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Groundhog dam repair benefits operations and lake recreation

Groundhog Reservoir and Lone Cone Peak north of Dolores make a scenic pair in the San Juan Mountains. (Courtesy photo)
Major upgrade will prevent future lake drainings; popular mountain lake serves dual purpose

A major dam upgrade at Groundhog Reservoir will improve operations for the irrigation source and prevent drainages that have hurt the lake’s campground business.

The new hydraulic outlet system allows repairs and maintenance without draining the lake, said Brandon Johnson, general manager for Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co.

“It is a total remodel,” Johnson said. “The old gates and equipment were from the 1930s. It will be way better, and we won’t have to lower the water level so far just to fix a leak.”

The Groundhog Outlet Modification Project has a price tag of just over $1 million, he said. Weminuche Construction Authority was awarded the construction bid.

The reservoir is located 32 miles north of Dolores via Forest Road 526/Road 31, also called the Dolores-Norwood Road. It was completely drained for the project, which triggered a no-bag limit fish order from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and a loss of customers for Groundhog Lake RV Park and Campgrounds.

The lake also was drained in 2004 and 2018 for repairs, but that scenario is not expected anymore.

Each time Bonnie Candelaria, owner of Groundhog Lake RV Park and Campground, watched in dismay as the water disappeared along with the fish, boaters and her customers.

Lanette Mitchell Candelaria and Bonnie Candelaria operate the Groundhog Lake RV and Camground. (Courtesy photo)

“It’s been devastating and depressing,” she said. “My business dropped by more than 50% this year. The timing has not been good. The only bright spot is they won’t have to do this ever again.”

Boat rentals were nonexistent this year, Candelaria said, and would-be visitors canceled reservations after learning about the situation.

Fishing will takes a longer-term hit. After a lake draining and fish salvage, Colorado Parks and Wildlife restocks the lake with fingerlings and some fish 6 to 8 inches long.

“They have to start over,” Candelaria said. “There were some good-size fish in there that had grown from the last time this happened in 2018.”

She has been operating the campground and store with her sister, Lanette, for 17 years under lease agreements with MVIC. The area around the lake is also managed as a State Wildlife Area by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Groundhog has a minimum pool of 4,000 acre-feet, but it was waived to allow for the dam outlet upgrades.

A new dam outlet system is being installed at Groundhog Reservoir, located 32 miles north of Dolores. Construction is by Weminuche Construction Authority. (Courtesy of Brandon Johnson)
When Groundhog Reservoir is drained, the old dam and its break are revealed from 1911 when heavy rains flooded the Dolores Valley. (Courtesy of Brandon Johnson)

Although the lake season was a bust, the Candelarias look forward to a spike in business during hunting season.

They also will host the Cortez Kiwanis Poker Run on Aug. 27 starting at 9 a.m. at the lake and a silent auction at the Groundhog Lake store patio. Proceeds go toward supporting youth programs.

The dam remodel is expected to be completed by Nov. 1, and construction is on track, Johnson said. Once finished, the lake will be refilled with natural runoff.

Planning for the project has been going on for five years and required state approvals, Johnson said. Construction was delayed a year because of a supply shortage for essential parts caused by the pandemic.

“We did not want to start it without all the parts in the shop,” he said.

Water levels will still fluctuate in the 26,120-acre-foot lake because the human-made reservoir depends on snowpack levels and is managed by MVIC to deliver water for agricultural customers in Montezuma County.

“The newly installed guard gates will prevent any draining of the reservoir for upkeep,” according to a MVIC news release. “Any future repairs to the hydraulic lines, that control dam gates that pass water into a series of creeks that eventually flow into the MVIC storage facility at McPhee and Narraguinnep Reservoirs, will be done within the containment of the Guard Gates.”

The outdated guard gate system has been removed, and concrete is being poured for the new system.

Three hydraulically operated slide gates are being installed, along with a trash rack materials unit, screening system, hydraulic pressure unit for the gate control and construction of 10 foundation piles.

The lake’s main mission is for agriculture, MVIC says, but it has a recreation component as well.

“This water resource has been home to record-breaking rainbow and cutthroat trout and has attracted an amazing assortment of birds, not to mention it provides tranquil setting for campers that might enjoy various forms of water recreation,” MVIC stated in the release.

“It’s a win for MVI and a byproduct is less damage to recreation,” added Johnson.

The low level has exposed the reservoirs’ original earthen dam which broke in 1911 during heavy rains and contributed to a flood in the Dolores Valley and the town of Dolores.

Groundhog Reservoir has long history

MVIC shared some history of the Groundhog Reservoir, coveted for its mountain setting at 8,724 feet in elevation against a backdrop of towering Lone Cone Peak.

Groundhog Reservoir construction was initiated in 1905 to address water storage capacity issues, according to MVIC. The first storage appropriation was for 10,623 acre-feet.

In 1904, a series of breaks in the ditches delayed water delivery contributing to poor crops. Farmers paid for water they did not receive because of the lack of storage capacity.

A contract with the Empire Construction Co. of Colorado was entered into for the purpose of rebuilding the entire irrigation system and the construction of two storage reservoirs.

Narraguinnep was enlarged to increase the capacity to about 9,300 acre-feet. On May 2, 1907, W.H Crawford sent 200 men, 80 teams, 20 dump wagons and two dirt elevators to the headwaters of the West Fork of the Dolores River to begin Groundhog Reservoir.

The flood of 1911 washed out the reservoir and it was not reconstructed until the 1930s. By 1938, funds from the Public Works Administration were procured to rebuild Groundhog Reservoir with a capacity of 21,709 acre-feet.

In September 1980, MVIC drained the lake to fix the outlet and the Colorado Division of Wildlife took advantage of the low water levels to remove nuisance fish.

Montezuma Valley Irrigation is a mutual ditch company that was incorporated as a 501(c)(12) in Colorado on Oct. 18, 1920. The company owns, operates and maintains a system that provides irrigation water to its members located within Montezuma County. It operates Groundhog, Narraguinnep and Totten Lake reservoirs and has storage rights in McPhee Reservoir. It has the most senior water rights on the Dolores River.

jmimiaga@the-journal.com