In a year when water levels and the threat of devastating wildfires were concerns across the region, 2012 brought an end to a decades-long legal battle over the Telluride’s water supply.
In early December, the Telluride Town Council unanimously approved a comprehensive settlement agreement between the town and the Idarado Mining Company. The agreement shores up Telluride’s ability to develop a new municipal water supply high above town, in Bridal Veil Basin, and streamlines the path toward constructing the new Pandora Water Treatment Plant at the foot of Black Bear Pass.
Upon unveiling the proposed settlement agreement in November, Telluride Town Attorney Kevin Geiger described the Bridal Veil Water System as “one of the more intensive engineering and legal efforts the town has ever undertaken.”
Telluride obtained extensive water rights in Bridal Veil Basin from the Idarado Mining Co. in a 1992 settlement of a lawsuit arising out of the contamination of wells in Town Park. Over the many years of legal processes, the town won the approval to convert historic industrial water rights to municipal use.
Perhaps the most important asset secured by the town is the water storage capacity of Blue Lake.
“What we have in this agreement is a very large reservoir, with an active capacity of 3,800 acre feet, that can be used as a vessel; we have never had anything like that before,” Geiger said. “The purpose of storage is to regulate water over multiple years, storing it in good years, and using it to supplement in bad years.”
“If we have no snowpack, we may be providing water only for the present day,” Telluride Town Councilor Chris Myers said. “This may in hindsight be one of the best decisions we ever made, to pursue an untrammeled storage water source. What we have before us may have imperfections, but I support the settlement. There has been really incredible scrutiny of this, and it has not been taken lightly.”
The landmark agreement did not come without a cost. Construction of the new municipal water system is funded in part by a $10 million bonded debt question approved by Telluride voters in 2005. This money, mobilized in 2010, went over the past two years toward improvement of complicated diversion and conveyance infrastructure that is transports water from Bridal Veil Basin to the site of the new Pandora water treatment plant.
In November, Council approved an additional $2 million transfer of Real Estate Transfer Tax funds from the Capital Improvement Fund to the Water Fund to cover additional costs for the project through 2013.
The early summer drought Telluride experienced this year put a focus on the importance of the final settlement allowing the water system to be completed.
“We were just a fire away from having a crisis in town,” Town Manager Greg Clifton said. “What that translates into is that faucets would have stopped running. The truth is, we averted crisis last summer, but the numbers do not lie: we did not have any margin to play with.”
Idarado, meanwhile, retains assurances that enough water from Bridal Veil Basin will continue to flow into the San Miguel River during low-flow winter months to dilute the zinc discharged by the historic Treasury Tunnel, thus enabling the mining company to adhere to strict state-imposed environmental obligations.