History in Focus: Another dam … Damnit!

James Neton
History in Focus

The story of Moffat County has always been inextricably linked to water. 

Plans to harness every precious drop criss-cross the pages of the local newspapers from the earliest days of settlement. One of the most recent, yet previously unknown to me, is the Savery-Pot Hook project of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Plans to build dams along Savery and Slater Creeks, both tributaries of the Little Snake River, begin with the Colorado River Storage Act of 1956. This federal legislation allowed upper Colorado basin states to hold water for their use while ensuring compliance with the 1922 Colorado River Compact by creating steady downstream flows to the lower basin states.  

As this legislation was being considered, the Colorado legislators hoped to cram an additional 18 dam projects into the law, including Savery-Pot Hook. It was a classic shotgun approach so at least a few would become a reality (Steamboat Pilot, 1/20/55). As early as 1954, officials and ranchers in Moffat County and Wyoming went to work by creating two committees to advertise and educate legislators about the necessity of Savery-Pot Hook (Steamboat Pilot 4/22/54).  

Unfortunately, our dams did not survive and make it into the original federal law. Instead, it was one of a long list of ancillary plans to be considered for funding as prioritized by the Secretary of the Interior. 

Undeterred, Congressman Wayne Aspinal of our 4th District, along with a few others, introduced a bill to amend the 1956 act to include Savery-Pot Hook. Similar legislation was introduced in the Senate by Wyoming representatives.  

In April of 1963, Aspinall’s efforts culminated in one of the most unique political events in the history of Moffat County. He somehow managed to drag the entire subcommittee of Interior and Insular Affairs, various Colorado officials, along with reporters all the way out to Craig for a full blown Congressional hearing (Empire-Courier, 4/16/63).

A rough sketch of the proposed Savery-Pot Hook project was published in the Emipire-Courier on Feb. 16, 1961.
Museum of Northwest Colorado newspaper archives

On April 16, after a half-hour delay due to a spring snowstorm, the committee landed at the Craig airport. After a luncheon at the Cosgriff Hotel, the congressman took a field trip to the Pot Hook dam site in cars provided by the Chamber of Commerce. Upon returning to Craig, the subcommittee convened at the fairgrounds pavilion hall and heard testimony about the project from a variety of state officials, wildlife managers and ranchers.

Aspinall’s ploy worked. In 1964, the original legislation was amended to include the Savery-Pot Hook dams. It was a big win for the economy of Moffat County.

The Savery reservoir, about 18 miles north of the state line, was projected to hold 16,600 acre feet of water. The Pot Hook dam, situated about one mile south of the state border and named after a ranch centered on Slater Creek, would hold a peak of 60,000 acre feet. In total the reservoirs would irrigate 28,740 acres through 52 miles of canals. The two reservoirs would also play host to prime camping, boating and fishing opportunities (CO Water Conservation Board, 1977).

As is the case with anything that involves the federal government, the project was subjected to the grinding bureaucratic process of various studies, approvals and funding. A series of yearly reports by the Colorado Water Conservation District shows how the project sunk into the quagmire of government regulations: core drilling for the dams wasn’t started until 1965, negotiations over repayment of construction costs by the managing water districts needed to be hashed out, a preliminary environmental impact study wasn’t released until 1972, and disruptions to big game migrations became an issue. 

Further, Moffat County Roads 1 and 2 had to be maneuvered around the Pot Hook dam site. Archeological assessments took a long time to complete.  Due to the isolated location of the enterprise, it was difficult to generate support for federal funding (‘73,’75,‘76,‘77 and ‘78). 

By 1975, the plan was endangered. Costs had ballooned from $15 million to $45 million, and federal funds had been “frozen” (Steamboat Pilot, 8/28/75).  With the election of Jimmy Carter, the Department of the Interior finally killed the faltering project, despite previous congressional approval.

In 2004, Wyoming completed the High Savery Reservoir on its own, but Moffat County’s half of the project was never built.  The loss of the Savery-Pot Hook reservoir is yet another example of a strand of bad luck that tends to float around and through our local history.  

James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School and can be contacted at Special thanks to Dan Davidson, director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado, for help with research and access to the museum’s newspaper archives. 

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