July 27, 2008

A Half-Century of Bad Feelings Boils Over Dam

By Lisa Ryckman

Nearly 50 years ago, they picked up the town of Dillon and moved it up the mountain to make way for the future.

Denver's future, that is.

The site of the original town now lies at the bottom of Lake Dillon, the main water supply for the thirsty Denver area and the economic lifeblood of new Dillon, now a charming mountain town few people thought would survive way back when.

Today, Dillon residents consider Lake Dillon theirs. They work near it, play on it and look out over it from their homes. The town also considers the highway that runs along the reservoir its dam road, although the Denver Water Board would beg to differ. So when the board abruptly closed the key east- west route for security reasons earlier this month - without consulting Summit County - it was just another bee in the bonnet of folks who have had a hat- full of them since the Depression.

"Disgusting," resident Ann Rutledge says. "Arrogant is a very good word for them."

Rutledge happens to be the archivist at the Summit Historical Society, housed in a white church lugged up the hillside from old Dillon. She knows all the history: how the Denver Water Board bought up property at tax sales during the Depression and pretty much owned the entire town by the 1950s, when plans for the dam really got rolling.

"Then came the heartaches of those who had lived all their lives in the town and had worked so hard to see it grow," wrote Anna Emore, a resident of both old and new Dillon, in her memoir, Dillon: The Blue River Wonderland. "Now came the job of destroying the town of Dillon. And man is determined not to be stopped in his great desire to conquer."

It's possible the years had softened the image of the Water Board as conqueror - right up until 10:30 p.m. on July 8, when it locked the gate on the Dillon Dam Road. Some dumbfounded county officials were informed just a few hours before it happened, but Dillon Fire- Rescue Chief Dave Parmley wasn't among them. He heard about it from a reporter.

"It seems to follow the Water Board's pattern," says Ray Mumford, who moved to the area in 1973, 10 years after the dam was completed. "They just do what they want."

Nightmare scenarios

The decision to close the road was tougher on some residents than others; in the days after, a friend of Mumford's who works as a Denver Water maintenance man got harassed every time he had to drive the company pickup. It took Rutledge an extra 20 minutes to get to a doctor's appointment. And nobody likes having to use I-70, which now has new snarls of traffic on its on- and off-ramps.

At one point, the locked gate stood between an injured bicyclist and Parmley's firefighters, who waited while their call to the Denver Water security officials with the keys was forwarded to voice mail, then piled into an ambulance because their firetruck couldn't possibly navigate the concrete barriers set up behind the fence.

Denver Water gave them the keys and rearranged the barriers so their biggest firetruck could get through: helpful, but far from ideal.

"We're practical people," Summit County Commissioner Thomas Long said. "We don't want to see anyone blow up the dam, either. But if a real threat exists, point it out."

Denver couldn't or wouldn't spell out the source of its fears, except to say that it involved a possible terrorist attack on the dam. Summit County had its nightmare scenario - a wildfire forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents, their escape hampered by Denver's barriers. And the Water Board had its version: a hypothetical terrorist plot to blow up the dam, destroying Denver's water supply and creating a new lake over Silverthorne.

"If I lived in Silverthorne, would I be waking up every morning saying, 'Geez - I wonder if I'll be here this afternoon?' " says Gail Cardenas, who bought a condo overlooking the lake 36 years ago.

City on the hill

It's hard to imagine Dillon without its lake. The new town was built a mile and a half northeast of the old one; its population of 300 dwindled to fewer than 200 because of the move, with some longtime residents taking the Water Board buyout and relocating to Frisco or Keystone, where land was cheaper than lots in the new town overlooking the new lake.

"They gave them a pittance you know, but there was nothing anybody felt they could do about it," Rutledge says.

Some people held out till the very end; Basil and Cleo Fresh were still in their house as the water began to rise, protesting the Water Board action that had bought out their neighbors, moved everything worth saving and burned the rest. For the people who took a chance on the new Dillon on the hill, it was what one reporter called a "little slice of heaven plucked from the clouds."

They were storm clouds, at least early on.

While the dam was under construction, the county commissioners filed a lawsuit against the dam's contractor over a 1.6-mile strip of road. At one point, Western Slope water districts, the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had all taken Denver to court over rights to the Blue River it said were rightfully theirs.

Colorado Congressman Wayne Aspinall, a West Slope Democrat and chairman of the House Interior Committee, acknowledged later that he had urged the federal government to jump in.

"I opened a tap in Denver Saturday night and found lots of clear, clean water," he said. "There doesn't appear to be any water shortage here. Denver has no right to fill that reservoir just to make a huge recreation area."

But Denver believed its rights had been established in a 1955 agreement with the Western Slope and the federal government. So when Interior Secretary Stewart Udall asked Denver to delay storage, the Water Board ignored him.

"This $70 million project must be completed for the growth of Denver and of Colorado," said Robert Millar, then board manager. "The plug will be poured before winter hems us in, and Denver will have the water paid for by Denver."

"Let them try and stop us," said Glenn Saunders, the water board's attorney.

The dam was plugged, the lake began to fill. Now the biggest supplier in Denver's water system with more than 85 billion gallons of water, it is dotted by islands and ringed by campgrounds - an idyllic spot, although people who live here can't help but notice the impact of a hot summer in the city.

"It's their water. They built the damn place, and although we're living here, come September when the lake starts going down, there's nothing we can do about it," Cardenas says. "But it just seems like common courtesy to tell local law enforcement about the road. Who do they think they are?"

"They're the Denver Water Board," Rutledge says. "And they paid for the town of Dillon."


By the numbers

What's behind construction of the Dillon Dam.

* 12 million tons of dirt were used to build the dam.

* 231 feet is the dam's height.

* 85.5 billion gallons of water is its storage capacity.

* $19 million is what it cost.

* $3,250 is how much a lakeside lot cost in 1961.

Originally published by Lisa Ryckman, Rocky Mountain News.

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