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Denver Dam Project Sparks Heated Debate. Conservationists say environmental damage too great in Two Forks dam proposal

A bitter debate over a dam construction plan is pitting environmentalists against city planners here. The project - a proposed 560-foot-high dam that would trap the South Platte River and its North Fork tributary - would supply the Denver metropolitan area with water into the next century. City planners say Denver is running out of water. Conservationists are concerned about environmental damage from the dam's construction, particularly the disappearance of the pristine Cheesman Canyon. The canyon, which would be flooded and made into a reservoir, is home to some of the area's unique wildlife.

The Two Forks dam project has been controversial idea since the planning stages began in the 1970s. Earlier this month, environmentalists and city planners flew to Washington and tried to convince Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) director William Reilly to help break the stalemate. So far, he has not made any recommendations on the project.

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The city Water Board received a tentative permit from the Army Corps of Engineers in Denver to build the dam this past January. That permit is the last obstacle to clear before the dam's construction. But the permit needs the approval of Jim Scherer, the regional director of the EPA in Denver. He and his staff are still debating the issue. His decision would also bear on what, if any, recommendation is made by Mr. Reilly in Washington. ``We are working with the corps to get concerns we have in there ... before we make our final decision,'' he says.

One thing the Denver Water Board may not have planned on is the cost. Forty million dollars have already been spent on planning, design, and an environmental-impact study. Monte Pascoe, president of the Denver Water Board Commissioners, estimates the project will cost about $380 million. But some water analysts in Denver put the cost of the dam between $500 million and $1 billion.

Mr. Pascoe says the need to supply the area with an adequate water supply is crucial in order to avoid water shortages predicted for the 1990s. Pascoe hopes the Washington meeting with Mr. Reilly will help move the project forward. ``As a proponent of the issue you are always under attack, every new meeting is trying to respond to this attack or that attack. I think we gave him [Reilly] some new information he didn't have before,'' he says.

The Audubon Society and Sen. James Exon (D) of Nebraska are opposing the dam because of the damage it would do to the Big Bend central flyway in Nebraska. The flyway, which crosses over a downstream section of the Platte, is one of a few major aerial routes migratory waterfowl use when they migrate. Environmentalists are also concerned about those wetland areas underneath the flyway. ``The wetlands area is fed by the South Platte and is home to 7 million to 9 million migratory waterfowl including the endangered whooping crane,'' says Al Trout, refuge manager for the Rainwater Basin District in Nebraska.

Residents are worried about losing their homes. Fran Roth bought her property in Trumbull almost 40 years ago. Trumbull is one of about five communities along the river's edge that will be flooded out if the dam is built. She planned on retiring here, but now she's not sure.``They have put the threat of the dam over our heads constantly and property values are nothing. There's nothing equal to this. With money, you can't buy what they are going to destroy,'' she says.

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