Denver Audubon files notice of appeal on Chatfield Reallocation

-A A +A
By Deborah Swearingen

Work on the Chatfield Reservoir Reallocation Project began in late December, but that’s not stopping one local conservation group from fighting it.


The Audubon Society of Greater Denver, housed adjacent to Chatfield State Park, filed a notice of appeal with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on Jan. 2. The group hopes to halt work on the project until the court makes a decision on the appeal.

Chatfield Reservoir was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1975 to control flooding. Due to the growing demand for water along the Front Range, the Army Corps and other participants in the Chatfield Reservoir Reallocation Project studied the pros and cons of adding water storage to the reservoir. According to the project team, the Army Corps approved up to 20,600 acre-feet of additional water storage after two decades of study and evaluation. They plan to use the water for municipal, industrial, agricultural, recreational and environmental uses.

While Tom Browning, general manager of the Chatfield Reservoir Mitigation Company, calls it a “common sense water supply project,” Denver Audubon worries about the longstanding environmental impacts, particularly the destruction of habitats. The organization says the state will lose cottonwood forests, wetlands and free-flowing streams — all of which are essential for wildlife and heavily used by recreationists.

“We’ve created all these wonderful parks and national forests, but now what is happening? We’re piecemeal destroying pieces of those parks,” said Ann Bonnell, Denver Audubon board member. “And we were trying to save wildlife.”

In addition, Denver Audubon says the reallocation project violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act by failing to choose the least environmentally damaging alternative.

Of several ideas to increase water supply, Denver Audubon believes the reallocation team chose the most environmentally damaging one. According to conservation chairman Polly Reetz, other suggestions included using more groundwater, gravel pits or a smaller allocation within the reservoir.

Browning, however, is quick to dispute this, saying the project team has spent “tons of millions of dollars” to help preserve and enhance the environment.

“There was a tremendous amount of study done in detail to look at project alternatives, impacts and mitigations,” he said. “ … Ultimately, the Corps approved it.”

He feels the team has gone above and beyond in planning for mitigation, which will be done off- and on-site at Chatfield State Park. Among other things, the team will plant trees, shrubs and plants and work on stream stabilization before being able to store water.

Construction equipment can now be seen in Chatfield, hauling brush and trees, and much of the western part of the state park is closed to the public. The project is expected to be complete by 2020, but will be done in stages to accommodate the park’s busier seasons.

Chatfield attracts 1.6 million visitors each year and provides park-goers with a sliver of nature just outside a major metropolitan area.

“In terms of having a place where families, and particularly lower income families, can connect with nature … here’s something very close to home,” said Gene Reetz, Audubon technical adviser. “It’s a real treasure.

“ … We don’t question the metro area’s growing. There’s additional need for water. We don’t question the need, but we think there’s much better ways of meeting it.”

It is up to the judge to decide when to respond to the appeal, though Denver Audubon has 40 days from the date the district court certifies its record as complete to then file its opening brief for appeal.

Sameh Afifi with the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law is working on the case pro bono and feels good about the conservation group’s chances. Largely, he cited the “irreparable harm” being caused by the removal of vegetation.

“You can’t choose the most environmentally damaging when you have … other alternatives that are practical, feasible, less environmentally damaging and probably more economic,” he said.

Contact reporter Deborah Swearingen at dswearingen@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1042. Follow her on Twitter @djswearingen.