the possible abandonment, said Ed Olszewski, an attorney for West Divide.

“So chances, I think, are good that they’ll be in lockstep with the river district,” he said.

Some of the water rights date to 1958. The project was intended to provide water for agriculture in western Garfield County and for possible oil shale development. It included a nearly 129,000-acre-foot reservoir that would have put the historic village of Redstone underwater, and a 62,000-acre-foot reservoir upstream in the Placita area.

The river district decided to try to retain more limited rights, including reducing the Placita reservoir to 4,000 acre-feet.

“Everybody that I’ve talked to has been very happy with the river district board’s decision,” said John Emerick, vice chairman of the Crystal River Caucus, a local advisory board to Pitkin County.

The caucus opposes the West Divide Project, which has concerned local residents for decades.

Emerick said he remains concerned that a smaller reservoir at Placita could hurt critical elk habitat.

“But in general I think that the decision is going to be a great benefit to the citizens of the Crystal River Valley,” he said.

The river district faced a May 31 deadline to make a water-court filing showing progress in developing the project.

Congress approved the project in 1966 as part of a bill that also led to construction of the Animas-La Plata and Ridgway Reservoir projects. But the Bureau of Reclamation decided the West Divide Project’s costs outweighed its benefits.

While the river district continued to pursue the idea of building most likely one of the two reservoirs, it also watched the era of big-dam construction come to an end. Meanwhile, district spokesman Jim Pokrandt said, the diligence standards for maintaining conditional water rights have been heightened in terms of how realistic projects must be and how much work must be done to bring them to reality.

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