Reservoir expansion still possible

Two groups work together to increase water storage for people, fish

A solid plan to enlarge Elkhead Reservoir is being researched, but even under the best circumstance, it would take five years before the project is complete.

The Colorado River District and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program have joined forces, and finances, to make the expansion happen.

Dan Birch, project development manager for the River District, said there's a good chance the plan will become reality, but it's a long process.

He said landowners and city, state and federal government representatives met two years ago and agreed that expanding the reservoir had many benefits, but those people still have to get on board more than verbally. Several permits, including a wetland permit, must be obtained, as well as several easements onto private property before the proposal becomes reality.

"Any one of those entities could say "no" and that could kick the leg out from under us, but each stands to benefit," Birch said.

He estimates it will take one to two years to get the necessary permits and then two to three years for the construction.

Expanding Elkhead Reservoir has been discussed for the last 10 years, but the first plan, which would have raised the reservoir 30 acre feet, was highly controversial, mainly because it would have cost some people their homes.

An acre foot is equal to 300,000 gallons of water.

The current plan is to increase the reservoir's capacity by 8,500 acre feet. While that would require easements from private property owners, it would not mean the destruction of anyone's home, Birch said.

Additionally, concerns among anglers and environmentalists that draining the reservoir to expand it would release sport fish into the river where they would not be recovered have been addressed.

According to Birch, engineering studies have shown that water and fish could remain in a conservation pool during the proposed two- to three-year construction period.

Recreational opportunities would have to be curtailed throughout the construction period, Birch said, but people have to look to the future benefits of the expansion, which will include the purchase of a fish screen to allow non-native sport fish to be relocated from the Yampa River, where they are a danger to endangered native fish, to the reservoir.

Also, Colorado State Parks is working with the Colorado River District and the Fish Recovery Program with plans to upgrade recreational facilities at the reservoir after the expansion.

The benefits of the expansion, Birch said, are in the increased water storage which will be used to augment river flows during low-flow periods which are a danger to fish, including the four endangered species that have been identified in the Yampa River.

The Colorado River District would also lease water to those in need, including farmers, ranchers and the city of Craig, if necessary.

The Colorado River District is funded through a .25 mill levy, but funds for the proposed $20 million expansion would come from revenue generated from the sale of water from other reservoirs, Birch said.

The Colorado River District will pay for 7/17 of the total project cost and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program will pay 10/17.

"We're not asking for money from the power company or the city or any other type of local interest," Birch said.

The Colorado River District is also asking for a .25 mill levy increase on the November ballot. If approved, those funds will be used for additional projects to mitigate the impact of future drought. Some of those funds could be used for this project, Birch said.

The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program is participating in the project, but according to instream flow coordinator, Gerry Roehm, the Fish Recovery Program is also considering other options for increasing the flow in the Yampa River.

"We haven't totally ruled out other options, but the preliminary assessment is that there's very little water available from these sources when it's critically needed," he said. "We can't rule out any other alternative at this point, but it appears Elkhead has the most potential to benefit with a negligible environmental impact."

The concern that increasing the reservoir's capacity will affect the impact of runoff on the level of the river is being explored, Roehm said.

The Fish Recovery Program's major goal is to get enough water into the Yampa River during low-flows to keep the water oxygenated.

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