Elkhead expansion deemed critical

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In a move deemed critical to protecting endangered fish as well as providing water for Yampa Valley residents, the Colorado River Water Conservation District has received an $11,000,000 loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to expand Elkhead Reservoir by 12,000 acre feet, or 3.6 trillion gallons.

The River District applied for the loan in cooperation with the Upper Colorado Endangered Fishes Recovery Program. The expansion project is expected to cost $19.5 million. Of that, the river district is responsible for $10.8 million. The recovery program is responsible for $8.7 million.

The Yampa River has historically been home to four fish species currently protected under the Endangered Species Act: the Colorado pikeminnow, the razorback sucker, the humpback chub and the bonytail chub.

The reservoir expansion will aid the recovery program in its efforts to preserve and recover the endangered fish by creating a 5,000 acre feet endangered fish pool. An acre-foot equals 300,000 gallons.

This water will be periodically released into the Yampa River to augment river flows necessary to support the fish.

The remaining 7,000 acre feet of the expansion will be used to satisfy the existing and future water needs of Yampa Valley industry and residents.

Expanding the reservoir will provide several benefits to the city. Other than the increased water storage it will offer, the city will no longer be responsible for $300,000 of the necessary repairs to the dam and spillway, because they will be replaced while the dam height is being increased.

The city will gain access to water it owns, 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.

Currently, Elkhead Reservoir has a capacity of 13,800 acre feet. The expansion will nearly double that capacity. The reservoir was originally constructed in 1974.

Current plans call for the reservoir dam to be raised 20 feet creating more than 8,500 acre-feet of additional capacity within the reservoir.

The expanded reservoir will be filled by runoff during the spring months.

The river district regulates bodies of water in 15 Western Slope counties. It is funded by a .28 mill levy.

With some luck, construction of the expansion will begin by this time next year.

"We still have a lot of hoops to go through," said Dan Birch, project development manager for the river district, referring to the permitting process the river district is currently going through.

Before beginning construction, Birch said the river district still needs to complete agreements with Craig and the federal government.

The city and the river district still need to settle matters over who will pay for the costs of maintaining the reservoir, including utility charges.

Since all government projects that effect wetlands need approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, expansion plans will need to be run by that organization before construction begins.

The expansion will also affect six parcels of privately owned land. No homes will be affected.

Birch said the river district is in the process of surveying that land. It will need to be purchased before construction begins.

Construction is expected to take two to three years.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

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