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West Divide/Placita Dam: A brief history

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West Divide/Placita Dam: A brief history

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By Darrell Munsell

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For over a century, ranchers in the Divide Creek area south of Silt and Rifle looked to the Crystal River for irrigation water. Their hopes were lifted by a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation plan to divert water from large reservoirs on the Crystal River to the dry mesas of the Divide Creek area. The plan, the West Divide Project, was included as a priority item in the Colorado River Storage Act of 1956. The project included the construction of two reservoirs on the Crystal; one on Yank Creek, a tributary to Thompson Creek; and two in the West Divide Area.

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The proposed Osgood Dam just south of Redstone would have created a reservoir larger than the Ruedi Reservoir and would have flooded the village of Redstone and the Redstone Castle. The second proposed dam on the Crystal, the Placita Dam, just downstream from the turnoff to Marble, would have created a reservoir that would have flooded the largest and most ecologically valuable wetland in the Crystal River Valley.

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In 1957 the Colorado River Conservation District filed for and obtained conditional water rights for the West Divide Project. The decree stipulated that water from the Crystal River was to be used for “generation of electric energy, domestic and municipal purposes, industrial purposes, including but not limited to the production of oil shale, irrigation purposes, and stock watering purposes.” The water rights would be perfected, or made permanent, upon completion of the project. The West Divide Water Conservancy District was formed in 1964 as the administrative, fiscal, and taxing authority for the project. In short, it was charged with the authority to complete the project.

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The Department of the Interior changed the West Divide Project in 1966 by enlarging the Placita Dam and Reservoir by combining the water rights of the Osgood and Placita reservoirs. When built, the Placita reservoir would back up water nearly to Marble. The main justification for the project was no longer to meet agricultural needs but to provide water for industrial and municipal demands associated with oil shale development. Although the West Divide Project received Congressional authorization in 1968, it was not funded. Along with a host of other reclamation projects, the project was deemed economically infeasible in the late 1970s by President Jimmy Carter’s administration, and the federal government withdrew its support for the project in 1982. Despite this determination, the two river districts have filed diligence applications every six years with the Colorado water court to maintain the conditional water rights of the project with the hope of utilizing them in the future. Clearly, the West Divide District was still determined to construct a dam at Placita.

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No matter how many alternatives to the 1968 plan the Bureau of Reclamation and the West Divide Board considered over the next several years, and there were many, the response to them both nationally and locally was always “economically and politically infeasible.” The ranchers could not afford the water diverted from the Crystal River, and municipal and industrial demand was not forthcoming, especially after the oil shale bust in 1982. But it was the organized local opposition that put a stake in the heart of the project. Nearly from the first year of its founding in 1972, the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA) opposed the construction of dams on the Crystal River and the diversion of its waters. Dedicated environmentalists, the members of the association described the project as a boondoggle that would destroy the river and valley. Throughout the decades-long struggle during which the river districts refused to abandon a conditional right to dam the Crystal River, CVEPA held firm to its position of no dams on and no diversions from the Crystal River.

CVEPA gained strong allies in this struggle to save and protect the Crystal River and Valley. Pitkin County joined the environmental group in the many hearings and lawsuits that were required to defeat the West Divide Project. Other groups supported the effort: Crystal River Caucus, American Rivers, and Trout Unlimited. Finally, in April 2011 the Colorado River District abandoned most of the Crystal River conditional water rights, including the Osgood Reservoir, while maintaining conditional rights for a small 4,000 acre-foot Placita Reservoir. The determination of the river districts to defend the remaining conditional rights in water court once again stirred opposition. Pitkin County, along with American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, CVEPA, and Crystal River Caucus, filed motions challenging the river districts in their effort to maintain the rights. A trial in water court was set for August 2013, but was canceled when the districts reached an agreement with Pitkin County this past June to abandon the West Divide Project that pertained to the Crystal River Valley. At long last, CVEPA’s concerted effort, along with its allies, has, at least for the time, saved the Crystal River and Valley from further environmental degradation.

There is always another campaign to be waged, however.  That campaign has started. CVEPA will be working with Roaring Fork Conservancy, Crystal River Caucus, American Rivers, and Roaring Fork Group of the Sierra Club, to bring about the designation of the Crystal as a Wild and Scenic River. Such a designation will be yet another valuable protection for the Crystal River and Valley.

(The Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association and others asked Darrell Munsell to write this brief history of West Divide and the Placita Dam. It was handed out at Sunday’s “End of the Dam Affair” party in Redstone).

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