August 2021 rally and march in Red Cliff.

Duke Gerber is the third generation of his family to make a life near the Gilman Gorge—the deep cut of earth between Minturn and Camp Hale that links this county’s rustic southern portion to its ritzier north. Gerber’s grandfather lived in Gilman and worked the now-defunct Eagle Mine. His uncle helped build the dam to create Homestake Reservoir in the 1960s, when work was hard to come by. “Back then,” says Gerber, 46, an electrician who serves as mayor of Red Cliff, “it was all about: don’t impede progress.”

That mantra changed by the time Gerber was in high school in the late 1980s. He remembers his father and other locals rallying to oppose the Homestake II project—a series of creek diversions in the Holy Cross Wilderness that would have siphoned even more water to be used in Colorado Springs and Aurora, the second- and third-largest cities in the state. The project was denied by Eagle County, but the two Front Range municipalities—which are known as Homestake Partners—still have water rights in Homestake that they bought from a private developer in the 1950s.

Now, three decades after their last attempt was blocked, Colorado Springs and Aurora are actively working to develop those water rights. And Gerber is among a stalwart contingent of locals and environmental groups fighting to stop them.

Last summer, Homestake Partners received permission to drill 16 test samples in areas below their reservoir, studying the earth’s stability in advance of a potential proposal to build another dam near Whitney Creek. The project has incited staunch opposition from locals, who are worried about losing more of their water to urban communities, and from scientists, who say the area is home to rare fen wetlands that take thousands of years to form and that, crucially, sequester and store carbon, thus slowing climate change.

“Fens are irreplaceable,” says Delia Malone, ecologist and Wildlife Chair at the Sierra Club’s Colorado chapter, who has worked in the Homestake valley. “Once destroyed, we will not see them again.”

Wetlands as a whole cover only about 1.5 percent of Colorado’s landscape, yet more than 80 percent of the state’s wildlife—including a number of species native to Homestake—require wetlands during some part of their life cycle, Malone says. “We don’t want to see the common plants and animals of an area become rare,” she explains. “We need to protect every wetland we have before that happens.”

In addition, more than three-quarters of the Colorado River’s volume comes from small headwater streams like Homestake and Whitney, which flow into the Eagle River en route to the Colorado, which supplies drinking water for 5.5 million users and irrigates 5.5 million acres of cropland from Colorado to Baja California. Runoff into the Colorado already is decreasing, and climate change is exacerbating the problem. “If this were 150 years ago and all the rivers and streams in Colorado were intact, I would say, OK, just this one. But that’s not the case,” Malone says.

Aurora Water spokesman Greg Baker says he understands the pushback. The challenge is that Colorado’s population is growing, and having more people creates a greater need for water. Aurora’s population (currently 386,000) is forecast to double in the next 40 to 50 years, Baker says. He concedes it is not ideal to transport water 150 miles from its source to its tap—Aurora, which shares its utility with Colorado State University, spends $1 million per month in electricity to pump water from the west side of the Continental Divide to the east. But such is reality. 

A representative from the nonprofit Wilderness Workshop performs outreach in Red Cliff last summer to galvanize local opposition to a plan to build another dam on Whitney Creek, a key Eagle River tributary.

We’re sensitive to the concerns with growth, but we still have growth going on, and we have to accept that and do it in a sustainable way,” says Baker, who notes that the partnership is still analyzing data it collected last summer. “We’re not trying to be greedy.”

Last summer, before the test drilling began, the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, which focuses on public land issues across the western part of the state, met with elected officials, business owners, and community members in Minturn and Red Cliff to galvanize opposition. They also organized hikes to the drilling sites, culminating in an August rally in Red Cliff and a march along the Eagle River to its confluence with Homestake Creek.

We don’t think building additional dams is a sustainable way to continue to meet the needs of growing cities on the Front Range,” says Erin Riccio, Wilderness Workshop’s director of community organizing. “We would love to see larger utilities prioritizing water conservation measures to get their needs filled.”

While Baker stresses that a formal proposal might not happen for years or decades, Gerber worries about the cities’ deep pockets and unwavering commitment to developing their rights. “We just have to be diligent and fight them at each stage of it, and if nothing else make it as difficult as we can,” he says. “Nobody wants to see more of our water going somewhere else.” 

 

Visiting Homestake

The mountainous landscape between the town of Red Cliff and Homestake Reservoir, 10.7 miles up Homestake Road/FSR 703 off of Highway 24, offers some of Eagle County’s most pristine recreation opportunities. Much of it is accessed from nearby Gold Park Campground, but if you can’t find a site there, dispersed camping is available on Forest Service land throughout the valley.

Experienced four-wheelers will enjoy the classic (albeit very rugged and unsuitable for your average SUV) 3.8-mile drive up Holy Cross City Jeep Road (FSR 759) to the 1800s ghost town of Holy Cross City. For hikers, backpackers, and trail runners, the options are more plentiful. The 2.7-mile (one way) Whitney Lake Trail (#2002) makes for a perfect day hike, ending at its shimmering namesake after climbing 1,800 feet along Whitney Creek—one of the water sources at risk of being diverted to a reservoir in future years.

For the fitter and more ambitious set, the Missouri Lakes Loop combines two stunning alpine singletracks, along Missouri Creek and Fancy Creek, to form an 8.5-mile circuit through the Holy Cross Wilderness. Popular as an overnight backpacking route or as a day trip (my wife and I did it as a Labor Day trail run one year), the loop climbs and descends 2,600 feet. You can start at either the Fancy or the Missouri trailhead.

For more detailed directions and trail information, stop by the Holy Cross Ranger Station at Dowd Junction off of I-70 at exit 171; fs.usda.gov.

 

 

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