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Under pressure, County puts finger into dam mess


It took grassroots citizen pressure to end two years of legal wrangling and finger pointing that has left the once-pretty McCrea Reservoir a half-drained, mosquito-breeding swamp.

In 1998, a state dam inspector declared the 65-year-old dam unsafe and ordered the water level lowered. El Paso County was given until April 30 of this year to repair the dam, located near Fountain Valley School in the Widefield area.

To the mounting exasperation of locals, two years passed without any action from the county government, which had assured residents that the aging, earthen barrier would be repaired.

"We got the same story no matter who we contacted about this," said Fountain resident Erin Wymer, who lives near the now-depleted, muddy lake. "They would assure us that the dam was going to be fixed and the reservoir restored. But nothing was ever done. Two years later and it's uglier than ever."

The reservoir, called Carp Lake by locals, is important to residents who use the body of water to ice skate and fish.

Wymer and neighbor Sandy Allen organized a petition drive to demand that the county act. They presented 228 signatures to the Board of County Commissioners on April 6.

When the April 30 state deadline passed without action from county staff, county commissioner Jeri Howells called an executive session to get to the bottom of the reservoir mess.

The commissioners learned that county staff had spent the past two years arguing with Fountain Mutual Irrigation Ditch Co., the reservoir owner, over which party is responsible for the dam.

The dispute stems from a 1991 agreement in which the irrigation company gave the county permission to run Fontaine Boulevard atop the dam provided the county assumed full responsibility for maintenance.

When the state declared the dam unsafe, however, county attorney Mike Lucas argued the county is obligated to maintain only the dam's surface. The dyke's core, he said, is the irrigation company's responsibility.

Fountain Mutual accused the county of bailing on the 1991 agreement.

The county engineering and legal departments, meanwhile, are also busily denying responsibility for the impasse. County engineers insist they've based their inaction on the county attorney's opinion deeming Fountain Mutual liable. Lucas, however, deflects inquiries back to county engineering. "This really isn't my bailiwick," he said.

Fed up with staff inaction, the Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously on May 8 to direct the staff to make repairs at county expense. "It's preferable to spend a million dollars fixing this problem than to waste it on litigation," said Howells.

County engineers met with the state engineer later that afternoon to propose a solution: dig the reservoir floor lower to put less pressure on the dam, even at full capacity.

The state has given the county until June 16 to submit a plan of action.

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