History in Focus: Water that wasn’t at the Juniper-Cross Mountain dams
In the mid 1970s the proposed construction of two dams on the Yampa River at Juniper Canyon and the west end of Cross Mountain Canyon would have harnessed the river for hydroelectric power, agriculture, and recreation. Part of a dream and plan dating back to the early 1900’s, the dams are a complicated story of water, economics, endangered species, and changing societal values regarding the Yampa.
The modern impetus for the Juniper-Cross Mountain Project was the Colorado River Storage Act of 1956. This federal legislation led to the construction of four large dams: Flaming Gorge, Lake Powell, Navajo, and a series of three dams along the Gunnison River, the Aspinall Unit.
The legislation also authorized water storage projects on a host of tributaries of the Colorado River. One of these was the Juniper-Cross Mountain Project. In a booming postwar West, the goal of the act was to ensure water for upper basin states while staying true to the Colorado River Compact of 1922. (Colorado River District Policy Statement, 1/18).
The Juniper-Cross Mountain Project was a tantalizing possibility for the citizens of Moffat County. At 220 feet high and 760 feet long, Juniper dam would contain just under 1.1 million acre feet of water, 15,500 acres of surface water, and 114 miles of shoreline. Cross Mountain dam, at 260 feet high and 360 feet long, would hold 208,000 acre feet, 6,280 acres of surface water, and 65 miles of shoreline.
The dams would produce an estimated 350 million kilowatt hours of electricity, jobs at a hydroelectric plant, and irrigate 14,000 acres. With hundreds of campsites, the two fisheries would attract people from around the region. It was a win-win situation for Northwest Colorado! (Steamboat Pilot, 3/27/80).
In 1976, the Colorado River Conservation District began a three year study to plan the Juniper-Cross Mountain Project (Steamboat Pilot 10/14/76). Funding for the 172 million dollar project was secured from the Colorado-Ute Electric Association (owner of the Craig power plant). In July, 1981 final applications were nearing approval. Construction was slated to commence in January of 1982 and the reservoirs would be filled to capacity by 1985 (Steamboat Pilot, 7/23 1981).
In a menacing twist of fate, a perfect trifecta of a national economic recession, bureaucratic rulings, and environmental concerns converged on the project.
In a February 16 meeting at the Cosgriff Hotel the president of Colorado-Ute, Girts Krumins, informed the community of roadblocks facing the two dams. He cited economic troubles in the agriculture and mining sectors. Additionally, sky-high interest rates reached a stifling 14%, adding millions to the project.
Further demands by the Division of Wildlife required an additional 60 square miles of land and construction of a fish hatchery in order to mitigate negative impacts on the area’s wildlife.
The ascending values of environmental and outdoor recreation groups weighed in with concerns about endangered fish (the Colorado Pikeminnow, formerly known as the Squawfish!), bald eagles, elk and deer migratory patterns, and the burgeoning river rafting industry (Steamboat Pilot, 2/18/82).
Momentum sputtered and the dams were never built. Yes, the twin reservoirs would have boosted the local economy with tourist dollars and long lasting employment. On the other hand, the stunning beauty of the underutilized river was preserved for the much smaller economic benefits of rafting and float trips. Almost forty years after the demise of the Juniper-Cross Mountain Project, severe drought is ratcheting up demands for water throughout the West. Without the reservoirs, it’s very possible our river could end up flowing out of Moffat County and into the control of down river states and cities.
James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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