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Seismic activity seen as threat to Terror Creek dam

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Photo by Tamie Meck A banner celebrating Paonia area wineries hangs at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Third Street. The wineries all rely on irrigation water from the Terror Creek reservoir and ditch, both located within an area proposed for seismic

This story uses the word "terror" many times over, but it's not about Halloween.

In the late 1990s, longtime Paonia resident Richard Rudin fought to ensure that proposed expansion of local coal mines took into consideration protections for the area's water resources. This month Rudin found himself once again fighting to protect the reservoir.

Gunnison Energy LLC's proposed Iron Point 3D Seismic Mapping Project lies northeast of Paonia within the U.S. Forest Service Paonia Ranger District. Within that area is the 305-acre-foot Terror Creek Reservoir, located approximately eight miles from Paonia in the northeast corner of Delta County. In addition to supplying water to agricultural and domestic users on Garvin Mesa, the Terror Creek drainage contains prime deer and elk habitat coveted by hunters.

Gunnison Energy recently began surveying the area in preparation for conducting seismic activities as part of the mapping project. That concerns Rudin a great deal. He is the Terror Creek ditch rider and president of the Terror Creek Ditch and Reservoir Company, a private, nonprofit company with water rights dating back to 1883. Rudin refers to a banner celebrating three local wineries and an organic sheep farm strung across the intersection of Third and Grand in Paonia. The wineries, he says, represent more than a million dollars a year in sales. Factor in a multiplier, and it's significant part of the area's economy. "And all three use Terror Creek water."

Also known as Bruce Park Dam, the earthen Terror Creek Dam is identified by the State of Colorado and in the Delta County Hazard Mitigation Plan as a "high hazard dam," defined by the state as "a dam whose failure or mis-operation will cause loss of human life and significant property destruction."

The project area is also known for its geologic instability. Most recently, the massive 2014 West Salt Creek landslide on Grand Mesa killed three Collbran-area ranchers. A large mudslide also occurred at the Terror Creek Reservoir in the 1980s. Since then, said Rudin, the dam has been monitored for seismic activity. "If, say, a million cubic feet of dirt were to slide into the reservoir in spring when it's full, water would top the dam and cause erosion. If it were to spill, "It's a steep narrow canyon with a lot of people in the way," he said.

When local mines proposed expansion in the late 1990s, the mine companies "took full responsibility," and indemnified the Terror Creek water company from risk. "They were good neighbors." Rudin wants Gunnison Energy to be a good neighbor.

Gunnison Energy, he said, "didn't even ask if there was anything sensitive in the area," and didn't inform him or the ditch company of the activity occurring in the area of the dam. The U.S. Forest Service requires site management in this area, he said. "It seems to me that if they're putting up flagging, that may fall under something that needs site management."

Gunnison Energy is performing seismic surveying activities under a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) categorical exclusion, explained Andrew Forkes-Gudmundson with Citizens for a Healthy Community, a Paonia-based nonprofit founded to protect the North Fork area from the impacts of large-scale oil and gas development.

Speaking at the Oct. 23 Paonia town meeting, Forkes-Gudmundson explained that CHC is asking the Forest Service to disallow the categorical exclusion under what's called "extraordinary circumstances." Those circumstances include three inventoried Roadless Areas, federally listed threatened, endangered species including mapped habitat for Canada lynx and cutthroat trout -- both Forest Service managed species; floodplains, wetlands or municipal watersheds including the Terror Creek watershed; archaeological sites and historical properties -- all identified within the planning area.

Rudin has a lot of questions about how the Forest Service and Delta County, which has jurisdiction over the area, are handling Gunnison Energy's application. He also wants Gunnison Energy to be transparent in its operations and work with the community to ensure the security and safety of the local water. Said Rudin, "If Gunnison Energy would follow all the rules, as with every other business in Delta County does, and indemnify us from any risk, we would work with them."

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North Fork
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Gunnison Energy, Paonia, Terror Creek Dam
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