Ouray Ice Park secures water rights to support winter economy

A climber moves to a sunny spot as he scales one of more than 100 routes in the Uncompahgre Gorge, artificially created by “ice builders” who spray water off the gorge’s walls at the Ouray Ice Park from November each year .
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

A state water court has granted two motions that will ultimately allocate more water for the Ouray Ice Park, an important step in ensuring a guaranteed water supply for a vital component of Ouray’s winter economy and expanding the Ice Park.

Water Court Arbitrator S. Gregg Stanway approved a conditional water right for the City of Ouray that will deliver 1.1111 cubic feet of water per second from Canyon Creek to the Ice Park, as well as Ouray Silver Mines’ request to effectively ship its conditional recovery water directly to the ice park and provides an additional 3.34 cfs of water. District Judge J. Steven Patrick affirmed Stanway’s rulings.

The granting of the conditional water rights was the linchpin of an agreement between the city, the mine and the ice park. The mine has agreed to lease a portion of its water rights currently allocated to the Revenue Virginia Mine to the City, with the City paying $1 per year for the lease for a 10 year renewable term . The ice park manages the rental agreement.

The ice park has spent the last few years finding ways to capture more water. It currently uses the overflow from the city’s water tanks to grow ice in the park, but once the water level in the tanks drops below a certain threshold, the park’s water access is cut off. Drier winters, the city’s growing water needs, and aging infrastructure have made it difficult for ice builders to keep up with the increasing use of the park.

Ice park managers originally planned to build a 3-mile aqueduct along County Road 361 and use the city’s water rights to draw water from Weehawken Creek. But this project had a $3 million cost and a long timeline to complete, as the pipeline would have traversed the US Forest Service and private land.

Instead, mine officials suggested donating the conditional recovery water directly to the park, noting that the mine was not using that water. The mine has access to nearly an additional 3 cfs under its water rights. Water is pumped into the park from Canyon Creek. The revamped project is expected to cost around $1 million.

A climber scales one of more than 100 routes in Uncompahgre Gorge earlier this year. Ice makers currently use about 350 gallons per minute to make ice at Ouray Ice Park.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

The Ice Park currently uses about 350 gallons per minute to create ice in Uncompahgre Canyon. The water straight from the mine provides three or four times that amount. And more water should allow the creation of another 25 to 40 climbing routes, joining the 150 or so routes that already exist in the park.

“We’re going to have more than enough water now,” said Ice Park Executive Director Peter O’Neil. “The biggest problem is making sure we have sufficiently cold temperatures, but if we do that we will be able to make ice cream like mad.”

The court’s approval of the permits allows O’Neil to intensify fundraising efforts to finance the project. He has already received contributions from Great Outdoors Colorado and the Gates Family Foundation, as well as a group of private donors, and has also pledged money from the Telluray Foundation.

He said he plans to launch a fundraising campaign in the next week or two, calling on the ice climbing community to double the funds provided so far by the various groups.

With the water rights in hand, the mine now plans to hire a contractor to drill a well in Canyon Creek just upstream of where it joins the Uncompahgre River and install a vertical turbine pump in the bottom of the creek. The water can then be pumped into the gorge and pipeline in the park.

O’Neil said the timing of the pump installation will depend on the flows in Canyon Creek. He hopes to do so in either late spring or early fall. The goal is to complete the project in time for park employees to start growing ice with the new system in fall 2022.


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