“Can you think of a single dam that was ever taken down?” That was the question posed by one of my fellow members at a Yampa White Green River Basin Roundtable meeting, when someone made the claim that he could not think of a single dam in the United States that had ever been removed. In fact, according to a recent American Rivers report, 69 dams were removed just in 2020 alone in the United States. A total of 1,797 dams have been removed in the U.S. since 1912.
But strategic water storage can make sense, citizens and water organizations in Rio Blanco County are thinking hard about maintenance and improvements to our water structures because they understand how important the White River is to our lives. With a recent state report showing a 19% decline in flow in the White River over the past two decades, these discussions are more important than ever, particularly as Lake Powell, which the White River flows into, and is the source of water and power for millions, is at its lowest historic capacity ever.
While you’ve probably heard a lot about the proposed 66,000 acre Wolf Creek Dam project, which would lie a few miles northeast of Rangely, you probably haven’t heard almost anything about a project that would impact all of us, from one end of our county to the other. A project that in fact already exists and been used to restore stream flow several times already. An option that would benefit the entire county, and cost far less money — Lake Avery.
Sitting near the headwaters of the White River, Lake Avery was built in 1964 with a surface area of 7,000 acre feet. Spring-fed by Beaver Creek, and managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, it is now slated for repairs to the dam, and a possible expansion.
What makes the most economic sense? With a likely cost of $20 to $50 million, a Lake Avery renewal and expansion project would benefit all of Rio Blanco County, versus the much higher cost of new construction for Wolf Creek, because all would benefit, costs could justifiably be covered by all of the county, not just one town.
David Graf, former water expert for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the operator of Lake Avery, said during a recent phone call that a Lake Avery expansion and renovation was estimated to cost between $25 and $30 million. The renovation part is required and must occur.
As with any family, a county must make choices with their budget. Contrast that with a cost to build a new reservoir in far west Rio Blanco of between $300 and $500 million, plus $600,000 annually in pumping costs to pump the water up and over the dam and into the proposed reservoir site every year, a surprise financial hit on every Rangely citizen.
Wolf Creek, despite its name, has no spring or creek feeding it, and thus it comes with an annual bill of $600,000 in utility costs, which Rangely residents will surely receive the bill. Meanwhile the Lake Avery expansion is spring fed and would require no annual costs for electricity and pumping.
How about water loss from evaporation? Unlike Wolf Creek which sits in a low flat shallow desert area with multiple 100-plus Fahrenheit days in the summer, with likely evaporation exceeding three feet of water annually, the existing Lake Avery sits much higher in the headwaters area and would keep water cooler with a significantly reduced evaporative loss. Losing water to evaporative loss is something we can ill afford in these hot dry times.
And finally while the Wolf Creek Dam has been continually disputed over the past six years by the State Water Engineer’s office for not being able to prove any beneficial need or use, Lake Avery is working already and has provided releases over the years to assist in streamflow shortages — helping all users.
A Lake Avery restoration and expansion makes economic sense. Does a Wolf Creek Dam?
Rio Blanco County