An ongoing study to increase water capacity Bear Creek Lake could lead to a loss of popular park trails, shady groves of mature trees, and wildlife and bird habitat.
A $3 million, three-year “feasibility study” by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the U.S. Army Crops of Engineers is underway with the potential to reallocate 20,000 acre-feet of water at the reservoir, according to expansion proposals.
Completed in 1977, the Bear Creek Dam and Reservoir Project (Bear Creek Lake) is located at the confluence of Bear and Turkey creeks, about 10 miles southwest of Denver. The reservoir currently holds about 2,000 acre-feet of water in Bear Creek Lake Park, a popular recreation area that sees about 600,000 paying visitors annually with thousands of additional park users who stream in daily on foot, bicycle and horseback.
A reallocation of 20,000 acre-feet of water would submerge close to 500 acres in the park, land now used by hikers, bikers, bird watchers and people picnicking in the shade. Submerged park land would include about a mile stretch of Bear Creek and Turkey Creek.
“Those places are the heart and lungs of the park, the quieter inner places where you don’t hear traffic, where you hear wildlife and birds singing,” said Katie Gill, a park user and founder of Save Bear Creek Lake Park, a grassroots organization advocating for minimal change to the park. “It would really change the character, dramatically change the character, of the park.”
Driving the study and its proposals is the 2015 Colorado Water Plan and a looming, water supply demand with an alarming deficit. By 2050, the statewide municipal and industrial water supply gap is projected to be between 250,000 and 750,000 acre-feet per year, said Erik Skeie, special projects coordinator with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“Those are pretty scary numbers,” Skeie said.
Water supply planners estimate that a typical household needs about 0.4 to 0.5 acre-feet of water per year (around 150,000 gallons) for home and property use. One acre-foot of water is about the size of a football field under one foot of water.
When built by the Army Corps of Engineers, Bear Creek Lake, as part of a trio of projects along with Cherry Creek and Chatfield reservoirs, was purposed for flood control, recreation, municipal and industrial water supply, and fish and wildlife enhancement with a majority of the reservoir being used for flood control. The reservoir at Bear Creek has capacity to store about 57,600 acre-feet of water. It currently stores about 2,000 acre-feet.
The feasibility study is looking at a wide range of options and data, including potential benefits of reallocation, potential impacts of reallocation, and outcomes that should be realized or avoided.
“This reservoir is not a silver bullet, it’s not the only thing we are looking at,” Skeie said. “This is a piece of the puzzle.”
Potential water partners, entities that would purchase and use allocated water from Bear Creek Lake, have been identified and contacted, according to a feasibility study memo. The potential customers, Brighton, Evergreen Metropolitan District, Hidden Valley Water District, Berthoud, Dacono and Foothills Parks and Recreation, would “account for roughly 16,850 AF (acre-feet) of the potential 20,000 AF reallocation.”
An “environmental pool” has been identified by study staff and as much as 4,550 acre-feet of water could be made available to satisfy such a need, according to the memo.
A 20,000 acre-feet reallocation of water would change the 2,624-acre park’s recreational character from “land-based to water-based,” the memo said. Trails being submerged could impact “multiple special events” at the park, managed by Lakewood, “likely causing permanent cancellation” and impacting up to 4,000 recreational participants.
A virtual public meeting on the feasibility study was held in October and about 200 people attended.
“There was a significant turnout of people who are very supportive of the park as it exists now,” said Drew Sprafke, parks supervisor for Lakewood.
A virtual public meeting of the Colorado Water Conservation Board on Nov. 17 addressed potential reallocation and water rights at Bear Creek Lake, among other topics.
The majority of Bear Creek Lake Park is owned by the U.S. government, the Army Corps of Engineers. As part of a lease agreement, Lakewood operates and manages recreational facilities, including trails and lands, at the park.
Soda Lake, a popular swim beach within the park that is not connected to Bear Creek Lake, is owned outright by Lakewood. The Soda Lake beach would not be submerged by a 20,000-acre-feet increase in Bear Creek Lake, according to study mapping. The swim beach would be more likely to flood during heavy rains or intense spring mountain snow-melt runoffs, as it did in 2013 and 2015, if Bear Creek capacity is dramatically increased.
“We’ve been involved in the decision making for multiple years now,” Sprafke said. “The general consensus is this would be a huge impact on our park that should be considered. We are not necessarily taking a stance against it (water expansion), but the city is convinced it could considerably alter the character of the park going forward.”
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