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Grizzly Creek Fire delays test drilling for controversial Whitney Reservoir proposal

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October 6, 2020, 9:31 am
Homestake Creek

U.S. Forest Service and Aurora Water officials have confirmed to RealVail.com that the permitting process for “fatal flaw” test drilling for a possible new reservoir in the Homestake Creek Valley near the Holy Cross Wilderness Area has been delayed by the Grizzly Creek Fire.

USFS officials had said they hoped to have a decision issued – using a categorical exclusion that doesn’t require more extensive environmental review – by August. But the Grizzly Creek Fire, the largest in the history of the White River National Forest, derailed that process.

“Now that the Grizzly Creek Fire has reached a degree of containment and burn area emergency response work for the fire is in its final assessments, our Forest Service staff will be able to continue their review of the Whitney Creek geotechnical drilling project,” Leanne Veldhuis, District Ranger for the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District, told RealVail.com late last month.

Homestake Partners, which is comprised of Aurora and Colorado Springs, submitted a permit application to start “fatal flaw” test drilling along Homestake Creek to determine the feasibility of the $500 million dam project, which has yet to be formally proposed to the U.S. Forest Service that owns most of the surrounding land.

Dubbed Whitney Reservoir for the nearby Whitney Creek that flows into Homestake Creek, the proposed reservoir includes four alternatives between 6,850 and 20,000 acre-feet of average annual yield of water that would be pumped back up to the two utility’s existing Homestake Reservoir and then over the Continental Divide and down to the Front Range.

The proposal for the actual dam has not yet been submitted, and won’t be until the fatal flaw drilling determines whether one of the four alternatives will actually work for a new dam that will inundate critical wetlands in the area and could require a nearly 500-acre reduction in the size of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area for road realignment. That idea has virtually no local support and has been rejected by many members of Colorado’s congressional delegation.

“We still have several steps to complete, such as consultation with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and final reviews of project findings,” Veldhuis said last month when asked about the test drilling permit. “Once that is complete, I anticipate signing a decision shortly after. Proponents could begin work this fall with enough time, pending weather.”

Just the prospect of test drilling drew hundreds of comments objecting to the project over the summer, and Aurora officials said the Forest Service permitting delays due to wildfires mean they likely won’t do anything in the creek drainage before the snow flies this fall.

“We’ve not received an update on the release of the decision yet,” Greg Baker, manager of public relations for the City of Aurora and Aurora Water, said in an email last month. “The permit would be for a year, so we would end up moving our work out until next summer, fall.”

Eagle County will have a significant role in permitting any future Whitney Reservoir proposal. The county used its 1041 powers — which allow counties in Colorado to regulate major outside infrastructure projects for economic and environmental impacts — to shut down the proposed Homestake II project in the same area in the 1990s. Subsequent legal challenges went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court before Eagle County finally prevailed.

The Vail Daily on Friday reported Eagle County is currently suffering through “extreme” drought conditions.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story erroneously referred to a proposed Homestake II dam. Homestake II was a proposal to build additional points of diversion, but they would have been gravity fed to the existing Homestake Reservoir. There would have been no additional dams and no pumping.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Colorado Times Recorder, the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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