Elkhead expansion plans at critical point

Signed agreements could mean difference between beginning construction in 2004 or 2005

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Timing is at a crucial stage for Elkhead Reservoir expansion plans.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District, working to get a myriad of operational, ownership and reclamation agreements signed at the local, state and federal level, needs to at least know all parties agree in theory by April in order for construction to begin in early 2005.

A delay in any of the agreements would put construction off for a year.

"It's kind of getting down to a critical stage right now in terms of the timing," Colorado River Water Conservation District Engineer Dan Birch said.

The River District, partnering with the Recovery Implementation Program for Endangered Fishes of the Upper Colorado, has made plans to enlarge Elkhead Reservoir to nearly double its water storage capacity.

The project is expected to cost $19.5 million. Of that, the river district will pay $10.8 million and the recovery program $8.7 million.

Keeping the costs low is an integral part of the river district's desire to begin construction as soon as possible.

"It's a very favorable climate for construction pricing," Birch said. "Any delay just creates a little more uncertainty as to prices."

Birch said the various agreements need to be in place by April for the river district's board to agree to fund the final engineering -- a process that takes six months and will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"Any time you're dealing with different federal, state and local agencies, there are complications that come up," Birch said. "They've come up and we're dealing with it.

"The good news is that although the agreements are complicated, people are really working together and there's a spirit of cooperation and willingness to get this done."

If agreements are reached, the reservoir will be under construction through 2006 and reopen in 2007.

"If we don't start final engineering in April, it will set back construction by a year; that's the bottom line for us," Birch said.

The expansion requires that the reservoir be drained during the construction process with a 5,000 acre-foot conservation pool left to house fish already living in the reservoir.

The expansion of Elkhead Reservoir will add nearly 13,000 acre-feet to the reservoir's water storage. An acre foot is equal to 300,000 gallons of water. A portion of that water will be leased by the River District to anyone who may need it. The remainder will belong to the recovery program and will be released to maintain endangered fish habitat during low flow times in the Yampa River. The city of Craig and the Yampa Valley Participants -- owners of the Craig Station Power Plant -- will continue to hold the same water rights they have currently with the option to purchase more.

The surface of the reservoir is expected to increase 15 percent to 20 percent.

Birch is optimistic about the river district's ability to get agreements in place by April.

"As an engineer, it's a little frustrating at times," he said. "You'd like to be doing more concrete things, but it's a little more complicated than that."

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 210 or by e-mail at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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