Denver Water sues river district over Ritschard Dam maintenance

The Ritschard Dam holds water from Wolford Mountain Reservoir, as seen from above. (Courtesy of Colorado River Water Conservation District)

The Denver Water Board of Commissioners filed a lawsuit against a Colorado River agency over the cost of repairs to Ritschard Dam, which holds water that flows to the city from Wolford Mountain Reservoir.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in Grand County District Court and claims that the Colorado River Water Conservation District, a planning agency founded in 1937 as part of the state’s Water Conservancy Act, is responsible for all of the repair costs.

Per an agreement in 1992, Denver Water would pay for the construction of Ritschard Dam for about $43 million, which included design, permitting, mitigation and land acquisition, in exchange for no more than 15,000 acre feet of water annually and the River District would be responsible for maintaining the dam

But Denver Water alleges the agreement also gave it a 45 percent equity share in the dam after the end of 2020, meaning it would be responsible for about that same percentage of maintenance costs.

“On information and belief, the River District delayed ‘required’ repairs for which it is responsible in part to avoid and shift to Denver Water 45.33 percent of the cost of such repairs,” the lawsuit reads. “The River District delayed repairs such that they will not be commenced (much less completed) until after Denver Water takes an ownership interest in the (dam).”

Peter Fleming, an attorney for the River District, said his organization is going to review the complaint but did not have more to say on the lawsuit.

“We want to reiterate that the dam is operating safely and we’re in full compliance of the engineers and approved by the Office of the State Engineer,” Fleming said.

A preliminary report by engineers in 2015 estimated the cost of repairs at the time would have been about $15 million, according to the lawsuit.

In January 2019, the lawsuit alleges, a crack in the gravel road surface of the crest of the dam was observed near the west end of the dam and reached the dam’s core. Engineers had also determined the dam had shifted a few feet vertically.

The lawsuit alleges that when more cracks in the dam were discovered in 2020, the Office of the State Engineer, which oversees dam safety, urged the River District to convene a panel of experts to review the risk analyses for Ritschard. That panel found a series of issues that needed to be addressed, according to the lawsuit.

Attorneys for Denver Water said they had no additional comment on the matter at this time.

At its April second quarterly meeting, the River District approved to payHDR Engineering about $323,000 to conduct studies of the dam’s condition.

The dam holds water from Wolford Mountain Reservoir that pours into the Colorado River and is capable of holding about 66,000 acre feet of water. One acre foot is equal to about 325,000 gallons.

The dam is about 1,900 feet long, 122 feet high and 25 feet wide at the crest.

The River District’s general fund is funded by a property tax within 15 western Colorado counties it serves. Revenues for the River District’s enterprise projects mostly come from water sales, lease revenues and investment interest earnings, according to the organization’s website.

The River District’s mission is to “fight to keep water on the West Slope.”

“Colorado water rights law does not recognize the Continental Divide as a water barrier. That means that water providers can legally move water from the West Slope to the East Slope, if they can attain water rights and build the infrastructure needed to do so,” according to the River District’s website.

The Colorado River is currently seeing some of its lowest water levels since they have been recorded. On Aug. 16, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reported water restrictions will be necessary next year for states that can legally draw from it.

“Given ongoing historic drought and low runoff conditions in the Colorado River Basin, downstream releases from Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam will be reduced in 2022 due to declining reservoir levels,” the bureau reported. “In the Lower Basin the reductions represent the first shortage declaration — demonstrating the severity of the drought and low reservoir conditions.”

The Ritschard Dam holds water from Wolford Mountain Reservoir, as seen from above.…

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