Elkhead expansion plan complex

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By the end of 2005, Moffat County residents could be able to play in a reservoir that's 20-feet deeper and that holds 12,000 acre feet more water if everything goes according to plan.

Expanding Elkhead Reservoir for additional water storage is an optimistic plan, but falling over any number of hurdles could stop it in its tracks.

Members of the Colorado River Water Conservation District met with the Craig City Council Tuesday night and got preliminary approval on the first of several agreements needed to expand the reservoir.

Council members agreed the expansion of Elkhead was a good idea given the increased water storage and potential for recreational opportunities created.

The plan calls for the reservoir to be increased by 12,000 acre feet, which will increase its depth by 20 feet. An acre foot is equal to 300,000 gallons of water.

The city owns 1,668 acre feet of water in Elkhead, and that will not change. The River District and the Endangered Species Recovery Program will each own 6,000 acre feet of water and the Endangered Species Recovery Program will lease another 1,000 acre feet from the River District.

An 8,500 acre-foot expansion was originally planned but when it was discovered the cost and impact of a larger expansion were minimal, it was increased.

"In our eyes, it's a no-brainer," said Dan Birch, project development manager with the River District. "You can get more water for the same money. Why wouldn't you do that?"

The Council signed an "agreement to agree" nearly a year ago, but there were a number of issues that needed to be resolved before they could enter a contract with the River District the most significant of which was ownership.

In October, the city finalized several land trades with the Colorado Division of Wildlife that gave it ownership of the land beneath the reservoir, making it able to contract with the River District for the expansion.

There are several benefits to the city for increasing the reservoir. Other than the increased water storage it will offer the River District and the Endangered Species Recovery Program, the city will no longer be responsible for $300,000 of the necessary repairs to the dam and spillway. It also will have access to water it owns below the spillway opening, which is not currently accessible without the use of pumps. That access gives the city enough water reserves to last a year and a half at average usage.

The River District still must obtain five other signed agreements, permits and authorization from the city and county land use boards before construction can begin.

"That's what keeps me up at night," Birch said. "The difficult part of this project is the number of entities who have a part of the discussion, a role to play, in the expansion of the reservoir."

Birch expects time to be spent on ironing out the details of each contract, but said, in the end, he expects these agencies will get on board.

"Any one of these entities could knock the leg out from under this, but if you look at these entities, they all stand to gain," Birch said.

Agreements must be signed between the river district and the city, the owners of the power plant, the recovery program, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Upper Yampa Water Conservation District and the Division of Wildlife. Agreement topics include ownership, reservoir management, financial responsibility and will outline how the river district will provide back-up water resources during the two-year construction period, slated to begin in 2004.

"This is a fairly aggressive schedule and we are pushing it hard," Birch said.

The $17-million price of the enlargement will be split between the river district and the recovery program.

The expansion will affect six neighboring property owners.

"We are meeting regularly with property owners and people are receptive to an enlargement," Birch said.

The expansion will not affect any property owner's home or outbuilding.

Council members agreed to hand over the management of the reservoir to the river district with a clause that allows the city to take it back if it ever becomes necessary.

But they probably won't finalize that decision until after the construction.

"Given the level of complexity in just getting this done, it may be premature to do this right now," City Manager Jim Ferree said. "We'll see what the management requirements are once it's up and running."

River district representatives said they didn't care whether the city chose to keep control, give it to the river district or have the two entities combine to manage the reservoir.

"At the end of the day, both of us have to be able to say, 'I want my water in 24 hours,' and, no matter which way you go, you get that," said Lee Leavenworth, attorney for the river district.

"The advantage (of the river district managing the reservoir) is that it gives that control to an entity that has the knowledge to do that," said Sherry Caloia, a water attorney contracted by the city.

The city will still control the recreation aspect, but will continue to contract that to Colorado State Parks, which is planning recreational improvements to coincide with the enlargement.

"We're very interested in coordinating with (Colorado State Parks) so once our renovations are in place, the recreation improvements are in place," Birch said.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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