Oak Creek needs more funding for Sheriff Dam fixes

Low bid for part of work came in at more than double initial estimate

Water flows out of Sheriff Reservoir in June. The nearly 70-year-old reservoir serves as a water source for Oak Creek and needs significant upgrades.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The town of Oak Creek needs to raise more money to pay for improvements on 68-year-old Sheriff Dam, after the town board opted to reject a series of construction bids that came in well above initial estimates.

Town Manager David Torgler said engineering estimates for upgrades to the head gate and operator came in at about $187,000, but the lowest bid for the work was $405,000. Torgler said the highest bid for the work was over $1 million.

“We’re talking about installing some pretty basic pieces of equipment,” Torgler said. “We think we’re impacted by COVID and the inflation that our country is facing right now.”

According to the consumer price index, inflation in the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mountains region that includes Colorado has seen inflation near 10% between June 2022 and June 2021.

Several improvements are needed on the dam and reservoir, which serves as a water source for the town. The first is to replace the head gate and operator, which are simply old and have lasted beyond their initial design.

Oak Creek has raised money for the project, getting contributions from Routt County, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and the Colorado River District, but the cost of the work exceeded available funding.

Torgler said there wouldn’t have been enough time to get more money and accept the low bid, which is why the town board opted to reject those quotes. He said he has reached out to other funding partners and that the project would eventually need to go through the request for proposal process again.

A boater floats on Sheriff Reservoir in Rio Blanco County in June 2022. The reservoir serves as a water supply for the town of Oak Creek.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

One of those potential partners is the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, which Torgler said may be able to direct some federal infrastructure dollars toward this project. Another option could be the Colorado Department of Local Affairs.

The town has also included this project in Congressionally Directed Spending requests, which allow federal legislators to include money for local projects in the larger federal budget.

“If we can’t get the funding, we can include (head gate and operator work) in the bigger spillway project,” Torgler said, referencing another, more expensive set of improvements needed to the emergency spillway, which is currently undersized.

Sheriff Dam is considered a high hazard dam, which is not a measurement of the quality of the structure, but instead the values like homes that would be destroyed should it fail. High hazard means lives would be at risk if there were a breach.

The emergency spillway, which allows water to flow around the dam during heavy rain and flooding, was constructed based on the values at risk at the time. Those values have increased over the years, making the spillway too small for the current high hazard rating.

“If we were to receive maximum flood potential, it would probably wash out the dam,” Torgler said. “I don’t want to be an alarmist, but that’s what we’re supposed to be preparing for.”

Engineers and town public works staff as well as officials from the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Division of Water Resources were at the dam and reservoir in Rio Blanco County last week for a kick-off for design engineering of the new spillway.

That design engineering hopes to better understand what the spillway work could cost. Last year it was estimated at as much as $13 million, but Torgler was hesitant to put any number on it after seeing how off estimates were on the head gate.

“This is going to be a big lift for this town, because it will cost millions of dollars to fix this” Torgler said. “We’re going to look at funding partners with the state government, federal government and others.”

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