As you drive up from Boulder to Nederland via Boulder Canyon, cresting a hill, the town of Nederland appears on the other side of a very large body of water, Barker Reservoir. It’s really quite picturesque — a huge mountain lake next to a small town ringed by towering mountain peaks. Reservoirs are commonplace in many of the mountain towns in Colorado — Lake Estes in Estes Park, Dillon Reservoir above Dillon, and the list goes on. There’s a reason for all these man-made lakes, and as you might guess, it is all about water use and rights.
Most of the natural rivers and creeks are generated by the copious amounts of snow that fall along the Continental Divide and high peaks in Colorado. These creeks reach peak flows usually sometime in June, producing a tremendous amount of water tumbling down the hillside. Dams built across these rivers and creeks high up in the mountains capture that precious snow melt and store it for long-term use well after all the snow has melted. In the case of Barker Reservoir, it is capturing the water from Middle Boulder Creek. But the water isn’t for the small town of Nederland, it’s actually diverted to a system of pipelines, treatment plants, and hydroelectric plants for The City of Boulder. In fact, the City of Boulder gets 40 percent of its drinking water from Middle Boulder Creek, as well as electric power. So this seemingly unknown lake near the 1400 person town of Nederland is in fact, a very important body of water.The caretaker for Barker Reservoir plays a very important role in maximizing the amount of water that is available for Boulder to use. He has to carefully monitor the flow into the reservoir, making sure to release water periodically so that is not spilling, and hopefully retaining the greatest amount of water over the course of the year for long term use. There’s always a point in the summer that the snow melt is just so great, that water spilling over the top of the dam is unavoidable. This past spring was so wet through April and May, that Barker has actually been spilling for several weeks in a row.
Of course, Barker Reservoir would never have come to be if the decision had been left up to the Hannah Barker, who owned the land that was flooded by construction of the dam. In 1877, Hannah Connell married Ezra Barker, a local businessman who owned a ranch near Nederland. Ezra died six years after Hannah married him, leaving her to run the ranch. In the early 1900s, the Central Colorado Power Company wanted to buy the ranch so they could build the dam and flood the land to create the reservoir. Hannah refused to sell, and the City of Boulder forced her out by condemning the land and seizing it, a process similar to eminent domain. The great irony is that the reservoir they created with the dam Hannah never wanted was named after her, perhaps the ultimate insult.
These days, Barker Reservoir is synonymous with Nederland, it captures your attention as soon as you start to drive into town, quite visible from any of the three directions coming into town. But it’s not just some lake, but a very important resource for thousands of people, named after a resolute woman who fought to keep her land and lost.