Lower water levels for Totten Lake


Because the aging dam at Totten Reservoir east of Cortez does not meet state specifications, the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which manages the reservoir, will be lowering the water level for an indefinite period while officials decide what to do. The dam is in no danger of leaking or breaking, officials emphasized.

“We’re going to have to do some work on Totten,” said DWCD Manager Mike Preston. “We need to either make some investments to bring the dam up to standard, or lower the lake level to some degree.” However, he said the reduction should not be dramatic.


A bald eagle soars over what appears to be an island but is a cluster of coots, a type of waterfowl, who huddle close for protection at Totten Reservoir. Although no longer needed for irrigation, the lake has become a haven for birds and other wildlife. Photo by Deb Campbell

“I don’t anticipate any kind of drastic reduction. We took it down 3 feet last year and nobody really even noticed.”

Dam safety inspections conducted by the Colorado Division of Water Resources have found that the riprap inside the dam is not up to par, Preston said.

“The riprap is funky,” he said. “We would have to take out the old riprap that didn’t meet specs and replace it with riprap that meets the specifications.”

The cost would be at least $300,000 to $400,000, he estimated.

Preston said the 3-foot reduction was done to ease the pressure on the dam. “If the dam is brimful you’re putting maximum pressure on that structure, so the compromise you can arrive at with the dam inspector is to take the level down where we’re able to comply with their safety requirements. It’s very conservative and very cautious.”

Fish and birds

The future of Totten Reservoir, which is designed to hold about 3,400 acre-feet when full, has periodically been the subject of speculation.

A reservoir at Totten was constructed by the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company in 1907, but it was washed out shortly thereafter. In 1965, according to historical records, a 29-foot-high dam costing $200,000 was built at the site, again by MVIC, and the lake was used to store water for irrigation.

The reservoir was filled with spring runoff, according to Bureau of Reclamation reports, with 40 to 45 cubic feet per second of Dolores River water being passed through Totten until mid-July and released into McElmo Creek for irrigation.

After McPhee Reservoir was completed in 1987, water was diverted from that reservoir through the Dolores Tunnel and Rocky Ford Ditch to Totten.

But following completion of the Towoac/Highline Canal in 1992, Totten Reservoir “was taken off-line and is no longer a major part of the regional irrigation system,” according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

About five years ago, Totten was acquired by the DWCD, which also manages McPhee. MVIC continues to manage Groundhog and Narraguinnep reservoirs.

Though it isn’t used for irrigation any longer, the small lake has become a popular fishing spot (despite high concentrations of mercury in some of its fish) and a haven for birds including blue herons, geese and ducks, bald eagles, gulls, red-winged blackbirds, black-necked stilts and many more. Upscale homes have been built on the banks overlooking the scenic reservoir, and a private riparian wildlife reserve is nearby.

Thus, any talk of lowering the water level prompts concern about the effects on wildlife and on surrounding residences.

Cheap water

Ken Curtis, an engineer with the DWCD, said the problems with the dam arose because Totten Reservoir has sat at the same level for 20 years.

“In most of that time it’s been idle and it has sat full,” Curtis said. “That let the ice in the winter, and the waves and wind in the summer, do erosion damage to the high-water line, and that has been noticed by the state engineer.”

Dams aren’t meant to have their water at the same level all the time, Curtis said. “All the erosion has been focused at the high-water line. We want to go fix it, but it’s fairly costly.”

Curtis said in the next few years area residents should expect to see the water level vary from 4 feet below full to 2 feet below full. The lake won’t likely be filled again unless the repairs are made.

It’s possible Totten could be drained temporarily if some new maintenance issue arose, Curtis said, but draining it permanently is not being considered right now, contrary to rumors.

“If we were never going to use it, then we would have to consider that,” he said, “but in the next five to 10 years, I don’t foresee it. Our board might have to consider draining it but it wouldn’t be something we would take lightly, and of course we would announce it to the public.”

Preston said right now the district does not receive the revenues from the reservoir that it would need to repair the dam. “From a management standpoint, if I want to make that investment, I want it to be tied to some new revenue generation, and right now I’m not generating the revenues it would take to make the repairs.”

However, Preston said district officials regard the reservoir as important and are not eager to drain it. In addition, there is a minimum fishery pool of approximately 500 acre-feet mandated by a lease with the Division of Wildlife dating back to the 1960s, and Totten is required to support the nearby Simon Draw wetlands, also managed by the DOW, which were created as mitigation for salinity-control work done as part of the Dolores Project.

“There are releases from Totten into that wetlands,” Preston said. “We owe the wetlands x amount of water.”

Preston said the district would like to find a new buyer for Totten’s water, which is decreed for irrigation. With climate change potentially bringing about a drier Southwest, an existing reservoir isn’t something to abandon, he said.

“Totten having existing storage is a very valuable asset and something that is hard to achieve from scratch in this day and age,” he said. “We intend to make that a long-term community resource. But, like any other enterprise, we’re trying to make our investments to where they will yield a good return.

“The long-term program for Totten is really tied to seeing how we deal with the financial side of that.”

Preston said the district may be “in a holding pattern” for a while regarding the reservoir. “That may involve lowering the lake levels to some degree but in no way does it involve draining the reservoir,” he said.

“If you’ve got a bucket already there, it’s the cheapest water you could ever store. It’s far cheaper than starting from scratch. Some day it’s going to pay off. We just have to nurse it along till that day comes.

From May 2009.