Opinions differ on timeline as #CrystalRiver Wild & Scenic efforts move ahead — @AspenJournalism #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

State Highway 133 crosses the Crystal River several times as it flows downstream to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River in Carbondale. Some proponents of a federal Wild & Scenic designation are pushing for a quick timeline while others want a more cautious approach. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

A campaign to protect one of the last free-flowing rivers in Colorado is moving forward, but some proponents say not enough progress has been made over the past year.

Last spring a handful of advocates led by Pitkin County revived an effort to secure a federal Wild & Scenic designation, which would protect the upper Crystal River from future development, dams and diversions. A year into the effort, some say a planned stakeholder process is moving too slowly, while others say a designation can’t be rushed and must be approached carefully and inclusively.

The different philosophies underscore a rift between those who say a cautious and thorough multi-year approach is what’s needed to ensure success and those who say mounting threats to the river, driven by the climate crisis, demand bold and immediate action.

“That difference of opinion concerns me a great deal,” said Kate Hudson, Crystal River Valley resident and western U.S coordinator for Waterkeeper Alliance. “We are at an existential moment both in terms of water and climate and our congressional balance of power that requires we at least try and do this faster. We should at least try to move this as quickly as possible.”

In 2021 Pitkin County Healthy Rivers granted $35,000 to Carbondale-based environmental conservation group Wilderness Workshop to start up a public outreach and education campaign, with the goal of laying a foundation of grassroots support for the effort. The organization has built a website, held events and collected about 1,000 signatures on a petition supporting the designation. The next step will be working with Pitkin County to hire a facilitator for a formal stakeholder process.

At the June Healthy Rivers board meeting, Wilderness Workshop’s Wild & Scenic campaign manager Michael Gorman gave a presentation about progress so far. Board member Wendy Huber asked about the timeline and whether the process should be moving faster. Gorman said a designation could take several more years.

“I’m feeling a little urgency,” she said. “To sort of dilly dally seems to be losing opportunities.”

Grant Stevens, communications director for Wilderness Workshop, said that while he understands the community’s urgency, it’s important to develop a proposal that Colorado’s congressional representatives can get behind. A designation must be approved by Congress and advocates have been in contact with representatives from Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper’s offices.

“We want to make sure we have something that a federal elected official will support, and we need to make sure we go through a community-driven process to get to that point,” Stevens said. “We don’t want to rush that.”

The view looking upstream on the Crystal River below Avalanche Creek. A Pitkin County group wants to designate this section of the Crystal as Wild & Scenic.
CREDIT: CURTIS WACKERLE/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Designation details

The U.S. Forest Service first determined in the 1980s that the Crystal River was eligible for designation under the Wild & Scenic River Act, which seeks to preserve rivers with outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic and cultural values in a free-flowing condition. There are three categories under a designation: wild, which are sections that are inaccessible by trail, with shorelines that are primitive; scenic, with shorelines that are largely undeveloped, but are accessible by roads in some places; and recreational, which are readily accessible by road or railroad and have development along the shoreline.

The potential proposal for the Crystal includes all three types of designation: wild in the upper reaches of the river’s wilderness headwaters, scenic in the middle stretches and recreational from the town of Marble to the Sweet Jessup canal headgate. Each river with a Wild & Scenic designation has unique legislation written for it that can be customized to address local stakeholders’ values and concerns.

Cache la Poudre River from South Trail via Wikimedia Foundation.

Despite its renowned river rafting, fishing and scenic beauty, which contribute to the recreation-based economy of many Western Slope communities, Colorado has just 76 miles of one river — the Cache La Poudre — designated as Wild & Scenic. This underscores the difficulty of trying to preserve free-flowing streams, especially in a water-scarce region where some would like to see rivers remain available for future water development.

This map shows the sections of the Crystal River that could be designated wild, scenic and recreational according to the finding of eligibility by the U.S. Forest Service.
CREDIT: COURTESY ROARING FORK CONSERVANCY

Stakeholder participation

Since the Crystal flows through Gunnison County and the town of Marble, advocates say getting those residents and elected representatives on board will be key to moving the effort forward. A first attempt at a Wild & Scenic designation, which sought to prevent the possibility of a future dam and reservoir project, couldn’t get buy-in from some Marble residents or Gunnison County. Advocates shelved the discussion in 2016 with the election of President Donald Trump. This time around, they hope to secure at least the participation if not the support of past opponents.

Marble Town Administrator Ron Leach acknowledged there is still a lot of work to be done as far as gauging public sentiment and building awareness.

Leach has been heavily involved in the town’s multi-year process to address overcrowding on the Lead King loop, a popular off-highway vehicle route near Marble. He said when it comes to these things, slow and methodical is the right strategy and that town officials are totally supportive of the Wild & Scenic stakeholders group, in which he participates as the Marble representative.

“The more process, the better the product,” Leach said. “I’ve learned that the hard way. Take it easy and make sure it’s right.”

Gunnison County Commissioner Roland Mason agreed. He said more conversations need to happen before he could say whether Gunnison County would support a designation.

“I appreciate the fact that they are not trying to rush the timeline,” Mason said. “From my perspective it’s moving at a little bit of a slow pace because of trying to get everyone on board but at the same time, it’s kind of necessary.”

But supporters may never get everyone on board. Larry Darien, who owns a ranch on County Road 3 that borders the river, was one of the early opponents to the designation and still remains opposed to Wild & Scenic because of its potential effect on private property.

While the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act does give the federal government the ability to acquire private land, there are many restrictions on those abilities. Condemnation is a tool that is rarely used, according to a Q&A document compiled by the Interagency Wild and Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council.

“I’m not in favor of a dam on the Crystal River and I’m not in favor of water being taken out and sent someplace else and I’m not in favor of Wild & Scenic designation,” he said. “There are other ways we can manage this besides Wild & Scenic and I think that’s the way we need to go instead of getting the federal government involved.”

The alternate route Darien is referring to is a collaboratively created alternative management plan on the Upper Colorado River, which offers some of the same protections as Wild & Scenic, but still allows for some water development.

Advocates will have to decide whether total consensus is a realistic goal and if they should move forward even though some opposition remains.

he headwaters of the Crystal River include the tributary of Yule Creek, the drainage seen to the left from an Eco-Flight, where Colorado Stone Quarries’ marble quarry is located. Some, including Pitkin County, would like to see the Crystal River designated under the federal Wild & Scenic River Act.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Threats to the Crystal?

While there may be a general feeling of worry about drought and falling reservoir levels in the Colorado River basin overall, it’s unclear what — if any — specific, imminent threats there are to the upper Crystal River. In 2012, conservation group American Rivers deemed the Crystal one of the top 10 most endangered rivers. This was spurred by plans, which have since been scrapped, from the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Conservation District to preserve water rights tied to reservoirs near Redstone.

Still, in a place where much of the state’s headwaters are taken across the Continental Divide to thirsty Front Range cities, Wild & Scenic proponents say it could happen on the Crystal, even if those threats are currently hypothetical. Many of Colorado’s rivers have been overly tapped, but there’s still water left to develop on the Crystal.

“To me, the greatest threat to the Crystal isn’t so much the storage facility, it’s that there’s still water in the Crystal,” said Pitkin County Attorney John Ely. “The biggest risk to the Crystal is just taking water out of the drainage. That’s why I think the (Wild & Scenic) effort is still worth doing.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.

#CrystalRiver rancher, Water Trust again try to boost flows: Agreement will pay Cold Mountain Ranch to leave #water in the river — @AspenJournalism #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Crystal River rancher Bill Fales stands at the headgate for the Helms Ditch, with Mount Sopris in the background. As part of an agreement with the Colorado Water Trust, Fales could be paid to reduce his diversions from the ditch when the river is low. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

A Crystal River Valley rancher and a nonprofit organization are teaming up for the second time to try to leave more water in a parched stream.

Cold Mountain Ranch owners Bill Fales and Marj Perry have inked a six-year deal with the Colorado Water Trust to voluntarily retime their irrigation practices to leave water in the Crystal River during the late summer and early fall, when the river often needs it the most. In addition to a $5,000 signing bonus, the ranchers will be paid $250 a day up to 20 days, for each cubic foot per second they don’t divert, for a maximum payment of $30,000.

The water would come from reducing diversions from the Helms Ditch and could result in up to an additional 6 cfs in the river. The agreement would become active in the months of August and September any time streamflows dip below 40 cfs and once becoming active, will extend through October. The agreement will lift if streamflows rise above 55 cfs.

The goal of the program is to use voluntary, market-based approaches to encourage agricultural water users — who often own the biggest and most senior water rights — to put water back into Colorado’s rivers during critical times.

The program has the hallmarks of demand management, a much-discussed concept over the past few years at the state level: it’s temporary, voluntary and compensated. Other pilot programs that focus on agricultural water conservation usually involve full or split-season fallowing of fields, but with this agreement Fales still intends to get his usual two cuttings of hay.

“The idea is to find something that is a flexible way for water rights owners to use their water in years where it makes sense for something different than strictly agricultural practices,” said Alyson Meyer-Gould, director of policy with the Colorado Water Trust. “It’s another way to use their water portfolio.”

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290878

Cold Mountain Ranch and #Colorado Water Trust Partner to Bolster Flows in #CrystalRiver — @COWaterTrust #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Low flows during drought on the Crystal River. Photo credit: Colorado Water Trust

Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Trust and the Cold Mountain Ranch (Alyson Meyer Gould and Bill Fales):

Cold Mountain Ranch and Colorado Water Trust finalized an agreement intended to increase streamflow in the Crystal River in drier years. The six-year agreement will compensate the Cold Mountain Ranch owners, Bill Fales and Marj Perry, for retiming their irrigation practices to leave their irrigation water in the Crystal River when the river needs it most.

The Crystal River, in 2012, was listed as the eighth most endangered river in the country by American Rivers. It is still a struggling river today. Owing to diversions off the river and the impacts of climate change decreasing snowpack, it runs very low or dry in most years. This impacts the fish and wildlife that depend on it. Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch are trying to help. This innovative agreement would provide the ranch the opportunity to add flows to their local river when it needs it most and hopefully contribute to a healthier aquatic and riparian habitat for those that depend on it. Together, we aim to show that agriculture and conservation can go hand in hand.

Cold Mountain Ranch relies on the Crystal River to irrigate pastures and hay fields that support its cow-calf operation. Under the agreement, Colorado Water Trust will monitor flows in the river and if flows fall to 40 cubic feet per second (cfs) in August or September, the ranch may voluntarily decide to shift its irrigation schedule to allow Colorado Water Trust to lease the water for environmental benefit. Colorado Water Trust will monitor and measure the changed practice and pay the ranch a $5,000 bonus for signing the agreement at the outset of the five-year contract and then $250 per cfs per day to encourage that shift. Once streamflows reach 55 cfs, payments would cease. The agreement can restore up to 6 cfs in the Crystal River.

In 2018, Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch signed a similar three-year pilot agreement that ended in 2020. Unfortunately, within this initial three-year period, Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch were unable to run the project. In 2018, the Crystal River’s flows were too low to implement the agreement – there was not enough water available to result in significant benefits instream. In 2019, the river was high enough to avoid triggering the agreement during the timeframe of the agreement. Although it flirted with the low flow trigger in the late fall, the timing was out of range for the agreement. And in 2020, because of dry and hot conditions and impacts to their irrigated crops, Colorado Water Trust’s partners at Cold Mountain Ranch needed to use as much water as possible to maximize their late season production and keep their ranching operation sustainable.

Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch’s initial three-year pilot agreement was the first crack at a highly customized, market-based solution that works for agriculture and rivers on the Crystal River, and offered lessons for the renewal and re-tooling of that initial agreement. In this new six-year contract, the partners tried to account for drier years and changing climatic conditions, as well as the economic needs of the Ranch. The changes include a $5,000 bonus to support agricultural operations, additional payment and flexibility for coordination, and extending potential coordination into October.

One of the most important goals of Colorado Water Trust’s work on the Crystal River was to design a solution that allows water rights owners to maintain healthy agricultural operations – and Colorado Water Trust continues to accomplish that goal.

Our past agreement also shows other ranchers on the Crystal River that when we say our solutions are voluntary and are NOT designed to harm their operations, we mean it. The vision for this project is that other ranchers on the Crystal River will see that Cold Mountain Ranch is fully empowered to make their own decisions in the best interest of their business, and will feel comfortable to sign on to the project as well. The Crystal River needs more water than just that of Cold Mountain Ranch’s and we hope others will get involved to maintain a healthy river.

ABOUT COLORADO WATER TRUST: Colorado Water Trust is a statewide, nonprofit organization that restores water to Colorado’s rivers in need. Colorado Water Trust accomplishes its mission with voluntary, market-based projects.

Continuous #drought keeps #Aspen under tight #water restrictions: City utility department keeps water users in stage two level — The Aspen Times #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Colorado Drought Monitor map June 7, 2022.

Click the link to read the article on The Aspen Times website (Carolyn Sackariason). Here’s an excerpt:

For the third year in a row, the city of Aspen will continue to be under stage two water restrictions due to elevated drought conditions in Pitkin County. The U.S. Drought Monitor last month elevated Aspen and Pitkin County from abnormally dry to moderate drought conditions, according to Steve Hunter, the city’s utilities resource manager.

Map credit: The High Plains Regional Climate Center

Not only has the area experienced above-normal temperatures and below normal precipitation, Aspen started this spring with below average soil moisture. What that means is that drier soils will infiltrate snowmelt runoff reducing the amount reaching the streams, according to Hunter…

The city’s drought response committee has recommended in a staff memo to Aspen City Council that the municipality remain in stage two water restrictions, which it has been since the fall of 2020.

The 2021-22 snowpack was average to slightly above average for the Roaring Fork watershed as Western Colorado saw above average temperatures and below average precipitation in April and May, which have accelerated snowmelt, according to Hunter. Stream flows in the Roaring Fork watershed are estimated to be from 45% to 80% of average, and most rivers are predicted to have a smaller and earlier peak than normal.

Early peak #runoff for Western Slope rivers: Dust on snow played a role — @AspenJournalism

The Roaring Fork River seen here on May 24 near the Catherine Store Bridge in Carbondale. Downstream at Glenwood Springs, the river peaked for the season on May 20, early and outside the window of what’s considered normal. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

Rivers in western Colorado have already peaked for the season, creating challenging conditions for reservoir managers and rafting companies.

Fueled by spring windstorms that deposited snow-devouring dust on the mountain snowpack, most streams saw their peak flows between May 19 and 21 for this year, according to data from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.

On May 19, the Crystal River near Avalanche Creek hit its high mark for the spring at about 1,870 cubic feet per second. On that day in the southwest part of the state, the San Miguel River at Placerville peaked at 823 cfs; and the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs hit its high mark of 2,915 cfs..

On May 20, the Roaring Fork River just above its confluence with the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs peaked at 4,450 cfs; the Eagle River at Dotsero peaked at about 4,950 cfs.

On May 21, just upstream of major agriculture diversions to the Grand Valley at a location known as Cameo, the Colorado River peaked at about 10,730 cfs. At the Utah state line, streamflows peaked at 16,130 cfs.

The peak streamflow volumes for these locations were within the range of what’s considered normal.

Although there may be a second, smaller peak in coming days as summer temperatures return, forecasters say most of the snow below 11,000 feet has already melted out, meaning not enough is left to fuel a bigger peak than the one that has already happened.

For several locations — the Roaring Fork at Glenwood, the Crystal, the San Miguel and the Colorado at Cameo — the peak came so early that it was outside the window of what’s considered normal. The rest of the locations — the Yampa, the Eagle and the Colorado at the Utah state line — were inside the normal range, although on the earlier side.

These conditions can be partly attributed to dust on snow, which causes the snowpack to melt earlier and faster.

“Dust on snow has played a pretty big role this year,” said Cody Moser, a senior hydrologist with the CBRFC. “It really allows the energy from the sun to get absorbed into the snowpack much more than if you have this white, clean snow surface.”

According to Jeff Derry, executive director of the Silverton-based Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, a total of 11 dust events occurred in April and May. A total of six or seven occur during a normal year.

This spring has been unusually windy, which has kicked up dust from northern New Mexico and Arizona and deposited it on Colorado’s snow-capped peaks; the San Juans Mountains, in the southwestern part of the state, were the hardest hit. Each year, the center ranks the severity of the dust storms.

“A number of those were really nasty events,” Derry said. “This is the first time since 2013 that we have said it’s a severe dust year.”

The Crystal River just below Avalanche Creek on June 3. Streamflows near this location peaked on May 19 at 1,840 cfs according to data from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Early runoff brings challenges

The early runoff is a challenge for Blazing Adventures, a rafting company based in Aspen and Snowmass that runs trips on the Roaring Fork River. According to owner Vince Nichols, they usually try to run the Roaring Fork through the Fourth of July before heading to other sections of the Arkansas and Colorado rivers that see higher flows later in the summer. This year, it will be closer to mid-June, he said.

“It’s certainly been a strange runoff this year,” Nichols said. “We came out of the ski season with some optimism, but when we mixed in those high winds and dust, it ran off a lot faster than we were anticipating.”

The early runoff could also have implications for reservoir managers, who may have to begin releasing water earlier in the summer to meet downstream calls. A call happens when a senior water right is not receiving its full amount of water and junior upstream water users must cut back in order to send water to the senior user downstream.

This may end up being the situation with Green Mountain Reservoir, which is on the Blue River, is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and is affected by the call from the Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon. The call comes on most years in midsummer, but this year, it may be earlier.

“I may have to start making storage releases earlier,” said Victor Lee, an engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation. “That’s pretty typical of dry years, but with this early runoff, the call might come much earlier than what I expected.”

The same may happen at Ruedi Reservoir, on the Fryingpan River. Ruedi is also operated by the Bureau of Reclamation and is affected by the call at Cameo, which comes on most summers.

Although Ruedi had been forecast to fill by the skin of its teeth this year, Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist Tim Miller said he now thinks it will end up 1,000 to 6,000 acre-feet short. He said he will continue releasing the minimum required flow of 110 cfs until downstream calls come on and he has to release more stored water.

“I always like to point out that our snowpack is a natural reservoir and if that reservoir releases its water earlier than what’s normal, you can kind of imagine the disruptions and problems that occur,” Derry said. “It makes reservoir management a little bit more complicated if you have the water coming down earlier than what you expected.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the June 4 edition of The Aspen Times.

Pitkin County commissioners OK requests to river board — The #Aspen Daily News

Osprey in flight with fish in talons. Photo credit: Boulder County Osprey cam.

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Daily News website (Pitkin County):

Following recommendations from the board that considers grant requests to the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers Program, county commissioners recently approved more than $100,000 to assist four local projects.

The projects were outlined in a county staff memorandum prepared for a Pitkin Board of County Commissioners work session last week:

● The Roaring Fork Conservancy in Basalt will receive $33,000 for its New Watershed PenPals Program, curriculum enhancement and creation, teacher training and program delivery at the conservancy’s river center and throughout the Roaring Fork Watershed.

“We are poised to unroll several new education projects, all aimed at broadening our reach. Revitalizing our education curriculum, increase teaching sites and expanding our programs will pump new life into environmental education, inspire educators to develop meaningful student projects, and increase general water fluency and interest across the Roaring Fork Watershed,” a letter from RFC Education Director Megan Dean to the river board says.

● The Red Mountain Ditch Co. will receive $48,000 for one year of a three-year conservation-irrigation initiative to pipe the remaining section of the 12-mile ditch and install technology to enable remote flow monitoring and head-gate control.

● The Ruedi Water and Power Authority will receive $12,750 to revitalize the Roaring Fork Watershed Collaborative, which was established in 2002 to bring counties and municipalities together “to think like a watershed,” the memo says. The collaborative has been dormant over the past few years.

The amount will help facilitate new meetings of the collaborative over the next two years. The funds will help “refresh and renew” the group, providing an opportunity for those interested in water resource and watershed health topics to regularly convene, learn, share, discuss, plan and collaborate on matters that impact water resources, according to the memo.

● Water Education Colorado/Watershed Assembly/Colorado Riparian Association will receive $7,500 to help fund the Sustaining Colorado Watersheds Conference, “the largest, most watershed-focused conference in Colorado,” the memo says. The event will be held on Oct. 11-13 at a resort in Avon.

Pitkin County commissioners’ approval is required on all individual grant requests recommended by the river board that represent an amount greater than $5,000. The river board has the authority to OK requests smaller than $5,000. Two such grants won approval at the board’s April 21 meeting:

● The Middle Colorado Watershed Council will receive $5,000 to support work with rain gauge monitoring and a soil moisture program in Glenwood Canyon to inform emergency notifications for motorists via the National Weather Service and the Colorado Department of Transportation. The project also involves data collection for long-term studies on post-fire mitigation.

“The river board thought this was a worthy collaboration as impacts to Glenwood Canyon affect a large region, with outsized impacts to Roaring Fork Watershed residents,” the memo states.

● Colorado Rocky Mountain School will receive $4,800. In a special meeting on May 5, the river board heard a presentation by ninth graders and their teacher in a request for funds to install four osprey nesting boxes and poles in collaboration with private landowners and the Roaring Fork Audubon Society.

The river board accepts applications in the spring and fall.

Pitkin County agrees to fund ditch piping project: Red Mountain Ditch operator says more #water will be left in Hunter Creek — @AspenJournalism #RoaringForkRiver

This Parshall flume on Red Mountain measures the amount of water diverted by the Red Mountain Ditch. Pitkin County commissioners approved a roughly $48,000 grant to pipe the last 3,600 feet of the ditch in the Starwood neighborhood. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Jounalism website (Heather Sackett):

The Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners has approved one year of funding toward completing a ditch piping project with the aim of keeping more water in Hunter Creek.

Over the past two decades, the Red Mountain Ditch Company has been working to pipe the entirety of its 12-mile ditch system — a $3.8 million cost so far — paid for by the ditch share owners. But to complete the final 3,600 feet, the ditch company is turning to public sources of money because they say the project will have the public benefit of keeping between 0.5 and 1 additional cubic feet per second of water in Hunter Creek.

The Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board recommended the county grant nearly $48,000 toward the project in April and county commissioners approved the request on Tuesday.

“I think this is the first time when I’ve been on the board that I’ve seen this type of project and I really think it’s valuable,” said commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury. “It’s a conservation-first type of program and to me this is the way I think the treatment of ditches should head in the future around the Western Slope.”

Red Mountain Ditch, whose horizontal scar across Red Mountain features prominently in the view from across the valley, has senior water rights that date to 1889. It irrigates about 380 acres of grass pasture on Red Mountain and in the exclusive Starwood subdivision with water from Hunter Creek.

A herd of elk feast on a sprinkler-irrigated meadow in the Starwood subdivision. The area is irrigated with water from Hunter Creek via Red Mountain Ditch.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

More water in Hunter Creek

Jim Auster, who has managed the ditch since 1983, said before the capital improvement project, the high-maintenance, open ditch lost water to seepage and evaporation and had problems with blow outs and beaver activity that caused flooding. Now that the majority of the ditch is piped underground, he said it’s easier to get water during low-flow times of year and the company has reduced the amount it diverts from Hunter Creek by up to 6 cfs.

Auster said before the piping project, the ditch used to divert about 14 cfs on average; now it takes about 8 to 9 cfs. Numbers from the Colorado Division of Water Resources indicate the ditch has in fact diverted less in recent years.

“Technologically, we are progressive,” Auster said. “I don’t know of any other ditch company that is doing 100% piping like we are. It’s certainly the future. Open ditches are obsolete.”

Recent ditch inventories conducted by conservation districts across the Western Slope hint at widespread problems, disrepair and inefficiencies with irrigation infrastructure. Environmental groups often back irrigation efficiency projects because they could result in reducing the amount irrigators need to divert, thereby leaving more water in the river to the benefit of the environment.

But repairs and upgrades are often expensive. And most projects don’t put a number on how much water will be left in the stream. In most cases, paying irrigators for their extra water is the only way to ensure an environmental benefit.

Aaron Derwingson, water projects director for The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program, has worked on efficiency projects with irrigators. He said it can be hard to quantify a project’s environmental benefits and success often depends on the willingness of the irrigators.

“I think the challenge with our team that we run into is we are never going to have enough money to buy the water to really make a difference for a lot of streams and where does that leave us?” Derwingson said. “That’s why some of these efficiency projects can be great because it’s a one-time investment and you get continued benefit.”

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This is part of the open ditch through properties in the Starwood subdivision that would be piped if Red Mountain Ditch company can secure the funds. Manager Jim Auster said up to an additional 1 cfs could be left in Hunter Creek if the last 3,600 feet of ditch is piped.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

How to protect the water

McNicholas Kury brought up an unanswered question in Tuesday’s discussion: how to legally protect the water the piping project leaves in Hunter Creek. Under Colorado water law, another water user could pick up that water and put it to beneficial use, canceling out any environmental benefit to the stream. And as stream flows continue to dwindle due to climate change, an environmental benefit may be short-lived, especially if the water is not legally protected.

“I have some concern about the water that is going into Hunter Creek,” McNicholas Kury said. “That is fantastic; I don’t want others to pick it up along the way.”

McNicholas-Kury suggested the Red Mountain Ditch Company look into an agreement with the non-profit Colorado Water Trust, which helps water rights holders lease their water rights for the purpose of boosting environmental streamflows.

In addition to finishing the piping, Auster said $25,000 of the grant money will go toward installing remote monitoring and headgate controls, which will allow him to be more precise and reduce the amount of excess water that is run through the system.

Auster said the total cost of the project for the final 3,600 feet of piping is $680,000, and the ditch company is also applying for grants from the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the National Resources Conservation Service. The ditch company may return to the county in 2023 and 2024 to request additional funding.

Board of County Commissioners Chair Patti Clapper and Vice-Chair Francie Jacober questioned whether the residents of one of Aspen’s wealthiest subdivisions couldn’t pay for their own ditch piping project, but in the end, backed the grant request.

“The best interest of this community is keeping water in our rivers and that is a benefit to everyone,” Clapper said.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is supported by Pitkin County’s Health Community Fund. Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the May 28 edition of The Aspen Times.

#RoaringForkRiver and #CrystalRiver streamflow well above average: Roaring Fork basin snowpack drops to less than 50% of average — @AspenJournalism #runoff

Click the link to go to the Aspen Journalism Data Dashboard (Laurine Lassalle):

The USGS gauge on the Roaring Fork River near Aspen at Stillwater, located upstream of town, measured streamflow at 247 cfs on May 15, which is 148.8% of average. That’s up from last week, when the riveu,r was flowing at 144 cfs. On May 15, 2021, the river ran at 92 cfs.

The ACES gauge, located near the Mill Street Bridge in central Aspen, measured the Roaring Fork River flowing at 223.66 on May 15. That’s lower than the Stillwater reading because the Wheeler and Salvation diversion ditches are again operating for the season. It’s also up from 128.6 cfs last week.

The Crystal River above Avalanche Creek, near Redstone, flowed at 1,340 cfs, or about 195.9% of average, on May 15. The warmer temperatures of the past week increased the streamflow of the river as the Crystal jumped from 1,060 cfs on May 13. The Crystal River at the CPW Fish Hatchery bridge ran at 1,650 cfs on May 15, up from 1,300 cfs on May 8.

Snowpack in the Roaring Fork Basin was at 48% of average, according to NOAA on May 15. It’s been below average since April 20, reaching that designation for the first time this season, the Roaring Fork Conservancy wrote on April 21.

Ruedi Reservoir at lowest level in two decades: #Water managers waiting to see if spring #runoff is enough to fill depleted storage buckets — @AspenJournalism #FryingpanRiver #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Ruedi Reservoir on the Fryingpan River as seen on March 24. The reservoir is at its lowest level in nearly two decades, but U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials say if forecasts hold, it should still be able to fill in 2022. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

Ruedi Reservoir is at about its lowest level of the year — and also of the past 19 years — according to numbers from the Bureau of Reclamation.

As of Wednesday, the reservoir on the Fryingpan River contained 54,914 acre-feet of water and was about 54% full. And according to U.S. Bureau of Reclamation data, outflow is currently slightly more than inflow, meaning levels may not have bottomed out yet.

The last time the level was this low was in the drought year of 2003 when Ruedi hit 46,117 acre-feet, according to Timothy Miller, a hydrologist with Reclamation, which operates the reservoir. Many reservoirs across the West are at their lowest levels of the year right before spring runoff starts, and water managers will start to see in the next month what this year will bring and whether it’s enough to fill depleted storage buckets.

Despite the current low levels, Miller said forecasts show Ruedi should be able to fill this year — but just barely. The most recent forecast from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center shows that spring inflow for Ruedi will be about 96% of average.

“If we continue to get average precipitation, we should be able to fill by the skin of our teeth,” he said. “We won’t have any extra water. It’s going to be a tight fill.”

In 2021, Ruedi, which has a capacity of about 102,000 acre-feet, was only about 80% full after spring runoff.

Ruedi Reservoir was 54% full as of March 24, 2022 — its lowest level in nearly two decades.

“April hole”

Something that may influence if and how Ruedi fills this year is a phenomenon called the “April hole.” Agricultural irrigators downstream in the Grand Valley usually begin filling their ditches around April 1, and if irrigation ramps up faster than the snow melts in the high country, there may not be enough water to meet their demand.

Grand Valley irrigators, with large senior water rights dating to 1912, can command the entire Colorado River and its tributaries in western Colorado by placing a call. This means water users with junior water rights have to stop taking water so that the Grand Valley irrigators can get their entire amount of water to which they are entitled. When these irrigators put a call on the river, known as the “Cameo call,” it can control all junior water rights upstream of their diversion at the roller dam in DeBeque Canyon.

Water travels through a roller dam, generating power, then continues downstream. Roller Dam near Palisade. The Grand Valley Diversion Dam in DeBeque Canyon sends water from the Colorado River into the Grand Valley Project Canal. Rehabilitation of the structure could be one of the projects funded by the River District’s new Partnership Project Funding Program. Photo credit: Hutchinson Water Center

The Cameo call doesn’t come in April of every year, but it did in 2021 and lasted for 16 days — the longest April hole ever. Dry soils and hot temperatures in 2020 and 2021, fueled by climate change and drought, robbed the river of flows and created conditions never before seen by water managers.

“Last year was definitely the extreme,” said James Heath, Division 5 Engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “We never had a call in April last that long. The prior longest was in 2002, with five days of call.”

Instead of curbing their water use when the Cameo call is on, some water users simply release water from Ruedi that they have bought and store there as part of an augmentation plan. The problem, Heath said, is that many of these water replacement plans counted on a call lasting at most seven days.

“What we are finding is a lot of the plans were originally decreed for a worst-case call scenario of seven days in April,” he said. “Last year, they were diverting out of priority and injuring the downstream water rights.”

Heath said his office is still figuring out how to address these shortfalls and analyze different entities’ augmentation plans. He said Ruedi had to release about 1,300 acre-feet of water last year to satisfy the Cameo call in April.

The dam on a frozen Ruedi Reservoir as seen on March 24. Last year, an “April hole” where downstream irrigations demands outpaced snowmelt resulted in a Cameo call and extra releases from Ruedi. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Hydropower production

A consequence of low levels in Ruedi is a reduced capacity to generate power at the hydroelectric plant, which is operated by the city of Aspen. Steve Hunter, utilities resource manager with the city, said the bottom line is this: the less water, the less power that is able to be produced. Hunter said if water levels fall below 7,700 feet elevation, utilities staff may decide to shut the unit off because the water pressure may not be generating much power. Ruedi was at 7,708.7 feet Wednesday. When Ruedi is full, the surface elevation is 7,766 feet above sea level.

When hydropower production decreases, Hunter said Aspen fills its all-renewable portfolio by buying more wind power.

“When hydro goes down, wind picks up the slack,” he said. “We are not in a terrible place right now. We are not Glen Canyon Dam.”

Hunter was referring to water levels in Lake Powell, which last week dipped to their lowest ever, hitting a target elevation of 3,525 feet, just 35 feet above the minimum level needed to generate hydropower at the dam.

“Hydropower across the board in the West is being affected by drought,” Hunter said. “This is crunch time, just watching what happens in the next month as we approach peak snow-water equivalent and see what the snowpack does.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the March 25 edition of The Aspen Times.

The latest issue of the newsletter “The Runoff” is hot off the presses from @AspenJournalism #CrystalRiver #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A herd of elk graze on Crystal River Ranch outside of Carbondale in spring 2020. The ranch is applying for a new stock watering water right.
CREDIT: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.

Click the link to read the newsletter on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett). Here’s an excerpt:

Crystal River Ranch

Crystal River Ranch, the huge expanse of irrigated land just west of Carbondale owned by Sue Anschutz-Rogers, a member of one of Colorado’s wealthiest families, is applying for another water right. This time, the ranch is asking for 5 cfs of water from the Crystal River for stockwatering. The majority of the 5 cfs would be to keep the water in the ditch ice-free so the cattle can drink from it in the winter. CRR pulls water from the Crystal via the Sweet Jessup Canal, and although it’s the first major agricultural diversion out of the lower Crystal, the land it irrigates is several miles downstream. The Sweet Jessup is also one of the biggest diversions on the Crystal and one of the oldest, with a water right dating to 1905. Its three water rights can pull a combined 74 cfs from the river. The Colorado Water Conservation Board and the city of Aurora have both filed statements of opposition to the application. In 2020, Crystal River Ranch filed to maintain a conditional water right for dams and reservoirs on the property, which a water court later granted.

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290878

Two big snowstorms have made a world of difference for #Aspen’s slopes: The two storms accounted for about one-third of all snowfall this season — The Aspen Times #snowpack

Click the link to read the article on The Aspen Times website (Scott Condon). Here’s an excerpt:

Two prolific storm cycles this ski season have produced more than one-third of the total snowfall on the ski slopes so far this season, according to Aspen Skiing Co.’s snow reports. A four-day storm during Christmas week and the three-day powder wave last week produced a cumulative 50 inches of snow at Aspen Mountain and 62 inches of snow at Snowmass, the snow reports show.

Since opening day of ski season, Aspen Mountain has received 150 inches of snow, so the two big storms combined for 33% of the total. Snowmass has received 180 inches of snow since opening day, so the one-two punch of the storms accounted for 35% of the total.

In other words, only seven days of the 96 days of the ski season thus far have produced one-third of the snow…

Even with last week’s big storm, the snowpack in the Roaring Fork watershed is still a mixed bag. The snowpack at the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River east of Aspen was only 86% of median as of Monday, according to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Ivanhoe site near the headwaters of the Fryingpan River was at 107% of median. Three sites in the Crystal River basin varied widely, according to NRCS data. McClure Pass was only 91% of median on Monday while North Lost Trail outside of Marble was at 127% and Schofield Pass measured at 128%.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map March 1, 2022 via the NRCS.

Click the link to read “Drought threatens Rio Grande levels, again” from the El Paso Matters website (Danielle Prokop). Here’s an excerpt:

Climate experts and irrigation districts are warning that 2022 is looking dry for the Paso del Norte region. New forecasts released Monday from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict hotter temperatures and low chances for moisture in the Southwest, stemming from the cooling of Pacific waters known as the La Niña weather pattern. That pattern usually prevents a wet winter in the Western United States, exacerbating the region’s 20-year megadrought…

While the Colorado snowpack improved with snowstorms in January and February, the Rio Grande basin has only seen about 64% of average precipitation. Climate change has already shrunk what is now considered a “normal” annual snowpack. Decades of rising temperatures and fluctuating precipitation have dried out soils, which both prevents waters from flowing into streams and causes more dust, melting snowpacks at faster rates. Snowpack across most of northern New Mexico is between half to 75% of normal right now — with about two months before April’s expected peak levels for snowmelt.

#Basalt plans to complete its long-touted river park in 2022: The $1.6M, second phase will last most of the construction season — The #Aspen Times

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

From The Aspen Times (Scott Condon):

The town of Basalt has budgeted to spend more than $1.6 million this year to complete a long-awaited park along the Roaring Fork River.

The second phase of Basalt River Park will include construction of a band shell, water-misting and play features, and extensive landscaping and sod. In addition, a new bus station with a bathroom will be constructed on Two Rivers Road at the park’s edge.

The work will require most of the 2022 construction season so the park won’t be fully ready for prime time until possibly late in the year, town manager Ryan Mahoney said. He believes the completed park will be a “crown jewel” for the town since it is so close to downtown…

The park is located at the town’s main intersection at Midland Avenue and Two Rivers Road, and a portion of it extends downstream. A contractor finished phase one this winter, including final grading and constructing a sitting wall from large boulders. About $886,000 was spent on that phase…

Basalt struggled for years with its vision for the property. Two roughly equally sized factions duked it out over how much of the former Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park site should be developed and how much should be open space and a park. Belinski and Light crafted a compromise that included selling additional square footage to the town for parkland.

#Wildfire mitigation efforts gain urgency in #Aspen, Pitkin County: U.S. Forest Service is ready to roll with 5 projects, Pitkin County helps with funding — The Aspen Times

Above: The Lake Christine Fire, July 4, 2018. Photo: Katie Baum Hueth, Eagle County Sheriff’s Office. Photo via Wildfire Today

From The Aspen Times (Scott Condon):

The Marshall Fire that destroyed more than 1,000 structures in Boulder County Dec. 30 has increased the urgency of completing wildfire mitigation projects in the Aspen area and Pitkin County.

The U.S. Forest Service is working with the governments of Aspen and Pitkin County as well as fire districts and homeowners associations to identify places that are the highest priorities for fuels reduction. The private lands on Red Mountain and public lands surrounding the high-end neighborhood are one of the highest priorities…

Richards said the Marshall Fire that swept through parts of Louisville and Superior show the importance of fire mitigation on private lands as well as national forests…

A working group loosely referred to as the Roaring Fork Fuels Collaborative is looking at numerous wildland fire mitigation projects, including one called Sunnyside, which would treat lands adjacent to Red Mountain subdivision. Between 1,000 and 1,500 acres would be targeted, according to Kevin Warner, Aspen-Sopris District Ranger. It would require mechanical treatment of tree and vegetation removal and prescribed burns in areas away from homes. The earliest that project could advance is probably spring 2024, Warner said.

Cooperation from the homeowners would be essential so that land within the subdivision would be treated as well. Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine said his department is working on demonstration projects to show homeowners that easing wildfire risk doesn’t mean ruining their property…

The Forest Service led a project in 2016 to treat lands near Red Mountain in the Hunter Creek Valley. Additional work on up to 1,500 acres in Hunter Creek could be undertaken as soon as this spring, according to Gary Tennenbaum, director of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program. He credited the Forest Service for leading the successful 2016 project and not causing alarm in Aspen. He also credited the agency for its willingness to propose working close to Red Mountain…

Warner said five wildland fire mitigation projects throughout the region are being planned. The Forest Service and its partners probably don’t have the resources to pursue them all this year, but priorities will be dictated by factors such as moisture levels this spring and the ability to get a permit from the state over air quality.

The contending projects include 2,000 acres in Collins Creek east of the settlement of Woody Creek, 2,000 acres in Braderich Creek west of Redstone, the 1,500 acres in Hunter Creek in Aspen’s backyard, a project in Cattle Creek north of Basalt Mountain in Eagle County and a project in the Seven Castles area in Fryingpan Valley…

Pitkin County has budgeted $300,000 over three years to assist the Forest Service. The highest priority for the county is “where the forest meets homes,” said county emergency manager Valerie MacDonald. The county has collaborated in recent years on several small projects that reduced fuels on federal lands in the Crystal River Valley that are adjacent to private properties, such as Swiss Village, she said.

A project north of Redstone treated 100 acres. “It gives the historic town of Redstone a fighting chance to evacuate safety,” MacDonald said.

Like other speakers at the meeting, she said getting cooperation from private landowners is the key to building resiliency. Pitkin County is 83% public lands, but much of its private property is in what’s known as the wildland-urban interface…

The local planning comes as the U.S. Forest Service released a major new initiative called “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis.” It will target “firesheds” in the Western U.S. — areas 250,000 acres and larger with a high likelihood that an ignition could expose homes, communities and infrastructure to wildfire.

The initiative will target 20 million acres on national forestlands as well as up to 30 million acres on other federal, state and private lands over the next 10 years. It will also come up with a maintenance plan beyond the next decade.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill earmarked $3 billion for the effort beyond regular funding for wildfire mitigation. The strategy is drawing criticism from some environmental groups.

An ‘ambassador’ for the larger conservation mission: Aspen Valley Land Trust’s protection of historic ranch anchors a unique habitat, speaks to future open space needs @AspenJournalism

An ‘ambassador’ for the larger conservation mission
AVLT’s protection of historic ranch anchors a unique habitat, speaks to future open space needs. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Curtis Wackerle):

The next decade is seen as perhaps the most critical yet to determine how much of the remaining unprotected lands in the Roaring Fork watershed will be preserved to support biodiversity, open space and public access, in the face of increasing pressure from climate change and development.

At 141 acres, the acquisition in August of Coffman Ranch, located east of Carbondale off County Road 100, stands out for the kind of preservation effort that the environmental community hopes to see going forward, exemplary as it is of remaining intact lands and critical conservation values.

The property, sold at a discount by longtime ranchers Rex and JoAnn Coffman to Aspen Valley Land Trust for $6.5 million, has been a working ranch for more than 100 years. Although about 80 acres of the property consists of irrigated meadows used in the spring and fall to raise cattle by local rancher Bill Fales, much of the rest of the site is more wild in character, with 35 acres of wetlands. It includes three-quarters of a mile of Roaring Fork River frontage along what AVLT Philanthropy Director Jeff Davlyn described as the most uninterrupted, biodiverse riparian corridor between the river’s confluence with the Colorado and Aspen’s North Star Nature Preserve.

An ecological inventory conducted on AVLT’s behalf lays out a total of five vegetative communities and two wetland types identified on the ranch property, supporting a wide array of plant, animal and fish species. While evidence of the impact of grazing is evident, the riparian habitat is still found to be in “excellent condition,” according to a draft of the study.

“The uniqueness of the property is the spatial distribution and mosaic of productive habitat types based upon vegetation communities and the extensive edge habitat they create,” says an ecological assessment from Carbondale-based firm DHM. “The combination of riparian forests, shrublands, grasslands/pasture and wetlands provides a surprisingly high richness of wildlife (particularly avian species) for the size of the property.”

AVLT — which remains in the midst of a yearslong fundraising campaign to secure a total of $14 million to cover the purchase price and development of a management plan, as well as to fund ongoing improvements and operations — sees Coffman Ranch as an “ambassador” for a larger conservation and public-engagement mission, according to Suzanne Stephens, director of the nonprofit.

“It’s manifest of where we are needing and wanting to go. It’s a big step,” she said of the acquisition of the site, which is located roughly 1.5 miles east of downtown Carbondale and can be accessed via the Rio Grande Trail.

The irrigated pasture of Coffman Ranch, shown here in August, has extensive and senior water rights. That’s one of the reasons Pitkin County helped fund the purchase with $2 million in open space funds.
CREDIT: CURTIS WACKERLE/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Bringing the public over the fence

Although habitat protection, open space and continued agricultural production are the key values driving the acquisition, public access for limited managed recreation and educational use are also important components.

How these values and uses play out will be subject to the prescriptions of the management plan, a process expected to take at least until mid-2023. A conservation easement held by Pitkin County guarantees some form of recreation access no later than 2025. While there is currently no public access to the site pending the development of the management plan, AVLT staff is arranging tours for those interested in taking a look. Land-trust officials have discussed the potential of establishing a recreational trail that could be open for hiking and nordic skiing, accessing the river and other portions of the property, but subject to seasonal closures. It is also expected that the parcel will be used as an outdoor classroom serving 26 schools located within 15 miles of Coffman Ranch.

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290878

Data dashboard: #Snowpack levels spike back toward normal: Snowpack at Ivanhoe contains higher #water levels than historical average — @AspenJournalism #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Colorado snowpack basin-filled map December 28, 2021 via the NRCS.

From Aspen Journalism (Laurine Lassalle):

SNOTEL sites that monitor snowfall throughout the winter measured the snowpack at Independence Pass at 98.4% of average on Dec. 26, with a “snow water equivalent” (SWE) of 6.5 inches. That’s a significant jump from 4.88 inches of SWE the week prior, which represented 80% of average. The snowpack at Independence Pass sharply increased on Dec. 23, from 4.88 inches of SWE on Dec. 22 to 5.12 on Dec. 23. Last year on Dec. 26, the SNOTEL station up the pass recorded an SWE of 4.88 inches.

Snow water equivalent — the metric used to track snowpack — is the amount of water contained within the snowpack, which will become our future water supply running in local rivers and streams.

The monitoring station at the lower-elevation McClure Pass recorded an SWE of 5.2 inches, or 88.1% of average, on Dec. 26. A week before, the station reported 2.91 inches of water contained in the snowpack, or 57.1% of average. Last year, on that same day, the station measured a snowpack holding 3.31 inches of water, or 56.1% of average.

On the northeast side of the Roaring Fork Basin, snowpack at Ivanhoe contains higher water levels than the 1991-2020 average, with 7.09 inches on Dec. 26, which is 120.1% of the average of 5.9 inches. It’s also up from last year’s 4.8 inches of SWE.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map December 28, 2021 via the NRCS.

#Aspen officials release plan laying out 50 years of #water projects 5,820 acre-feet of storage — mostly for emergency use — could cost over $400 million in today’s dollars — @AspenJournalism #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

An aerial view showing the 63-acre parcel of land, located to the left of the racetrack and gravel pit, purchased by the city of Aspen due to its being a potential site for a new reservoir contemplated as part of an 50-year Integrated Water Resources Plan. A new reservoir in Woody Creek would require an 8-mile pipeline to convey water to the city’s treatment plant.
CREDIT: BRENT GARDNER-SMITH/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

The city of Aspen’s recently released integrated water resource plan outlines the strategy for an adaptable, phased approach to meet increasing demands and a large pool of “emergency” storage to protect against threats to supplies from Castle and Maroon creeks.

Aspen Utilities Director Tyler Christoff, Utilities Resource Manager Steve Hunter and John Rehring of Carollo Engineers, the Denver-based firm that the city hired to complete the study, presented the IWRP to City Council members at a work session Monday night. The report, which looks 50 years to the future, uses projections about population growth and climate change impacts to determine that the worst shortfalls could occur in two consecutively dry years and be about 2,300 acre-feet total over the course of both years.

To make up for that gap, the report offers six different portfolios of potential new water sources, including storage, nonpotable reuse, groundwater wells, Hunter Creek, enhanced water conservation and drought restrictions. The IWRP says storage is included in five of the six portfolios because no single supply option or combination of supply options can completely mitigate shortages without the use of at least some operational storage.

Two storage pools

The plan proposes two separate storage pools to meet demands under projected conditions in 2070: a 520-acre-foot operational pool and a 5,300-acre-foot emergency-storage pool to provide up to 12 months of water.

Since the report recommends a phased approach with each additional implementation coming after a predetermined trigger is reached, the first phase of operational storage would be for just 130 acre-feet to buffer the seasonal shortage. Streams are highest with runoff in the spring, but demands on Aspen’s water system are highest in late summer, when streamflows are low — and this is the gap operational storage aims to fill.

The construction of the combined 5,820 acre-feet of storage and its associated pipelines and pumps comes with a hefty price tag — it is estimated to cost more than $400 million in 2021 dollars as it is implemented over the coming decades.

Aspen Utilities Resource Manager Steve Hunter stands at the city’s Castle Creek water diversion in this February 2021 file photo. Castle Creek is the source of most of Aspen’s potable water, but the city recently released a report laying out options for increasing its access to water supply from other sources in case something prevented the city from using its diversion infrastructure tapping Castle and Maroon creeks, or flows on those creeks were greatly reduced due to climate change.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

“We want to make it flexible and adaptable so that we are ready for that worst-case condition,” Rehring told council members. “We implement as needed as we see those conditions unfold over time.”

The report says the emergency-storage pool must be full and ready for use when the need arises — if, for example, an avalanche makes the city’s supplies in Castle and Maroon creeks unusable. “Regardless of siting and co-location, emergency-storage volumes would be filled and maintained at their defined capacity until needed for an emergency,” the IWRP reads.

Storing water specifically until an emergency occurs is not a decreed beneficial use under Colorado water law. But municipal water providers often have a lot of leeway to plan for future needs, which could include storage projects.

Part of the goal of the IWRP is to narrow the city’s options for moving its conditional water rights for reservoirs in Castle and Maroon valleys. After a lengthy court battle, in which 10 entities opposed Aspen’s plans, the city gave up its water rights in those particular locations. One of the places to which the city could move them is a 63-acre plot of land that it bought in Woody Creek in 2018. If the city stores water there, it would have to pump it back uphill to the water-treatment plant via an 8-mile pipeline.

City Council member Ward Hauenstein asked about the timeline for storage and renewing the city’s conditional water rights.

To keep these rights, the city will have to show, through a 2025 filing in water court, that it still intends to use them and that it is making progress on a project.

“Recent history across Colorado shows that it could take decades to implement a storage project, even after sizing and siting analyses are completed,” the report reads. “Therefore, reservoir planning must start immediately.”

Aspen City Council will vote on whether to adopt the IWRP at a later meeting. Mayor Torre thanked the staff, consultants and community members who weighed in on the plan.

“The work you guys are doing on this is some of the most important work Aspen is going to have the benefit of over the coming 10, 20, 30 years,” he said. “Thank you.”

#CrystalRiver restoration finding its footing in #Carbondale park: #Colorado Water Conservation Board considering grant to fund half of $1.46 million effort — @AspenJournalism

The Crystal River widens and becomes shallower just before it passes under the southern bridge into River Valley Ranch. A group of local organizations is working to restore both the stream and the banks.
CREDIT: WILL GRANDBOIS / ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Will Grandbois):

The town of Carbondale and the Roaring Fork Conservancy are finalizing funding to restore a half-mile stretch of the Crystal River and 18 acres of riparian habitat — provided they can convince Colorado Parks and Wildlife that it can be done with a light touch.

The location, next to the River Valley Ranch subdivision on the south side of town, is the ideal spot for the effort due to Carbondale’s Riverfront Park on the west side and the headgate for the town-owned Weaver Ditch on the east side, with some associated in-stream impacts.

As spelled out in a Water Plan grant request to the Colorado Water Conservation Board — originally slated for consideration in September but since pushed back to January — improvements will include streambank stabilization and river channel restoration, plant diversification and better access to the park as well as an automated ditch headgate. Efficiency work is ongoing on the ditch itself, but it is not officially part of the project.

The cost of the whole effort was originally estimated at $1,466,478, with roughly half hinging on the Water Plan grant. The multifaceted nature of the project lends itself to a wide array of sources to pay for the rest.

At least eight other agencies have committed funding or are considering grant applications. This includes $100,000 awarded from the Colorado River Water Conservation District in October. Other agencies partnering in the project include the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers Program, Great Outdoors Colorado, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Fishing Is Fun Program and the Aspen Valley Land Trust. Carbondale has committed at least $220,000 toward the effort to improve the reach of river described in the Water Plan grant application as “severely to unsustainably degraded.”

The project’s many layers make it a perfect fit for the Roaring Fork Conservancy (RFC), according to Heather Lewin, director of Watershed Science & Policy.

“You’ve got so many different things that we’re interested in doing — a flow issue, a riparian corridor, this older ditch outtake and the potential for efficiencies within the ditch itself,” she said.

Although better access and an outdoor classroom are part of the plan, the majority of the property will remain relatively rustic to provide an authentic outdoor experience and good wildlife habitat.
CREDIT: WILL GRANDBOIS / ASPEN JOURNALISM

#Aspen partners with #Colorado Water Trust to boost #RoaringForkRiver flows — Aspen Daily News #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Colorado Water Trust partnered with the city of Aspen on August 10, 2021 to reduce diversions from the Roaring Fork River at the Wheeler Ditch to help boost river flows. The project added up to three cubic feet per second to the river’s flow, which will help maintain sustainable water levels. A view of the Wheeler Ditch headgate, looking upriver on the Roaring Fork River. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

From The Aspen Daily News (Megan Webber):

A 10-year agreement between the city of Aspen and Colorado Water Trust will help keep the Roaring Fork River flowing at a healthy rate through the remainder of the summer season…

The project is meant to boost river flows and added up to three cubic feet per second of water to the river’s flow, which will help maintain sustainable water levels, according to a press release from Colorado Water Trust…

“The Roaring Fork is bone low,” Aspen’s utility resource manager Steve Hunter said. “I think every little bit helps — every little bit of water that we can leave in the Roaring Fork, anything we can do to help the fish, the wildlife, the recreation, all those things. Three cfs is a very small number, but we’re doing the best we can with what we have.”

The city uses a headgate at the Wheeler Ditch to store water, and on Tuesday, staff members adjusted it to allow one cfs into the ditch so that the rest of the water stays in the river, Hunter said. He added that it’s important for everyone in the Roaring Fork Valley, not only in Aspen, to do their best to conserve water, especially in back-to-back drought years.

“As we adapt to climate change in Colorado, we’re fortunate to have flexible water sharing tools like the one that allows the city to leave a portion of their Wheeler Ditch water right in the Roaring Fork River,” Colorado Water Trust Program Director Mickey O’Hara said in the press release. “These tools allow communities to build flow restoration projects that support the natural environment while boosting flows for the benefit of the local community.”

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290878

How low can Ruedi Reservoir go? — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The boat ramp at Ruedi Reservoir allows motor boats to access the water. The Bureau of Reclamation is projecting that the reservoir will fall to 55,000 acre-feet this winter.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Bureau of Reclamation warns of potential impacts to Aspen hydro plant, water contract holders

Water levels at Ruedi Reservoir could fall so low this winter that the city of Aspen could have difficulty making hydro-electric power and those who own water in the reservoir could see shortages.

That’s according to projections by the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the reservoir near the headwaters of the Fryingpan River. At the annual Ruedi operations meeting on Aug. 5, officials estimated the reservoir will fall to around 55,000 acre-feet this winter, what’s known as carry-over storage. According to Tim Miller, a hydrologist with the Bureau of Reclamation who manages operations at Ruedi, the lowest-ever carry-over storage for the reservoir was just over 47,000 acre-feet in 2002, one of the driest years on record. Last year’s carry-over was about 64,000 acre-feet.

At 55,000 acre-feet, the elevation of the water is about 7,709 feet. That’s about two feet lower than Aspen officials would like.

“We don’t like being below 7,711,” said Robert Covington, water resources/hydroelectric supervisor for the city.

That’s because the hydro plant needs a certain amount of water pressure to operate. The higher the water elevation, the more water pressure there is.

According to Covington, power providers Xcel Energy and Holy Cross Energy sometimes temporarily and quickly shut down the hydro-electric plant when there are problems with transmission lines or they need to do repairs.

“It’s very common for these types of plants to automatically shut down,” Covington said.

The problem is that restarting the plant requires a larger amount of water than the 40 cubic feet per second that is roughly the minimum amount required to operate the plant efficiently.

“It’s very difficult for us to get back online so we end up pushing more water through for a very short period of time,” he said.

If Aspen has to shut down the plant because flows are too low, the city could purchase more wind power to maintain its 100% renewable portfolio.

“When we go lower on hydro, we go with wind, which is generally the most cost-effective,” said Steve Hunter, utilities resource manager with the city.

Anglers dock at Ruedi Reservoir on Aug. 5. Bureau of Reclamation officials project that low carry-over storage combined with another low runoff year could lead to shortages for water contract holders.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Shortages to contract holders

Another consequence of low carry-over storage means that Ruedi will start out even lower next spring when the snow begins to melt and the reservoir begins to fill again. That means if there is below-average runoff again, some contract holders who own water in Ruedi could have to take shortages, something that has never happened before, Miller said.

There are 32 entities that have “contract water” in Ruedi, which the bureau releases at their request. This is water that has been sold by the bureau to recover the costs of building and operating the reservoir. The contract pool is separated into two rounds and contract holders will take a previously agreed upon shortage amount depending on which round they are in.

“If we get another similar type of runoff this year, there will be shortages most likely to the contract pool,” Miller said.

The 15-Mile Reach is located near Grand Junction, Colorado

But there are still uncertainties in predicting how low the reservoir will go. The biggest of these is how much water will be released for the benefit of the endangered fish in the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction.

There is a 10,412 acre-foot pool available for the fish, but in dry years entities that store water in Ruedi will sometimes coordinate to release more fish water in the late summer and fall. This would draw down the reservoir even further. It’s still not clear how much water will be released this fall for the four species of endangered fish.

“The release defines the carry-over,” Miller said.

Despite initial bureau forecasts in April that projected Ruedi could probably fill to its entire 102,373 acre-foot capacity, Ruedi ended up only about 80% full this year. July 11 was the peak fill date at 83,256 acre-feet and an elevation of 7,745 feet.

“It was probably a little over-optimistic,” Miller said of the April forecast. “But at the time our snowpack was average. It was a reasonable forecast given the conditions.”

As climate change worsens the drought in the Western U.S., Ruedi is not the only reservoir to face water levels so low that they threaten the ability to produce hydroelectric power. Last month, the bureau began emergency releases from Upper Basin reservoirs, including Blue Mesa on the Gunnison River, to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to produce hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam.

This story ran in the Aug. 10 edition of The Aspen Times.

A Massive Plumbing System Moves #Water Across #Colorado’s Mountains. But This Year, There’s Less To Go Around — KUNC

The Lost Man diversion canal, about to duck under SH 82 above Aspen, in the Roaring Fork River watershed. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Public Radio (Alex Hager) via KUNC:

High up on Colorado’s Independence Pass, a narrow, winding road weaves through the evergreens and across mountain streams, up and over the Continental Divide at more than 10,000 feet. At one point that road crosses a canal.

It’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, but that canal is part of water infrastructure that makes life on Colorado’s Front Range possible.

The state has a geographical mismatch between where water shows up and where much of the population has settled.

“Wherever you are in this state, you’re either at the source of the drinking water supply, you’re in the middle of the drinking water supply, or you’re at the end of the tap,” said Christina Medved, outreach director at Roaring Fork Conservancy. “So on the Western slope, we are at the source of the water.”

About 80% of Colorado’s water falls on the western side of the state. Much of it is high-mountain snow and rain that eventually trickles down into streams and rivers like the ones on Independence Pass.

But about 80% of Colorado’s people live on the east side of the mountains. Because of gravity, that water doesn’t flow to them naturally. Instead, Colorado’s heavily-populated Front Range relies on a massive plumbing system to keep drinking water flowing to its taps.

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

For a century and a half, engineers have carved up the mountains with tunnels and canals that pipe water across the state through trans-mountain diversions. Some of that infrastructure is nestled near the high-alpine headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, which eventually flows through Aspen and Glenwood Springs on its way to the Colorado River. Near Lost Man reservoir, a dam and tunnel create a juncture between water that will follow that natural path westward to the Colorado, and water that will be diverted eastward through the mountains and onto cities such as Colorado Springs.

A tunnel through the mountains draws in water that will pass through two reservoirs and the Arkansas River on its way to the southern portion of the Front Range. Water diverted from the Colorado River basin, through trans-mountain diversions, makes up 60 to 70% of the water used by Colorado Springs. Denver, Greeley, Fort Collins and smaller municipalities on the Front Range also rely heavily on Western Slope water.

Graphic via Holly McClelland/High Country News.

And these kinds of set ups aren’t confined to Colorado. Similar systems bring water to big cities all across the region. Salt Lake City, Albuquerque and Los Angeles rely on canals and tunnels to ship faraway water into their pipes. New ones are in the works on the Front Range and in southern Utah.

But these systems aren’t without critics.

Water from the Roaring Fork River basin heading east out of the end of the Twin Lakes Tunnel (June 2016), which is operated by the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., a member of the Front Range Water Council. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

“When you first learn about it, the concept of a trans-mountain diversion is crazy,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “It seems wrong. It seems antithetical to the health of the river. And I have to say all of that’s true.”

His organization was set up in the 1930s to oppose these diversions and ensure that there is enough water for people on the Western side of the state…

The issue is, contemporary environmental values aren’t written into the West’s water law. Instead, water use is defined by regulations written when Colorado first became a state in the 1800s. The rules say that if you have rights to use water, it doesn’t matter if you want to use it hundreds of miles away from its source – even if that requires miles of cross-mountain plumbing to do so.

Colorado Drought Monitor map July 13, 2021.

At this moment, there is less water to pull from in every part of the state. The Front Range escaped from drought after steady spring rains, but those high-mountain areas that usually provide a dependable source of water for all of Colorado are experiencing a different fate. The western slope is deep in the second year of drought conditions, leaving snowpack and river flows lower than they should be.

Mueller thinks that only sharpens the need for the Front Range to curtail its water use. Although they retain the legal right to use a certain amount of water, he’s asking them to use less – which he says will promote the health of rivers and their ecosystems west of the divide.

The ditch that moves water from Lost Man Reservoir to Grizzly Reservoir and then under the Divide to the South Fork of Lake Creek and the Arkansas River.

On the Front Range, those on the receiving end of diversions say they are listening to their western counterparts when they put up distress signals during particularly critical times. They also say deliberate conservation work is paying off in the longer term. Nathan Elder, water supply manager for Denver Water, said over the past two decades, per capita water use in his district is down by 22%.

“Everyone in Colorado needs to decrease their use,” he said…

Amid tension between demands for water on both sides, exacerbated by extreme drought conditions, is the fact that there is not much of an alternative. Colorado’s water system is built to accommodate the fact that the majority of its people and the majority of its water are far from each other. Without fundamental changes to the bedrock of water law, those asking for water will have to work within a system built on trans-mountain diversions…

Some contingency planning – within the reality of a diversion-centric system – is already in place. In Colorado Springs, which receives some of the flow diverted from the top of Independence Pass, re-use practices are helping the city get more mileage out of the water it’s apportioned.

Graphic credit: Water Education Colorado

Abby Ortega, water resources manager for Colorado Springs Utilities, said reused water accounts for 26% of the city’s total portfolio and the city relies heavily on storage to get through dry years like this one.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2019 of the #coriver big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck

But climate change threatens to increase the frequency and intensity of droughts, which has water managers on edge and looking more intently at ways to maximize what’s available.

“Every water planner in the state has some worry with the rapidly declining hydrology on the Colorado river,” Ortega said.

State engineers developing measurement rules for water diversions — @AspenJournalism #COleg

This Parshall flume, which was installed in the Yampa River basin in 2020 and is shown in this August 2020 photo, replaced the old, rusty device in the background. State engineers are developing rules for measuring devices, which would apply to the entire Western Slope.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

State officials are preparing for a future with less water by developing rules and guidance for water users to measure how much they are taking from streams.

State Engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources Kevin Rein is planning a rule-making process on measurement devices that includes stakeholder input. Although state engineers in each water division have the authority to enforce the requirement of measurement devices, Rein said drafting more formal rules through an administrative rule-making process, instead of an ad hoc push like in the Yampa River basin, would affirm that authority. Rules would also include specific technical guidance on the best types of flumes, weirs and meters to use for different types of diversions.

“The idea about rule-making is that we would have consistent guidance across the basin, developed through a formal process,” Rein said. “One thing I’ve found is that when you have stakeholder involvement in the development, then you have stakeholder buy-in during the implementation.”

Sprinklers and a ditch irrigate this section of Crystal River Ranch outside of Carbondale on Wednesday. According to state officials, about 95% of diversions in the Crystal and Roaring Fork River basins already have measuring devices.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Yampa/White/Green river basin

Division 6 Engineer Erin Light is still taking a lenient stance with water users in the White and Green river basins while the measurement rules are developed. In fall 2019, Light ordered nearly 500 water users in the Yampa River basin to install measuring devices to record their water use and initially received some push-back from agricultural water users unaccustomed to measuring their diversions.

In March 2020, Light issued notices to water users in the White and Green, but decided to delay sending formal orders after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the economy. Orders are still on pause while Rein’s office develops the measurement rules, which would apply across the Western Slope.

“It made more sense to wait for the measurement rules to at least get started, maybe not necessarily get completed, but allow Kevin to get out and start doing the stakeholder meetings and encourage these structures to be installed without orders,” Light said.

Compliance is gradually increasing across the basin, but at a slower pace than Light would like. In January 2020, 49% of diversions in the Yampa River basin did not have a measuring device; as of April 2021, 42% were still without one. White River basin compliance has improved from 83% without a measuring device to 68% over the same time period; water users in the Green have gone from 69% to 49%. As a whole, Division 6 has gone from 55% of diversions without measuring devices to 46%.

“I would have hoped that we would have had more compliance at this point,” Light said. “I look at those numbers and think we still have some work in front of us and how are we going to accomplish our goal, which is to assure that all of these structures that we maintain records on have operable headgates and measuring devices.”

In some basins on the Western Slope, nearly all diversions already have measuring devices. For example, in the Roaring Fork and Crystal river basins, about 95% of the structures have devices, according to Colorado Department of Natural Resources Communications Director Chris Arend. That’s because there has traditionally been more demand and competition for water in these basins, he said.

Scott Hummer, water commissioner for District 58 in the Yampa River basin, checks out a recently installed Parshall flume on an irrigation ditch in this August 2020 photo. Compliance with measuring device requirements has been moving more slowly than state engineers would like.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Water shortages drive measurement push

The push for Western Slope diverters to measure their water use comes down to impending water shortages. Division 6, in sparsely populated northwest Colorado, has traditionally enjoyed abundant water and few demands, but as climate change tightens its grip on the West, there is less water to go around. Calls by senior water users have gone from unheard of to increasingly common in just the last few years.

“We definitely have systems on call that have never been on call,” Light said of current conditions in the Yampa.

A call occurs when a senior water rights holder is not getting their full amount they are entitled to. They place a call with state engineers, who shut off more junior water rights users so the senior user can get their full amount. Under Colorado’s prior appropriation system, the oldest water rights have first use of the river.

“If you don’t have a measuring device during a call, we are shutting you off, period,” Light said.

As the threat of a Colorado River Compact call and the possibility of a state demand-management program grow, state officials say the need to measure water use grows, too.

A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the lower basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — as required by the 1922 compact. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid this scenario, in part because it could trigger mandatory cutbacks for water users.

If a compact call were to play out, measuring devices would be crucial, because as Rein says, you can’t administer what you can’t measure.

“We need to better measure what has been diverted, so having measurement rules and therefore measuring devices in place will be critical to prepare for and implement compact administration, should it happen,” he said.

The state is also currently exploring a potential demand management program, which would temporarily pay irrigators to not irrigate and leave more water in the river. The goal would be to boost water levels in Lake Powell and avoid a compact call. But in order to participate in the voluntary program, feasibility of which is still being evaluated, irrigators need to first measure their water diversions.

“We would have to know how much they were using in the years before, before we can give them credit for not using it,” Rein said.

Sprinklers irrigate this section of Crystal River Ranch outside of Carbondale on July 14, 2021. State engineers are creating rules that will lay out guidelines for water users to install measurement devices for their diversions from the river.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Low interest in grant funding

One of the reasons Light originally paused enforcing the measurement device requirement in the White River basin was to give conservancy districts time to secure grant money to help irrigators pay for the potentially expensive infrastructure. But there was not much interest from water users in getting grant money, according to Callie Hendrickson, executive director of the White River & Douglas Creek Conservation Districts.

“We did not proceed with (securing grants),” she said. “We didn’t hear from very many people that they were seeking funding.”

The story was similar on the Yampa. The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District had a $200,000 pot of money — half of it state grant money and half from the district — to reimburse water users for installing measuring devices. Irrigators can get 50% of their costs covered, up to $5,000 through the first tier of the grant program. According to Public Information and External Affairs Manager Holly Kirkpatrick, despite a very simple application process, the program has doled out just under $40,000 so far for about 20 projects.

“I had certainly hoped to have more interest in the first year of the program,” she said.

As Rein plans for webinars and meetings with water users later this summer and fall, the situation in the Colorado River basin grows more dire. The Bureau of Reclamation this week began emergency releases from Upper Basin reservoirs to prop up levels in Lake Powell to try to maintain the ability to produce hydroelectric power at Glen Canyon Dam.

“I recognize the value in having measurement rules as soon as possible because, yes, they would be extremely helpful if we need to take measures toward compact administration,” Rein said. “Having more data sooner rather than later is important.”

Aspen Journalism covers waters and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. For more, go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

#Drought a stressor for trout — The #Aspen Daily News

An angler casts a line on the Roaring Fork River upstream of Basalt in Pitkin County. Credit: Jerd Smith, Fresh Water News

From The Aspen Daily News (Matthew Bennett):

The ongoing drought across much of the West and above-average temperatures have water quality managers like [Chad] Rudow concerned.

“We had a below-average snowpack, and that snow melted off quicker than usual,” Rudow said. “The double whammy that we got is we went into the year with below-average soil moisture levels.”

When the snow did melt, a lot of that moisture went toward replenishing depleted soil and did not make it back into the rivers, necessarily.

Tanner Shelp, an employee at Roaring Fork Anglers, said although trout fishing had been “amazing” so far this summer, he was worried about it being short lived due to warmer water temperatures and the sheer number of people out on the water each day…

Trout can easily die, even if an angler adheres to proper catch-and-release techniques when water temperatures exceed the mid-60s…

Once river temperatures hit the mid- to upper 60s, the brown, rainbow and other species of trout swimming their waters get stressed, Shelp said…

According to data from the United States Geological Survey, the Roaring Fork River’s water temperature ranged between 57 and 61 degrees Fahrenheit [July 1, 2021]. The Roaring Fork Conservancy via its Instagram account warned that ­Wednesday night, the Roaring Fork River reached 64 degrees, adding “several stretches along the Colorado River (Upper Colorado and Utah border) have already reached 70 degrees.”

River District looks for natural solutions to #CrystalRiver water shortage — @AspenJournalism #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Ella Ditch, in the Crystal River Valley, placed a call for the first time ever during the drought-stricken summer of 2018. That meant the Town of Carbondale had to borrow water from the East Mesa Ditch under an emergency water supply plan. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Officials say back-up water supply plan will not affect Wild & Scenic designation

Representatives from the Colorado River Water Conservation District say their efforts to develop a solution to a water shortage on the Crystal River will probably include natural fixes before a dam and reservoir and that the plan should not impact a future Wild & Scenic designation.

Staff from the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District presented some preliminary findings of a study of a back-up water supply plan, known as an augmentation plan, to Pitkin County commissioners [June 22, 2021]. They said their preference is to find and develop natural infrastructure like aquifer recharge or wetlands restoration before proposing a dam and reservoir.

Water could be diverted and stored in an underground aquifer during peak flows and then be allowed to slowly seep back into the river when it’s needed. Restoring wetlands can raise the water table throughout the valley floor, creating a sponge that holds water.

River District staff said they would absolutely not consider storage on the main stem of the Crystal — any potential small reservoir would be on a tributary — and that whatever solutions they come up with shouldn’t affect the long-held goal of some residents to get a federal Wild & Scenic designation to protect the free-flowing nature of the river.

River District Director of Government Relations Zane Kessler said the River District is working with environmental groups like American Rivers to find a solution to the shortage.

“We see a real opportunity to do something cool here and think outside the box,” he said. “I don’t know that natural infrastructure could take care of all of it, but we want to prioritize that first and look at opportunities.”

The Crystal River in August 2018 was running at 8 cfs near the state fish hatchery. Colorado River Water Conservation District staff said a study of a back-up water supply will look at natural infrastructure before dams and reservoirs to address a water shortage.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Water shortage

The River District, along with Rifle-based West Divide Water Conservancy District, undertook the study, paid for by a state grant, to examine a problem that became evident during the summer of 2018: that in dry years there may not be enough water for both irrigators and residential subdivisions.

“2018 was a wake-up call for water users on the Crystal,” Kessler said.

That August, the Ella Ditch, which irrigates land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the river for the first time ever. That meant that junior water rights holders upstream were supposed to stop taking water so that the Ella Ditch, which has water rights dating to 1902, could receive its full amount. Under Colorado’s prior appropriation system, those with the oldest water rights have first use of the river.

The Colorado Division of Water Resources did not enforce the call by turning off water to homes, but instead told water users they must work together to create a basin-wide augmentation plan.

Most junior water rights holders have augmentation plans, which allows them to continue using water during a call by replacing it with water from another source, like releasing it from a reservoir. The problem on the Crystal is that several residential subdivisions don’t have augmentation plans.

Until water users come up with a permanent solution, DWR has said it may not allow outdoor water use when a senior call is on as a temporary fix. Water managers expect once-rare calls by irrigators to become more frequent as rising temperatures result in less water in streams.

Sprinklers irrigate land on the east side of the Crystal River (in foreground) in August 2018, one of its driest years in recent history. A call by a downstream senior water rights holder during the drought of 2018 illustrated a long-simmering problem: several subdivisions in the Crystal River Valley don’t have back-up water plans.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Demand quantification

River District staff presented the first step in the study: a demand quantification or putting numbers on the amount of water needed for different uses throughout the year.

Engineers found 90 structures — many of them wells for in-house water use — that take water from the river system and which would need to be included in the augmentation plan. These 90 structures deliver water to 197 homes, 80 service connections in Marble, nearly 23 irrigated acres, Beaver Lake and Orlosky Reservoir in Marble, 16,925 square-feet of commercial space, plus some water for livestock.

In order for these water users to keep taking water during a downstream call by an irrigator, they would have to replace about 113 acre-feet of water in the Crystal River per year. The amount of extra flow that would need to be added to the river is small — just .58 cubic feet per second during July, the peak replacement month.

Some commissioners asked if simply using less water — instead of creating a new supply of water — especially by irrigators on the lower Crystal, could solve the problem.

“I’d love to see an analysis of the conservation opportunities,” said Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury. “What can we do that’s not taking the water out, but preserving it in the stream?”

River District General Manager Andy Mueller acknowledged there may be more “aggressive” irrigators on the Crystal, but that in addition, climate change is decreasing the amount of water available. He said he wants the River District to work more closely with Pitkin County to find conservation opportunities.

“I think those types of opportunities require identifying the potential for them but then developing relationships with the water users,” Mueller said.

Tuesday’s meeting was a chance for board members from both organizations, which have not historically seen eye to eye on water issues, to work together and ask questions. Next steps include public outreach and education, coordinating with water managers and eventually developing a basin-wide augmentation strategy.

“We are going to continue to evaluate alternatives and try to get some additional expertise in the realm of natural infrastructure or aquifer recharge,” Kessler said. “We are going to do our best to make sure that this effort aligns with the Wild & Scenic values that the community supports.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. For more go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

Unclear waters: How pollution, diversions and #drought are squeezing the life out of the lower #ArkansasRiver Valley — The #Denver Post

This view is from the top of John Martin Dam facing west over the body of the reservoir. The content of the reservoir in this picture was approximately 45,000 acre-feet (March 2014). By Jaywm – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37682336

From The Denver Post (RJ Sangosti):

The Arkansas Valley Conduit promises to bring clean drinking water to more residents of southeast Colorado

n the 1940s, the Arkansas River was dammed south of town to build [John Martin Reservoir], a place locals call the Sapphire on the Plains. The reservoir was tied up in a 40-year battle until Colorado and Kansas came to an agreement, in 2019, to provide an additional water source to help keep the levels high enough for recreation and to support fish.

Forty years may seem like a long time to develop a plan to save fish and improve water levels for a reservoir, but southeastern Colorado is used to long fights when it comes to water…

Arkansas Valley Conduit map via the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Chris Woodka) June 2021.

For nearly a century, leaders in southeastern Colorado have worked on plans to bring clean drinking water to the area through the proposed Arkansas Valley Conduit, but progress on the pipeline project stalled after a major push in the 1960s. Pollution, water transfers and years of worsening drought amid a warming climate continue to build stress for water systems in the area. Adding to that, the area continues to see population decline combined with a struggling economy.

The water needed for the conduit will be sourced from melting snowpack in the Mosquito and Sawatch mountain ranges [ed. and Colorado River Basin]. Under the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project Act, passed in the early 1960s, the water has been allocated for usage in the Lower Arkansas Valley. The water will be stored at Pueblo Reservoir and travel through existing infrastructure to east Pueblo near the airport. From there, the conduit will tie into nearly 230 miles of pipeline to feed water to 40 communities in need.

Renewed plans to build a pipeline to deliver clean drinking water to the Lower Arkansas Valley are bringing hope for many people in southeastern Colorado. But in an area that is inextricably linked to its water, the future can seem unclear…

“Deliver on that promise”

“It was nearly 100 years ago, in the 1930s, that the residents of southeast Colorado recognized that the water quality in the lower valley of the Arkansas River was quite poor,” said Bill Long, president of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and a former Bent County commissioner.

Water systems in the district, which includes Pueblo, Crowley, Bent, Prowers, Kiowa and Otero counties, have two main issues affecting drinking water.

The first is that a majority of those systems rely on alluvial groundwater, which can have a high level of dissolved solids. This can include selenium, sulfate, manganese and uranium, which are linked to human health concerns.

Second, the remaining systems in the water district rely on the Dakota-Cheyenne bedrock aquifer that can be affected by naturally occurring radionuclides. Radium and other radionuclides in the underlying geologic rock formation can dissolve into the water table and then be present in drinking water wells, also carrying health risks.

John F. Kennedy at Commemoration of Fryingpan Arkansas Project in Pueblo, circa 1962.

In 1962, residents in southeastern Colorado thought President John F. Kennedy was delivering a solution to their drinking water problem during a ceremony in Pueblo. Congress had passed the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project Act, and Kennedy came to Pueblo to authorize the construction of a pipeline to deliver clean drinking water…

Residents of the 1930s began working on ideas to deliver clean drinking water to southeastern Colorado. By the 1950s, they were selling gold frying pans to raise money to send backers to Washington, D.C., to encourage Congress to pass the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project Act. But it wasn’t until 1962 that the pipeline authorization became a reality.

Fast forward 58 years, and two more politicians came to Pueblo to address a crowd about the same pipeline project. This time, on Oct. 3, 2020, it was at the base of Pueblo Dam. Because of funding shortfalls, the Arkansas Valley Conduit was never built after it was authorized in 1962.

The Colorado communities could not afford to cover 100% of the costs, as initially required, so in 2009, the act was amended to include a 65% federal share and a 35% local cost share. Additionally, in 2020, Congress appropriated $28 million more toward the project, according to the water conservancy district.

That October day, Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner took turns talking about the importance of the project. They told a small crowd that when the pipeline is built, it will provide clean drinking water to 50,000 residents in southeastern Colorado…

The water conservancy district estimates the pipeline project’s cost will range from $546 million to $610 million…

Physical construction of the pipeline won’t start until 2022, according to the water district…

“The solution to pollution Is dilution”

A hand-painted sign with stenciled letters welcomes travelers on Highway 96 into Olney Springs. The highway cuts across four blocks that make up the width of the small town with around 340 residents.

Olney Springs is one of six water systems in Crowley County that plans to have a delivery point, known as a spur, on the Arkansas Valley Conduit. The plans for the pipeline call for two spurs in Pueblo County, three in both Bent and Prowers counties, and one in Kiowa County. Out of the 40 total participants, the remaining 25 are in Otero County…

Located along the Arkansas River about 70 miles east of Pueblo, La Junta is the largest municipality in Otero County. With its population around 7,000 and a Walmart Supercenter, a Holiday Inn Express and Sonic Drive-In, La Junta can feel like a metropolis when compared to Olney Springs.

La Junta is one of two Arkansas Valley Conduit participants, along with Las Animas, that uses reverse osmosis to remove potentially harmful and naturally occurring toxins from the water. Reverse osmosis is a process that uses pressure to push water through a membrane to remove contaminants. According to the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation’s Arkansas Valley Conduit Environmental Impact Statement, reverse osmosis can treat source water to meet standards, but the brine from the process “is an environmental concern, and operation costs are high.”

The other participants use conventional methods to treat water. The environmental impact statement said those methods can be as simple as adding chlorine for disinfection and filtration or adding chemicals to remove suspended solids, but that those treatments “…cannot remove salt or radionuclides from water.”

Tom Seaba, director of water and wastewater for La Junta, said out of a total of 24 water districts in Otero County, 19 were in violation with the state due to elevated levels of radionuclide.

Four of the 19 came into compliance with the state’s drinking water standards after La Junta brought them onto its water system. The remaining 15 are still in violation with the state, according to Seaba.

La Junta spent $18.5 million to build a wastewater treatment plant that came online in 2019 to help meet water standards for its community. But the city’s water treatment came with its own issue: selenium.

After La Junta treats its water using reverse osmosis, the water system is left with a concentrate, which is safe drinking water. However, it’s also left with a waste stream high in selenium. “That wastewater has to go somewhere,” Seaba said. It goes to the city’s new wastewater treatment plant…

According to the environmental impact statement, “La Junta’s wastewater discharge makes up about 1.5% of average annual flow in the Arkansas River.” The study goes on to say that during drought or low-flow events, the wastewater discharge can contribute up to half of the streamflow downstream from the gage.

Seaba is looking to the Arkansas Valley Conduit as a possible answer. “The solution to pollution is dilution,” he said. The water from the pipeline will not have a selenium problem, Seaba explained. By blending water from the conduit with the selenium waste from reverse osmosis, La Junta hopes to reduce costs and stay compliant with Environmental Protection Agency standards to discharge into the river.

The environmental review studied a section of the Arkansas River from where Fountain Creek runs into the river east to the Kansas border. The study found that a section of the river was impaired by selenium…

“I sure don’t drink it”

The EPA sets a maximum contaminant level in drinking water at 5 picocuries per liter of air for combined radium and 30 micrograms per liter for combined uranium. If contaminant levels are above those numbers, the water system is in violation of drinking water regulations, which the state enforces.

According to data provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Patterson Valley Water Company in Otero County, one of the 40 pipeline participants, had the highest result of 31 picocuries per liter for combined radium in 2020. In that same county, Rocky Ford, another pipeline participant, had a high result of 0.2 picocuries per liter for combined radium. According to the state health department, Rocky Ford’s combined radium sample numbers were last recorded in 2013.

Manzanola, also in Otero County and a pipeline participant, topped the list with the highest result of 42 micrograms per liter for combined uranium in 2020. In contrast, 19 other pipeline participants, from across the valley, had results of 0 micrograms per liter for combined uranium, according to the most recent numbers from the state health department.

Levels of the two carcinogens are sporadic throughout the valley. The average of the highest results of all 40 participants in the pipeline for combined radium is roughly 8 picocuries per liter and combined uranium is roughly 5 micrograms per liter. According to Seaba, averaging the members’ highest results might seem unfair to some individual water systems because it brings their numbers up, but what those averages do show is that water in Pueblo Reservoir, which will feed the future conduit, is approximately three times less affected by combined radium and combined uranium than the average of current water used by pipeline participants. In 2020, the highest result of combined radium in the Pueblo Reservoir was 2.52 picocuries per liter, and the highest result of combined uranium was 1.7 micrograms per liter…

“I sure don’t drink it,” said Manny Rodriquez. “I don’t think anybody in town drinks the water.”

Rodriquez, who grew up in and still lives in Rocky Ford, was not sure if the water at his apartment was in violation of the state’s clean drinking water act or not. State data showed at that time his water was not in violation. Colorado is required to notify residents if their water system is in violation of the clean drinking water act…

MaryAnn Nason, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, used an example to show how violations can add up: “If a public water system has two entry points that fail for both combined radium and gross alpha (measures of radionuclides), and they have those same violations for 10 years each quarter, that is going to appear as 160 violations on the website. But really, it is one naturally occurring situation that exists for a relatively long time,” Nason said.

For some residents like Ruby Lucero, 83, it makes little difference to her if her water is in violation with the state or not. She plans to buy her drinking water no matter what the results say about her tap water…

Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters

“The struggling farmer”

In the past decade, Otero County has seen a 2.9% drop in population. Residents have a ballpark difference of $38,000 in the median household income compared to the rest of the state, and the county is not alone. All six counties that are part of current plans for the Arkansas Valley Conduit are seeing economic hard times.

Adding to those factors is drought. Years of drought keep hitting the area’s No. 1 industry: agriculture.

The Rocky Ford Ditch’s water rights date back to 1874, making them some of the most senior water rights in the Arkansas River system. In the early 1980s, Aurora was able to buy a majority of those water rights. Over time, Aurora acquired more shares and has converted them to municipal use…

“We still have a heavy lift before us”

Planned off the main trunk of the Arkansas Valley Conduit, a pump station near Wiley will push water along a spur to support Eads in Kiowa County. Water that ends up in Eads will have traveled the longest distance of the pipeline project. The majority of the pipeline will be gravity-fed, but this section will need to be pumped uphill.

The journey is a good representation of Eads’ battle with water. Not only is clean drinking water needed, but the area is also desperate for relief from years of drought exacerbated by climate change…

Long said that Eads is different from a majority of the other participants in the project because it is not located along the Arkansas River…

The domestic water that will be delivered via the conduit is even more important for a town like Eads, said Long. “It’s very difficult to attract new industry when you have a limited supply of very poor water.”

Long believes the conduit will make a huge difference to support communities in the Lower Arkansas River Valley…

Long has been working on the Arkansas Valley Conduit project for nearly 18 years.

“After such a long fight, to finally be where we are feels good, but honestly I can say it doesn’t feel as good as I thought it would. Only because I know we have so much work still to do, and I know how difficult the past 18 years have been,” Long said. “We still have a heavy lift before us.”

Arkansas River Basin via The Encyclopedia of Earth

Conservation groups want recreation water right tied to natural river features — @AspenJournalism

A kayaker surfs the Hawaii Five-0 wave on the Roaring Fork River. The wave is an example of the type of naturally occurring river feature that conservation groups want included in the state statute that allows water rights for recreation.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Growing importance of outdoor recreation economy driving push

Three conservation groups aiming to keep more water in rivers for recreation are working on a revision to a state law.

American Whitewater, Conservation Colorado and Western Resource Advocates are proposing an amendment to legislation that would allow natural river features such as waves and rapids to get a water right. Under the state’s current statute, in order to get what is known as a recreational in-channel diversion water right, it must be tied to a man-made structure in the river, such as a design feature that creates the waves in many kayak parks.

Pitkin County Healthy Rivers is supportive of amending the existing statute to include natural river features and said so in an April letter to legislators.

“I think it’s kind of ironic that you have to make a man-made engineered structure in a river to make it somehow be of value to have a water right,” said Healthy Rivers board member and boater Andre Wille. “It would be nice to not have to put a structure in the river.”

According to numbers provided by the Department of Water Resources, there are currently 21 recreational in-channel diversion, or RICD, water rights in the state, all of them tied to an artificial structure. In the Colorado River basin, that includes features in Vail, Silverthorne, Aspen and Avon. Glenwood Springs has an approved RICD for a series of waves. Durango, Steamboat Springs, Salida, Buena Vista and Golden also have whitewater features with RICDs.

This type of water right ties an amount of water necessary for a reasonable recreational experience to the man-made river features.

Hattie Johnson, southern Rockies stewardship director of American Whitewater, likens making the acquisition of water rights dependent on the creation of an artificial feature to protecting backcountry skiing by building a ski jump.

“Right now, we can only protect water in the river for recreation if we build a ski jump,” she said. “So, we are looking for a change that protects the resource to provide all the wide-ranging recreational activities that happen on the river.”

This wave, known as Hawaii Five-0, on the Slaughterhouse section of the Roaring Fork River is popular with kayakers. Conservation groups want to amend a state statute to allow naturally occurring river features to get a water right for recreation.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Hawaii Five-0 wave

Proponents aim to tie a water right to a specific naturally occurring river feature, instead of a stretch of river — for example, the wave known as Hawaii Five-0 in the lower reaches of the run that begins with Slaughterhouse Falls on the Roaring Fork, instead of the entire 4.5-mile section of rapids. Slaughterhouse is a whitewater reach that begins at Henry Stein Park in Aspen and ends at Wilton Jaffee Park downstream in Woody Creek. It is a popular after-work run with kayakers and commercial rafting companies. Its many fishing holes also attract anglers.

A water right at Hawaii Five-0 could help keep water in the river for most of this section, since it’s located about a half-mile upstream of the take-out at Jaffee Park.

Scotty Gibsone has been running this section of river for 26 years and is on it nearly every day in the summer. His rafting company, Kiwi Adventure Ko, takes paddlers down the Class IV rapids of Slaughterhouse and the Class III Toothache section on the Roaring Fork in Snowmass Canyon. He said the Slaughterhouse season is short; it’s not usually runnable in boats after July 4. He can sometimes eke out a few more weeks using tubes in low water, but he would like to see higher flows overall.

“More water is always going to help, especially for us in the tourism sector,” he said.

A kayaker runs the 6-foot drop of Slaughterhouse Falls on the Roaring Fork River. In recognition of the contribution river recreation makes to Colorado’s economy, conservation groups want to amend a state statute to allow naturally occurring river features to get a water right for recreation. Proponents have discussed the Hawaii Five-0 wave, a few miles downstream from here, as an ideal place for a recreational in-channel diversion, or RICD, water right.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Early opposition

Most RICD water rights are held by municipalities — cities, towns and counties — and many have encountered opposition in water court. When Pitkin County began the process of securing an RICD for the two waves in the Basalt park on the Roaring Fork, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company, two entities that take water from the basin’s headwaters over to the Front Range, opposed the water right.

There will probably be opposition from Front Range water providers to any amended state legislation. That is because an RICD could limit their ability to develop more water from the Western Slope in the future.

American Whitewater has met with representatives from Denver Water, Northern Water and Aurora Water to discuss the legislation.

“We did inform them that we believe there will be significant opposition to the proposal, but Aurora Water would need a draft and go through our process to determine our position,” Greg Baker, manager of public relations for the city of Aurora, said in an email. “There is great potential for unintended consequences from even a modest proposal.”

To appease its opposers, Pitkin County agreed to a “carve out” provision that allowed up to 3,000 acre-feet of new water rights to be developed upstream of the kayak park, without being subject to the county’s new water right. (An acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons, or enough water to cover an acre 1 foot deep.)

A kayaker runs the 6-foot drop of Slaughterhouse Falls on the Roaring Fork River. Conservation groups want to amend a state statute to allow naturally occurring river features to get a water right for recreation. Proponents have discussed the Hawaii Five-0 wave, located a few miles downstream from here, as an ideal place for recreational in-channel diversion, or RICD, water right.
CREDIT: BRENT GARDNER-SMITH/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Growing recreation sector

A growing recognition of the importance of the outdoor recreation economy to the Western Slope is driving proponents’ push for updating the RICD legislation. And as climate change continues to rob western Colorado of streamflows, there is an increasing sense of urgency to protect and maintain water for recreation into the future.

“What we are trying to do is say that recreation is part of this complex system and we need to take that type of use into consideration,” said Josh Kuhn, water advocate for Conservation Colorado. “When we think about the transitioning economy, especially on the Western Slope, we need to have the security that this economic driver is going to be there in the future.”

Proponents say an amended law would also open up the possibility of RICD water rights to river runners in less-wealthy areas. Rearranging a streambed to create an artificial wave can be problematic: It is expensive, it requires disturbing the river ecosystem with heavy equipment, and engineers don’t always get it right the first time. For example, Pitkin County has spent nearly $3.5 million on the Basalt waves. The county had to reengineer the structures twice after complaints from the public that the waves were dangerous and flipped boats.

Supporters plan to meet with stakeholders throughout the summer and fall to further refine their proposed modifications to the legislation. They hope lawmakers will introduce a bill during the 2022 legislative session.

Water rights for natural river features would represent a shift in a state where putting water to “beneficial use” has traditionally meant taking water out of the river for use in agriculture or cities. It could mean that the often-overlooked river-recreation economy gets a bigger seat at the water-policy table.

“Recreation is a huge part of Colorado’s economy, it’s a huge part of our future, and yet it’s barely recognized in Colorado water law — and to the extent it is, it’s limited to a real-small class of recreation that only some towns and places can afford,” said John Cyran, senior staff attorney with Western Resource Advocates. “I think it’s time for Colorado water law to catch up with what’s actually happening on the rivers.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. For more, go to aspenjournalism.org.

The #Drought in the West Is Bad and It’s Gonna Get Worse — Outside Magazine #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

West Drought Monitor map June 15, 2021.

From Outside Magazine (Heather Hansman):

I spent runoff season this year chasing whitewater along the spine of the Rockies, where the impacts of a long-range megadrought feel increasingly painful and obvious. More than half of the western United States is currently experiencing extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, and it’s rapidly getting worse.

Although the Mountain West’s high-country snowpack—the source of water for a wide swath of land on both sides of the Continental Divide—was around 80 percent of its average this winter, the past 12 months have been among the hottest and driest on record there. As the snow melted, runoff was soaked up by parched soils, which are still dry from last year’s monsoon-free summer and fire-filled fall. When it’s as hot as it has been, every living thing needs more water, so plants sucked in moisture, too. In the same area of the mountains where the snow was 80 percent, river flows dripped out at 30 percent of their average. Ted was right: there’s not much water when there’s this level of aridity.

Paddling, for me, is a benchmark, a tangible way to understand what all those drought maps and numbers mean. And these days, the bottom-scraping springtime runs feel like a creepy indicator of how bad things will be downriver, where those waterways are used to grow food, maintain ecosystems, fight wildfires, and provide drinking water. I paddled Westwater Canyon on the Colorado River in Utah while it was running at one-tenth of its average flow, and I checked in on the dam-released drip formerly known as the Dolores River—a sight that made my stomach drop. On the other side of the Divide, I took a turgid run down Browns Canyon on Colorado’s Arkansas River—the most heavily commercially rafted section of river in the nation—and winced watching the guides trying to keep their clients paddling through the slack water, which was flowing well below the midsummer dam-released minimum of 700 cubic feet per second. It’s the scariest year I’ve ever been a river runner, and I’m not alone in thinking that…

“I’m nervous looking forward. It’s wishful thinking to assume it will get better,” says Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River District and coauthor of Science be Dammed. Kuhn has worked in water management for decades and believes the way we’re currently managing rivers isn’t sustainable and hasn’t been for a while. It’s coming to an inflection point where things will really have to change.
The signs (like dry rivers) and symptoms (the wave of early-season fires) are cascading on top of each other. In 2019, I wrote a book called Downriver about water policy with a subtitle that now feels painfully flippant: “Into the future of water in the West.” That was two years ago. Now the future is here—hotter, drier, sooner than predicted, and scarier than imagined.

By June 1, snowpack in the Sierra Nevada was at zero percent of its average, and California’s governor had declared a drought emergency in two-thirds of the state’s counties. After a record-breaking fire year in 2020, wildfire risks were already high, and the state’s agriculture industry, which supplies a huge amount of the country’s veggies, fruits, and nuts, was facing shortages and cutting crops to compensate. In Oregon, fragile, threatened salmon are dying because streams and lakes are drying up. Wide swaths of northern New England and the upper Midwest are abnormally dry. Even Hawaii is at elevated risk for wildfires.

In the Colorado River Basin—a bellwether for dryland watersheds because it’s crucial to millions of people and drying fast—the two big reservoirs in the system, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are crashing toward their lowest levels ever and approaching elevations that will trigger the first-ever federally mandated usage cutbacks. In other words, states, starting with Arizona, will have to start taking less from reservoirs than they’ve historically been legally promised.

A few glaring reasons indicate why we’re at this tipping point. The first is that we’re not operating within our limits. The Colorado River, for example, has been overallocated since the Colorado River Compact was signed in 1922. The agreement, often referred to as the law of the river, gave the seven states in the basin more water than exists in the river. Brad Udall, senior water and climate-research scientist at Colorado State University, found that we’ve been using 1.2 million acre-feet of water more than the river’s natural flow each year, which is one of the reasons why the reservoirs are plummeting. We’re also continuing to build rampantly in dry places and depleting groundwater as we do.

And we’re ignoring scientific limits and increasing demand while climate change is shrinking our supply even further. “This is the new baseline, and there’s no more water left in the system,” Kuhn says. According to a 2017 report coauthored by Udall, we can attribute at least half of the decline in water supply to greenhouse-gas-related warming. For every one degree Celsius of warming, he expects another 9 percent decline in the Colorado’s flow, and similar patterns are showing up in rivers globally.

We know that the supply is shrinking, and now the huge, complicated challenge is changing the way we operate within those limits. Kuhn believes that Mead and Powell are test cases for whether we can adapt to climate change, and what the realities are of doing that. He points out that we can’t call these climatic conditions a drought anymore, because that implies it will end. Years are variable, and snowpack, rainfall, and temperatures oscillate, but we have to look at the science and assume that the hot, dry trends we’re seeing will continue—and continue to get worse.

And then we have to get realistic about cutbacks. Demands have to shrink along with supply.

Part of that is reliant on state, tribal, and federal water managers, who are responsible for allocation. Right now on the Colorado River, those entities are renegotiating what are called interim guidelines, which outline the water levels that trigger those planned cutbacks and delineate which places have to sacrifice water first. Last year a voluntary set of shortages, called the Drought Contingency Plan, was put in place as a stopgap to keep the river from spiraling into crisis.
As the water managers come up with the next set of guidelines, which are slated to go into place in 2026, they’ll have to be much stricter, while also trying to be equitable. It’s going to be extremely difficult, because these decisions are tangled up in states’ rights, environmental equity, and philosophies about growth. Kuhn says he hopes desperation might drive more concession and collaboration than there’s been before. As those negotiations and cutbacks happen on the Colorado—which brings water to 40 million people in the western U.S.—they can be a template for other rivers and other dry places that are facing similar conditions.

Low water volumes due to #drought could affect #ColoradoRiver recreational activities — The #GlenwoodSprings Post-Independent

From The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent (Shannon Marvel):

Water volumes along the Colorado River are 55% of average for the amount of volume that would normally be seen from April to July, according to Aldis Strautins, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

That’s due to drought conditions that have persisted over the last year.

The Eagle River’s water volume is also at 55% of the average, and the Roaring Fork River is at 51% of the normal average volume, Strautins said…

Paula Stepp, executive director for the Middle Colorado Watershed Council, said the drought will likely impact the Glenwood Springs area in many ways.

Stepp said there are concerns about how the drought and lower water volumes along the Colorado River will impact agriculture, recreation and aquatic habitat.

Water use by agricultural producers is already stressed by the drought, Stepp said…

Stepp said she’s already heard that there’s not a lot of water available and there’s a need to be conservative with water usage.

On the recreational side of things, Stepp said there could be a much shorter rafting season.

Environmental analysis puts Marble wetlands donation within reach — @AspenJournalism #CrystalRiver #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The slag pile left over from a 1900s smelting operation on a wetlands property subject to a unique conservation play that is working its way through various agencies. An analysis by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found that the material does not post a significant health risk if it is fenced off.
CREDIT: CURTIS WACKERLE/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Curtis Wackerle):

You wouldn’t want to put it in your granola, in the words of Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association President John Armstrong, but a heap of waste material left over from a 1900s smelting operation near the banks of the Crystal River in Marble does not appear to pose enough of an environmental hazard to prevent the donation of 55 acres of otherwise stunning, mostly wetlands terrain to a land conservation organization.

But the road to reach this point has been long for the private owner of the now three contiguous parcels across the river that the owner has been trying since 2016 to see donated and permanently preserved in its natural state. In that time, concerns about potential liabilities associated with the slag pile have held up the initiative.

But support from CVEPA, which agreed to put $1,000 toward an analysis of the material, plus a discussion with the Pitkin County Health Rivers and Streams board about a grant, gave momentum to the effort last year. This spring, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) completed its analysis of the site and determined that contaminant levels in the material are within the range considered to be non-threatening to human health for a day-use recreation site.

In the end, the analysis work was completed pro bono, and proponents hope that funds pledged can be used for materials to fence off the slag heap and put up some interpretive signage explaining the history of the smelter and the slag left behind. This would complement an eventual management framework in which a land-conservation agency holds title to the property and allows passive, non-motorized public access along an existing route following the river.

Blocks of marble, likely connected to a historic railroad line running to a quarry, were artistically stacked by a previous owner along what one Marble resident referred to as “The Trail With No Name.”
CREDIT: CURTIS WACKERLE/ASPEN JOURNALISM

That would adhere to long-held use patterns on the land, where private owners have allowed the public to hike, bike or Nordic ski. The biodiverse area straddling the river and the wooded hillside, referred to by Marble history museum curator Alex Menard as the Trail With No Name, has been the site of nature walks hosted by the Roaring Fork Conservancy to observe the beaver dams dotting the wetlands. A portion of it near the slag heap is also marked by giant slabs of marble — probably left over from a railroad that used to run through the site to a marble quarry on Treasure Mountain — that a previous owner artistically stacked just off the trail. The trail itself leads to scenic waterfalls on Yule Creek, although the falls are just over the property line on an adjacent parcel controlled by a separate owner.

“This is really a wildlife refuge,” said Menard, who was instrumental in bringing the project to the attention of the CVEPA. “It’s a place where you can see an eagle taking a trout out of water with its talons, then half a mile farther up, there is a moose; walk a little more, there’s a bear, a blue heron. It’s a wild place.”

As noted by Armstrong, it could also be a desirable spot for a “McMansion,” if not for the benevolence of the private donor — an out-of-state woman who also donated the land in town that is becoming Marble Children’s Park. That land is now owned by Aspen Valley Land Trust, which is working with the town and obtaining additional grant funding to spruce up the site.

AVLT is critical to the conservation effort on the wetlands parcel, as well. AVLT staff is completing survey and title work on the property and will soon be proposing action to the land trust’s board. However, the exact shape of that action is still to be determined, according to AVLT director Suzanne Stephens.

“(We) have talked with our lands committee about potentially accepting fee ownership, but we are also investigating potential partnerships and other options for the property, so it’s not a foregone conclusion that we’ll end up with it,” Stephens wrote in an email. “However, we are committed to seeing it protected one way or another.”

Potential partners include Colorado Parks and Wildlife, CVEPA, Pitkin County and other entities, Stephens said.

A beaver dam along the Crystal River as it runs through a property that a private owner is seeking to donate for conservation purposes. Also visible in this photo is a Canada goose island nesting site with a large beaver lodge.
CREDIT: COURTESY PHOTO BY ALEX MENARD

The site is “unquestionably one of the most important wetlands and riparian parcels in the valley,” Stephens said.

“The fact that it adjoins Beaver Lake and almost the entirety of its acreage is wetland and river make it extremely important from a land and water conservation perspective,” she wrote, referring to the body of water located on a CPW-owned parcel to the north. “The habitat is crucial and threatened across the west, and combined with the proximity to the town of Marble and the fact that the smelter site has historic significance and the parcel offers flat, easy access and a lovely walk make it a rare gem that deserves to be conserved for a multitude of reasons.”

The parcels outlined in yellow across the Crystal River from Marble are subject to a unique conservation effort. Beaver Lake is located on state-owned land abutting one of the parcels to the north.
CREDIT: SCREENSHOT VIA GUNNISON COUNTY GIS MAPPING WEBSITE

‘Like a glass blob’

In the early days of industrialization and European settlement in the Crystal River Valley, a smelting and ore-crushing operation known as the Hoffman Smelter was erected on the site, according to Menard’s historical accounting. The site processed silver, lead, zinc and copper ore hauled by mule train from mines around Marble from roughly 1898 until 1911.

The smelter is long gone, but its shadow still hangs over the site. According to Armstrong, initial donation efforts in 2016 and 2017 ran aground on concerns about the slag heap, although proponents have long held that such concerns would ultimately be inconsequential.

A close-up view of the rock-like material that crumbles off the slag heap, left over from a 1900s smelting operation near Marble.
CREDIT: CURTIS WACKERLE/ASPEN JOURNALISM

The heap in question — perhaps 50 feet long and 10 feet high and located near the edge of the trail — “looks like something volcanic,” Armstrong said.

The mostly solid mound is, however, shedding pieces the size of small rocks. But there is not a strong presence of dust or other material that could wash away in a rainstorm or become airborne in dry conditions. CVEPA’s hope has been that any toxic material is inert, locked up in the rock.

“I have a strong feeling that it shouldn’t be something that should preclude something from acquisition,” Armstrong said in December, when CVEPA was awaiting the results of a materials analysis involving a private lab and CDPHE.

CDPHE — which was reviewing the site following a grant process where projects are submitted that present a public benefit — has substantially completed its analysis, and its findings line up with Armstrong’s characterization.

“Nothing is alarming,” said Mark Rudolph, an environmental protection analyst and brownfield site coordinator with CDPHE. He referred to the slag material as “like a glass blob.”

Rudolph noted that vegetation around the slag pile is healthy and that water quality in the Crystal River, about 50 yards from the material, meets the highest standards. Lead concentrations in the material fall in the range deemed acceptable for recreation sites, he said, and most of it appears locked up in the rocklike formation.

A final report from CDPHE is pending and will include recommendations on how to manage the site for public use. Those recommendations are likely to include clearing from the road any particles that have come off the slag heap. The road was recently built using a historic easement that allows access to a neighboring property owner, who is developing a home. Other strategies could include reseeding areas around the heap and using crushed marble or some other material to cover the slag particles that are visible on the shoulder of the road.

“It’s going to be a great addition to the town if we can get it all the way through,” Menard said of the conservation effort.

Protecting continued public access to these waterfalls along Yule Creek, just over the property line from a parcel set to be donated to a land conservation agency, is an ongoing priority for the CVEPA.
CREDIT: COURTESY PHOTO BY JOHN ARMSTRONG

For Armstong and CVEPA, there is further work to be done to ensure public access to the falls, which are about 1.5 miles in from the beginning of the walk through the wetlands. The falls are on the property owned by the man who recently built the road. He could not be reached for comment.

“The owner of the private property seems amenable to allowing access, as he has placed ‘no trespassing’ signs farther up the road beyond the access to the falls,” the CVEPA wrote in a winter 2020 newsletter article about the Marble wetlands donation initiative.

This story ran in the May 29 edition of The Aspen Times.

#GlenwoodSprings residents reminded to adhere to #water restrictions — The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent

Glenwood Springs via Wikipedia

From The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent (Shannon Marvel):

Watering restrictions are in place for Glenwood Springs residents, according to a news release.

Odd numbered home addresses can water on odd days of the month and even numbered home addresses can water on even days of the month.

Watering on both odd and even numbered days is prohibited from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m…

Glenwood Springs spokesperson Bryana Starbuck said the watering schedule was enacted during the response to the Grizzly Creek Fire last year as a necessary precaution to maintain water capacity due to fire activity near one of the city’s water sources…

The city expects the water schedule to remain in effect throughout the summer to help encourage water conservation during the drought conditions, Starbuck said.

#CrystalRiver Wild & Scenic advocates hope to learn from the past — @AspenJournalism #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The view looking upstream on the Crystal River below Avalanche Creek. A Pitkin County group wants to designate this section of the Crystal as Wild & Scenic.
CREDIT: CURTIS WACKERLE/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Colorado water shortage plays role in difficulty of securing designation

According to Crystal River valley resident Chuck Ogilby, there are three ways to protect rivers in Colorado. The first two involve using the state’s water court and water rights system. But the third is the one he places the most faith in.

“Who’s going to look after and be the parents, so to speak, of a free-flowing river? It’s the people,” Ogilby said. “The people of Colorado are the thing that will save our rivers. We have the right to fight for it the way we want, and we can advocate for free-flowing streams.”

Ogilby is one of a handful of river advocates in Pitkin County who are reviving a grassroots effort to secure a federal Wild & Scenic designation on the Crystal. But in a state where the value of water is tied to its use, and landowners’ fear of federal government involvement stokes opposition, a campaign to leave more water in the river for the river’s sake may face an uphill battle.

Proponents want protection of 39 miles of river from the headwaters of both the north and south forks, in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, to the Sweet Jessup headgate, the first major agricultural diversion on the lower end of the river. Advocates have three goals: no dams on the main stem, no diversions out of the basin and protection of the free-flowing nature of the river. As the Crystal is one of the last undammed rivers in Colorado, they want to keep it that way.

“I can’t tell you what the experience of walking up to a river and being on the river, whether I catch fish or not, does to me,” Ogilby said. “I can’t put it into words. It’s, I want to say, a religious experience. It’s very emotional.”

Crystal River Valley resident Chuck Ogilby on the banks of the river near the confluence with Avalanche Creek. Ogilby believes a Wild & Scenic designation on the Crystal is the best way to protect it from dams and out-of-basin diversions.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

A history of development plans and pushback

The Wild & Scenic River Act of 1968 brings protection from development. For example, new dams cannot be constructed on a designated stretch, and federal water-development projects that might negatively affect the river are not allowed. The National Wild & Scenic Rivers System seeks to preserve rivers with outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic and cultural values in a free-flowing condition.

There are three categories under a designation: wild, which are sections that are inaccessible by trail, with shorelines that are primitive; scenic, with shorelines that are largely undeveloped, but are accessible by roads in some places; and recreational, which are readily accessible by road or railroad and have development along the shoreline.

The U.S. Forest Service determined that the Crystal, which flows through both Gunnison and Pitkin counties, was eligible for designation in the 1980s and reaffirmed that finding in 2002. There are four segments being proposed: about seven miles of the north fork inside the wilderness boundary would be classified as wild; from the wilderness boundary on the north fork to the junction of the south fork, about two miles, would be classified as scenic; from the headwaters of the south fork through its confluence with the north fork and on to Beaver Lake, about 10 miles, would also be scenic, and from Beaver Lake to the Sweet Jessup headgate, about 20 miles, would be recreational. The outstandingly remarkable values are scenic, historic and recreational.

In 2012, conservation group American Rivers deemed the Crystal one of the top 10 most endangered rivers. This was spurred by plans from the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Conservation District to renew their conditional water rights for nearly 200,000 acre-feet worth of storage in the form of Placita and Osgood reservoirs. Osgood would have inundated Redstone.

The dam and reservoir projects were eventually abandoned after they were challenged in water court by Pitkin County, but the memory of the threat lingered for river activists, who decided to actively pursue a Wild & Scenic designation in 2012, with the goal of eliminating the possibility of this type of development in the future.

The group shelved the discussion with the presidential election of Donald Trump in 2016. Some trace the moment they realized they were temporarily defeated to a community meeting in Marble and subsequent opinion piece by former director of the Bureau of Land Management William Perry Pendley. A 2016 column for the conservative Washington Times, which also ran in Western Ag Reporter, titled “When ‘wild and scenic’ spells trouble,” stoked fear among landowners in the town of Marble and Gunnison County that a designation means the federal government has power over private property.

“There were some mistruths spread in Marble that really moved them in the wrong direction from my perspective,” said Matt Rice, director of American Rivers’ Colorado Basin Program.

But the meeting was enough for the opposition to gain ground. If the town of Marble wouldn’t support the designation, neither would Gunnison County. The proposal was dead in the water.

Larry Darien was one of those opponents in 2016. He remains opposed to the Wild & Scenic proposal this time around because he said federal involvement in river management could bring unintended consequences. Darien owns a ranch on Gunnison County Road 3 that borders the Crystal.

“Whatever they come up with probably looks real good until you end up with something you didn’t bargain for,” he said. “I don’t want the federal government having anything to do with my property.”

Darien said he doesn’t want to see dams or reservoirs on the Crystal either, but a federal designation is not the right way to go about preventing that. He would support a designation of the headwaters that flow through the wilderness, but would prefer if private property owners downstream along the river were left out of it.

The Crystal River near the town of Marble forms a wetland area. A Pitkin County group wants to designate this section of the Crystal as Wild & Scenic.
CREDIT: CURTIS WACKERLE/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Wild & Scenic Act

While the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act does give the federal government the ability to acquire private land, there are many restrictions on those abilities. Condemnation is a tool that is rarely used. The legislation written for each river is unique and can be customized to address stakeholders’ values and concerns.

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams has worked on Wild & Scenic designations in Oregon, where there are more than 65 sections of designated rivers. He said that in the next step of the process, which would be a suitability determination and an Environmental Impact Statement by the Forest Service, the protection of private property rights would be paramount.

“I’ve often said that if they changed the name to ‘leave the river as it is act,’ which is really what it does, people would be less concerned,” Fitzwilliams said.

Although Wild & Scenic supporters initially squabbled about the best way to address opposition — some said engaging staunch opponents was like inviting a wolf into the hen house — most now agree the best way forward is to bring them into the conversation early.

Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury is heading up a steering committee, which will decide how to proceed with the campaign. Pitkin County supports Wild & Scenic and commissioners have allocated an additional $100,000 to the Healthy Rivers board to work on getting a designation.

Committee members are tight-lipped about their strategy moving forward, and have not yet laid out a plan for spending the money, but many are eager to not repeat what they view as the mistakes from the first time around. McNicholas Kury stresses that this time the group will engage any and all stakeholders who want to participate in the process, even and especially those who have been vocally opposed to a federal designation. She said the group will probably hire a neutral facilitator to direct the process and bring all the perspectives to the table.

“The challenge will be ensuring we will reach all the interested parties and they will have a meaningful opportunity to contribute to what the final designations and river protections will be,” McNicholas Kury said. “It may require personally knocking on someone’s door and saying, ‘we need to hear from you.’”

Darien said he would be interested in participating in a stakeholder process, but that so far no one from the advocacy group or Pitkin County has reached out to him.

Avalanche Creek flows into the Crystal River north of Redstone near Avalanche Ranch. A group of Pitkin County river advocates are gearing up for another attempt at getting a Wild & Scenic designation on the Crystal.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Colorado protective of water use

Despite its renowned river rafting, fishing and scenic beauty, which contribute to the recreation-based economy of many Western Slope communities, Colorado has just 76 miles of one river — the Cache La Poudre — designated as Wild & Scenic. That’s less than one-tenth of 1% of the state’s 107,403 river miles, according to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System website.

By comparison, Oregon — a state with a contentious history of clashes between ranchers and the federal government over land management — has 110,994 miles of river, of which 1,916.7 miles are designated as wild & scenic—almost 2% of the state’s river miles.

Instead of backing the federal designation on its rivers, the state of Colorado instead funds a program for an alternative designation that carries some of the same protections as Wild & Scenic. In June of 2020, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service approved an alternative management plan on the Upper Colorado River which takes the place of a Wild & Scenic designation. The process took 12 years and involved cooperation between many stakeholders.

Experts say the main reason there is opposition from water managers to Wild & Scenic in Colorado is not fear of a federal land grab, but the shortage of water in an arid state that is only getting drier with climate change. Fitzwilliams called water “the most valuable commodity in Colorado, without question.” A designation would lock up water in the river, making it unavailable for future development.

“In these very, very arid states where we just don’t have the water, we are very protective of making sure that water is available for all public uses,” said Jennifer Gimbel, interim director of Colorado State University’s Water Center and former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “As we try to figure out how to manage the drought, we want to maybe figure out better how to move water from here to there and that Wild & Scenic designation would play a big part in that for better or for worse.”

The two main ways to ensure water stays in the river in Colorado are instream flow rights and recreational in-channel diversion water rights. Instream flow water rights are a minimum streamflow set by the Colorado Water Conservation Board with the goal of preserving the natural environment to a reasonable degree. A recreational in-channel diversion creates a water right for a recreational experience, like the waves in the Basalt whitewater park.

But Ogilby says these state protections don’t go far enough for the Crystal.

“We have to be able to convince people that getting it out of the Colorado adjudication system is the way we are going to ultimately protect it,” he said. “We are not going to save it with Colorado water law. We’ve got to get a (federal) overlay.”

Fears of development have recently returned in response to a study of a back-up water supply plan for the Crystal, undertaken by the same conservation districts who were behind the dam projects. The results aren’t in yet, but the study could find the need for storage to meet the demands of downstream water users in dry years.

A view of the former coal mining village of Placita, with the upper Crystal River winding along the valley floor as seen from from Colorado 133 as it climbs up McClure Pass.
CREDIT: BRENT GARDNER-SMITH/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Early indications of support

The next few months will be crucial for the steering committee as they chart a path forward and decide how best to spend the money from Pitkin County. Broad-based local support is critical and there is some evidence the idea of Wild & Scenic is gaining ground.

As part of her capstone project in sustainable studies at Colorado Mountain College, Carbondale resident Monique Vidal is conducting an online survey about recreation on the Crystal River. So far, she has received about 65 responses, about 95% of which support moving forward with Wild & Scenic legislation.

“Our community overwhelmingly so far is supportive,” Vidal said.

Ogilby owns Avalanche Ranch, a small hot springs resort near the Crystal River just north of Redstone. He has spent much of his life advocating for rivers in the Vail Valley and Crystal River valley, and has helped defeat plans for Front Range water providers to take more from the headwaters of the Colorado River. He served for years on the Colorado Basin Roundtable as a representative of Eagle County and is now a member of Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers board.

“I felt a little frustrated being on the roundtable because our position didn’t always gain ground,” he said. “We were up against the big boys. When I came over here, I feel this is my home. And maybe I can’t change everything about all the rivers in Colorado, but maybe I can make a real difference on the Crystal.”

For Wild & Scenic proponents, the clock is now ticking if they hope to get a designation while there is a Democratic administration under President Joe Biden. Ogilby said he feels a sense of urgency.

“Everybody feels that,” he said. “It feels like, oh my god, we have been blessed so let’s get after it. We are going to be pushing.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and Swift Communitications publications. This story ran in the May 17 edition of The Aspen Times.

Glenwood Springs #water rates to increase June 1 — The #GlenwoodSprings Post Independent

Water infrastructure as sidewalk art

From The Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Shannon Marvel):

The Glenwood Springs City Council passed a resolution which will adjust rates for all customers during their April 15 council meeting.

The rate change will appear on water bills arriving in July…

A 5,000-gallon user’s monthly combined bill will increase in year one from $92 to $122.

The resolution also includes a regular, yearly 5% increase until 2030, according to the release…

“Current utility revenues will not cover the cost for critical infrastructure improvements, some of which are immediately necessary to ensure safe and reliable service,” the release states. “Other capital needs primarily include replacement or rehabilitation of utility assets reaching the end of their service lives and additional storage capacity for firefighting capabilities.”

The city’s water and sewer fund operates on system improvement fees and user fees.

“Currently, water department revenues only pay for annual costs, bonding, and depreciation,” the release states.

Funding for capital projects currently comes from city reserves, low interest loans and competitive grants…

Upcoming or in-progress city water projects include:

• A new raw water pump line from the Roaring Fork Pump station up to the Red Mountain water plant

• Replacement of the lift station adjacent to the Colorado River, which is over 40 years old

• Red Mountain South subdivision water and roadway rebuild

• A second Cardiff water tank

• Restoring the Park East raw water irrigation system

• A city-wide water model to analyze distribution under various demands

• Sewer and/or water line repairs or replacements on more than 25 city streets

• A new North Glenwood water tank

• Review and repairs to all sewer lift stations and replacement of two of the remaining existing lift stations

Ruedi Reservoir will pay a price for warm, dry April — The #Aspen Times #FryingpanRiver #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Aspen Times (Scott Condon):

Reservoir expected to reach only about 90% of capacity this summer

The dry, warm month of April prevented the snowpack from building and sunk the chances to fill Ruedi Reservoir this summer, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation…

The snowpack in the upper Fryingpan Valley was only about 60% of median as of May 1, he said. Forecasts are for runoff into the reservoir to be only about 55% of average…

Ruedi Reservoir is at about 60% full right now. It holds 102,000 acre-feet of water. It would need about 42,000 acre-feet to fill.

Current projections are for it to reach about 90,000 acre-feet this summer, according to Miller…

The Roaring Fork River basin, like much of Colorado and the Western United States, has been battling a prolonged drought. AccuWeather Inc. reported Wednesday that 75% of the Western U.S. is experiencing drought conditions. About 21% of the areas are facing exceptional drought, which is the most extreme…

West Drought Monitor map May 4, 2021.

A lower water level in the reservoir also will mean lower releases into the lower Fryingpan River through the summer. Water levels won’t be as high as usual in late spring and early summer, so there won’t be a disruption to the Gold Medal trout stream.

However, low water levels and high summer temperatures are a regular cause for concern. The Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy has sounded the alarm in past summers about high water temperatures stressing trout.

Water releases could increase in June once downstream entities that possess senior water rights make a “call” for water for agricultural uses, Miller said.

April Long, director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, said the reservoir is used to meeting numerous water needs in the Roaring Fork Valley and on the Colorado River system. It is hard to know the full impact of the reservoir not filling, she said.

Low #snowpack, exceptional #drought conditions “bad precursor for what is to come” — #Aspen Times #wildfire

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map April 23, 2021 via the NRCS.

From The Aspen Times (Jason Auslander):

With the snowpack and precipitation levels in Pitkin County below last year at this time, local officials are bracing for an active wildfire season this summer.

“We’re the only county in the northwest region (of the state) that did not deal with a significant wildfire last summer,” Valerie MacDonald, Pitkin County’s emergency manager, said Thursday. “We have no reason to believe our luck is going to hold. All the predictive services we use indicate that we’re going to have another bad wildfire season in Colorado.”

Currently, the snowpack in Pitkin County and most of the area west of the Continental Divide is at between 70% and 80% of the normal average, said Jeff Colton, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. Last year, the snowpack at the end of February stood at 118% of normal.

In addition, precipitation this winter measured at the Aspen-Pitkin County airport is 3.27 inches of liquid compared with 3.45 inches last year at this time, he said. The average for this time of year is 4.69 inches.

Despite the larger than normal snowpack last year, it melted quickly and the monsoons never materialized, he said. Along with higher than normal temperatures, that led to about 2,300 wildfires in the Rocky Mountain region and more than 1 million acres burned, though those statistics are not yet available, Colton said…

Colorado Snowpack April 23, 2021 via the NRCS.

This year, the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center is predicting that drought conditions will persist through June, traditionally the driest month of the year, he said. Also, the weather service is predicting a 65% chance that temperatures through June in Pitkin County will be above normal…

Colorado Drought Monitor April 20, 2021.

On the Western Slope, the snowpack isn’t melting as quickly this year as last, he said, while the monsoon season prediction this year is not as bad as last year…

MacDonald suggested going to http://www.pitkinwildfire.com — which features tips on how to protect property and people from wildfire in English and Spanish — for information on how to create defensible space and use fire resistant materials. Residents also should sign up for the Pitkin Alert system, which will keep residents informed of emergency situations, she said.

Directors Reappointed to Southeastern District Board

John F. Kennedy at Commemoration of Fryingpan Arkansas Project in Pueblo, circa 1962.

Here’s the release from the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Chris Woodka):

Five Directors were reappointed to the Board of Directors of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, and were sworn in on Thursday, April 15, 2021.

Reappointed are: Seth Clayton, Executive Director of Pueblo Water, representing Pueblo County, and Secretary of the Board; Andrew Colosimo, Government Affairs Manager for Colorado Springs Utilities, representing El Paso County; Greg Felt, Chaffee County Commissioner and a member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board; Carl McClure, a Crowley County farmer; and Howard “Bub” Miller, an Otero County farmer and rancher.

The Southeastern District is the state agency responsible for the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which is operated by the Bureau of Reclamation. The Fry-Ark Project includes Pueblo Reservoir, Twin Lakes, Turquoise Reservoir, Mount Elbert Forebay and Power Plant at Twin Lakes, Ruedi Reservoir, a West Slope Collection System, and the Boustead Tunnel.

The Fry-Ark Project is designed to import 69,200 acre-feet annually for use by cities and farms in the Arkansas River basin from the Fryingpan River watershed near Basalt. Fry-Ark Operating Principles list environmental conditions that must be met when water is diverted.

The District also operates the James W. Broderick Hydropower Plant at Pueblo Dam, which was completed in 2019 under a Lease of Power Privilege with Reclamation.

The District is working with Reclamation to build the Arkansas Valley Conduit, a pipeline that will deliver a clean source of drinking water to 50,000 people in 40 communities east of Pueblo.

The District includes parts of nine counties, and has 15 directors who are appointed to 4-year terms by a panel of District Court judges.

Other directors of the Board are: President Bill Long, Bent County; Vice-President Curtis Mitchell, El Paso County; Treasurer Ann Nichols, El Paso County; Pat Edelmann and Mark Pifher, El Paso County; Patrick Garcia and Alan Hamel, Pueblo County; Tom Goodwin, Fremont County; Kevin Karney, at-large; and Dallas May, Prowers and Kiowa Counties.

#RoaringForkRiver on its way to 100 more acre-feet of flows – @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Roaring Fork River near Mill Street in Aspen in June 2020. An intergovernmental agreement between Pitkin County and the City of Aurora aims to leave 100 acre-feet more in the river that would otherwise be diverted to the Front Range.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Pitkin County on Wednesday inched a bit closer to having an additional 100 acre-feet of water flow down the Roaring Fork River with the approval of an intergovernmental agreement and memorandum of understanding.

Pitkin County commissioners unanimously approved on first reading the IGA with the city of Aurora and the MOU between the county, Aurora and the Bureau of Reclamation. The agreements are the final step in a yearslong effort by the county to get more water into the often water-short upper Roaring Fork by means of a complicated exchange.

As part of a 2018 settlement of a water court case, Aurora is allowed, in exchange for leaving more water in the Roaring Fork, to continue diverting water out of the headwaters of the Fryingpan River basin to the Front Range through the Busk-Ivanhoe system.

This can be done because Aurora owns about 5% of the diversions of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company, the entity that owns and operates the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System.

The IGA and MOU bring the total amount of water to be left by Aurora in the Roaring Fork to 1,000 acre-feet. That amount is about half of the water that Aurora owns in the Twin Lakes company.

Pitkin County’s goal was to get more water into the habitually stressed reach of the Roaring Fork that flows through Aspen during the summer and fall. Aurora has released water into the Roaring Fork for the past two summers under this settlement agreement.

“It was definitely noticeable by users of the river, and they were excited,” said Commissioner Patti Clapper. “It worked exactly like we wanted it to work, and the fact that we were able to draw this water when we needed it most was really a key point in this whole deal.”

But the extra water in the Roaring Fork could be diverted and used by any downstream senior water-rights holder. The new agreements would allow Aurora — which still maintains ownership of the water, even though it’s being released to the benefit of Pitkin County — to “call” the water down to the confluence of the Roaring Fork with the Fryingpan in Basalt. This water could then be used to satisfy downstream water users, who usually meet demands by releasing water they store in Ruedi Reservoir.

Leaving this water, up to 900 acre-feet, stored in Ruedi would allow Aurora to take half that amount (up to 450 acre-feet) from Ivanhoe Reservoir and send it to the Front Range for municipal use. Pitkin County would be entitled to about a quarter of the water (up to 100 acre-feet), which Aurora would release back into the Roaring Fork, bringing the complicated exchange full circle.

Ivanhoe Reservoir in the upper Fryingpan River headwaters serves as a collection point for water about to be sent through the Busk-Ivanhoe tunnel. Through a complicated exchange the City of Aurora will continue to divert water from this point, but leave more water in the Roaring Fork River.
CREDIT: BRENT GARDNER-SMITH / ASPEN JOURNALISM

Benefits to using Fork water

There are secondary benefits to using Aurora’s water released into the Roaring Fork to satisfy downstream needs and leaving stored water in Ruedi, said Pitkin County Attorney John Ely. Fewer releases from Ruedi means reservoir levels can stabilize, and it would be better for anglers in the Fryingpan’s gold-medal trout fishery.

“You won’t see as many surges of water being released from Ruedi down the lower Fryingpan, making it more difficult for fishermen to access the river,” Ely said. “Those three benefits alone are pretty good scores for us.”

Ely said with the additional 100 acre-feet on top of the earlier agreement already in effect, there could be an extra 20 to 30 cubic feet per second of water flowing down the Roaring Fork, making it possible to run the Slaughterhouse rapid later in the season, among other benefits.

“I think if we are going to get 20 cfs on top of that, that saves the life of the upper Roaring Fork,” said Commissioner Greg Poschman. “I am really, really grateful and excited to see this happen.”

The IGA will have a second reading and final approval by commissioners on April 28. The agreement will allow the governments to move ahead with a storage contract and water-court filing to execute the exchange.

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the April 15 edition of The Aspen Times.

#Drought and dry soils again will diminish #Colorado’s spring #runoff — @AspenJournalism #snowpac

Ruedi Reservoir, near the headwaters of the Fryingpan River, was still frozen in early April. Water forecasters are predicting low spring runoff this year, which could affect whether Ruedi fills.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Water forecasting agencies in Colorado have released their April streamflow predictions, confirming what many already knew: Drought and dry soils will diminish rivers this spring.

“The main story of this water supply outlook season is the effect of last year’s drought going into winter,” said Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist and assistant supervisor with the Natural Resources Conservation Service Colorado Snow Survey. “We are anticipating significantly lower runoff compared with the snowpack because we entered winter with such dry conditions that the soils are going to have to soak up a ton of moisture before it actually makes it through the system into the river.”

The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center and NRCS both released streamflow forecasts this week for the months of April through July. This is the second year in a row parched soils will rob rivers of their water.

If soils were not so dry, streamflow predictions would track closely with snowpack. But this year, in many areas streamflows are predicted to be down by 15% to 20% compared with the snowpack, and streamflow for all river basins in the state are predicted to be below average.

NRCS relies heavily on data from SNOTEL (short for snow telemetry) sites for its water supply forecasts. These automated sensors collect snow and weather data from remote, mountainous areas around the state. At the beginning of the month, the snow-water equivalent, which is a measure of how much water is contained in the snowpack, was 90% of average for the Colorado River headwaters, which includes the Roaring Fork River basin. Warm weather the first few days of the month had dropped that number to 78% by Wednesday.

According to NRCS models, streamflow for the Roaring Fork River, measured at its confluence with the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs will be 70% of average. The CBRFC model predicts just 68% of average. Throughout the Colorado headwaters, streamflow predictions range from 57% to 77% of average.

According to CBRFC hydrologist Cody Moser, most river basins in Colorado were in the bottom five driest years for soil moisture going into the winter and some places, like the San Juan River basin in the southwest corner of the state, had record low soil moisture.

“We had poor soil moisture entering the season,” Moser said. “We also have below normal snow, so a lot of things are working against a good runoff season.”

The Lake Powell inflow forecast, at 3.2 million acre-feet, is just 45% of normal and a 2% decrease from the CBRFC March forecast.