Public asks Pitkin County for Basalt whitewater park to be safer

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

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

County committed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safety first

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

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

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

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

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

Basalt applies flood mitigation lessons learned in August flash flood — The Aspen Times

From The Aspen Times (Scott Condon):

Lessons learned from an Aug. 4 flash flood on the south side of Basalt Mountain educated a consortium of governments on what needed to be done to try to avoid a repeat performance.

A contractor for the town of Basalt is working at the intersection of Cedar Drive and Pinon Drive in the Hill District to better handle water spilling out of the Lake Christine burn scar…

He credited the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency, for looking at the road intersection and adapting a flood mitigation plan. The NRCS had to sign off on all work performed after the federal government awarded a $1.23 million Emergency Watershed Protection Program grant earlier in the year to Basalt, Eagle County and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Basalt via Panoramio

Crystal River study on backup supply plan being floated by conservation districts — @AspenJournalism

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. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Two water-conservation districts are working to find solutions to a long-simmering problem on the Crystal River: In dry years, there may not be enough water for both irrigators and some residential subdivisions.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District plan to submit a state grant request for a feasibility study on a basinwide augmentation plan, or backup water supply plan, for the Crystal. The study would look at water demands and augmentation strategies, including the potential for a reservoir in or near the town of Marble.

he historic drought late in the summer of 2018 illustrated some long-acknowledged problems with water rights on the Crystal. In August and again in September, the Ella Ditch, which irrigates agricultural land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the river for the first time ever. This means, in theory, that junior-rights holders upstream have to stop taking water so that the Ella Ditch can receive its full decreed amount.

The Crystal River in August 2018 was running at 8 cfs near the state fish hatchery. Two conservation districts are hoping to get state funding for a study about water supply replacement plans for several subdivisions in the Crystal River Valley. Photo credit: Heather Sackett via Aspen Journalism

No back-up water supply

Most junior-rights holders have what’s known as an augmentation plan, which lets them continue using water during a call by replacing the called-for water with water from another source, such as a pond, a reservoir or an exchange.

The problem on the Crystal is that several subdivisions don’t have augmentation plans.

“This hasn’t been a surprise for at least 30 years,” said John Currier, chief engineer for the river district. “This is a well-known problem. The issue has been out there all the time, but the call is potentially becoming more frequent in those kind of dry years.”

The entities that were out of priority in 2018 — and therefore could potentially have water to homes shut off to satisfy a downstream call — include the town of Carbondale, the Marble Water Company, Chair Mountain Ranch, Crystal River Resort, Crystal View Heights and Seven Oaks Commons.

The Colorado Division of Water Resources, which administers the calls, sent these entities letters encouraging them to create an augmentation plan. Otherwise, their water could be shut off or they could be fined for every day they are using water out of priority when there is a future call by a downstream senior-rights holder.

Division 5 Water Engineer Alan Martellaro hopes it won’t come to that. Issuing fines won’t do anyone any good, he said.

“We basically told everybody: As long as we are moving forward and not dragging our feet, we are not going to issue any orders, especially since we are searching for regional answers,” Martellaro said.

The boundaries of the West Divide Conservancy District extend up the Crystal River Valley almost to McClure Pass. The district, along with the Colorado River Water Conservation District are submitting a state grant request for a feasibility study of a basin-wide augmentation plan.

Basinwide cooperation

West Divide, which is based in Rifle, with its boundary extending up the Crystal River Valley nearly to McClure Pass, sees the situation as an opportunity for basinwide cooperation to find what will probably be a multi-faceted solution. But that will require groups that were once at odds to work together.

“At this point, we are just getting back into this to see what’s feasible, and at this point we want to, and are open to, working with any interested parties up there,” said Bruce Wampler, a West Divide board member.

In 2011, the West Divide district and the Colorado River district abandoned their conditional water rights for nearly 200,000 acre-feet of water storage in the Crystal River drainage after local groups — Crystal River Caucus, Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association — opposed the reservoirs included in the conditional rights.

At the Gunnison Basin Roundtable meeting in Montrose on Sept. 16, Wendy Ryan, project manager for Colorado River Engineering, an engineering firm that works with West Divide, asked roundtable members for a letter of support for the grant application. (The town of Marble, which could be the site of storage, is in Gunnison County, but not in the Gunnison River basin.) Some roundtable members said they want to see the involvement of environmental groups before they would offer a letter of support.

“It’s going to be a hard nut to crack,” said Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck, a roundtable member.

As of Thursday, no members of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board said they had been informed of the grant application or the augmentation-plan study. The group officially opposes the construction of new storage facilities in the Crystal River watershed.

To get the state money from the Water Supply Reserve Fund, the feasibility study request must be approved first by the Colorado River Basin Roundtable and then the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The request, though not yet finalized, will probably be for roughly $100,000, Currier said.

West Divide introduced the proposal to the CBRT on Monday, and plans on putting forth a formal grant request in November.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Sept. 24 edition of the Times.

#ClimateChange could threaten Carbondale’s water supply — @AspenJournalism

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.

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

A new climate study and a first-ever call on a tributary of the Crystal River offer a glimpse of the future for Carbondale’s water supply.

A Vulnerability, Consequences and Adaptation Planning Scenario report by the Western Water Assessment found a strong upward trend in local temperatures over the past 40 years, which could threaten local water supplies.

“This report sort of drove the message home that (climate change) is here and it’s no longer a conceptual discussion — it’s a pragmatic discussion,” Carbondale Mayor Dan Richardson said. “It was sobering from that perspective.”

According to the report, the average temperature since 2000 has been 2.2 degrees warmer than the 20th-century average. Water year 2018 was more than 4 degrees higher than the 20th-century average and was the warmest recorded in the past 120 years.

Warmer temperatures are bad news for the watershed because they have an overall drying effect, even if precipitation remains constant. According to the report, Roaring Fork River streamflows since 2000 have been about 13% lower than the 20th-century average, due, in part, to warmer temperatures. By 2050, a typical year in the Roaring Fork Valley is projected to be warmer than the hottest years of the 20th century, which means mild drought conditions even during years with average precipitation.

“Just the warming temperatures alone are enough to tell us drought will be a concern in the future and drought conditions are likely to persist for longer,” said WWA managing director Benét Duncan. “What does that mean for the water supply?”

The Town of Carbondale treats water at its facility on Nettle Creek, a tributary of the Crystal River. The town nearly had to shut the plant down during the summer of 2018 because of a senior call on the downstream Ella Ditch. Photo credit: Town of Carbondale

Drought illustrates vulnerability

The summer of 2018’s historic drought illustrated a vulnerability in Carbondale’s water supply that surprised local officials. Senior water-rights holder Ella Ditch, which serves agriculture lands south of Carbondale, placed a call for the first time Aug. 8.

This meant that because there wasn’t enough water in the Crystal for Ella Ditch to divert the amount to which it was legally entitled, junior water-rights holders, including Carbondale, had to reduce their water use — threatening the domestic water supply to roughly 40 homes on the Nettle Creek pipeline.

“We had a situation last summer where we were inches away from having to shut down our water-treatment plant at Nettle Creek because there was a more senior call on the river,” Richardson said. “When you look at the water rights we have on paper, most municipalities feel confident their water portfolio is resilient and can stand the test of time, but that was paper water. And when it comes to wet water, we were pretty vulnerable.”

Carbondale applied for and received an emergency substitute water-supply plan from the state engineer. The emergency plan allowed for a temporary change in water right — from agricultural use to municipal use — so that another irrigation ditch could provide water to the town.

The East Mesa Ditch Co., whose water right is senior to Ella Ditch’s, agreed to loan the town 1 cubic foot per second of water from Sept. 7 to Dec. 7 under the agreement. However, Carbondale had to borrow the water only until Sept. 28, when the call was lifted on Ella Ditch. East Mesa Ditch is located upstream from Ella Ditch. Both are used to irrigate lands farther downstream on the east side of the Crystal River.

The town didn’t pay East Mesa Ditch for the water but paid the company about $5,000 in legal and engineering fees to draw up the water loan agreement, according to Town Manager Jay Harrington.

A wake-up call

Although Carbondale has other sources it can turn to for municipal use, including wells on the Roaring Fork, the summer of 2018 and the VCAPS report were a wake-up call.

“Nettle Creek is a pretty senior right, and we didn’t anticipate it to be called like it was,” Harrington said.

Potential solutions to another Ella Creek call outlined in the report include moving away from Crystal water sources to Roaring Fork sources and providing upstream pumps to the homes on the Nettle Creek pipeline.

“I think (the report) gives one of the clearest pictures of where we are heading and what we need to look at as a municipality as the climate changes,” Harrington said.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Aspen Times and Glenwood Springs Post-Independent on coverage of water and rivers.

Wildfire mitigation projects help reduce damage from the #LakeChristineFire burn scar

From The Aspen Times (Scott Condon):

A large catch basin that Eagle County sculpted into the mountainside above Basalt in recent weeks prevented significantly more water, mud and debris from swamping part of the Hill District during [the August 4, 2019] flash flood, officials said Thursday.

Eagle County Road and Bridge Department used heavy equipment to dig out a settlement pond and then used the dirt removed to regrade the hillside above the Basberg Townhouses. Boulders were placed in two drainage channels that led the water to the settlement pond. While water topped the pond during Sunday’s downpour, a lot of it was captured. Thick, sludge-like water was still in the pond Thursday.

This summer, the town of Basalt also created berms, added curb and gutter and installed a swale to direct water, all just uphill from the Basbergs…

The work was part of a $1.35 million Emergency Watershed Protection Program project. The federal government supplied a $1.23 million grant through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The state of Colorado contributed $153,359. Basalt, Eagle County and Colorado Parks and Wildlife are undertaking in-kind projects valued at $153,359, or 12.5%, to cover a local match.

The grant was administered by Basalt. Projects were identified by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Engineering was provided by SGM, a consultant for Basalt town government.

Basalt Town Manager Ryan Mahoney said about 20% of the work has been completed. Additional projects have been identified above Basalt, on the hillside overlooking Ace Lane’s Tree Farm property in El Jebel and on Basalt Mountain where it drops steeply to Upper Cattle Creek where several historic cabins are located.

Mahoney said he felt work performed at and around a culvert at the intersection of Pinon and Cedar drives in the Hill District also softened the blow of the flash flood.

The town widened the area around the entrance to the culvert but it was still overwhelmed by the amount of water roaring down from a usually dry gulch on the mountain.

“We’ve got some river pigs — big concrete blocks — at the bottom of the drainage,” he said. “Those are to hold debris back.”

[…]

Governments teamed to install three rain gauges on Basalt Mountain so the risk of flash flooding can be better assessed in the future. Those rain gauges were calibrated this week to ensure accurate readings.

In addition, National Weather Service meteorologists visited Basalt Mountain with local emergency responders this week to get a better feel for the lay of the land. Thompson said Sunday’s storm demonstrated that different sections of Basalt Mountain can experience vastly different weather.

The projects funded through the Emergency Watershed Protection Program will continue through the summer and into fall. All told, work will be undertaken in nine drainages, Mahoney said.

Aspen scores $186,356 from @CWCB_DNR for alternative water rights transfer methods

A view of the Wheeler Ditch headgate, looking upriver on the Roaring Fork River. Smith / Aspen Journalism

From The Aspen Daily News (Alycin Bektesh):

On Monday, the city announced that it is the recipient of $186,356, which will go toward establishing “alternative transfer methods” with area farmers. ATMs allow water-right holders to share a portion of their claims without giving them up entirely. The state has a goal to assist in 50,000 acre feet of water transfers through the use of ATMs by 2030.

The program allows creative solutions to water sharing in a way that was not previously accessible, according to Margaret Medellin, city of Aspen’s utilities portfolio manager.

“Traditionally in Colorado water law, if you don’t use your water right you’ll eventually lose it,” Medellin said, “so before this ATM concept came about you would want to use your water rights as much as you can at all times.”

This tactic is counterintuitive to what the state needs from its water holders, though. Colorado’s population growth projections show that the demand for water will increasingly outmatch the supply. By 2050, the state’s population is estimated to reach 10 million — double 2008’s figure — creating a water shortage for about 2.5 million families.

In attempting to preserve its own water rights on Castle and Maroon Creeks, the city found itself headed to state water court with 10 separate opponents last year. It was during those pretrial negotiations that the city decided to partner with two plaintiffs to explore the ATM solution locally.

“This project is one of a few good things that came out of that effort,” Medellin said. “It really is just us as different advocates for different parts of the community coming together to try and get creative.”

Wilderness Workshop and Western Resource Advocates have assisted the city in seeking out partners who would be willing to forfeit claims on diversions at different times. Over the last year, the city has held stakeholder meetings and consulted with experts, but they realized they would need assistance in identifying good partnerships.

“The thing we realized is that there was no clear project up here,” Medellin said.

The state grant allows the city to hire outside consultants who can continue the work of finding water-rights holders who would be willing to temporarily divert their claims to the city in exchange for fees.

Todd Doherty is the president of Western Water Partnership, the consultant who helped the city with the grant application and will continue to work on securing ATM agreements. He has identified 2,800 irrigated acres that use water diverted at or above the city. His team will be reaching out to farmers to explain the program and gauge interest.

Rain wreaks havoc on Lake Christine burn scar — The Aspen Daily News #stormwater

From The Aspen Daily News (Madeleine Osberger):

A storm that unleashed its power over the Lake Christine burn area beginning late Sunday afternoon triggered multiple debris flows and water on Frying Pan Road that temporarily trapped 20 different vehicles, but resulted in no known injuries, according to Scott Thompson, chief of Roaring Fork Fire Rescue…

A Pitkin Alert evacuation notice went out at 5:31 p.m. aimed at those who lived in the area of Pinon Road and Cedar Drive imploring them to “please take all necessary precautions,”which included seeking higher ground. “Do not enter flowing water or debris,” was among the initial warnings.

Frying Pan Road was closed intermittently Sunday from Riverside Drive to about 2 1/2 miles up the road, according to deputy chief Cleve Williams. The intersection of Cedar Drive and Two Rivers Road was reopened by 10 p.m. on Sunday…

According to the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, an inch of rain fell over the first hour, beginning at 5 p.m. There were reports of heavy rain after the first 30 minutes and flooding started on the south end of the Lake Christine burn scar. By 8:30 p.m. the rain had subsided and, according to Chief Thompson, was expected to let up before midnight.

From The Aspen Times (Rick Carroll) via The Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Click through to view the photo gallery):

One of the trigger points for the floods was at Pinon Drive and Cedar Drive, an area above Basalt from where the initial 911 calls were placed at approximately 5:30 p.m. Sunday…

All of the roads, including Frying Pan Road — where 10 vehicles had been stuck Sunday and later removed — had re-opened to traffic by Monday. Pinon and Cedar drives, as well as Two Rivers Road, also had been closed. Two Rivers Road opened late Sunday; Pinon and Cedar opened Monday morning.

Crews also on Monday determined the floods had not damaged the integrity of roads and bridges, said Birch Barron, Eagle County emergency manager.

Structural damage to the residences in the affected area appeared to be limited, according to Barron.

“We believe there were less than 10 private residences with debris in or around structures, and for the majority of those structures, the debris was in nonresidential spaces — garages and basement and property surrounding that,” he said.

The county had not received any reports of residences being uninhabitable, Barron noted.

The evacuation zone impacted about 30 residences; however, a number of individuals couldn’t evacuate because of dangerous road conditions, Barron said.

Sunday’s response was a collaborative effort among Eagle and Pitkin counties, the town of Basalt, area law enforcement and emergency response teams, as well as state and federal agencies, Barron said.

The flow out of Ruedi Reservoir was increased Monday by 50 cubic feet per second to help clear up the Fryingpan River, which had taken on a muddy hue from the flood’s debris and sediment.

“This should be a big help toward protecting fish and river health,” said Kris Widlak, Eagle County’s director of communications.

Screenshot from the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. Photo credit: Anna Stonehouse via The Aspen times