Pitkin County ponies up $35,000 to help the Colorado Water Trust

Map of the Roaring Fork River watershed via the Roaring Fork Conservancy
Map of the Roaring Fork River watershed via the Roaring Fork Conservancy

From the Aspen Daily News (Collin Szewczyk):

A three-pronged approach to restore local water flows got a shot in the arm on Tuesday when Pitkin County supported a $35,000 Healthy Rivers and Streams grant to help a Front Range nonprofit’s plan to keep more water in the Roaring Fork River.

The project looks to provide a pathway for water right holders to leave more of their allocation in the Roaring Fork without being penalized, and assess availability of other water sources to combine the total for maximum benefit for the river.

The Denver-based Colorado Water Trust is spearheading the project, which aims to extend a non-diversion agreement for the city-owned Wheeler Ditch; look into the utilization of up to 3,000 acre-feet of water that would otherwise be diverted through the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System to bolster flows near Aspen; and study ways to use more water in Grizzly Reservoir to benefit the Roaring Fork.

The funding will go toward coordinating the project; the completion of a feasibility analyses; forecasting instream flow needs for the upcoming irrigation season; performing outreach; and monitoring and reporting of streamflow and project benefits, according to a supplemental budget request from Lisa MacDonald, of the Pitkin County Attorneys Office.

Amy Beatie, executive director of the Colorado Water Trust (CWT), said this is a “real opportunity” to put water back in the Roaring Fork River, especially in the stretch between the Salvation Ditch and Castle Creek…

Wheeler Ditch non-diversion agreement

Aspen City Council partnered with the Colorado Water Trust in 2013 on a one-year Wheeler Ditch non-diversion agreement to improve streamflow conditions on a section of river that flows through the city. This area stretches from the ditch, which is located near the eastern edge of town, down to the Rio Grande Park, the CWT grant application noted. The agreement was also renewed in 2014.

When the water level in the river fell below 32 cubic feet per second (CFS), the city reduced the Wheeler Ditch diversions to keep water in the river, leading to an increase of about 2 to 3 CFS from mid-July through the end of the irrigation season.

Under the new proposal, this Wheeler agreement would be extended for 10 years, but only five of those years are covered under SB-19.

The water trust’s hope is that once others with water rights see the success of non-diversion agreements, they too will allow more water to remain in the Roaring Fork without penalty.

Beatie added that the city of Aspen has given the CWT a “resounding thumbs-up” in its efforts.

“[The non-diversion agreement] is an informal agreement where a water user decides not to use its water right for its decreed purposes,” she explained. “But can instead leave it in the river. There’s no transfer obligations, it’s a very simple and private process and it’s a private contract between the trust and the city to experiment with leaving water in this section of river.”

More water from Grizzly Reservoir

Beatie said a right to 800 acre-feet of water in Grizzly Reservoir was acquired in a settlement by the Colorado River Water Conservation District in an application for a junior right enlargement.

John Currier, chief engineer with the Colorado River Water Conservation District, explained that out of the first 2,400 acre-feet that’s diverted in any given year under the junior water right, 800 goes to the river district.

“Through agreements with the city and county, that water is to be used in various ways, primarily for instream flow purposes,” he said.

Currier added that the real task of the overall project is figuring out how to marry the three sources and maximize the benefit.

“This was water that the river district secured,” Beatie noted. “It’s 800 acre-feet, about 750 of which can be used by a combination of the river district and Aspen for environmental purposes.”

Beatie said the river district is allowing CWT to analyze how the water can best be used and “sow this supply together with the Wheeler Ditch project.”

The CWT then intends to investigate how to best utilize the Grizzly water to enhance Roaring Fork streamflows, especially in years in which the Wheeler Ditch isn’t being diverted.

According to the CWT grant application, the first 40-acre feet of Grizzly Reservoir water would “be held in a mitigation account for subsequent release to enhance flows in the Roaring Fork during the late irrigation season.”

“The remaining water is to be stored either in Grizzly Reservoir in a Colorado River Water Conservation District account (up to 200 acre-feet) or held in [Twin Lakes Reservoir] storage,” the application continued.

Commissioner Steve Child asked if Grizzly Reservoir could be enlarged to provide more water on the West Slope.

Currier said that while nothing is in the works yet, the idea has “been on the radar screen.”

Water from the ‘Exchange’

In the third part of proposal, known as the “exchange,” the CWT will also investigate, in partnership with the water district, how to restore flows via the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System.

This could provide up to 3,000 acre feet of water “in exchange for equivalent bypasses from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River,” the CWT grant application noted.

But Beatie said that while this arrangement has been implemented, it’s never been formally approved.

“The state engineer cannot administer an agreement, they need to administer a water right,” she said. “There may be more steps that need to be undertaken, both to secure this water right as instream flow, and then to have it protected.”

Wide support for effort

The Pitkin County commissioners supported the HRS grant allocation for the project, and praised the city’s involvement.

“From the bottom of my heart I want to applaud the city for taking the lead on this during the drought and continuing and following through,” said Commissioner Rachel Richards. “It’s just been fabulous.”

Dave Nixa, vice chair of the Healthy Rivers and Streams Board, said data from this project could provide a huge opportunity to increase local flows, calling it the most comprehensive grant request that HRS has ever received.

“We’re talking about, could some of those places be Snowmass Creek and the Crystal [River]?” he said. “Where we could use the value of this as a catalyst to encourage others to participate.”

April Long, stormwater manager for the city, said Aspen is looking at creating a river management plan for the Roaring Fork, calling it a top priority.

“It’s something that we’ll be working with the county very closely on, and all the other stakeholders in the suburb section of the watershed in the next two years to develop an operational river management plan for how we can maintain flows in drought years,” she said.

The CWT had already attained a matching grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and the total budget for the project is approximately $70,000, according to a letter from Beatie to the HRS board.

“The idea behind this application is that it’s a really good start,” Beatie said, “Our experience is that one step forward into solving flow shortages is often the catalyst to bring more energy and enthusiasm and other water rights and water users into the program.”

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