Homestake wilderness

The Homestake Wetland in the White River National Forest near Leadville, which lies next to a test bore well location approved in a permit issued earlier this year by the U.S. Forest Service. Conservation groups fear that the test wells are part of an initiative to build a dam and reservoir that would carry Western Slope water to the Front Range.

The Carbondale-based nonprofit Wilderness Workshop and other conservation groups on Wednesday filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Forest Service over its approval of a permit allowing test drilling for a controversial dam-and-reservoir project in the Homestake Valley north of Leadville.

In a news release, Wilderness Workshop said that drilling test wells is “a first step in construction of a new dam” that would have significant impacts on wetlands, wilderness, wildlife and roadless forests. The notice of intent was filed by the activist group Earth Guardians on behalf of Wilderness Workshop, Colorado Headwaters, the Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund, Save the Colorado and the Colorado Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Specifically, the conservation groups say the forest service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act when they approved the permit in March.

“The real impacts to listed species, including lynx and cutthroat trout, haven’t been adequately considered or disclosed,” Peter Hart, staff attorney at Wilderness Workshop, said in a prepared statement. “Today’s letter puts the agencies on notice of the violations we’ve identified; they now have 60 days to respond. If the issues we’ve raised remain unresolved, we could pursue a legal challenge in federal court.”

Homestake Partners — which includes Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities — applied for the permit that allows up to 10 test bore wells. The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs have owned water rights in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area, containing Eagle County’s Homestake Valley, for several decades, according to a March 22 story published by the Colorado Sun.

Grant Stevens, communications director for Wilderness Workshop, said Wednesday that Homestake Partners’ potential project would dam Homestake Creek, which is a tributary to the Eagle River. The two cities have been studying plans for a dam and reservoir, along with other potential alternatives, to address the future need for additional water storage based on population growth projections.

Stevens said the potential dam and reservoir should be of interest to anyone with concerns about moving more Western Slope water to the Front Range.

“While the project isn’t in the Roaring Fork Valley, it’s certainly an area that many Roaring Fork Valley folks visit and recreate in. The potential impacts to a beloved landscape should worry all of us who live in the high country,” he told the Aspen Daily News.

The U.S. Forest Service approved the permit for exploratory drilling without comprehensive environmental review and public input, therefore “excluding the project from the National Environmental Policy Act,” Stevens said.

“It’s appalling that riparian and wetland communities — which sustain a high diversity of plant and wildlife species and are the most ecologically productive landscapes in the Colorado high country — are threatened so that Western Slope water can be sent across the Continental Divide,” he continued.

Bestowing the designation of “wilderness” upon public land takes an act of Congress and is done for the permanent good of the people, Stevens said.

“Inundating the Holy Cross Wilderness, as this proposed dam and reservoir would do, is unacceptable. Responsible outdoor recreation, a resilient pillar of Colorado’s economy, would be directly impacted by this misguided proposal,” he added.

Jennifer Kemp, public affairs specialist for Colorado Springs Utilities, said Wednesday that the utility had no comment on the conservation group’s notice of intent to sue the forest service.

However, she forwarded information she released in March that relates to the Eagle River Joint Use Water Project for the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs. In 1998, the two cities, as Homestake Partners, entered into a memorandum of understanding with several other entities — including the Colorado River District, the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority and Vail Associates, among others — to develop a phased water project “that would provide critical water supplies to all parties.”

The first phase of the Eagle River Water Project has been completed, providing more than 2,000 acre-feet of “dry year yield” water for Western Slope project participants through construction of Eagle Park Reservoir. Homestake Partners is pursuing the next phase of the water project to develop the full memorandum of understanding requirement of 20,000 acre-feet of “average annual yield” in new water supplies for the two cities, according to Kemp’s informational statement.

“The Homestake Partners are identifying and evaluating feasible project alternatives in the upper Eagle River basin that meet the [memorandum’s] objective,” Kemp’s information states. “The Homestake Partners are committed to proceeding with a project alternative that minimizes environmental impacts, is cost effective, technically feasible, can be permitted by local, state and federal agencies, and which will provide sufficient yield to meet the project participants’ water supply needs and as defined in the [memorandum].”

Wilderness Workshop has three public events set for July 22, July 24 and Aug. 7 designed to provide information about Homestake Partners’ proposal. For information or to register, visit wildernessworkshop.org/savehomestakevalley/.

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.