Public asks Pitkin County for Basalt whitewater park to be safer

The second wave in the Basalt whitewater park, on June 19, 2019. There is a small sneak far river left, but otherwise, it’s just churning foam. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Pitkin County needs to make Basalt’s whitewater park safer. That was the refrain from most of those who spoke at Wednesday night’s public meeting.

“We are not asking for a big change to the kayak park,” said Glenwood Springs resident Elizabeth Bailey. “What we are asking for is a way to get through these monster features.”

Bailey was among those boaters whose rafts were flipped by the lower wave during some of the Roaring Fork River’s highest flows of the season. Bailey, an experienced rafter, said that because the river pushes boats to the right-hand side of the lower wave feature, there needs to be a boat chute to the right, between the hydraulic that forms at high flows and the river bank.

Currently, the only way around the wave is a narrow, hard-to-spot “sneak” on the left side.

The injuries Bailey sustained June 16 sent her to the hospital.

“For that to happen in a manmade park, there needs to be some responsibility,” she said.

Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams hosted Wednesday’s meeting at the Basalt Town Hall to gather public comment about the whitewater park’s two consecutive wave features, which some say became dangerous during this year’s high runoff. The lower of the two waves seemed to present the bigger challenge, even for experienced boaters.

The two structures, built with concrete during the winter of 2016-17, were re-engineered the following winter after complaints that the artificial waves were dangerous. But the low flows of the spring and summer of 2018 did not provide a fair test to see whether the problems had been fixed.

The features are supposed to create fun, recreational play waves at flows between 240 and 1,350 cfs. The river was flowing at about 2,500 cfs the day Bailey was thrown from her boat.

An excavator works at low water in the Roaring Fork River to modify the structures in the Basalt whitewater park. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

County committed

Healthy Rivers Chair Andre Wille said the county’s ultimate goal is to make the best whitewater park they can.

“We are pretty committed to getting it right,” he said.

Quinn Donnelly of Carbondale-based River Restoration, the firm that designed the park, led the public meeting and presented a few options for making the lower wave safer. Crews could lower the “wings” on both features, creating a path around the wave on either side, or a channel could be created around the left side of the wave.

Another idea was to create a “catcher’s mitt” eddy just below the second wave so that boaters who get tossed from their crafts can more easily swim to shore.

But some said creating a way for boaters to get around the waves didn’t go far enough — the waves themselves need to be made safer.

“Here you have two terrifying holes,” Kirk Baker said. Baker is the founder of the Aspen Kayak School and is an expert kayaker. “You should not have to go around. You should be able to go through. … You have to fix the hazard you created.”

Royal Laybourn agreed. Laybourn was also the victim of a flipped boat — he said the wave put him in the hospital.

“You can’t create a hazard and it doesn’t matter what water level it is,” he said. “You’re under a mandate to correct that. … Let’s just make it so any dummy can roll down through there.”

The concrete blocks that form the wave in the Basalt whitewater park are visible during low-to-moderate flows. Boaters are asking Pitkin County to make the waves safer after several rafts flipped during 2019’s high water. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Safety first

Pitkin County chose the site for the whitewater park, which is just upstream from downtown Basalt, in part because it is just above the Roaring Fork’s confluence with the Fryingpan River. That made it a good place to establish a recreational in-channel diversion water right.

But that part of the river is also steep, Donnelly said, meaning hydraulics will not wash out, but, rather, become bigger as flows increase.

Any new modifications to the wave features that the county and River Restoration decide on will probably come this winter.

“We want it to be as safe as possible,” Donnelly said. “It is a river and there are hazards, but this was put in by people and it’s held to a higher standard.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications on coverage of water and rivers. This story ran in the Oct. 17 edition of the Times, as well as in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.

Rocky Mountain Fens: Little-known ecosystems vital to biodiversity, water and climate — The Crested Butte News

Photo credit from report “A Preliminary Evaluation of Seasonal Water Levels Necessary to Sustain Mount Emmons Fen: Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests,” David J. Cooper, Ph.D, December 2003.

From Western State University via The Crested Butte News:

Monitoring and protecting an important part of the local ecosystem

by Tobias Nickel, Nick Catmur, Christopher Kittle, Heather Reineking and Justin Sanchez—graduate students in the Master in Environmental Management program at Western Colorado University

In front of us, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) hydrologist Andrew Breibart slogs across what from afar might be mistaken for an alpine meadow full of sedges, willow and spruce saplings. A closer look reveals that our group of Western Colorado University (WCU) students stands on neither solid ground nor water, but something in-between. The ground moves under our feet, and with every step we sink deeper into a thick, mucky substance. Protected by rubber boots, we follow Breibart across the Butterfly Fen, located 30 miles southwest of Gunnison in the San Juan Mountains near the mountain community of Arrowhead.

“I have been visiting this special place since 2015,” says Breibart, “when I first learned about the threats and impacts to this unique ecosystem.”

After a short trudge across the fen, we unload our field equipment and get to work. With direction from our professor, Dr. Jennie DeMarco, we lay out transects, fixed paths along which we take vegetation measurements and collect soil samples.

“The goal of our research is to better understand the ability of fen ecosystems to store carbon and retain soil moisture,” explains Master in Environmental Management (MEM) student Heather Reineking.

Breibart adds, “Carbon sequestration and maintenance of soil moisture are key issues in building resilience to a changing climate.”

But what are fens and why do they matter?

Fens are ancient wetlands found in different parts of the world. In the Rocky Mountains, fens started to form after the last ice age around 12,000 years ago. What distinguishes fens from other wetlands is their strong connection to groundwater as well as a thick layer (16-plus inches) of peat. Peat is an accumulation of dead and decomposing plant matter that forms over hundreds, even thousands, of years, in permanently saturated, nearly oxygen-free soils. Peat is also what lends fens their spongy characteristic, so if you have ever experienced that wet and springy sensation under your feet while hiking across the alpine, you yourself have likely stood atop a fen.

Because peat is primarily composed of plant matter, it typically has a carbon content of over 50 percent. The slow but constant accumulation of peat makes fens globally important as carbon sinks. In fact, despite covering only 3 percent of the Earth’s surface, fens and other peatlands are second only to oceans in carbon storage. However, when a fen is dried out, the peat is exposed to air and the carbon is released in the form of CO2, making them powerful greenhouse gas emitters.

While it can take thousands of years for peat to build up in fens, degradation of these ancient ecosystems can reverse this sequestration in only a few years.

Beyond their role in the global carbon cycle, fens support biodiversity and provide an ecological refuge for rare plant species. Additionally, fens are important habitat for elk, moose, amphibians and migratory birds.

Fens provide other critical ecological functions as well, including filtering large volumes of water and maintaining base flows to streams year-round.

Breibart explains, “With climate change and prolonged droughts, fens play an increasingly vital role for maintaining flows in our headwater streams and the Colorado River Basin. Fens in the San Juan Mountains and closer to home at the Iron Fen outside of Crested Butte maintain a high water table during drought years such as the ones in 2002, 2012 and 2018.”

Considering the numerous societal and ecological benefits of fens, the BLM strives to protect and restore these little-known ecosystems on the lands that the agency has been entrusted with. Threats to fens include trailing by domestic and wild ungulates (cows and elk), logging operations, water diversions, road building and climate change.

In the face of these threats, the need to study these often-overlooked ecosystems to inform their restoration is critical. This is the reason why our group of students is measuring vegetation and collecting soil cores at the Butterfly Fen. “We are collecting baseline data so that we can compare current conditions to future conditions and learn if restoration measures are effective in maintaining or even improving the ecological function of the fen,” explains MEM student Justin Sanchez.

Meanwhile, the sounds of drills and chainsaws can be heard nearby as a youth crew from the Western Colorado Conservation Corps (WCCC) is hard at work constructing a buck and pole fence to prevent cattle from trailing through the fen.

“These lands are managed for multiple uses,” says Breibart. “We have a timber sale for spruce bark beetle, livestock grazing, hunting and snowmobiling, but we also need to take into consideration the impacts on these sensitive ecosystems.”

The BLM is seeking a win-win solution by fencing off the delicate fen area and creating an alternative water source, so that livestock can still graze the surrounding meadows.

Furthermore, in partnering with students at WCU, the BLM is using the best available science to inform fen restoration measures. MEM student Chris Kittle says, “We hope that our research will support the BLM in protecting these rare ecosystems, so that the benefits fens bring to natural and human communities do not dry up.”

Breibart is elated, saying, “After four years, the BLM Gunnison Field Office finally has the resources to protect and preserve the Butterfly Fen, and I look forward to more collaborative fen restoration projects in the future.”

@EPA awards Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment $1,17 million to improve water quality in the Lower #ArkansasRiver and Lower #GunnisonRiver basins

Here’s the release from the Environmental Protection Agency (Lisa McClain-Vanderpool):

EPA and the state partner with the agriculture industry to restore watersheds

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has awarded $1,170,000 to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) to improve water quality in streams, rivers and lakes. The funding comes through a Nonpoint Source Program Clean Water Act (Section 319) grant, which is given to states to implement programs that address various sources of pollution in surface and groundwater to meet and maintain water quality standards.

“EPA is partnering with CDPHE to restore water quality in two critical river basins, the Lower Arkansas and the Lower Gunnison,” said EPA Regional Administrator Gregory Sopkin. “These rivers are important environmental, economic and recreational resources for the state of Colorado. By working together to reduce pollutants, we will continue to improve these beautiful, natural resources well into the future.”

These watershed projects will result in a significant reduction of pollutants such as selenium, metals and nutrients. CDPHE will use the grant money to support the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District to implement agricultural best management practices that improve water quality in the Arkansas River. In addition, work on the Lower Aspen Canal pipeline and interconnect will be carried out in partnership with the Crawford Water Conservancy District to address water quality issues in the Gunnison River basin. The grant will also fund outreach, education and planning.

Funding for this project is one part of EPA’s overall effort to ensure that America’s waters are clean and safe. This year, EPA is distributing more than $165 million in section 319 grants to states, territories, and tribes to reduce nonpoint runoff in urban and rural settings, including efforts to reduce excess nutrients that can enter our waters and cause public health and environmental challenges. Over the last two years, states restored over 80 waters and reduced over 17 million pounds of nitrogen, nearly 4 million pounds of phosphorus, and 3.5 million tons of excess sediment through section 319 projects. This 319 grant received by Colorado complements the $12.7 million Clean Water State Revolving Fund grant Colorado received this year.

For more information regarding EPA’s Nonpoint Source grant program visit: https://www.epa.gov/nps/319-grant-program-states-and-territories

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dan West):

The Crawford Water Conservancy District provides supplemental irrigation water supplies for approximately 8,200 acres and full water supplies for 1,423 acres in Delta and Montrose counties, according to its website.

It has operated the Smith Fork Project for the Bureau of Reclamation, which includes the Aspen Canal, since 1964.

The Smith Fork Project utilizes flows from the Smith Fork, Iron, Muddy, and Alkali Creeks…

Over the last two years, states restored more than 80 waters and reduced more than 17 million pounds of nitrogen, nearly 4 million pounds of phosphorus, and 3.5 million tons of excess sediment through section 319 projects, according to the EPA.