The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is currently accepting public comment on a proposed drilling project near Homestake Creek. If approved, the project would investigate the suitability of the Homesteak Valley, an area within the White River National Forest between Leadville and Red Cliff, for a new dam and reservoir.
Operating as Homestake Partners, the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs recently applied for a special use permit to conduct a ground-level seismic survey and subsurface survey of the area. The subsurface exploration would include the drilling of boring holes, up to 150 feet in depth, in 10 locations. Four-person crews would drill for up to five days at each location.
The surveys would provide Aurora and Colorado Springs, whom both hold water rights in the area, with information on the feasibility of Whitney Reservoir, the partners’ proposed water storage facility.
Aurora and Colorado Springs built Homestake Reservoir, which is located a few miles southwest of the proposed drilling sites, together in 1968. The reservoir’s water is released to Turquoise Lake through Homestake Tunnel and then onto the Front Range cities.
The municipalities are also part of the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding, a 1998 agreement that offers Aurora and Colorado Springs the opportunity to pursue 20,000 acre-feet of average annual water yield from the Western Slope. Climax Mine, Vail Resorts, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the Eagle Water and Sanitation District and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority are also part of the agreement.
The objective of the project, Homestake Partners wrote in their special use application, is to develop a portion of the water yield outlined in the 1998 memorandum. The permit at hand pertains to the feasibility of Whitney Reservoir, not the construction of the reservoir itself.
Since the Forest Service opened public comment for the proposal in late May, the agency has received over 550 online comments. The majority of comments are in opposition to the drilling project, including those written by State Senator Kerry Donovan and the mayors of Red Cliff and Minturn.
“There is strong bipartisan support across the Western Slope, and upper basin counties, to prevent any additional water divisions,” Donovan wrote of the project. “With drought conditions becoming the new normal, Lower Basin states meeting to determine how the Colorado River Basin can be managed in their favor, and buy-and-dry practices gaining momentum across the Western Slope, it is imperative we protect high altitude water resources and keep each drop in the basin it was born in.”
Others called the proposed project an assault on public lands and the wetlands of the Homestake Valley.
Because the Forest Service is looking at permitting the geotechnical work through a categorical exclusion, which requires less environmental analysis than other permitting procedures, there is no formal end to the public comment period. And according to David Boyd, a public information officer for the White River National Forest, the agency does not have a timeframe for a decision on the proposal.
If the Forest Service approves the permit and the results of the feasibility study are favorable, Homestake Partners would still need to overcome roadblocks before moving ahead with Whitney Reservoir. Obstacles could include an extensive environmental analysis, various USFS permits and a boundary adjustment to the Holy Cross Wilderness Area which would require Congressional approval.