Reservoir expansion moving slowly forward

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Enlarging a reservoir isn't something that gets done quickly, Dan Birch, project development manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District is discovering.

Birch is one of several people working to add 12,000 acre feet to Elkhead Reservoir for water storage and to provide additional water for endangered fish habitat. The recreational aspects of enlarging the reservoir are secondary.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District has been working for several years on a plan to expand the reservoir and, in the best-case scenario, it still is at least a year from construction.

The River District is in the middle of several steps that are necessary before construction can even begin. The group is simultaneously working to engineer the enlargement, get permits in order, put agreements in place with the entities affected by, or with interests in, the expansion and acquiring some property that surrounds the reservoir, which will be flooded after the expansion.

The expansion will affect six neighboring property owners and about 20 acres.

"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.

Preliminary engineering has been completed, bringing two pieces of good news to the River District and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. First, cost estimates are $1 to $2 million less than the $20 million price tag originally expected.

"What we're seeing is a favorable climate to be bidding construction," Birch said. "We've been pleasantly surprised with the numbers coming in."

Second, it was discovered that not only could enough water be left in the reservoir to keep fish alive and count as an emergency reserve, taking that avenue is actually faster, easier and more cost effective, Birch said.

The six-month process of preliminary engineering was completed in April. The River District's board of directors agreed to wait on the final engineering until more agreements were in place.

The River District is nearly ready to submit an application for the project's major permit -- a wetlands permit issued through the Army Corp of Engineers.

The application has been delayed while waiting for the fish recovery program to complete a Yampa River Water Management Plan, of which the water storage provided by the reservoir expansion is key. Seven thousand acre feet of water will be owned by the recovery program once the expansion is complete. It will be released when the Yampa River is low and endangered species are threatened.

"That really forms the basis for purpose and need for this project," Birch said. "With that squared away we're well prepared to submit our permit application."

He expects a decision to come within 120 days after the application is submitted.

Birch said the Corp of Engineers could reject the permit, which would effectively put an end to the project, but he doesn't expect that to happen.

"There has just been a tremendous amount of public process surrounding this," he said.

Before construction can begin, several agreements need to be in place with the city of Craig, which owns part of the reservoir and a portion of its water. Agreements also need to be made with the Yampa Valley Participants, owners of the Craig Station power plant who also own a portion of the water in the reservoir, the endangered fish recovery program, and the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy for a short-term water supply during construction. The Colorado State Parks also will have to be included for the management of the reservoir after the expansion.

"These agreements are all in various stages," Birch said.

The Craig City Council is primed to approve its two contracts at its July 8 meeting. Birch said he expects the other contracts to be completed by the end of the year.

Some of the agreements are difficult because they include several groups or entities.

"The institutional agreements in particular are not easy," Birch said. "We're dealing with complicated issues and multiple entities, but all those entities stand to gain from the enlargement."

In the River District's agreement with the city, it promises to obtain up to 1,670 acre feet of water each year for emergency uses since the city's water storage will be drained. The River District also will give the city first option to purchase up to 1,000 acre feet of water.

"Any one of these entities could essentially say 'no, we don't want to do this project,' but I don't think they will," Birch said.

Power companies will have a similar option in their agreements.

The River District's water also will be available for sale to private interests for agricultural and other uses.

Construction on the enlargement is tentatively planned to begin in mid-2004 or early 2005 and will last for two years.

Despite the fact that there will be water remaining in the reservoir during construction, all recreational activities, including fishing, will be suspended.

Once complete, the reservoir will be about 20 feet deeper and increase the reservoir's capacity by 8,500 acre feet. An acre foot is equal to 300,000 gallons of water.

The River District is funded through a .25 mill levy, but funds for the proposed 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.

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

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