OURAY COUNTY – But for a cartoon mouse and 1,500 urine sample bottles, the Ridgway Reservoir may never have existed.
The unlikely story was one of many shared at a celebration of the 25th anniversary of Ridgway State Park last Friday, Aug. 8, at which people who were involved in the construction of the Ridgway Dam and Reservoir, as well as the state park that grew up around it, gathered to swap tales and tour the facility they had helped create over a quarter century ago.
The diverse group of Bureau of Reclamation photographers, planners and engineers, State Park officials and construction workers likely wouldn’t have had a reason to gather, if not for the so-called Montrose Mouse, as Jim Austin, Montrose City Manager in the 1970s, recounted.
The Dallas Creek Project (as the Ridgway Dam and Reservoir was known at its inception), came along at the very tail end of the Colorado River Storage Project, initiated by an Act of Congress in 1956, that involved the construction of some of the biggest dams and reservoirs across the Colorado River Basin, including those at Glenn Canyon and Blue Mesa.
One of the features of the act was that excess revenues from hydropower production at the more massive CRSP facilities could be used to help finance the construction cost of a number of smaller designated “participating projects.”
The Dallas Creek Project, long promoted by the downstream agricultural community of the Uncompahgre River Valley (and particularly Tri-County Water) as a potential “canteen” in which to store water for agricultural and drinking water purposes, was authorized by the feds a dozen years later in 1968 as a participating CRSP project.
At first, the project proposed to flood Pleasant Valley and inundate the town of Ridgway, and was (not surprisingly) opposed by many Ridgway residents. In 1975, the site of the proposed dam was shifted downstream, where the reservoir would instead flood sparsely populated ranch land north of town.
(Thus Ridgway residents coined their own nickname: “The Town that Refused to Die.”)
On January 14, 1977, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s official history of the Dallas Creek Project, the United State Government and the Tri-County Water Conservancy District signed a repayment contract which allowed for the repayment of certain project costs, delivery of project water for irrigation and municipal and industrial uses, and for operation, maintenance, and replacement of project works following completion of construction.
Permitting and planning for the project were pretty much on track, when it slammed into a major hurdle within the Carter Administration.
As Austin recounted, a young woman who was an environmental activist with the Colorado Environmental Coalition became Carter’s water advisor and soured him on The Dallas. It became one of nine projects on a so-called hit-list of proposed dams and reservoirs that the Carter Administration sought to block.
“Only one cleared. All the others died. That one was The Dallas,” Austin said, with not a little pride.
The Montrose community came together to save the Dallas Creek Project through an ingenious publicity campaign that combined equal parts humor and benign harassment.
It started when a city employee who hailed from Georgia shared that she “knew that the thing Carter hated most was being laughed at,” Austin recounted. “It put him into cardiac arrest. So we decided we had to figure out a way to laugh at him or he wouldn’t even recognize we existed.”
Two cartoon figures were floated as potential mascots for the campaign. One was a frog, choking a large bird that was trying to swallow it. The other was a small, sassy mouse, flagrantly flipping off a large eagle that was poised with claws outstretched to descend upon it.
“The one we all liked the best was the frog choking the bird, but no one could figure out how to get that on a lapel pin, and so finally the mouse won,” said Austin.
And thus, the Montrose Mouse was born. The cartoon was drawn by a woman named Jane Chamberlain. Before too long, its middle finger was “decropped,” so that it raised a slightly less offensive, but equally feisty fist, in opposition to the eagle’s looming threat.
The President of Tri-County Water at the time was a farmer “who could be out on the farm and shovel all afternoon, then put on a pinstripe suit and go to Washington,” Austin said.
And he did, on more than one occasion.
“The idea was that wherever they were going to talk about water, we were going to be there, and the mouse was going to be there. Its hostility was going to be there,” Austin said.
Before too long, someone came up with another great idea of sending urine bottles to the White House. “We got 1,500 people to send one and sign a little card that said, ‘Mr. President, if you know so much about western water, please fill these and send them home,’” Austin recalled.
Although he doesn’t know for sure, Austin figures that at least one of these bottles must have made it to Carter’s desk, and that it helped persuade the president to go along with the project.
Things came to a head on April 1, 1977, when a federal hearing was held at the Montrose Elks Lodge on the topic of the Dallas Creek Project.
The City of Montrose rolled out the welcome mat for the five federal officials who arrived in town for the occasion. The entire street was lined with Montrose Mouse banners. In the newspaper were several full-page ads evoking the Montrose Mouse, urging residents to attend the hearing.
At the Elks Lodge, the visiting officials were greeted by a kangaroo court, entirely in keeping with the date of the occasion. There was a massive elegant walnut table, covered in black velvet, with golden ash trays, behind which five huge chairs – each as big as a judge’s throne – were set in waiting for them.
Behind each chair hung a Montrose Mouse banner.
“You couldn’t look anywhere without seeing that damn mouse,” Austin said.
The hearing apparently had the desired affect.
“That hearing group, I think, went back and said ‘If we don’t do that reservoir, they are going to really make life unpleasant,’” Austin reckoned. “That’s really what did it.”
The Bureau of Reclamation broke ground on the Ridgway Reservoir in 1978. Construction lasted until 1987. It was filled by 1990 and can hold 84,600 acre-feet of water.
Besides acting as a superb canteen for downstream water rights holders including Tri-County Water Conservation District, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association and the City of Montrose, the 1,000-acre reservoir is also a major recreational amenity that is the crown jewel of Ridgway State Park, helping to attract more than 300,000 visitors to the park annually.
Today, Austin said, “All the arguments about the canteen are over. We don’t have anything to argue about. What we need to remember is there was a time when we all pulled together. There was no divisiveness. We believed in what we were doing. The mouse is just a byproduct of that.”
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