Proposed reservoir, pipeline, exchange could have impacts to fish and environmental flows

  • By Heather Sackett, Special to the Planet
Ouray Water
Ouray County Water Users Association wants to build a 260-foot dam at this location on Cow Creek that would hold about 25,000 acre-feet of water. One goal would be to lessen daily flow fluctuations, especially during spring runoff. (Photo by Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism)

Water users in Ouray County are hoping to satisfy water shortages with what they say is a multi-beneficial reservoir and pipeline project. But the Ram’s Horn reservoir, Cow Creek pipeline and exchange are facing opposition from the state of Colorado and others. 

The complicated, three-pronged project proposes to take water from Cow Creek and pipe it into Ridgway Reservoir, take water from local streams via ditches and store it in the reservoir, and build a new dam and reservoir on Cow Creek. This stored water would eventually be sent downstream to be used by the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (UVWUA). 

The project applicants — Ouray County, Tri-County Water Conservancy District, Ouray County Water Users Association and the Colorado River Water Conservation District — say they need 20 cubic feet per second of water from Cow Creek. Cow Creek is a tributary of the Uncompahgre River with headwaters in the Cimarron mountains. Cow Creek’s confluence with the Uncompahgre River is below Ridgway Reservoir, which is why an upstream pipeline would be needed to capture the water and bring it into the reservoir.

The applicants are also seeking to build Ram’s Horn Reservoir on the upper reaches of Cow Creek, which would hold about 25,000 acre-feet of water behind a 260-foot-tall and 720-foot-long dam. Ram’s Horn would help regulate what are known as diurnal flows during spring runoff — streamflows are higher during the day as the snow melts with warming temperatures, and lower at night as snow re-freezes. UVWUA says they can’t adjust their headgates to capture the high point of this daily fluctuation in flows, leaving the water to run downstream unused. The project would capture these diurnal peaks.

Goal to prevent a call

The goal of the project is to prevent the UVWUA — one of the big senior water rights holders in the Gunnison River basin — from placing a call on the river. 

When the UVWUA, which owns the Montrose & Delta Canal and has a 1890 water right, is not able to get its full amount of water, it places a call on the river. This means upstream junior water rights holders, like Ouray County Water Users, have to stop using water so that UVWUA can get its full amount. According to a state database, the M&D Canal has placed a call three times this summer, most recently from July 12 to 22. In 2020, the call was on for nearly all of July and August. Under Colorado water law, the oldest water rights have first use of the river. https://www.telluridenews.com/tncms/block/1798244/?disableTNStatsTracker=1

By releasing the water stored in either Ridgway or Ram’s Horn reservoirs to satisfy a UVWUA call, Ouray County Water Users Association would then be able to continue using its own water. 

The Glenwood Springs-based River District, which advocates to keep water on the Western Slope, is a co-applicant of the project.

“This (project) is consistent with the River District’s goals and objectives with supporting our constituents and making sure they have a reliable water supply,” said Jason Turner, River District senior counsel. https://www.telluridenews.com/tncms/block/1798244/?disableTNStatsTracker=1

Potential impacts to fish, instream flows

But some state agencies, environmental groups and others have concerns about the project. Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Colorado Water Conservation Board have both filed statements of opposition to the application, which was originally filed in December 2019, amended in January and is making its way through water court. CPW claims that its water rights in the basin, which it holds for the benefit of state wildlife areas, fisheries and state parks, could be injured by the project. CPW owns nearly a mile of access to Cow Creek on the Billy Creek State Wildlife Area.

Between August 2019 and January 2020, CPW recorded water temperatures of Cow Creek and found they exceeded a state standard for trout. A report from CPW aquatic biologist Eric Gardunio says that the proposed project would likely cause an even bigger increase in water temperatures, resulting in fish mortality. 

“The flow and temperature analysis for Cow Creek indicates that the water rights application has the likelihood to damage or eliminate the native bluehead sucker population as well as the rest of the fishery in the downstream end of Cow Creek through the degradation of water quantity and quality,” the report reads. 

While less water in Cow Creek could result in temperatures that are too high for trout, water released from the proposed Ram’s Horn reservoir could be too cold for bluehead suckers. https://www.telluridenews.com/tncms/block/1798244/?disableTNStatsTracker=1

“There’s going to be some changes to temperature and what our temperature data has outlined is that the species are at their extreme ends,” Gardunio said. “It’s nearly too cold for bluehead sucker and it’s nearly too warm for trout, so changes in temperature are going to have an impact to one or the other of the fishery.” 

The Colorado Water Conservation Board opposes the project because they said it could injure the state’s instream flow water rights. Instream flow rights are held exclusively by the CWCB to preserve the natural environment to a reasonable degree. Ram’s Horn reservoir would inundate a section of Cow Creek where the CWCB currently holds an instream flow right. 

“The application does not present sufficient information to fully evaluate the extent to which the CWCB’s instream flow water right may be injured,” the statement of opposition reads. 

Environmental group Western Resource Advocates also opposes the project. Ram’s Horn Reservoir, with conditional water rights owned by Tri-County Water Conservancy District, is one of five reservoirs planned as part of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Dallas Creek Project, which dates to the 1950s. Ridgway Reservoir is the only one of the five that has been built. https://www.telluridenews.com/tncms/block/1798244/?disableTNStatsTracker=1

Complex exchange

The third piece of the proposed project is what’s known as an exchange, where water would be conveyed via existing ditches connecting tributaries above Ridgway Reservoir. The exchange water would be stored there and released when senior downstream water users need it, which would benefit upstream water users. In addition to Cow Creek, the applicants are proposing to take water from Pleasant Valley Creek, the East and West Forks of Dallas Creek, Dallas Creek and the Uncompahgre River to use in the exchange. 

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 4 Engineer Bob Hurford laid out the issues his office has with this exchange in his summary of consultation. He recommended denial on the exchange portion of the application until the applicants list the specific ditches participating in the exchange and their locations, and agree that they are responsible for enlarging the ditches so they can handle the increased capacity of water.

“I have to have actual ditch names, the owners of the ditches have to be willing to participate and it has all got to be tracked to a tenth of a cfs,” Hurford said. “It’s not a loosey-goosey thing. It has to be dialed in and defined precisely.” 

Another criticism of the project is that it won’t provide water directly to water users in Dallas Creek, which according to a report by Wright Water Engineers, is the most water-short region of the Upper Uncompahgre basin. Even if Dallas Creek water users participate in the exchange, in dry years still there may not be enough water in local creeks for them to use. https://www.telluridenews.com/tncms/block/1798244/?disableTNStatsTracker=1

“This project has been sold as the savior of agriculture in Ouray County but this project will not provide wet water that would not otherwise be available to anybody that is an ag producer,” said Ouray County water rights holder and project opponent Cary Denison. “I don’t know one irrigator who is saying we need to build Ram’s Horn Reservoir.” 

The project application is making its way through water court and applicants say they are continuing to negotiate with opposers. A status report is due in October. Attorney for the Ouray County Water Users Association and River District board representative Marti Whitmore said they want to make sure it’s a multi-purpose project that benefits everyone.

“Fish flows and recreation uses are important, so we are just trying to work out terms and conditions that are a win-win for everyone,” she said.

escape north


The Brit/Mark Rawstoned enjoying tacos and cerveza at Rancho Desperado
The Brit enjoying some shade after his escape from Texass heat
There I was, no shit!
The depraved stealing from the community garden
The Brit and Lisa talking story under the palapa
Hijra gang leader checking out local real estate


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The Sacred and the Revolution (by Ian M. Thompson, 1975)

This story sailed me back forty years! I knew Sandy Thompson and still know Dick Unruh from those days of the Colorado Plateau Rendezvous and other adventures. And I’m friends with Johnathan Thompson and never made the connection that he was Sandy’s son.. What a kick in the ass.



Jonathan P. ThompsonAug 6

Editor’s Note: While going through a bunch of my father’s old writing, I came across a copy of the Deep Creek Review, a publication based in Telluride in the mid-1970s. Along with an article titled “Fear and Loathing,” about a major crackdown on drugs in the community, I found this piece by my late-father, Ian M. Thompson, written when he was 34. This essay ran in conjunction with that year’s Colorado Plateau Rendezvous in Telluride. Thompson was a writer, journalist, and community advocate. He died in 1998. 

We’ll return with regular Land Desk content on Monday. 

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Colorado Plateau Rendezvous, Telluride, Colorado, 1975

My People:

Let me say at the outset: My family began filtering into the San Juan region of the Colorado Plateau nearly a century ago and I am a fourth generation resident of the San Juan country. I emphasize this not because it makes me more qualified to speak to the issues raised by the Colorado Plateau Rendezvous. I say it because as I point an accusing finger at the wrongs wrought by our “traditional values” I do not wish to appear free of blame. We “natives” have done our part to destroy this beautiful place. The zeal with which we have pursued the routing of nature from the Colorado Plateau is far from exhausted.

We cringe at the prospects of oil shale development and coal strip-mining and the horrors they will visit upon our already desecrated region. We mourn our dammed, stilled, silted rivers. We shudder at the approach of a tidal wave of outsiders drawn by money’s gravity to build the dams, gasification plants, power plants, highways, transmission corridors, and refineries. We see the cultural fabric of our small, humane communities ripped apart and the shreds thrown to the wind as boom becomes bust. We heap scorn on subdividers.

Why do we cringe and shudder? Our dreams are being realized. We are getting, finally, what we have always wanted and feared we would never obtain: Prosperity, the good life. Why, now that it is at last within reach, do we view it with such reluctance, wish to send it back over the mountains from whence we lured it in the first place?

Fooled again, we simply attracted more transient exploiters. Hardhatlessness is no virtue.


One of my most vivid early childhood memories is of standing on the porch of our isolated farmhouse on a mesa near Durango and watching the approach of the first regularly scheduled airliner ever to land in southwest Colorado. Later there were an airshow and many speeches by local civic leaders hailing the dawn of a new era. The predictions of these wise men have been fulfilled a hundred times over, and the social order led by those wise men now lies close to the bottom of the new social edifice that progress and the newcomers built. Those prominent men who spoke to the awed assemblage of dirt farmers that day are now part of the disenfranchised, bitter “oldtimers” group here. They sought to make destiny only to have destiny bury them. They are for the most part now anonymous. They are local color. They are the repositories of our “traditional values.” They are truly “my people.”

I remember, too, reading the signs on the outer limits of the far-flung villages of the San Juan: “Switzerland of America,” “Hollywood of the Rockies,” “Narrow Gauge Capital of the World,” “Pinto Bean Capital of the World,”… signs that shouted: Come One, Come All, See What We Have Wrought. I believed those signs. I was proud of our mountains, our streams, our “scenery.” It was a possessive pride. It never occurred to us that this beautiful landscape had existed here before us, that we had not fashioned it with our own hands. How great was our pride. We viewed our heritage, our natural landscape the way a merchant views a window display, not as objects of our own appreciation, but as objects to be valued only if valued by others who were lured into our premises by them. We saw our mountains only if they were first seen and commented upon by visiting flatlanders. Then we could barely conceal our pride.

I have seen the satisfaction, the look of having performed a god-ordained act of cleansing, settle across the faces of farmers and ranchers upon the slaying of a cougar or a coyote. I have thrilled to those hunts myself.

I have seen the petty jealousies which destructively turn our Plateau communities against one another. They lurk just under our Main Streets yet, ready to be loosed by self-serving local functionaries.

In the less than three-and-a-half decades of my lifetime I have seen the rapid-fire arrivals and departures of the uranium and oil booms, the arrivals always welcomed by banner headlines on our small-town front pages, the departures hushed and unspeakable. I have seen the much hailed recreation boom mushroom across our Plateau with its gross commercial and real estate intentions thinly disguised as “ski resorts” with its garish billboards, its restaurant and motel strips, its transient workers thinly disguised as evangelists preaching an ecological gospel … evangelists who promise to settle among us if they can finance cheap five acre crash pads in our diminishing forests.

I have seen us come to be epitomized, justly so, by Club 20 shrilling into the void in a super patriot’s voice of growth and free enterprise while smugly begging government funds to pave our valleys and denude our forests.

In recent years, in response to vague recognition that something had gone wrong, I joined hundreds of other natives in the long and successful fight to establish the Weminuche Wilderness Area, only to see it already trampled under the fashionable boots of the present generation, destroyed before the future generations it was intended for are ever born. Fooled again, we simply attracted more transient exploiters. Hardhatlessness is no virtue.

In recent years, blindly groping at straws, we have fought for and won land-use administrators in our counties. With rare exceptions these land-use administrators have drawn five-acre grids across our mesas, valleys and mountains; have segregated land uses in ways that do violence to nature’s logic; hide in their offices in fear of the storm of human passions they have brewed across our Plateau; blame Denver; busy themselves mightily begging next year’s funds from Denver; discuss, in closed meetings with other bureaucrats, the need for greater public involvement; spin fantasies in which all but the most enlightened and agreeable citizens vanish from their areas of jurisdiction; preach land-use doctrines which are a greater wedge between man and man and man and earth than all of Peabody’s draglines.

I tell you about us, the above, because I suspect there is some misguided, potentially destructive myth-making afoot among us. We and our “traditional values” are expected to inhabit those myths. We are being groomed, being taught to perform. So far we show promise of living up to expectations. It is tempting. We are to be enshrined … we will exist at last in the eyes of others and, therefore, know that we ARE! We never dreamed that the flatlanders would turn their enchanting gaze from our mountains to ourselves. All we need to remember is our lines, to catch our cues. We will do ourselves very, very proud. We will be taught simple phrases on how much we love this land, this Plateau. “Love,” too, is possessive.

A Navajo man recently stood up at an environmental impact hearing in Window Rock, after enduring a long line of Anglo environmentalist witnesses, and said:

“Willa Cather was not a Navajo, Oliver LaFarge was not a Navajo, and all the students and professors at Berkeley are not Navajo. Yet they all presume to tell me what we Navajos consider sacred. I hope that just one Anglo will come up here and tell me what Anglos consider sacred.”

None did.

The immensity of that Navajo man’s challenge overwhelms me. I have tried and failed to find ways of escaping it. I, too, now wish to know what I, we, consider sacred. Sacred, sacred, sacred … the word contains immensities of its own. That one word stands poised against other words and phrases we favor: Reason, Policy, Progress, Pursuit of Happiness, Individualism, Traditional Values, History, Humanism.

Sacred, sacred, sacred … the word has pushed me to the edges of terra incognita. I am frightened, saddened, can barely control the impulse to audibly, visibly grieve. Over what? One comfort, I find that I am not alone. There are many more like me here with me, each sent by different revelations.

I grew up believing, as each of us raised in these Plateau villages believed, that to emigrate to the coastal cities was, itself, to succeed. No one ever put it to us in quite that way, but we all knew emigration to be a mark of success, of worth. I have tried to leave. I have not been able to stay away for long. That is my first clue. My soul cannot travel with me, my soul remains here on the west-sloping mesas, in the aspen groves, in the sculpted side canyons, along the desert rivers, in the banners of snow whipped from the peaks, in the wildness, in the fields, in the towns.

Now I know that we do not have to leave here to feel pain. We are brought to agony with each dynamite blast in the crust of the Plateau and in the ether of our souls, with each mouthful of the scattered fragments consumed by the draglines and furnaces, with each new five-acre tract, with each newly arrived savior who promises to stay if he can just find a woodsy crash pad. These are violences committed on our souls.

Now I know that after a century here the sacredness is at last seeping into our very genes.

There are places where this land talks to us in a silent voice. I cannot yet write of them. We all know where those sacred places are.

There are consonants and vowels tumbling through our own arteries to match those spoken by the rivers, mountains, and woods of the Plateau, waiting to become the sacred phrases.

We have, for a century, erred in many ways, not always willfully. The land speaks, is worthy of our worship. It makes us whole. We have not stopped to listen, to worship. We are just beginning.

Let us resist the preservation of our “traditional values” as surely as we must resist the draglines. Let us resist learning our colorful lines as surely as we must resist the destruction of the Colorado Plateau in a last brief, desperate, doomed attempt to save our fossil fuel addiction from its last agony.

Let us sit in the aspen grove, the canyon, on the peak, by the river until the sacredness wells up irrevocably within us and begins speaking. Let us, then, speak it to one another. And when we can bring to Reason, Policy and the Pursuit of Happiness a dimension of Sacredness we will have begun the revolution.

Forever yours,

Ian (Sandy) Thompson

Durango, Colorado Plateau



For cyclists in Durango, Colorado, Sepp Kuss’s Tour de France stage win brought joy, memories, and good vibes.

JULY 15, 2021


At the Kuss family home in Durango, Colorado, Dolph and Sabina Kuss screamed into the television this past Sunday, watching their son, Sepp, navigate the twists and turns on his bicycle as he descended the Col de Beixalis during stage 15 of the Tour de France, thousands of miles away in Andorra.

Behind Kuss, Alejandro Valverde gave chase, hoping to challenge the American for the stage win.

“Come on Seppy, take a risk,” shouted Dolph, a two-time Olympic cross-country skiing coach for Team USA in 1964 and 1972. “I was encouraging him on that downhill so he wouldn’t have to battle Valverde out for the last few seconds going into the finish. Sepp, of course, I know he’s not void of downhill skills. When they would show the splits – 18, 20, down to 15, back to 16 – oh man, every one of those second losses felt like they sucked the wind out of you, and every gain brought you to life.”

Sabina, herself a cyclist who has conquered the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic from Durango to Silverton on numerous occasions, at times with her son in tow during his early days on a bike, said she could watch him without fear as he reached speeds as high as 50 mph on the downhill for the first time in her life.

“Thank goodness there was no rain,” Sabina Kuss told VeloNews. “We know Sepp is a good descender, so this was the first time I could relax, and I took every curve with him.”

As Dolph and Sabina proudly looked on, Sepp held off Valverde, and coasted across the line to take the biggest victory of his professional cycling career. In doing so, he became the first American in a decade to win a stage of the Tour de France.

Back in Durango, Colorado, where Sepp grew up, the victory sent ripples through the community. Those who knew him best had just watched him do what he had done so. many times on a mountain bike throughout his childhood. And in the days after the victory, these friends explained how Kuss’s win reverberated throughout the mountain town in Southwestern Colorado, that has produced so many great cyclists before.

“Back in 2017 when he was racing domestically for Rally Cycling, Sepp, Howard Grotts and I rode the South Boundary Trail from Angel Fire to Taos in New Mexico,” said pro mountain bike and gravel racer Payson McElveen of Durango.

“It was a super long descent and pretty technical in the end. I don’t think Sepp had ridden his mountain bike in like nine months or something crazy because he had been focused on the road. But he just hops on his mountain bike, and he was ripping, and he was even wearing road pedals and road shoes. Howie and I had just gotten off a full mountain bike season, and Sepp had absolutely not lost a beat.

“So when he dropped into that descent on the Tour, I had a pretty good feeling he was just going to absolutely rip it. It was easy to believe in his massive bank of skills at this point,” McElveen added.

Dreams of mountain bike success fill many Durango children at a young age. From his early days working with coach Chad Cheeney at Durango Devo, Kuss was known for his small frame, pointy elbows, strong climbing ability, and the tail whips he would try to throw off even the smallest features on any trail.

“Like everyone, he was into mountain bikes. But he would always ride the road, too,” Cheeney said. “Sepp always had these really cool and funny custom road bikes, beaters he had boughten off eBay or found in the Durango Cyclery recycling section. He’d find these super-light frames and put funky parts on them. We’d go on rides, and his bike would be creaking and rattling loose. He was this cobbler of bikes.”

During his senior year of high school, Kuss made the USA Cycling roster for the UCI mountain world championships, and he was a member of the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory Devo Sweet Elite team put together in Durango. It was made up of under-23 stars such as Kaylee Blevins, Lauren Catlin, Tad Elliott, Grotts, McElveen, and Sarah Sturm along with high school shredders in Kuss and Stephan Davoust, among others.

While none of those riders ever would have gone on to predict the success Kuss would have in road cycling, he left a few clues behind along the way.

“We were at a race in Colorado Springs for Sweet Elite, and Sepp couldn’t make it because he was in Europe for a world cup,” Cheeney said. “We all watched the live timing for it. He started like 130th, and it was a super climbing race. He moved all the way up to like 50th or something. All of us had the tingles, and we looked at each other like, ‘Holy cow, Sepp can really, like really, climb. Before, we all knew he was fast, but that was this world-class moment. Before, you just thought of Sepp as some chill and mellow guy. You never thought of him as a world killer.”

~~~ CONTINUE ~~~

the Ayatollah HŌganie sneaking around like a thief in the night

Seldom Seen (Denny Hogan) deceptively removing his bike from the back of the rŌbert Sag Wagon in Ouray at 05:30 to get a head start on the pack riding to Durango.