Montrose County studies west end water storage project


By Tanya Ishikawa

MONTROSE–Determining whether it’s practical to build a new reservoir is a long, drawn-out process, explained Marc Catlin as he talked about Montrose County’s $966,000 water storage feasibility study in the county’s west end. Sitting in Catlin’s windowless office in downtown Montrose, the high desert mesas where the future reservoir is being contemplated seemed almost as far away as the study’s conclusion.

Catlin’s primary responsibility as the county’s water right development coordinator is overseeing a six-year due-diligence period, begun in 2012 and expected to conclude in 2018, to determine water availability and sustainability as well as a good location and construction costs of a reservoir and dam. Deere & Ault Consultants of Longmont, Colo. and Boise, Idaho were awarded a $300,000 contract by the county in 2015 to conduct engineering studies. Even if results are positive, another six years of environmental impact studies (EIS) will be required before construction could start.

“It’s just gotten harder and harder to build a reservoir, for lots of reasons. It’s not just one sector’s fault. If you get the idea to build a reservoir and store water, you better be in it for the long haul,” he said, adding that the west end project won’t be complete until way after he has retired.

For example, he brought up the Glade Reservoir project outside of Fort Collins, where it took 18 years for the EIS to be completed, even after a good location was selected and water rights were secured. That project proposes to build a $500 million reservoir to store up to 177,000 acre-feet.

Montrose is considering construction of a reservoir to store between 8,000 to 11,000 acre-feet of water from the San Miguel River, for use by the communities around Nucla and Naturita. Ridgway Reservoir, which holds 84,000 acre-feet of water, is eight to ten times larger.

Three locations being studied for Montrose’s reservoir are on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acreage along the Maverick, Big Bucktail and Tuttle draws, and a third alternative is enlarging Nucla Town Reservoir. The proposed uses for the reservoir are consumptive municipal and industrial water and non-consumptive uses such as fishing and recreation, according to the county’s successful application for a $300,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board that is partially funding the studies.

“It’s exciting because we are one of the few storage projects to be funded. There’s a lot of talk about reservoirs but not a lot of action,” commented Catlin, who represents the county on the board of the Colorado River Conservation District and served as the manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water User’s Association (UVWUA) from 2002 to 2011.

“With the new Colorado Water Plan, all of the drainages are saying more storage is the answer for the state of Colorado. I agree with the conclusion that we are going to have to store more water. Colorado has been in a transition. We’ve been very responsive to the environment with fish ladders and pass flows, and we preserved a lot of in-stream flows. We’ve done a good job, and can now figure out how to do storage, too,” he said.

“I don’t think that you will see on-channel reservoirs anymore. These that we are talking about are on a side canyon or on a small creek running into the river, not right on the main stem of the river. Those type of dams block fish from heading back to their spawning grounds. You won’t see them in the near future. You’ll see some of the off-channel reservoirs,” he added.

Still, sediment buildup seems to be a problem that reservoir operators have not adequately solved, and can cause ongoing mechanical issues as well as potential water quality issues downstream if released in large amounts. But, Catlin said while sediment can put a limit on the effective life of some reservoirs, it is not seen as a reason for stopping reservoir construction, and is not expected to be a problem in the proposed west end reservoir.

He pointed to statistics, estimating the state population will double by 2040, as to why water storage needs to be considered for future supply. Whether the west end develops more uranium mines, increases tourism or just grows due to the trend of people moving closer to popular areas like Telluride and Cortez, “there are going to be more people needing water,” explained Catlin, who was born and raised on a row crop farm in Montrose and still farms today.


 Montrose County’s Water Storage Project

  • Montrose County acquired conditional water rights on the San Miguel River equal to 3,200 acre-feet.
  • Since 1 acre-foot of water equals 325,851 gallons, the county’s rights equal about 1.043 billion gallons.
  • The average single-family home uses 80 gallons of water per person each day in the winter and 120 gallons in the summer.1
  • As of 2010, according to U.S. Census data, Nucla has 734 residents and Naturita has 635.
  • The estimated residential water use for the combined populations of Nucla and Narita is 109,520 gallons a day in the winter and 164,280 gallons a day in the summer (about 50 million gallons a year).
  • In Colorado, water is used 86 percent by the agricultural sector, 7 percent by the municipal/residential sector, 3 percent by recreation/fisheries, and 2 percent by the industry/business, as well as 1 percent for augmentation and 1 percent by recharge.1
  • Reservoirs (water storage areas) are measured in acre-feet while rivers (and flowing water) is measured by cubic feet per second (cfs)
  • Since 1 cfs of water delivers 2 acre-feet in 24 hours, 1 acre-foot is delivered by .5 cfs of water in 24 hours.
  • Montrose County’s 3,200 acre-feet is equal to 1,600 cfs (in 24 hours), but the county would not take all that water out in one 24-hour period (part of the current study is to determine how much water would be available for storage over what period of time).
  • The San Miguel River (at Brooks Bridge near Nucla) has had peak daily flows ranging from 508 cfs in 2001 to 3290 cfs in 1998, as reported by the U.S. Geological Survey Colorado Water Data maintainer website.
  • The peak flows for the San Miguel River for the last five years reported were: 2400 cfs in 2014, 740 cfs in 2013, 778 cfs in 2012, 1740 cfs in 2011, 2770 cfs in 2014.


1 Source: Colorado Watershed Assembly