Water Rights

About Saving the Homestake

“Saving the Homestake” is a documentary film about the fight to protect a rare wetland ecosystem in Colorado’s Eagle River watershed from destruction. In telling the story of a proposed dam construction project in Colorado’s Homestake Valley, “Saving the Homestake” highlights how historic water rights and the growing demand for water from exploding populations in the American Southwest exacerbates the climate crisis by threatening the very ecosystems that can save us.

At the edge of the Holy Cross Wilderness, hemmed in by mountains soaring over 14,000 feet, there exists a unique wetland ecosystem in a high elevation glacial valley called the Homestake Valley. The ecosystem that scientists estimate took roughly 10,000 years to form is called a fen. Fens, like the one in the Homestake Valley, develop over thousands of years through the slow decay of wetland plant matter in areas where excess water from rain and snow accumulates to form thick mats called peat. These peat-forming wetlands support more biologically diverse plant and animal communities due to the low acidity of mineral rich groundwater. Peat also stores enormous amounts of carbon. In fact, despite only covering roughly 3 percent of the Earth’s total land area, these rare ecosystems store upwards of 600 gigatons of carbon – twice the entire amount of carbon stored by all of our planet’s forests.

In May of 2020, while the world grappled with the first devastating wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of influential parties that collectively own water rights in Colorado’s Upper Eagle River Basin submitted a special use permit application to the United States Forest Service. The permit would allow the drilling of 10 bore holes 150 feet into the bedrock of the Homestake Valley to examine the feasibility of building a reservoir with the potential to store up to 20,000 acre feet of water. The special use permit was filed as a categorical exclusion which doesn’t require an environmental impact assessment for drilling to begin, however categorical exclusions must be completed within one year of approval. Drilling also needs to be strategically coordinated to start after the avian breeding season which ends August 1, 2021 and before the onset of winter which typically arrives by late October or early November. As the permit stipulates that the bore holes must be filled in as they go, crews will need to drill and fill all 10 bore holes in about 3 months. On March 22, 2021, despite receiving more than 750 letters of opposition, the US Forest Service approved the application.

Flowing through the Homestake Valley is Homestake Creek, a tributary of the Eagle River, one of the Colorado River’s major upper tributaries. Named after a smaller creek that feeds into Homestake Creek, The Whitney Project is the latest effort to build a reservoir near the terminus of the Homestake Valley. Almost all of the stored water would be pumped east back over the Continental Divide through a series of pipes and tunnels to the expanding cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs whose water rights in the area date back to 1952. Projects like these that siphon water from the Western Slope of the continent is one of the reasons the Colorado River hasn’t reached the Gulf of California since 1998.

A lot needs to happen before dam construction can begin including an Act of Congress to modify the boundaries of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area, a section of which would be inundated by the new reservoir. However, regardless of the hurdles that need to be cleared, the approval of this special use permit to allow exploratory drilling already means a section of this incredible ecosystem is going to be destroyed. If the parties with water rights succeed in damming the Homestake, this rare, ancient, beautiful, biologically diverse, carbon storehouse that so many people have cherished for generations, will be lost forever.