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Clear Creek Reservoir. near Granite CO. Image by Uncover Colorado

During the most recent Chaffee Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) meeting the commissioners were presented with an overview by the Pueblo Board of Water Works regarding their plans for expansion of Clear Creek Reservoir in Chaffee County. While the project might be years away, planning and consideration of impacts must proceed now.

Presented by Pueblo Water Resources Division Manager Alan Ward, the project would be a partnership between Pueblo and Colorado Springs Utilities.

“Pueblo has been looking at enlarging Clear Creek for some time Our first conceptual plan was in 2001,” began Ward. “Pueblo isn’t growing very fast, our conservation per capita use is going down faster than we are growing. so we use less water than 25 years ago. But Colorado Springs Utilities has immediate needs for storage. This reservoir is next to the Antero Pipeline and there are advantages to enlarging the Clear Creek Reservoir.”

Ward explained that the partnership would specify that Colorado Springs Utilities would get the first 30 years of water from the expanded reservoir, and “after that, they get half [of the water] and Pueblo gets the other half.”

Clear Creek Reservoir History

The history of the site is millennium-old, but the first photos of the area were taken by Photographer William H. Jackson — in 1935 before the reservoir was built, and then in 1937 after construction as the valley was filling with water.

The valley was formed by glaciers, which left a lateral moraine. Otero Water built the dam, an earthen strucutre that connects two lateral moraines. In 1955 they sold the reservoir to Pueblo Water.

“The dam is built on a foundation of rock and gravel so there is some water seepage,” explained Ward. “The dam is at its safest ever right now, but there are high expectations from the state dam safety board, so we have to deal with some of the water seepage issues as a part of this project.”

Stats of the project

The proposed partnership will increase the height of the dam by 36 vertical feet, and the acres covered by water will increase from 414 acres to 631 acres.

To do that, Pueblo Water is trying to aquire an extra parcel of land from the Circle R Ranch that has no improvements on it. The dam improvements would be done on the downstream side of the dam, closer to the highway.

Ward described the impacts to Chaffee County, saying “The county road that heads up the valley will have to be moved up the hill, and we’ll be adding to the embankment.” For geological safety (translation – in case of earthquakes) we’d have to add an upstream buttress to hold everything in place.”

Ward described a project that will add a new outlet where the existing spillway is. “In a good snow year, we have more snowmelt coming in than we can pass through the outlet. Adding a new one would allow the entire allotment to the Arkansas River to pass through.”

The recreational impact

The area around the Clear Creek Reservoir is managed for recreational use by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Ward was clear-eyed in his assessment of the impacts on this area.

“This gets heavy recreational use. Existing boat ramps and campgrounds will be inundated. Our intent, if they will manage it, is we’ll work with them to plan new facilities.”

Ward turned to the voluntary flow management plan that protects the Arkansas River flows. “Pueblo and Colorado Springs are long-time participants in the voluntary flow management program and this will continue with the enlargement. We don’t expect it to interfere with it and this will give us great flexibility to time the flow management. Both of us through various agreements with Chaffee County — we’ve made commitments on how we will operate – there are written agreements of our continued involvement.”

Aquatic resources

Ward explained that by adding acreage and water depth to Clear Creek Reservoir, “significant wetlands will be inundated, at the base fed by seepage, and above the dam area.”

“As to the impacts to Clear Creek, there will be more reservoir and less open stream. Two gravel pits have Boreal Toads and  they are a threatened species …  so we’ll have to mitigate that.” He explained their plan for wetlands and streams. “We own a ranch north of Leadville north of U.S. 24 -along Tennessee Creek. We bought it in the 19050’s. It has a lot of wetlands and we couldn’t get a permit there for water storage. So there is lots of opportunity to improve and expand those wetlands to offset the Clear Creek impacts.”

Partnership Discussion

During BoCC public discussion it was immediately apparent that the BoCC was caught off-guard by a proposal that included Colorado Springs.

“I’d heard there was opportunity for partnerships, but I didn’t anticipate a partner being Colorado Springs, said Commissioner Greg Felt. “You mentioned the Homestake and Otero Pipeline. With Pueblo, you are operating on the river and it’s great. But how would this potential with Colorado Springs change our flow regime in terms of water exchanges, and out through South Park?”

Two Colorado Springs Utilities officials attended the presentation: Colorado Springs Water Resource Manager Kim Gortz, and Colorado Springs Water Resource Engineer Tyler Bento.

“As exchanges a lot is reusable return flows, we currently store in the Arkansas River area,” began Gortz. “We have an exchange, and we participate in the voluntary flow management program – the agreement is in place.”

“Will you be moving more lower basin water up than you currently are?” asked Felt.

“Yes, we’re developing lower Arkansas sources,  and yes as we use the first water sharing for consumptive use, we start building those back through the flow,” responded Gortz.

“Does this resurrect the southern delivery system?” asked Commissioner Keith Baker.

“The lower Ark supplies are different water types,” said Gortz. “… We’re very integrated, it’s not just one operation. It depends upon sources and the historic geology.”

“Exchanges don’t have to be bad, but even those return flows will create a divot eventually. Water that would have come downstream,” said Felt. “We just saw this year where Aurora stepped up and realized they could help things if they ran their flows during the high flows … everyone understands that you don’t exchange against low flow seasons … you talked about that conversation – what is the context for that conversation?

Gortz said that the question becomes: is there an opportunity to do more flow management as it moves through other permitting processes.

Absent the reservoirs, we’d see a big difference,’ noted Ward. “We’ve been able to use those reservoirs to re-time water for the benefit of recreation — one [reservoir] at the top, one at the bottom … in fact, we’ve got more ability to re-time water for the benefit of various needs.”

“So the whole initial fill would be by exchange?” asked Felt.

“Most likely,” responded Ward. “The storage right for the enlargement is a 2001 priority on that. The last time a river call was made was a junior call in 1999. When we put trans-mountain water in, it doesn’t affect the flow below Clear Creek. That comes over Tennessee Pass into Tennessee Creek that joins the Arkansas. We store an equal amount at Clear Creek. That creates a net flow. Now Colorado Springs might have an impact moving water up from the lower  river. That could be a reduced stream flow while they’re moving the water up.

“Is there any thought of an inflow to the reservoir from the river or Twin Lakes?” asked Felt.

“There is a possibility that might be able to move water from Twin Lakes into Clear Creek via the pipeline,” responded Ward. “We’d be eager to explore an IGA (Intergovernmental Agreement) rather than a 1041 permit.”

“What stage in the process are you?” asked County Administrator Don Reimer.

“We haven’t filed for any permits yet, but hope to soon. We just recently were put under a storage restriction by the state. We’ve been self-restricting since 2014 based on our own risk analysis,” said Ward. “That is speeding up our timeline, so we want to get this going. Any source we’d ever use is already decreed into the reservoir.”

Reimer asked for “a ballpark on the acreage of wetlands” designated for the project.

“We’re in the 30 to 40 percent range with the majority upstream of the reservoir,” responded Ward. “By the dam, due to seepage it’s three to four acres.”

“Aurora is trying to expand the Homestake project and it’s been a nightmare,” commented Felt.”Does this proposal have a bearing on that project?”

NOTE: Felt clarified this statement on Jan. 25, explaining: “You quoted me as saying that ‘Aurora is trying to expand the Homestake Project and it’s been a nightmare.’ What I was actually saying is that the effort to expand it has been a nightmare FOR THEM (not us) due to the many challenges of permitting. From my perspective, the Homestake Project, and more importantly, its participants (Colorado Springs, Aurora, and Pueblo) have been good partners to the upper basin in terms of support for the Voluntary Flow Management Program, improving the low head dam just upstream of the Clear Creek confluence, and providing supplemental water to our municipalities and agricultural interests.”

“No although there is uncertainty around our river issues,” said Gortz. “We’re on a wait and see on that one. They are not connected and don’t need to be permitted together.”

“On the seepage issue, is there anything in this project to address that?” asked Baker.

“Yes – a higher dam would drive more seepage, that is a component of the enlargement, answered Ward. “We want to push this faster, there are band-aid things we could do, but it’s not economically efficient.”

“How long will this project take?” asked Commissioner P.T. Wood.

“We maybe could have it permitted in five years, with construction over one to two years. It’s no secret that getting large projects permitted, especially federal, is unknown.”

“How long to fill it?” continued Wood.

“The flow of Clear Creek it’s a 50 square mile basin,” answered Ward.” Assume you have a source you could exchange — it could fill it in a single season. I don’t know if we would…. that would be a big decrease in stream flow. We’d have to have a source coming down Fountain Creek, or Pueblo isn’t getting enough water from the Western Slope.”

“What about physical mitigation,” added Wood. “It’s natural, all those peaks – could this impact our scenic byway?”

Ward confirmed that from the highway, drivers might not be able to see the mountains over the dam at higher elevations. But he added, “We’d put vegetation on the dam – it would be an earth-fill dam, and we’re required to put in good vegetation, so it would be a big hill of grass.”

Felt asked if there were plans by Colorado Springs to enlarge the current pipeline, or if this is all storage in Colorado Springs’ existing capacity.

“We have no plans for system enlargement,” answered Grotz. “Aurora would have to weigh in on it. Colorado Springs  has signed on to the Arkansas Basin Resource Principles and want to maintain that.”

Following the presentation, the BoCC adjourned to executive session to receive legal advice regarding the presentation by Pueblo Water.