More Isn’t Always Better: Reservoir Expansion Puts Bird Habitat at Risk

Construction of reinforced berms and dam repair at Barr Lake State Park, Sept. 2023 – copyright Heather Valey

During the 3rd week of September an email appeared in a nature email group I follow. It sounded the alarm for birders and nature lovers in the Colorado Front Range. Important bird habitat was being destroyed to expand water capacity for Barr Lake State Park. Worry mounted that the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies (BCR), who has had a bird banding station there for 35 years, would lose their post and the habitat for the migratory song birds they study.

I decided to head out to Barr Lake for myself and check the situation out.

At the Bird Banding Station

I attended a bird banding session at the Bird Conservancy’s banding station on Barr Lake. There I met Meredith McBurney, their volunteer coordinator and bird bander extraordinaire. I asked her about the Barr Lake expansion and what that would mean for the birds.

Barr Lake, and many other reservoirs in the Front Range, is owned by Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Company (FRICO). They manage reservoirs and irrigation canals and sell the water to farmers, municipalities and fracking operations.

BCR was able to spend multiple hours with folks from FRICO and voice their concerns over their banding station and the songbird habitat a few days ago. Meredith said “They have moved from crisis mode to working with FRICO.”

Meredith McBurney, with other staff and volunteers at the BCR Banding Station – Barr Lake – copyright 2023 Heather Valey

Their banding station will remain, and the important songbird habitat that is further than 10 feet from the berm toward the lake will remain untouched all around the lake. The trees that shade the banding station will not be removed. *(update: Actually there is no promise that the trees around the banding station will remain.) Meredith stated that she is grateful that they have 35 years of bird data from that area because they will be able to tell how much of an impact FRICO’s work will have on birds in the future.


Last year FRICO had made some modifications to the reservoir so it could hold more water. However, we had a wet, wet year here in Colorado and Barr Lake was swollen with water earlier in the season, holding more water than FRICO had anticipated. So much so, that the dam at Barr Lake has started to leak.

A canal at Barr Lake managed by FRICO – copyright 2023 Heather Valey

FRICO legally has no choice but to fix the dam, this involves among other things, reinforcing the berms around the lake. What that means is that trees within 10 feet of the berm will need to be re-moved. This is because Cottonwoods in particular have long roots that compromise the berms and cause them to leak. In addition, roads along the canals and berms will be widened to bring trucks and machinery through.

This work will eventually be done from the boat ramp all the way to the Rookery Gazebo at the NW side of the lake. Trees and vegetation too close to the berms will be removed and replaced with riprap. The project will be completed in its entirety in 2 to 5 years.

An example of trees and vegetation that will be removed by FRICO’s work. copyright Heather Valey

The Impact

There obviously will be an impact. The old gigantic Cottonwoods that are being removed are home to birds and animals. Additionally, Cottonwoods aren’t reseeding like they used to, (and it is due to our over manipulation of water levels) so it is doubtful these old trees will be replaced by new growth.

When the water is higher in the reservoir it degrades the songbird habitat. Smartweed, (Persicaria lapathifolia) a favorite habitat of sparrows doesn’t get a chance to grow high enough because of the extra water. And because of the expansion done last year the water levels will be higher, longer every year.

Smartweed (Persicaria lapathifolia), favored sparrow habitat at Barr Lake developed late and slowly this year due to higher lake levels. – copyright 2023 Heather Valey

My Thoughts

This is one of those unfortunate cases where wildlife loses because of climate change. Extreme weather and unpredictable precipitation has been the main driver of this issue. At this point FRICO is just trying to make sure the dam doesn’t burst.

FRICO applied for a grant with the Water Conservation Board to have expansion work done on Barr Lake in 2021. The grant application states that there will be no ill effects on the environment and the additional water will make the bird habitat better, which I find ironic. Obviously they didn’t reach out to any environmental groups when writing this application.

Additionally, I haven’t been able to verify if FRICO has the required permits to alter bald eagle habitat.

Panorama of the current construction effort by FRICO at Barr Lake – photo by Heather Valey copyright 2023

Call to Action

Communication between conservation groups and commercial developers is more important now than ever. Infrastructure changes due to climate change and rampant development in the Colorado Front Range needs to include wildlife and habitat concerns in development plans at an early stage.

Reservoir expansion isn’t an isolated issue in Colorado. It happened a few years ago at Chatfield, and there has been plans to do it at Bear Creek Reservoir. We should anticipate similar projects in the future, which highlights the need to engage our Governor in improving the process to prioritize wildlife and habitat in such projects.

Contact Governor Polis

State Capitol Bldg – 200 E. Colfax Ave., Rm. 136,

Denver, CO 80203

Constituent Services Help Line: (303) 866-2885

Governor’s Office Front Desk: (303) 866-2471



Copy of FRICO Grant Application

Bird Conservancy of the Rockies

Barr Lake


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Heather Valey is an award winning conservation photographer, writer and passionate naturalist. For information on licensing images please reach out to Heather via email- Heather's photography site is:

2 thoughts on “More Isn’t Always Better: Reservoir Expansion Puts Bird Habitat at Risk

  1. Not all of the trees around the banding station can be saved. They have told us that some of them can likely be saved. So far, we have no 100% guarantee on any of the trees, but we are very hopeful.

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