Aspen signs deals with @AmericanRivers, Trout Unlimited to move Castle/Maroon dam rights — @AspenJournalism

Berries in the meadow near the Maroon Bells that would be flooded by a Maroon Creek Reservoir. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

American Rivers and Colorado Trout Unlimited are the latest of 10 opposing parties to sign agreements with the city of Aspen stating that the city will move its conditional water storage rights out of the upper Castle and Maroon creek valleys to five other locations.

“This is a significant victory for rivers in Colorado,” said Matt Rice, the Colorado River basin director for American Rivers, in a statement issued jointly with Colorado Trout Unlimited on Tuesday.

The alternative potential locations to store water from Castle and Maroon creeks include the city’s golf course, on open space near the Burlingame neighborhood, on open space at Cozy Point at the bottom of Brush Creek Road, on undeveloped land in Woody Creek next to the gravel pit and in the gravel pit itself.

David Nickum, the executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited, said in the statement, “We appreciate the city of Aspen making this commitment to meet its water-supply needs while protecting these much-loved valleys and creeks, and the wild trout that call them home.”

City officials also expect to soon receive a signed agreement from Roaring Fork Land and Cattle Co., the owner of an estate in the lower Maroon Creek valley, according to Margeret Medellin, a utilities portfolio manager for the city of Aspen.

As of May 29, the city had reached earlier settlements with Pitkin County, Wilderness Workshop, Western Resource Advocates, Double R Cross Ltd and Asp Properties LLC in the two cases.

Medellin said Tuesday she understands the U.S. Forest Service also is prepared to sign an agreement and is working toward that end.

And at a June 26 status conference, Craig Corona, the attorney for Larsen Family LP, the last of the 10 opposing parties, told the court he and his client were making progress toward settlement with the city.

City officials have previously said none of the agreements are valid unless all 10 parties sign them.

Reached on Tuesday, Corona said he could not discuss the case.

A water court official has given the opposing parties who have not reached agreement with the city until July 10 to respond to the city’s latest proposal.

The city then has until Aug. 7 to get back to the opposers and the next status conference in the two water court cases is set for Aug. 21.

A map showing the location of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir.

1965 filing

The city’s conditional water storage rights date back to 1965, when the city first filed maps with the state declaring its intent to build the two dams.

One water right is tied to a 155-foot-tall dam that would be located just below the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks, within view of the Maroon Bells, to hold back 4,567 acre-feet of water in the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir.

The other is tied to a 170-foot-tall dam on Castle Creek 2 miles below Ashcroft that could store 9,062 acre-feet in the potential Castle Creek Reservoir.

The city’s water rights carry a 1971 priority date and since then the city has periodically told the state it still intends to build the dams and reservoirs someday, when necessary.

In its latest periodic diligence filings with the state, in October 2016, the city again declared its intent and drew opposition from the 10 opposing parties.

The dam site of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir, in the Roaring Fork River basin. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Key issues raised during the process include whether the city has been diligently making progress toward building the dams and if the city needs the water.

However, sufficient diligence and need are in the eyes of a water court judge and remain unresolved questions.

In their statement issued Tuesday, American Rivers and Trout Unlimited pointed out that “Aspen’s own 2016 water availability report clearly stated that the city did not need the two dams for municipal water supply or climate resiliency.”

Since that 2016 report the city has conducted a “risk analysis” study that found it could perhaps need about 8,000 acre-feet of storage in a hotter and drier world.

And a recent engineering study that identified five alternative locations where the city could potentially store the water.

“We explored alternatives for water storage and we believe we’ve come up with the best solution for prudent water management that serves the needs of our water customers and speaks to our environmental values,” Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron said in March, when the city spent $2.68 million on 63 acres of vacant land as a potential water storage site.

Under the terms of the settlements being signed with the city, the opposing parties are conceding that the city has been diligent, or perhaps diligent enough, and are taking a neutral stance, at least with the court, on the question of whether the city needs that much water.

“American Rivers agreed to diligence for the City of Aspen because we thought this was the best opportunity to reach a settlement with the city that would permanently remove the water rights for the two dams from the Castle and Maroon Creek valleys, not because we believe the city needs more water storage or has been diligent in developing the projects,” Rice, of American Rivers, told Aspen Journalism. “Our priority has always been the health and protection of Castle and Maroon Creeks. “

The signed agreements to date say that the parties will not oppose a forthcoming application from the city to relocate up to 8,500 acre-feet of its 13,629 acre-feet of conditional water storage rights to potential storage facilities at the five locations outside of the high valleys.

Other parties, not in the Castle and Maroon creek cases, can still oppose the city’s efforts in water court to move the water rights, and their 1971 decree date.

If it is unsuccessful in its efforts to move the rights, the city has said, in the agreements it has signed to date, that it will not seek to maintain the Castle and Maroon rights in their original locations.

The signed agreements to date say that the parties will not oppose a forthcoming application from the city to relocate up to 8,500 acre-feet of it’s 13,629 acre-feet of conditional water storage rights to potential storage facilities at the five locations outside of the high valleys.

Other parties, not in the Castle and Maroon creek cases, can still oppose the city’s efforts in water court to move the water rights, and their 1971 decree date.

If it is unsuccessful in its efforts to move the rights, the city has said, in the agreements it has signed to date, that it will not seek to maintain the Castle and Maroon rights in their original locations.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on July 4, 2018.

City of Aspen moves closer to settlements on Castle and Maroon creeks water rights cases — @AspenJournalism

The dam site of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

The city of Aspen continues to make progress on reaching settlement agreements with 10 different parties over its water rights on Maroon and Castle creeks, and a water referee set deadlines that could lead to a resolution before the end of summer.

At a status conference [July 26, 2018], both the city and its opponents said progress is being made toward resolving the cases.

“I feel optimistic we are moving toward a settlement,” said Cindy Covell, a water attorney for the city who is with Alperstein and Covell in Denver.

So far, five of the 10 parties who oppose the city’s efforts in water court to maintain conditional storage rights tied to potential dams on Maroon and Castle creeks have signed settlement agreements. Still left to sign are American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, the U.S. Forest Service, Larsen Family Limited Partnership and Roaring Fork Land & Cattle Co.

Attorney Paul Noto, who represents American Rivers, Trout Unlimited and Roaring Fork Land and Cattle Co., said his clients will likely settle soon.

“I think we are all enthused about how it all ended up,” Noto said. “We are excited about the protections afforded to Castle and Maroon creeks.”

That leaves two other parties that are further away from settling, Larsen Family LP and the U.S. Forest Service.

Attorney Craig Corona of Aspen, who represents the Larsen family, told water court referee Susan Michelle Ryan on Tuesday that he and the city are “definitely” making progress toward finalizing a settlement. The U.S. Forest Service has been difficult to reach lately, according to Covell.

Upper Castle Creek, about two miles below Ashcroft, where the city holds conditional water storage rights tied to the potential Castle Creek Reservoir, which would be formed by a 170-foot-tall dam. The city is moving closer to reaching settlement agreements with the ten parties opposing the city’s effort to hang on to the water rights, and the settlement includes moving the city’s rights out of the Castle and Maroon creek valleys.

Response deadlines

Ryan set a deadline of July 10 for the remaining opposing parties to respond to the city’s settlement proposal. The city must respond to those responses (if a response is necessary) by Aug. 7. The next status conference is scheduled for Aug. 21.

The cases are being heard in Division 5 Water Court in Glenwood Springs. The new deadlines mean the cases will extend past the 18-month deadline of disposition, but Ryan decided to keep them on her docket since progress toward a resolution is being made.

Potential reservoirs

Since 1965, the city has owned conditional water rights for reservoirs on Maroon and Castle creeks. In October 2016, the city filed a diligence application to maintain the water rights, which are tied to potential dams.

The potential Maroon Creek Reservoir would hold 4,567 acre-feet of water and include a 155-foot-tall dam, which would flood part of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. The potential Castle Creek Reservoir would hold 9,062 acre-feet behind a 170-foot-tall dam 2 miles below Ashcroft.

The possibility of two new reservoirs and dams didn’t sit well with 10 parties, who filed statements of opposition to the two water rights cases in December 2016.

Under the agreements, the city will seek to transfer its conditional water storage rights to other potential reservoir sites, including a gravel pit near Woody Creek, with a maximum storage capacity of 8,500 acre-feet. As part of the deal, the opposing parties have agreed not to fight the city’s efforts to move the water rights to new locations for 20 years.

The five parties that have already signed the agreements include Pitkin County, Wilderness Workshop, Western Resource Advocates and two private property owners in Castle Creek Valley.

Officials release Upper Roaring Fork Management Plan — @AspenJournalism

Outflow of the Twin Lakes-Independence Tunnel. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

After months of delays and challenges to the planning process, the city of Aspen quietly unveiled the Upper Roaring Fork River Management Plan earlier this month.

The plan names the stretch of the Roaring Fork River through Aspen as the most at-risk and cites transmountain diversions as the main cause.

The plan, which was a joint project between the city of Aspen and Pitkin County, identified impacts to streamflow and developed goals and strategies to protect river health in the Upper Roaring Fork watershed.

The east end of the Independence Pass tunnel, bringing water from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River to the East Slope

Scope shifted

Because of sensitivity around two instances of ongoing litigation — the Busk-Ivanhoe settlement involving transmountain diversions and Pitkin County and the city of Aspen’s conditional water storage rights for the potential Castle and Maroon reservoirs — the focus of the plan shifted after work on it had already begun.

“In the midst of our planning effort, we changed course a little bit and moved away from a scope that was intended to identify ways of re-managing water or administering water differently,” said Seth Mason, an engineer with Lotic Hydrological, the Carbondale-based firm that was hired to produce the plan. “We stepped back from that scope and moved into DSS tools.”

DSS, or decision support systems, are computer models that let water managers simulate how different factors might affect stream flows.

The plan compiles years of studies and data, provides an assessment of existing conditions and provides a framework for making decisions to improve the ecological health of the Upper Roaring Fork River and its tributaries.

The plan mentions several water management opportunities that warrant further investigation such as dry-year water leasing with the Salvation Ditch Co. and municipal raw water supply reductions.

April Long, City of Aspen clean river program manager, presented the plan to the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board at its June 7 meeting. The board recommended sending it to the Pitkin County Commissioners for approval.

“The important thing from the board’s point of view is that we want scientific, responsible information before we do some of our projects on something as sensitive as the river,” said Graeme Means, chair of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board.

A map prepared for the Upper Roaring Fork River Management Plan that shows the stretch of river near Aspen that is heavily impacted by diversions above it. The community ranked this reach as the one they would most like to see management to improve ecological conditions.

Eight reaches

The plan evaluated eight reaches in the Upper Roaring Fork. On the the main stem of the Roaring Fork, consultants looked at from Lost Man Creek to Difficult Creek, Difficult Creek to Salvation Ditch and Salvation Ditch to Castle Creek. They looked at the tributaries of Lincoln Creek from Grizzly Reservoir to its confluence with the Roaring Fork, Hunter Creek from the Fry-Ark Project diversions to its confluence with the Roaring Fork, Castle Creek from Conundrum Creek to its confluence with the Roaring Fork and Maroon Creek from West Maroon to its confluence with the Roaring Fork.

The Roaring Fork River through the City of Aspen emerged as the reach most at risk, with riparian health, flow modification, water pollution, development and land use, habitat fragmentation and aquatic flora and fauna all ranking as poor or at high risk for impact. The minimum flow set by the Colorado Water Conservation Board to maintain ecological health — 32 cfs — is often not met on this stretch in late summer.

The plan also clarifies community values surrounding rivers and water and found that the stretch of the Roaring Fork that flows through downtown Aspen also is the most concerning to the public. This stretch of river, and most of the river upstream of Aspen, could soon see roughly 10 to 30 more cubic feet per second of additional water as a result of a pending settlement between Pitkin County and the Colorado River District and City of Aurora.

The water court case settlement concerning the Busk-Ivanhoe transmountain diversion is expected to let as much as 1,000 more acre-feet of water run into the Upper Roaring Fork River each year instead of being diverted under Independence Pass to the Front Range.

It was this pending case that contributed to the delay and change in scope to the plan. It was originally scheduled to be released in July 2017.

The Roaring Fork River bounding down the Grottos on Thursday, June 16, 2016, after the Twin Lakes Tunnel was closed. Photo Brent Gardner-Smith (Aspen Journalism).

Flows impacted

The risk for impact to the river from flow modification was ranked as high or moderate on all eight evaluated reaches of the Upper Roaring Fork watershed.

“Flow is a huge issue on all of our segments. Nobody got an ‘A’ there,” Long said. “Flow can be considered the master variable for a healthy river. It will impact a lot of the other characteristics.”

Most of those modifications to flows in the Upper Roaring Fork watershed come in the form of transmountain diversions, which reduce the yield in the Roaring Fork River above Mill Street by 40 percent.

The plan names the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System as the primary cause of human-caused shortages in flows. The IPTDS completely dewaters portions of the Upper Roaring Fork River for significant periods each year, according to the plan.

Operated by the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., the system takes an average of 43,000 acre-feet per year from the Roaring Fork headwaters through Twin Lakes Tunnel No. 1 to the Arkansas basin where it is used for East Slope municipal and irrigation purposes. The tunnel under the divide can move 625 cfs of water out of the Roaring Fork basin.

“I really want people to understand how much water is diverted from this river,” Long said. “It does require a lot of coordination and communication and collaboration.”

But despite the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.’s outsized role in the health of the Upper Roaring Fork and that representatives from the company served on the plan’s technical advisory group, the company’s president Kevin Lusk said he has not been involved in anything related to the plan in over nine months. Although he participated in early meetings, Lusk said he had not seen the plan until Aspen Journalism sent it to him and therefore has not read it and cannot comment.

The plan, which cost $200,000, was funded 50-50 by the city and county. Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Director Gary Tennenbaum said the county has a lot of concerns about the water in the Upper Roaring Fork River, especially near the North Star Nature Preserve a few miles upstream from the city limits. The county also owns parcels adjacent to the Roaring Fork River between Aspen and Woody Creek in an area known as the Gorge.

“We have been waiting to do Northstar projects until the plan was finished,” Tennenbaum said. “It kind of validates the planning we have been doing and it really gives us more impetus to get started on some of these county projects.”

Roaring Fork: Anglers urged to take afternoons off to give the trout a break during times of low water, high temperatures

The Cascades, on the Roaring Fork River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From The Aspen Times (Scott Condon):

Colorado Parks and Wildlife and multiple partners are urging anglers to carry thermometers with them and quit fishing when the water in rivers and streams hits 67 degrees.

“We’re definitely concerned right now. Temperatures are reaching the high 60s and even 70 on the Colorado (River),” Kendall Bakich, an aquatic biologist with CPW for area 8, said Tuesday.

The agency last sought a voluntary fishing closure on the Roaring Fork for high water temperatures and low flows in 2012. Bakich said anglers are urged to go out earlier in the day, when air and water temperatures tend to be lower.

“Two o’clock is a good rule of thumb” of when temperatures climb, she said.

Rick Lofaro, executive director of Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy, said the nonprofit organization is working with CPW, Trout Unlimited and the Roaring Fork Fishing Guide Alliance to spread the word about the voluntary closures of waters in the valley.

Senior calls on the rivers, fish water in the ‘Pan — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett) via The Glenwood Springs Post Independent:

Very low flows in the upper Colorado River system are now expected to trigger calls from senior water rights tied to the Shoshone hydropower plant and irrigators in the Grand Valley. And, starting Friday, more water is to be released from Ruedi Reservoir into the lower Fryingpan River to bolster downstream flows.

The Shoshone plant has two water rights, a very senior 1902 right and a less-senior right for 158 cubic feet per second with a 1929 priority date. A call for the 1929 Shoshone right is expected to take effect on Thursday, meaning those upstream from the Shoshone hydro power plant in Glenwood Canyon who hold junior rights must stop diverting.

On July 1, another, larger call is expected to happen downstream on the Colorado — the Cameo call. The Cameo call is made up of the water rights of agriculture diverters near Palisade, including the Grand Valley Water Users Association and the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District.

The Cameo call, which is the second-most senior water right on the Colorado River, calls about 2,200 cfs down through the river system, but the diversion structures tied to the call also have the potential to nearly dry up the Colorado River in a 15-mile reach between the Palisade area and the confluence of the Gunnison River in Grand Junction. This 15-mile reach is critical habitat for endangered fish, including the Humpback Chub.

To help offset the effects of the Cameo call and other diversions on the river system, officials with the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program have set a low-flow target of 810 cfs this year.

And, after meeting with other regional water managers on Wednesday, officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan to release on Friday 50 cfs of water that has been earmarked specifically for endangered fish from Ruedi Reservoir. Another 100 cfs will be added to the bolstered flows on Monday, bringing releases to about 260 cfs in the river below Ruedi Reservoir.

While a Cameo call is not unusual and often happens in late summer, this is the earliest it has ever taken effect, according to Don Meyer, Senior Water Resources Engineer with the Colorado River District. The previous record was July 14.

“It’s a brutal year,” Meyer said. “I think it’s going to be a dire situation for everybody, but especially the fish down there.”

This year is also the second earliest that “fish water” has been released from Ruedi Reservoir since the endangered fish program was established in 1988. During the most recent drought years, 2002 and 2012, fish water was released on June 24 and July 3, respectively.

Federal officials this year expect to be able to release 16,412.5 acre-feet of fish water from Ruedi Reservoir this year, including from a 5,000 acre-foot pool, a 5,412 acre-foot-pool and 6,000 acre-feet of water owned by Ute Water Conservancy District in the reservoir, which is to be leased for the endangered fish program.

In all, the fish program has a total of 28,000 acre-feet of water it can use from various reservoirs in the upper Colorado River system, including Ruedi, Granby and Wolford reservoirs.

The Cameo call will also put more water into the Roaring Fork River by “calling out” the transmountain diversion through the Twin Lakes tunnel under Independence Pass. The Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company can move 625 cfs of water out of the Roaring Fork Basin to the Arkansas Basin, where it is used for East Slope municipal and irrigation purposes.

The tunnel is currently diverting around 50 cfs, but that will come to a halt when the Cameo call goes into effect.

“In one respect it’s a windfall for the Roaring Fork,” said Kevin Lusk, president of Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company. “It’s not good for our customers, but that’s the law. It’s just part of owning a water right on a river in Colorado. This is one of those dry years so we are not surprised to see the Cameo call come on.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and Glenwood Springs Post-Independent. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

#Aspen may stockpile water under its golf course — @HighCountryNews

From The High Country News (Jessic Kutz):

This story is a part of the ongoing Back 40 series, where HCN reporters look at national trends and their impacts close to home.

Following a dry winter, Colorado’s already low snowpack is rapidly dwindling and extreme drought has been declared in a third of the state. Many communities, not only in Colorado, but also in other parts of the West, are wondering about their future water security.

For the city of Aspen, located in the headwaters of the Upper Colorado River Basin, planning for a warmer climate is no longer about the distant future. The 6,500-population municipality relies on pulling water from creeks fed by the snowpack, which sat at just eight percent of its median as of June 11, according to snow monitoring data. And the future doesn’t look any better: Recent research suggests climate change will further disrupt the snowpack in the coming years.

In Aspen, the need for water security is being met with a search for alternative storage solutions that have less damaging environmental impacts than the big dams of yesteryear. Over the past two years the city has begun testing several potential water storage sites, including beneath the municipal golf course, as a means to deal with future water shortages. “We are at that point now were it is time to start putting those (storage) plans into action,” said Margaret Medellin, the city’s utilities manager.

The dam site of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

While Aspen pulls its water from nearby Crystal and Maroon creeks, the city doesn’t have any storage capacity. Currently, the city can stockpile just a day’s worth of water, something Medellin said could be a problem this year. “People right now are conserving water and we could still be in a real hardship at the end of the summer because we have no way to store that water,” she said. “When talking about other communities in Colorado and the West that is a level of vulnerability that is not really acceptable as a water management practice.”

This vulnerability is part of the reason why, since 1965, the city has quietly renewed a filing in Colorado’s water court that kept alive the possibility of building two dams on Castle and Maroon creeks. In 2016, when area environmental groups including the Wilderness Workshop and Western Resource Advocates got wind of the renewal, they announced their opposition to the filing, urging the City of Aspen to relinquish its storage rights. If developed, those rights would have flooded some of the state’s most pristine landscape.

In May the city agreed to forego its conditional water storage rights in these wilderness areas, marking the end of Aspen’s ties to the era of large federal dams like Hoover and Glen Canyon. As part of the agreement, the city is now entering a new period for water storage and conservation policy. One option includes storing water under the city’s municipal golf course. The water could either be injected into the underlying aquifer, or would reach it through a basin specifically designed to draw water underground, Medellin said. This would allow the city to store up to 1,200 acre-feet, or about enough to supply 2,400 households for one year, and would eliminate evaporation, a problem that worsens with rising temperatures. “As a concept it really does help you preserve a lot of the water with minimal loss,” Medellin said.

The groups also identified a former gravel pit, and land adjacent to it, that could accommodate up to 8,000 acre-feet of water, which could be diverted from the Roaring Fork River, if the city transfers its water rights. Seen as a win-win by environmentalists, retrofitting old gravel pits has been used successfully on Colorado’s Front Range since the 1980s. The key would be diverting water from the river at the right time, which, according to Ken Neubacker, Colorado projects director at American Rivers, is right after the river reaches its peak flows. “It all depends on how they do it,” he said.

Aspen’s water management plans include irrigating with reused water and introducing a net metering system, which would help the city’s residents track — and reduce — water use. In collaboration with environmental groups, the city is also looking at a program which would allow farmers to temporarily lease some of their water rights during dry periods, letting the municipality use them instead.

For Aspen, much like other communities across the West, storage will increasingly become a part of water planning strategy, but at least now environmental groups are part of the discussion. “Coming to the table and talking these problems through will be essential,” said Robert Harris, an attorney with Western Resource Advocates. As climate change reduces available water, “we can’t depend on the past being any guarantee of the future.”

Jessica Kutz is an editorial intern at High Country News. This article was first published online at The High Country News on June 19, 2018.

A map provided by the city of Aspen showing the two parcels in Woody Creek it has under contract. The city is investigating the possibility of building a reservoir on the site, as well as looking at the possibility of a reservoir in the neighboring Elam gravel pit.

Town of Carbondale’s Weaver Ditch focus of study on water efficiency — @AspenJournalism

The Weaver Ditch as it winds through Sopris Park in Carbondale. While the ditch is an amenity for the community, the water in the ditch comes directly out of the Crystal River, which is often stressed from lack of water.

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

A project funded by Pitkin County aims to keep more water in the Crystal River by improving the efficiency of Carbondale’s Weaver Ditch.

The Weaver Ditch Existing Conditions Assessment will survey the roughly three miles of ditch that flow through downtown Carbondale from its diversion point at the headgate just west of state Highway 133 near South Crystal Bridge Drive to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River.

From the survey will come a detailed engineering plan to pinpoint where improvements could increase efficiency, delivery and use of the irrigation water. Four gauges will be installed in the ditch to help measure and understand the flow pattern.

The Weaver Ditch (also known as the Weaver and Leonhardy Ditch) is mostly used for raw water irrigation of Carbondale’s open space, parks, golf courses, schoolyards and residents’ yards. The Weaver Ditch runs through Carbondale and Sopris Park, and residents can use it to water their lawns and gardens for free.

Built over a century ago, the open (unpiped) and unlined Weaver Ditch could potentially be leaking water into the surrounding soil in some areas.

“Most of these ditches are pretty old, and the folks get in there and they clean them out and they do everything they can with them with the resources they have, but they were built and designed and created basically with the technology from the 19th century,” Ken Neubecker told the audience at a May 31 State of the River meeting in Carbondale.

Neubecker is associate director of the Colorado Basin Program for American Rivers and a Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams board member.

The Weaver Ditch diversion structure, known as a ‘push-up dam,’ will be upgraded as part of the Weaver Ditch Efficiency Project. A conditions assessment this fall will survey the three miles of ditch that run through Carbondale.

Town rights

Carbondale has three water rights that allow it to divert water from the Crystal River into the Weaver Ditch, a total decreed use of 12.36 cubic feet per second. The oldest of these rights dates back to 1885.

According to Carbondale Utilities Director Mark O’Meara, the town diverts on average about 3.5 cfs from the Weaver Ditch during the irrigation season and has not diverted its full decreed amount in quite some time.

Part of the reason, O’Meara said, is because there often isn’t enough water in the Crystal River, especially during the late summer irrigation season, for the town to divert its full decreed amount.

The survey is a collaboration between the town of Carbondale, the Roaring Fork Conservancy and American Rivers. Pitkin County commissioners approved $30,000 in funding for the project from the county’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Fund at a May 8 work session.

The survey has a total cost of $40,000 and work is slated to begin this fall once the ditch has been turned off for the season. The remaining $10,000 in funding will come from private donors, according to Heather Tattersall Lewin, watershed action director at the Roaring Fork Conservancy.

In the hot, parched summer of 2012, the Crystal River south of Carbondale was reduced to a trickle. Photo/Ken Neubecker via The Mountain Town News.

By example

Besides leaving more water in the river, another goal of the project is to serve as an example for other upstream irrigators on the Crystal, especially those who might be reluctant to participate in a ditch survey.

“This is a pilot project within the town,” Neubecker said. “Hopefully it’s something that we will be able to expand with the other ditches in the town, the ranch irrigators and other people around the Crystal and Roaring Fork valleys and get this to work.”

Not having enough water in the lower Crystal River has been a concern in recent years. The 2012 drought left a section of the Crystal between Thompson Creek and the state fish hatchery dry during the late summer irrigation season.

Leaving more water in the lower Crystal River — an additional 10 to 25 cfs during times of moderate drought — is a goal of the 2016 Crystal River Management Plan.

To accomplish this, the plan calls on the town of Carbondale to line its leaky irrigation ditches. It also suggests creating non-diversion agreements, or paying irrigators to reduce their diversions, and helping them improve ditches and install sprinkler systems.

According to the Crystal River Management Plan, converting an earthen ditch to a concrete ditch or pipeline conserves as much as 30 percent of diverted water because it reduces water loss to seepage and evaporation.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board holds a junior instream flow right of 100 cfs in summer and 60 cfs in winter, which is currently the only permanent mechanism in place to ensure there is water for ecological purposes. But during times of drought, the instream flow right is often not met due to the board’s junior status to most other diverters under Colorado water law.

The Weaver Ditch is downstream from where the worst dewatering takes place. But Lewin Tattersall hopes the Carbondale project will inspire upstream diverters to survey their own ditches.

“We know there are places upstream where efficiencies could be beneficial and having the town of Carbondale demonstrate that they bought into the process and be an example is great because anywhere on that lower Crystal River could use more water,” Tattersall Lewin said.

Fix the headgate

The Weaver Ditch also will see its headgate and diversion structure improved as part of the Crystal River Restoration and Weaver Ditch Efficiency Project. In March, the board approved $20,700 in funding for the project.

Currently, town staff adjusts the headgate manually, depending on demand, rainstorms and other factors. But the goal, O’Meara said, is for the system that opens and closes the headgate to eventually become telemetry-based and automated.

“It’s a demand-based system that can automatically make adjustments so that you aren’t wasting water,” O’Meara said. “We are constantly looking at areas where we can improve on the ditches.”

Ultimately, the Weaver Ditch survey is a first step toward addressing the potential of a future with less water. As climate change raises temperatures, that could mean longer growing seasons for crops and a greater demand for more water.

“Overall, the need for water is going to grow,” Neubecker said. “It’s going to come down to how efficiently can you use your water.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Vail Daily and the Summit Daily News on the coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Saturday, June 16, 2018.