Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the amount of mitigation funding Denver Water has agreed to pay.
Boulder County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to accept a settlement agreement from Denver Water, giving up the county’s right to review the controversial Gross Reservoir expansion in exchange for $12.5 million in mitigation for nearby residents and the environmental impacts of the project.
Denver Water had sued Boulder County in federal court in July, claiming that because it already had federal permits to begin construction on the Gross Reservoir expansion, it was exempt from the county’s land-use review process. County commissioners had hoped to use that process to alter or stop entirely a project that has been unpopular with local residents and environmentalists.
“I hope the public knows that this decision is so complex,” Commissioner Marta Loachamin said. “If we could stop the expansion, that would be my vote.”
The $12.5 million includes $5 million to mitigate construction impacts on nearby residents, $5.1 million to Boulder County Open Space to purchase new land or repair trails, $1.5 million to mitigate construction greenhouse gas emissions and $1 million for South St. Vrain Creek Restoration. Denver Water will also transfer 70 acres of land near the reservoir to the county to be added to Walker Ranch Open Space.
County commissioners unanimously said that they did not like the settlement agreement or the project as a whole, but felt they could not win in court. And because of the construction timelines imposed by its federal permit, Denver Water said it would pull the settlement offer and continue with litigation if the commissioners did not accept it Tuesday.
“Rejecting this settlement and litigating is not going to get us a better result,” Commissioner Claire Levy said. “Denver Water has the leverage, and the law is not on our side … I’m afraid it would be really reckless and really foolhardy not to settle given Denver Water’s repeated statements that this is it.”
Said Commissioner Matt Jones: “I hate the position that Denver Water has put Boulder County in.”
Gross Reservoir was built in 1954. Although it is located in Boulder County, it is owned and operated by Denver Water. The expansion, which was first proposed in 2003, would raise the dam 131 feet and add 77,000 acre-feet of water to the reservoir. Construction is slated to begin in 2022 and last through 2027.
County officials and environmental groups have long been opposed to the expansion, citing the removal of 240,000 trees and destruction of wildlife habitats that the project will require. They criticized the project as outdated and said it would have deleterious effects on the Colorado River and the Western Slope.
“When you see the scale of it, the environmental destruction, it’s overwhelming,” Jones said.
Officials also cited the loss of recreation areas in the nearby Walker Ranch Open Space and the disturbances to nearby residents as other reasons for their opposition.
Levy said that she agreed with many comments the commissioners received that the $12.5 million offered in the settlement “is not sufficient,” but that the commissioners were backed into a corner.
“I want to say as plainly as I can, I don’t feel we had a choice,” Levy said. “I do feel at the end of the day that accepting the proposal is the right thing to do. It’s my hope that the residents of Denver, the mayor of Denver and Denver City Council wake up to the folly that is this project and put a stop to it.”
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