Proposed reservoir expansion would destroy treasured Bear Creek Lake Park

Bear Creek Lake Park.
Photo courtesy of Alison Tamborlane

By: Konrad Flæte Gundersen

BEAR CREEK LAKE PARK – A beloved 2,624-acre park upstream from a small reservoir in southwest metro Denver faces an uncertain future as government engineers preparing for climate change propose to store more water here, threatening to submerge fragile riparian ecosystems in a push to maximize drought resilience. 

But people who cherish the park as an island of natural space for recreation – hiking, birdwatching, solace with family and friends – have organized a “Save It” campaign opposing the reservoir expansion. Over 500,000 people a year flock to the park, Lakewood park management employees say, including low-income and Spanish-speaking residents from around Denver who lack parks closer to their homes. 

The park lies at the base of mountain foothills, along Bear Creek and Turkey Creek, and serves as space for “wonderful meditation, embracing nature, peace, quiet, and beauty which feeds our souls,’’ said Deb Neligh, a Lakewood resident who visits almost daily with her husband, Dave. 

Deb gathered along with other Save Bear Creek Lake Park members on a recent morning under blue skies, amid cottonwood trees radiating vibrant yellow and orange, and displayed anti-expansion t-shirts, posters, brochures and vehicle bumper stickers and magnets.  

Robert Raker (left) and Katie Gill (right), members of Save Bear Creek Lake Park.
Photo by Konrad Flæte Gundersen

Led by retired schoolteacher Katie Gill, they’re challenging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Colorado Water Conservation Board proposal at the feasibility study stage, with the support of Lakewood officials who run the park and collect $10 visitation fees from visitors who enter in cars.  

The government proposal would increase the water in the reservoir, which currently contains 2,000 acre-feet, by as much as ten times, adding up to 20,000-acre feet, according to the state and federal project documents. That’s enough water to sustain, by traditional estimates, 40,000 households. The concept envisions increased water supplies for high-growth northern Front Range urban housing developments near Brighton.

Diagram showing the potential increases of Bear Creek Reservoir.
Photo from the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s website

A dam completed in 1982 created the reservoir, for the purpose of flood control based on damages caused by South Platte River Basin flooding in 1965. The engineers call their proposed expansion the Bear Creek Reallocation Project, because it would shift the designation of the reservoir from flood control to water storage. Aridification across the southwestern United States amid global warming has led to a two-decade drought, straining existing water supplies for cities and agriculture. 

At a time of increasingly frequent droughts, the Bear Creek reservoir expansion would ‘’address water supply and demand gaps,’’ according to a project summary on the CWCB’s website. A maximum expansion would store 20,000 acre-feet more water, but state officials also are considering smaller expansions that would add 5,000 acre-feet or 10,000 acre-feet of water. Government officials indicated they’ll consider public comments, as required by law. 

Expanding the reservoir to the maximum proposed level would inundate more than half the park here, submerging heavily used hiking trails and picnic areas.  

The riparian habitat here is home to coyotes, deer, bobcats, and birds, including hawks, owls, eagles and migratory species such as warblers. On many weekends, park officials say, picnic spaces are occupied before 10 a.m. and visitation must be restricted.  

Riparian ecosystems like this habitat along Bear and Turkey creeks are essential for wildlife, sustaining 70% of the species that the U.S. government classifies as threatened or endangered, according to an Oregon State University Extension Service document. Riparian habitat makes up about 2% of the western United States. 

‘’We’re trying to speak up for all that nature that cannot be replaced,’’ said Alison Tamborlane, a member of the opposition group who often rides her bicycle along a paved route through the park on her way to work.  

The Save Bear Creek Lake Park campaign has retained the services of attorney James Eklund, a former CWCB official and architect of Colorado’s water plan, Gill said. 

The campaign has attracted the attention of Gary Wockner, director of Save the Colorado River, who has fought dam and reservoir proposals around the West.  

Gill said she fears her group may have to settle for a compromise, having heard from politicians that “maximum storage is how we get to drought resilience” needed as the climate becomes hotter and drier with periodic bursts of intense rain and less mountain snowpack.  Park lovers might have to accept an inundation that increases the water in the reservoir by 5,000 acre-feet, she said. “Elected officials don’t want to talk to me if I’m in that ‘not one drop’ camp.’’ 

Wockner met with the residents at the park and bristled at the prospect of compromise. 

Gary Wockner with his dog, Joe, in Bear Creek Lake Park.
Photo by Konrad Flæte Gundersen

That approach becomes “just a matter of how good you can lose,” he said in an interview. He advocates lawsuits, if necessary, to stop water storage projects, at least until water conservation is increased as a more sustainable alternative. North of metro Denver, his efforts over two decades have stalled construction of proposed new water storage reservoirs along the Cache la Poudre River.

“Defend your backyard. Defend the nature around you,” Wockner said, urging preservation of natural processes along creeks and rivers that still can be saved. 

‘’Rivers,” he said, “are like the veins and arteries of the planet.’’

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