Water management issues on the East Slope mean that the Roaring Fork River will continue to experience natural flows unaltered by diversions beneath the Continental Divide for another week to 10 days, a Pitkin County official said on Wednesday.
On June 14, Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. ceased transbasin diversions from Grizzly Reservoir to the South Fork of Lake Creek, which in the weeks prior had been running at about 600 cubic feet per second. With that additional water going down the Roaring Fork toward Aspen, water levels spiked dramatically, from around 300 cfs above Difficult Creek on June 14 to 800 cfs by June 16. The river appears to have peaked at 1,200 cfs above Difficult Creek on Monday.
When the Fork is flowing near or above 1,000 cfs upstream of Aspen, water overtops the banks as the river meanders through the North Star Nature Preserve, creating what some are calling Lake North Star. Boaters this week have been able to float over what is normally acres of grassland between the highway and the foot of Aspen Mountain.
While Lake North Star has been drawing more boaters, higher flows throughout the basin have officials calling on the recreating public to take extreme caution whenever they are in or around rivers.
FromAspen Public Radio (Elizabeth Stewart-Severy):
Water levels on the Roaring Fork River are expected to rise next week as Twin Lakes Reservoir reaches capacity.
Officials at the Twin Lakes Canal Company expect the reservoir to fill between Tuesday and Thursday next week. That means that the 625 cubic feet per second of water that is typically diverted to the Front Range through a tunnel on Independence Pass will instead flow down the Roaring Fork River.
That, in addition to peaking snowmelt, means flows on the river could nearly triple next week. It is expected that the North Star Nature Preserve will flood. This is healthy for the wetlands.
Officials at the Bureau of Reclamation said releases from Ruedi Reservoir into the Fryingpan River will decrease over the weekend. This reduces the risk of flooding at the confluence of the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork in Basalt. Ruedi Reservoir is about 80 percent full.
Medano Creek is now approaching what’s called “surge flow,” a phenomenon where creek water flows in waves across the sand.
The combination of a sufficiently steep channel, a sandy creek bottom and plenty of flowing water only exists in a few places on Earth, according to the spokesperson, “and Medano Creek is considered the best place in the world to experience surge flow!”
Because of the unusually cold and wet conditions in May, peak flow is occurring a little later than average this year, the spokesperson said.
You can follow detailed creek conditions and forecast flow on the National Park Service website.
The video below, courtesy of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, shows you exactly what happens during surge flow:
ASPEN – The unnatural order of things was restored Tuesday as the Twin Lakes Tunnel began diverting water to the east again from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, after having been closed for two weeks.
The tunnel was closed temporarily after constraints in water rights required that it stop diverting from the Fork, Lost Man and Lincoln creeks, and other tributaries in the headwaters.
The tunnel under the Continental Divide had been diverting about 620 cubic feet per second (cfs) before diversions were stepped down over a three-day period from June 14 to 16, when the tunnel closed.
The reintroduced native flows down the Fork and Lincoln Creek added noticeable intensity to the river as it made its way through the Grottos, Stillwater and Slaughterhouse reaches near Aspen.
One of the constraints on the legal rights of the tunnel is that when the Colorado Canal in Ordway can divert freely because there is plenty of water in the lower Arkansas River, it cannot demand water from the Roaring Fork.
But the spring runoff has slowed, pinching the supply of water available to the canal from the Arkansas. As such, it can now legally call for water from the Roaring Fork.
“The Colorado Canal is being called out, so we can start diverting the tunnel under the direct flow portion of the right,” wrote Kevin Lusk, the president of the board of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. and a principal engineer at Colorado Springs Utilities, in an email Tuesday.
The other constraint was that the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. had filled its storage allotment of 54,452 acre-feet of water in Twin Lakes Reservoir.
With that “bucket” filled, and the Colorado Canal still in priority, the tunnel had to be closed.
Not all of the water diverted from the Fork’s headwaters goes to the Colorado Canal, however, as the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System, of which the Twin Lakes Tunnel is the key component, now also helps meet water needs in several Front Range cities.
The diversion system is technically owned by the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., which is based in Ordway. But Aurora, Colorado Springs, Pueblo West, and Pueblo own almost all of the shares in the company.
On Tuesday, the Twin Lakes Tunnel, which begins at Grizzly Reservoir on Lincoln Creek, was opened back up and about 200 cubic feet per second began flowing east, primarily from Lincoln Creek and the creeks in Brooklyn, New York, and Tabor gulches.
In response, levels in the Roaring Fork River near Aspen fell sharply.
The river at Difficult Campground, for example, was flowing at 390 cfs at 6 a.m., Tuesday morning, but had fallen to 244 cfs by 8 p.m.
And the measuring gauge on Stillwater Drive, just below the North Star Nature Preserve, showed the river flowing there at 510 cfs at 6 a.m. and at 311 cfs by 8 p.m.
On Wednesday, Lusk said that new calls for water from various shareholders in the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. mean that water from Lost Man Creek and the main stem of the Fork would soon be added to the flow of water being sent east through the tunnel.
Lusk said he expected the tunnel to continue diverting water through the summer.
This marked the second year in a row the Twin Lakes Tunnel was forced to cease diverting due to wet conditions on the east side of the pass.
During most of the time the Twin Lakes Tunnel was closed, diversions continued to flow as usual through the Bousted Tunnel, which sends water east from the headwaters of the Fryingpan River, as well as from Hunter, Midway, and No Name creeks near Aspen.
Around 800 cfs has been flowing through the Bousted Tunnel for most of June.
And according to the Pueblo Chieftain, the total diversion from the Fry-Ark project so far this year is about 51,000 acre-feet of water.
Add that to the approximately 25,000 acre-feet diverted so far by Twin Lakes, and it means about 76,000 acre-feet has been diverted from the Roaring Fork River watershed so far this year, not counting what may have been sent through the Busk-Ivanhoe Tunnel, which also diverts from the upper Fryingpan.
Ruedi Reservoir, by comparison, can hold 102,373 acre-feet.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News, and Coyote Gulch are collaborating on coverage of rivers and waters. The Daily News published a version of this story on Thursday, July 30, 2016.
ASPEN – For the second time in two years the native flows to the upper Roaring Fork River have been restored as the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. has had to curtail its diversions and close the Twin Lakes Tunnel, which since June 6 had been moving 600-plus cubic feet per second of water under the Continental Divide.
After the tunnel was closed Thursday afternoon and the upper Roaring Fork River had regained the natural flow of its two biggest tributaries – Lost Man and Lincoln creeks – the river bounded down the slick granite in the Grottos area and erupted in a frenzy of churning whitewater.
The Grottos on June 13, and on June 16
Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. began diverting the headwaters of the Roaring Fork in earnest this year in late May. It ramped up diversions through the Twin Lakes Tunnel to above 600 cfs on June 6 and kept them in the 610 cfs to 620 cfs range until Tuesday, June 14, when the diversions in the tunnel were reduced by about half.
By Wednesday, flows in the tunnel were around 250 cfs and were turned down to a trickle of 4 cfs by Thursday afternoon.
Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. first reduced the flow of water to the tunnel on Tuesday by letting the natural flow of Lost Man Creek run into the Roaring Fork River again, instead of diverting it to the entrance to the Twin Lakes Tunnel, which begins at Grizzly Reservoir.
The flows of Lost Man Creek added about 250 cfs into the main stem of the upper Fork as it ran past Lost Man campground.
Then on Thursday afternoon, Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. took the next step and closed the tunnel. That sent another 200 cfs or so down lower Lincoln Creek, which runs into the Fork just above the Grottos.
Just after 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Lincoln Creek quickly went from a clear and docile stream that could be easily walked across to a turbid river flowing strong enough to lift a man off his feet.
Lincoln Creek, before and after
The 4-mile long Twin Lakes Tunnel is now expected to remain closed for two to three weeks and the recent hot weather may keep the water rising in the Fork as the last of the high elevation snowpack comes off.
On Friday, a cold and swiftly moving Roaring Fork had risen above its banks in portions of the North Star Nature Preserve, flooding some areas but not to the extent of the high water in June 2015.
Last year on June 18 the Fork reached a peak flow of 1,680 cfs, as recorded by the gauge “Roaring Fork River Near Aspen, CO,” located at Stillwater Drive just east of Aspen proper.
Yesterday at 4:30 p.m., as the tunnel was closed, the Fork at Stillwater was flowing at 597 cfs.
But by midnight, with the strong flow from Lincoln Creek added, the Fork had climbed to 817 cfs.
It then hit a high of 927 cfs at 7:45 a.m. on Friday morning, before falling back to 857 cfs by 2:30 p.m. Friday.
By midday Friday, the swelling river was licking the porch of a small cabin on the banks of the Fork in the Stillwater section, but unlike last year, it had not yet flooded the inside of the cabin and a nearby art studio.
The river, however, had risen high enough to flood portions of the North Star Nature Preserve and other land along the river. So far, the high water had not produced flooding in scale with the dramatic size of last year’s “Lake North Star.”
Turn Tunnel Off
The Twin Lakes Tunnel is the key component of the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System, which was constructed in the 1930s and is owned and operated by Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.
Notably, the company does not own and operate Twin Lakes Reservoir, as it sold the reservoir on the east side of Independence Pass to the Bureau of Reclamation and the reservoir is now managed as part of the Fry-Ark project.
The Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., did, however, retain the right to store 54,452 acre-feet in Twin Lakes Reservoir, which can hold a total of 147,500 acre-feet, or about a third again more than Ruedi Reservoir.
But under its water rights, after Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. reaches its storage allotment in Twin Lakes Reservoir as it did this week, it has to stop diverting if the Colorado Canal can still divert 756 cfs directly from the lower Arkansas River.
It’s rare that two of the constraints in the water rights held by Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. overlap and it has to stop diverting West Slope water, but it happened last year and again this year.
And both times were a reflection of the high levels of water in the lower Arkansas River basin.
If flows in the lower Arkansas drop, then the Colorado Canal will likely be called out by a senior diverter and Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. can again divert water from the headwaters of the upper Roaring Fork and send it directly to the canal.
The Colorado Canal is near Ordway, CO, where Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. is based. Most of the shares in the company are owned by Front Range cities, which receive the majority of the water normally diverted from the upper Roaring Fork.
ASPEN – On Tuesday, June 14 the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. turned out the flow of Lost Man Creek into the main stem of the Roaring Fork River, instead of sending it under the Continental Divide to Twin Lakes Reservoir.
Lost Man Creek is a major tributary of the upper Roaring Fork River and nearly its entire flow is typically diverted through the Twin Lakes Tunnel.
The creek flows out of sweeping high country valley and runs into Lost Man Reservoir. It’s then diverted into a canal and dumps into the main stem of the Roaring Fork River behind a dam.
That dam doesn’t form a reservoir, but instead diverts water from both Lost Man Creek and the Fork into a tunnel under Green Mountain and then, after another stretch of canal, into Grizzly Reservoir.
Once water from Lost Man Creek and the main stem of the Roaring Fork reaches Grizzly Reservoir it joins water from Lincoln, New York, Brooklyn and Tabor creeks and normally flows into the Twin Lakes Tunnel. The water in the tunnel daylights into Lake Creek and flows down to Twin Lakes Reservoir in Twin Lakes, Colorado.
From Twin Lakes Reservoir, all of the water collected and diverted by what’s officially known as the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System is sent to Aurora, Colorado Springs, Pueblo West, Pueblo and fields in the lower Arkansas River basin.
But due to constraints in its water rights, Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. is being forced to curtail its diversions from the Indy Pass system, which means in all, 600 cfs of native flows will be turned out Wednesday and will flow either into the main stem of the Fork or upper Lincoln Creek, which flows into the Fork just above the Grottos.
On Tuesday, just flows from Lost Man Creek and the Fork were turned out from the diversion system, adding about 250 cfs to the Fork as it flowed past Lost Man Campground.
On Wednesday, the flows from the Lincoln Creek side of the system will be added to the released native flow of water heading downstream toward Aspen.
The Twin Lakes Tunnel, which has been diverting over 600 cfs since June 6, is set to be closed at noon Wednesday, according to Kevin Lusk, the president of the board of Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. and a senior engineer with Colorado Springs Utilities, which owns 55 percent of the water diverted from the upper Fork.
The Twin Lakes Tunnel is expected to be closed for two to three week and the return of native flows to the Fork – for the second year in a row – may flood the North Star Nature Preserve and create what some locals called “Lake North Star.”
Last year, when the Twin Lakes Tunnel closed, the Fork peaked at the “Roaring Fork Near Aspen” gauge at 1,680s cfs on June 18.
Tuesday evening, flows in the Fork at “Roaring Fork Near Aspen” gauge, at Stillwater Drive, were at 640 cfs, up from 400 cfs before the flow of Lost Man Creek was returned to the Fork.
With the addition of Wednesday of about 350 cfs coming down Lincoln Creek, the flows at Stillwater Dr. could reach the 1,000 cfs range. The Fork, at its confluence with the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs, was flowing at 4,150 cfs on Tuesday night.
Hot and sunny weather expected over the next week in the Aspen area will also likely drive up the flow in the river.
Park Rangers were enforcing and informing visitors of the tubing and swimming restriction along Clear Creek on Saturday.
Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office announced the restriction on Thursday, citing dangerous conditions because of high water.
These temporary restrictions apply to Clear Creek in unincorporated Jefferson County, as well as those portions of Clear Creek within the City of Golden, including Vanover Park.
Colorado’s Own Channel 2 spotted two people with tubes ready to hop in the water were stopped short by onlookers who informed them tubing was restricted.
Water activities prohibited by the order include all single-chambered air inflated devices such as belly boats, inner tubes, and single chambered rafts, as well as “body-surfers” and swimming.
Kayaks, paddle boards, whitewater canoes and multi-chambered professionally guided rafts and river boards are exempt, but are encouraged to observe extreme caution due to the safety concerns surrounding swift moving water and floating debris.
Authorities said the water of the Arkansas River where the rescue happened [ed. 3 young people rescued from the Arkansas River Tuesday, June 7] was flowing fairly fast. Earlier in the day, it was measured at 4,300 cubic feet per second — fast but not unusual during the annual spring runoff.
Rapids on the Roaring Fork River are expected to peak this weekend, said Aspen Fire Department Chief Rick Balentine, citing information from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.
Balentine said the currents are “dangerously high” now and cautioned those on the water to wear some form of safety flotation device.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 88 percent of people who drown in boating accidents are not wearing a life vest, Balentine said.
He cited another Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stat noting alcohol is a factor in 70 percent of water-recreation accidents.
“These are pretty stark facts,” Balentine said. “If you see somebody about to do something stupid, say something…
On Thursday, the river flow hit around 1,640 cubic feet per second, Ingram said.
River officials often draw a parallel between one cubic feet per second and one basketball — meaning 1,640 cubic feet per second is the equivalent to about 1,640 basketballs rushing down a river at once.
Ingram expects the Slaughterhouse area, one of the faster, more thrilling sections of the river, to reach between 1,800 and 2,200 cfs this weekend.
The National Weather Service in Denver extended a flood advisory for the Poudre in Larimer County and Weld County. The river isn’t projected to reach flood stage through early next week, but residents can expect minor flooding of low-lying areas along the river, according to the advisory.
South Platte River Basin snowpack sat at 194 percent of its historical average on Friday morning and was even higher earlier this week thanks to remnants from spring snows. That’s significant for the Poudre, which is fed by mountain snowpack in addition to water from the Colorado-Big Thompson project.
As temperatures soar into the 90s this weekend, snowmelt will push the river to 6.7 feet at the canyon mouth by Sunday morning, the advisory said. Flood stage is 7.5 feet, and the river stood at 6.2 feet Friday morning.
At 6 feet, water covers the bike path and trail along the river in and near Fort Collins.
Colorado has twice as much snowpack than normal for this time of year, according to the latest snowpack report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The cool, wet weather in May contributed to the exceptional water supply Colorado appears to have heading into the summer. According to the report, as of June 6, the state was at 201 percent of the average for snowpack, compared to last year’s 95 percent.
“This should be a good year waterwise for cities and for farmers; that’s the bottom line,” said Brian Werner of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
The fact that snow is still visible in the mountains at this time of year means the runoff should last longer than it usually does, which in turn means less water will be pulled from reservoir storage later in the year, he said.
And the snowpack is especially good in the northern Colorado area. The majority of remaining snowpack in Colorado exists in the northern mountains, especially in watersheds such as the South Platte and Upper Colorado, which are above 10,000 feet.
As of June 6, both river basins that feed into northern Colorado — the Upper Colorado River Basin and the South Platte River Basin — were above 200 percent of the median snowpack.
As for reservoir storage, the state is currently at 108 percent of average, according to the June 1 update from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. This is exactly where the state was last year, as well.
The Upper Colorado River Basin is at 110 percent of average for reservoir storage and the South Platte River Basin is at 112 percent of the average.
Werner said the Colorado-Big Thompson project is 20 percent above normal, which is promising at this point in the year. The Colorado-Big Thompson project is a series of reservoirs, pipelines, diversions and ditches that provides water to municipalities, farmers and other water users throughout northeastern Colorado.
Werner said going into summer, farmers and cities should be in good shape if nothing drastic occurs within the upcoming months.
“We shouldn’t have any major water worries this year,” he said.
ASPEN (Brent Gardner-Smith) – The Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. has alerted Pitkin County officials that it soon intends to stop diverting about 600 cubic feet per second of water through the Twin Lakes Tunnel near Independence Pass.
The non-diversion of water from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, which could begin by midweek and last up to three weeks, could double forecasted flows in the Stillwater section of the Fork just east of Aspen, depending on weather and runoff levels. That may inundate the popular North Star Nature Preserve.
“We may see a couple of weeks or more where we are not taking anything through the tunnel, and hopefully that doesn’t cause too much flooding on that side,” said Kevin Lusk, a senior engineer with Colorado Springs Utilities and the president of the board of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.
The Roaring Fork, as measured at Stillwater Drive east of Aspen on a federal gauge, was flowing in the 500-to-750 cubic-feet-per-second (cfs) range on Friday.
Also on Friday, there was 618 cfs of water being diverted east through the Twin Lakes Tunnel and under the Continental Divide, bound for Front Range cities and fields near Ordway, in the lower Arkansas River basin.
Doubling the flow?
If Twin Lakes does turn off the diversion tunnel by midweek as expected, the Fork could be flowing in the 1,100-to-1,200 cfs range, instead of the 500-to-550 cfs range, as forecasted by the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center.
The current forecast, which assumes the Twin Lakes diversions are in place as usual, shows the Roaring Fork at Stillwater reaching a seasonal peak flow of 755 cfs today. Flows are then forecast to drop to the 500-to-550 cfs range by Wednesday. (The river actually beat the forecast and reached 773 cfs on Friday).
This would be the second straight year that Twin Lakes has stopped its diversions from the Roaring Fork headwaters due to plenty of water in the Arkansas basin.
Last year, Twin Lakes was diverting 528 cfs when it suddenly closed the tunnel on June 4.
A couple of days later, it diverted about 200 cfs for a brief time to try to reduce flooding of an old cabin along the river, and then, out of options, it left the tunnel closed until July 20.
Last year’s non-diversion of water by Twin Lakes helped push the Roaring Fork at Stillwater to a peak flow of 1,680 cfs on June 18.
The only minor damage caused in Pitkin County by last year’s high water was to the little cabin. And to the delight of paddlers on the Stillwater section of river, the high water also formed “Lake Northstar” on the North Star Nature Preserve.
It’s rare for Twin Lakes to stop diverting water, but it has constraints in its water-right decrees that can, in wet years, force it to stop moving water from the West Slope.
Twin Lakes operates what is formally known as the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System. It gathers water from the Roaring Fork River and from Lost Man, Grizzly, Lincoln, New York, Brooklyn and Tabor creeks, and delivers the water to Grizzly Reservoir.
From Grizzly Reservoir, the water is sent through the 4-mile-long Twin Lakes Tunnel, under the Divide, into Lake Creek and down to Twin Lakes Reservoir, on the east side of Independence Pass.
The Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. is controlled by various municipal shareholders in the company, with Colorado Springs owning 55 percent of the shares, Pueblo 23 percent, Pueblo West 12 percent, and Aurora 5 percent. There are also other minority shareholders still using the water from the system for agriculture.
One constraint in Twin Lakes’ water rights, which date to 1936, is tied to the Colorado Canal, which diverts water from the lower Arkansas River under a relatively junior water right.
If the demands of the Colorado Canal can be met with “native” water from the Arkansas, then Twin Lakes cannot divert water from the West Slope to fill the canal.
This year, there is a lot of water running down the Arkansas, and so the canal does not need supplemental water from the West Slope, at least not yet.
The other water-right constraint relates to how much water Twin Lakes can legally store in Twin Lakes Reservoir.
Once Twin Lakes, the company, has stored 54,452 acre-feet of water in Twin Lakes, the reservoir, the company has to stop diverting water from the Roaring Fork basin for storage.
Normally by the time Twin Lakes has reached its storage limit, the flow in the lower Arkansas has dropped and the Colorado Canal gets called out by senior diverters, so Twin Lakes can send supplemental water to the canal, allowing the Twin Lakes Tunnel to divert all summer.
But due to this year’s weather and snowpack, the constraints on Twin Lakes’ water rights have again come together, forcing the tunnel to be turned off as soon as the storage limit is reached, especially as the weather forecast suggests runoff into the Arkansas will remain high.
If cool and wet weather were to materialize over the next few days, however, cit ould delay when Twin Lakes reaches its storage limit and has to stop diverting. It could be midweek, or it could be next week.
And how long the tunnel stays closed depends on a range of factors, Lusk said, including weather, flows into the Arkansas, and the operation of Twin Lakes Reservoir.
Valerie MacDonald, Pitkin County emergency manager, said officials with Twin Lakes have done a much better job this year than last year in communicating about the likelihood of a non-diversion.
She also said local public safety officials are prepared to respond to high water and that concerned property owners can find information about flood readiness on the Pitkin County website.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News, and Coyote Gulch, are collaborating on the coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Saturday, June 11, 2016.