Rebecca Milvich has many fond childhood memories of playing in the pond on her family’s Old Snowmass property, which they purchased in 1985.
Every summer, the pond off Little Elk Creek Avenue in Old Snowmass, became the neighborhood hangout as Milvich and her siblings and friends swam and paddled a canoe. Still today, the pond, which is filled by a ditch branching off Little Elk Creek, brings the family joy as they admire the ducks, fish and muskrats that live there.
“Those are the passions that are wrapped around it,” Milvich said. “It’s very personal. It’s something that has enhanced our quality of life a thousandfold. Our ability to have a water feature has changed our lives for the better, for sure.”
But on Sept. 22, the Milvich family received a cease-and-desist order from the Colorado Division of Water Resources that said they had to stop filling their pond because of a downstream call on the Colorado River, in which water users junior to the Grand Valley irrigators’ water rights had to be shut off.
It turned out the Milvich family did not have a legal water right for their pond, making them one of the most junior water users on the Colorado River system and one of the first to be curtailed.
“We were from Southern California and we missed having the beach,” Milvich said. “And my dad was excited to purchase an actual piece of property that had water on it, totally not knowing that we were in some ways for these last 35 years breaking some rules and regulations. We had absolutely no idea.”
The Milvich family’s pond is not the only one in the area lacking a water right. DWR officials say undecreed ponds throughout the region are depleting the Colorado River system in a time when a climate change-fueled drought makes it more important than ever to account for every last drop of water.
The Glenwood Springs-based Division 5 engineer’s office issued five cease-and-desist orders for ponds without water rights this season in the upper Roaring Fork Valley. And officials say there are many more ponds like these out there. Some of them are recently built for fire protection.
The main concern with these ponds is water loss to the Colorado River system through evaporation. The bigger the surface area, the more water that is lost.
“A lot of the depletions are pretty small, but it’s death by a thousand cuts,” Division 5 Engineer Alan Martellaro said. “When you have these all over the place, they add up at some point.”
According to Colorado water law, anyone is allowed to divert water from a stream simply by putting it to beneficial use as long as it does not harm senior water-rights holders. To protect their ability to keep using the water and save their place in line, most users make their water right official by getting a decree through water court. This enshrines the water right in Colorado’s system of prior appropriation in which the older the water right, the more powerful it is.
“It’s a good idea because it protects your standing,” Martellaro said. “It protects your priority. That’s the whole point of a water right.”
That means ponds without a decree are last in line and are the first to be shut off when there’s a downstream call from irrigators in the Grand Valley, which have much older water rights — one from 1912 and one from 1934. Known as the “Cameo Call,” these irrigators can control all junior water rights upstream of their diversion at the roller dam in DeBeque Canyon.
Most summers, Grand Valley irrigators “call” for their water when streamflows begin to drop. In general, the drier the year, the earlier the call comes on. This year, the Cameo Call first came July 30 and went off at the end of irrigation season Oct. 26.
As long as the call is on, junior upstream water rights must be shut off or “curtailed” so that the downstream irrigators can get the full amount of water to which they are legally entitled. It is up to the division engineer’s office to decide exactly how to administer the call and which junior water rights to curtail, but undecreed water use is generally the first to go.
“When the call is on, they are stealing somebody else’s water if they don’t have a water right,” said Bill Blakeslee, water commissioner for District 38, which encompasses the Roaring Fork River watershed.
Blakeslee said he doesn’t like to issue cease-and-desist orders, and his goal is to educate people about the Colorado River system.
“We don’t like to do our business this way, but this is one of the tools we use to help people understand we don’t have as much water as we used to and we all need to take steps to preserve as much as we can,” he said. “It makes a statement to the general public that we are in a drought situation, so let’s not do things that continue to contribute to further loss of water.”
Even though the ponds are causing water loss to the river system at all times, Blakeslee said he can apply the pressure of the law only when there is a call.
“I can’t enforce the rules until the call goes on the system,” he said.
The Milviches were supposed to have stopped diverting water out of priority within 10 days of receiving the order or else face enforcement actions such as having to pay the state’s costs and legal fees. But Martellaro said his office so far has not fined the owners of any of the five ponds and won’t as long as they are working toward a solution. And since the Grand Valley call is now off the river, the issue is less urgent — for the moment.
Colorado is entering a period of tighter accountability for some water users as Lake Powell’s levels continue to drop and the threat of a compact call looms larger in a warming West.
A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower-basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada), as required by the Colorado River Compact, a nearly century-old binding agreement. Upper-basin water managers desperately want to avoid this scenario.
“I guess you could say one of the elephants in the room is the interstate compact situation,” Blakeslee said.
So what are the Milviches’ options to remedy the situation? In order to be allowed to keep using water for the pond when a call is on, they must replace that water to the system. One possibility is getting a contract for an augmentation plan with a local water-conservancy district to release water from Ruedi Reservoir to make up for depletions from the pond. The Milviches have met with an engineer to assess their options.
Whatever they decide, securing a water right through water court can be a lengthy, expensive process.
“We are definitely terrified about that reality,” Milvich said.
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative journalism organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Nov. 2 edition of The Aspen Times.
In November 2018, Marble Town Manager Ron Leach received a letter that he said was a wake-up call.
The letter was a notice from the Colorado Division of Water Resources that the town’s water rights had been “out of priority” for four weeks the previous August and September because of a call placed by a senior water-rights holder downstream on the Crystal River.
During drought years — and 2018 was an extreme one, with the Crystal running at less than 5% of average after peaking in May, several weeks earlier than usual — junior water-rights holders may have to curtail their water usage until the senior call is satisfied.
“Drought and water supply have been on people’s minds for a long time around here, but we’ve never gotten a letter like that,” Leach said.
The letter urged the Marble Water Company — the private nonprofit entity that delivers water to the town’s approximately 150 residents and a handful of businesses — to create a plan of augmentation, which is an alternate source of water such as a storage pond. Without augmentation, the letter warned, a call could subject Marble to a cease-and-desist order on its municipal water wells.
Several other neighborhoods that get their water from the Crystal also narrowly dodged a bullet that August. The same call put more than 40 homes in Carbondale at risk of not having water, according to Town Manger Jay Harrington.
“Firefighting capability was an issue, too,” Harrington said. “That’s where we had to scramble.”
Carbondale officials were able to make an emergency arrangement with another senior water-rights holder on the Crystal to temporarily borrow water to supply the homes. And they quickly set in motion plans to avoid the situation in the future. In essence, the town is shifting the supply for some of its water needs from the heavily irrigated Crystal to the more reliable Roaring Fork, as the town has three wells that draw from the Roaring Fork aquifer, and has the option to develop more wells. The town also owns 500 acre-feet of water in Ruedi Reservoir it can use to offset its well depletions from the Roaring Fork aquifer.
Up in Marble, Leach doesn’t have multiple, redundant water supplies to serve his constituents. Noting that Marble’s water supply barely exceeds peak summer demand, an engineering firm’s preliminary recommendation was for an 11-acre-foot reservoir, which would require 3 to 4 acres of flat ground.
“The town of Marble doesn’t have cash to do anything like that,” said Leach, who added that space in the constrained mountain valley might also be a hurdle. “There’s no easy solution.”
Still, Leach is confident something will get figured out — a state-funded water study of the Crystal was recently approved, he said — but a very dry 2020 has underscored that the water issue is not going away anytime soon. During what’s now widely accepted as a two-decade-long drought in the Colorado River basin, temperatures have risen, summer rains can’t be relied on and streamflows have dropped, with earlier peak flows sometimes leaving little water in streams by late summer. The state’s letter to Marble noted that “it is reasonable to assume that this administration scenario could happen more frequently in the future.”
To those who deal with water day to day, there’s no question climate change is here and its impacts are being increasingly felt in the summer.
“It all starts with climate change — that’s the big picture,” said Leach. “What’s happening in Marble, this is the micro-example.”
Other Roaring Fork municipalities are also grappling with climate-caused water supply issues. The city of Aspen, which provides municipal water from free-flowing Maroon and Castle creeks and has seen Stage 2 water restrictions enacted two of the past three summers, is creating a 50-year water plan — driven in part by climate-change impacts — that may include expanded water storage. In Basalt, the 2018 Lake Christine Fire came close to cutting power supplies, which could have caused the failure of pump stations that deliver water to users. And after one of Glenwood Springs’ water sources was temporarily shut down during this summer’s Grizzly Creek Fire, debris, ash, mudslides and fire retardant pose lingering hazards.
“We need to continually work on our water systems as we continue to adapt to climate change,” said Harrington. “We are going to have to figure out how to slow it down, but in the meantime, we need to take climate change into our planning.”
“We need to continually work on our water systems as we continue to adapt to climate change,” said Harrington. “We are going to have to figure out how to slow it down, but in the meantime, we need to take climate change into our planning.”
The heat is on
Warming temperatures, linked to increased global greenhouse-gas emissions, are the catalyst that impacts other key conditions in the mountains, including lower snowpacks and streamflows; earlier snowmelt and runoff peaks; more precipitation in the form of rain than snow; more frost-free days; and lower soil moisture.
As average temperatures rise in all seasons, heat waves like the one that gripped Colorado during the summer of 2020 are becoming more common. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, average temperatures from May to October in Pitkin and Garfield counties have risen more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950s. Some months are warming faster than others. In Pitkin County, June, July and September have warmed by nearly 3 degrees since 1950, while in Garfield County, June and September are 3.5 degrees warmer.
Noting that 12 of the hottest 14 years in western Colorado have occurred in the past 18 years, Colorado River Water Conservation District general manager Andy Mueller said at a recent conference that “the biggest change in temperatures has been occurring within our district and eastern Utah, which is a real problem when you look at the fact that we’re the area that produces the most-significant amount of water in the entire rivershed.”
Scientists are in broad agreement that as long as greenhouse-gas emissions continue to rise — or even level off — temperatures will follow suit.
Projections for the region range depending on emissions scenarios, but nearly all of them forecast at least another rise of average temperatures of 3 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century and a rise of approximately another 10 degrees by the end of the 21st century. To put this into perspective, a warming Aspen could have the climate of Carbondale or Glenwood Springs, while Glenwood would look and feel like Grand Junction in a few decades.
The atmosphere taketh away
Local summer precipitation trends are less clear. Monsoon rains — or the lack thereof — drive great swings year to year in summer precipitation, which is usually dwarfed, in terms of volume, by winter precipitation in the form of snow. Historical data shows no clear trends. A report prepared for the town of Carbondale says that average precipitation in the 20th century and since 2000 are about the same.
Still, the summer of 2020 capped a decade of multiple dry summers. Colorado this year saw its third-driest April-July period, according to the National Weather Service, and the 2.5 inches of precipitation Aspen had from June through August was nearly 2 inches below normal. It was the fourth summer in a row with below-average precipitation and the driest in that stretch — even the summer of 2018 saw more rain.
Precipitation projections are also not very clear — although some experts suggest that precipitation could decrease in the summer and increase in the winter. But whether there’s a little more or a little less rain and snow in the future — and the latest models show a long-term decline in the Colorado River Basin — scientists say it doesn’t matter.
“There’s more uncertainty in how much precipitation is going to change and less uncertainty about how much temperature is going to change,” said hydrology expert Julie Vano, who is research director at Aspen Global Change Institute. “And the effect of just having warmer temperatures means more water is leaving the system.”
Jeff Lukas, a researcher on NOAA’s Western Water Assessment team, put it this way: “A warming atmosphere is a thirstier atmosphere.” In the Roaring Fork Valley, he said, only about a third of all precipitation makes it into streams and rivers; the other two-thirds is reclaimed by evapotranspiration, which is the combination of evaporation from surfaces and what plants absorb then release. Since evapotranspiration is driven in large part by temperature, as temperatures rise, the amount of water in rivers declines.
“The atmosphere giveth and the atmosphere taketh most of it away,” said Lukas. “Warming is the factor — across all seasons and all water-cycle processes — that draws moisture away from the land surface before becoming runoff.”
The flow is low
After more than a century of diversions, dams, storage projects and other stream manipulations, it’s complicated to calculate trends in natural streamflow, the term for the amount of water in a river. But streamflow, also called runoff, has perhaps the most direct effect on water availability. And trends are not looking good.
Declining streamflows are also found up the Colorado’s tributaries. Taking into account water that would’ve been in the stream if it weren’t for diversions and ditches, Lukas calculated that between 2000 and 2018, the Roaring Fork River at Glenwood Springs had 13% less water than the 20th-century average. Analyzing data on the Crystal River near Redstone, he calculated a 5% drop in annual mean streamflow since 2000, compared with the latter half of the 20th century, but a 10% decline during drier years.
In that same analysis of the Crystal, Lukas found that the date of peak streamflow had shifted one week earlier since 2000: from reliably arriving in June to sometimes coming in May. Multiple studies across the Colorado basin have similarly calculated a one- to four-week earlier runoff — which means that high-country snowpacks are melting earlier, so that the highest volume of snowmelt rushing down those streams is coming earlier in the spring.
But an above-average snowpack doesn’t mean an equivalent runoff, as this past year has shown. After a good winter followed by a warm, dry spring and summer, just 55% of the upper Colorado’s runoff made it into Lake Powell.
“The expectation that this amount of snow leads to this amount of runoff — we’re just not seeing as much as we did in the past,” said Vano, the hydrology expert.
Earlier peak runoff and lower flows mean less water (especially in drought years) in late summer and early fall, a critical time for irrigation, recreation and natural systems. From late July through October, the Crystal River upstream from Carbondale has been flowing below half of average, lower than the instream flow water right held by the state for that stretch of river — but since irrigation rights are senior to the conservation right, there’s often no recourse. For example, that is what happened in August on another tributary of the Roaring Fork, when the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which holds 1,700 instream-flow rights throughout the state, requested administration of its instream rights on Hunter Creek, acknowledging that it would likely be “a futile call.”
“A river is not a river without water in it,” said Heather Tattersall Lewin, science and policy director for the Roaring Fork Conservancy.
As with higher temperatures, declining streamflows and earlier runoff are certain into the future, but how much will depend on emissions. A 2006 report by the Aspen Global Change Institute calculated that by 2030, peak runoff for the Roaring Fork River at Woody Creek will occur in May rather than June. And by 2100, the lingering snowpack we see on the high peaks in June will no longer exist, which means less water in the stream all summer. Add in increased demand from growth and diversions, and future Roaring Fork River flows through Aspen could go below required instream-flow levels for nine months of the year.
Downstream in Glenwood Springs, the Roaring Fork’s late summer flows could decline by 30% to 50% by 2070, according to a 2018 analysis by Lukas.
“Changes to water will touch nearly everything,” he said. “All the risk is on the dry side.”
The underlying factor
Another important factor to consider is one we don’t really see: soil moisture.
One of the metrics used to calculate drought severity, soil moisture has been studied locally by the Aspen Global Change Institute since 2013. This short period of record may preclude discerning any trends about whether local soils are getting drier, but the data does show how moisture levels can have a domino effect season to season.
Elise Osenga, community science manager for the institute, likens the soil to a sponge. A dry sponge, like dry soil, absorbs more water than when it’s wet, while a wet sponge, like saturated soil, lets the excess run off. The water that the soil doesn’t absorb goes into streams.
“Climate change is more likely to dry soils in the spring,” said Osenga, who explained that peak snowmelt and peak soil saturation happen around the same time in the mountains. “When that happens, we’ll see soils dry earlier in the summer and become more dependent on summer rain — which is problematic when we don’t get those rains.”
Each of the past three years, soil moisture in Pitkin County has dipped well under the 2013-2017 average for most of the summer. The drought year of 2018 saw an early snowmelt and soil drying, but fall rains helped soils recover, auguring well for the next year. Most remember the record snows of late winter and spring of 2019, but the lack of rain that summer dried things up. And 2020 largely mirrored 2018, although 2020 saw slightly better soil moisture until late summer.
This year, things may have cooled off since August, but drought conditions have worsened, with all of Colorado, as of Oct. 22, in some form of drought and 78% of the state in extreme or exceptional drought. This doesn’t bode well for spring.
With soil moisture, said Osenga, “what happens in September and October is actually really interesting, because it plays a big role in determining whether we start the next spring already at risk of a drought versus in better shape.”
With multiple dry years over the past two decades, some scientists are wondering if we’re entering a period of megadrought, which hasn’t been seen in several hundred years.
“It might be a combination of natural variability plus climate change — a double whammy,” said Vano.
No single drought is evidence of climate change, Lukas said, but “what we’re seeing since 2000 is that climate change is stacking the deck. We’re more prone to the deep droughts, the ones that sneak out of left field like in 2020.”
And even with good planning, that’s sure to make water managers in Marble and Carbondale and throughout the Colorado River basin nervous.
“We do see changing conditions, whether attributable to increased demand/development by water users, drought or long-term climate change,” wrote Colorado water commissioner Jake DeWolfe in an email. “Any of them leads to the same problem: a shortage of water. We are involved in planning for the future likelihood that we will need to limit, if not curtail, uses in Colorado to meet the needs of downstream states.”
An abridged version of this story ran in The Aspen Times on Oct. 30.
An analysis of five weeks of Aspen water-treatment plant data show that local water users cut consumption by an average of 20% in the four weeks after Stage 2 water restrictions took effect, compared with the week before the stricter regulations were in place.
However, year-over-year data shows that water use in 2020, over the course of the past five weeks, was down by smaller amounts compared with the non-drought year of 2019.
Stage 2 water restrictions began Sept. 1, with the goal of reducing water use by 15% to 20% compared with “current use,” according to a news release announcing the restrictions.
That appears to have been achieved, as average daily water use was 5.86 million gallons from Aug. 24 to Aug. 30, according to water-treatment plant data provided by city of Aspen staff and analyzed by Aspen Journalism. Average use dropped to 5.08 million gallons per day the following week and to 4.7 million gallons per day over the four weeks from Aug. 31 through Sept. 27.
Comparing average daily water use with a non-drought year provides further context when examining the degree to which restrictions have influenced water use in recent weeks. Aspen Journalism’s analysis of the city’s daily treated volumes included totaling water use on a per-week basis and finding the average consumption per day for a given week. Those numbers were compared to average daily totals from corresponding seven-day periods in 2019, a non-drought year in which water restrictions were not in place for the utility’s approximately 4,000 customers in the city of Aspen and surrounding neighborhoods.
That analysis showed an average decline of 10% when comparing five weeks in 2019 versus 2020. However, the differences between weekly totals from year to year varied considerably. In addition, a large decline in weekly water use in 2020 compared with 2019 often corresponded with a burst of rain or snowfall, levels that were sourced from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. For instance, over the week of Sept. 7 to 13, weekly water use declined by 36% from 2019 to 2020. This steep decline is probably related to the three-day snowstorm that occurred that week in 2020, which dropped on the city a cumulative 8.5 inches of snow Sept. 8 to 10, according to NOAA data.
In contrast, the week of Sept. 21 in both 2019 and 2020 saw neither rain nor snow, according to NOAA data. That week in 2020, the city used 6.2% less water than in the same week in 2019, according to Aspen Journalism’s analysis. Precipitation levels were similar for the five weeks spanning late summer and early fall, with 2020 having two more days and 0.7 more inches of rain compared with 2019, according to NOAA data.
Declines in water use may relate to rainfall and snowfall since weather events prompt the city’s parks and open space department and residents to stop or reduce watering to parks, gardens and open space, said Steve Barr, the city of Aspen’s parks operations manager. Because approximately 60% of total municipal water is diverted to parks, landscapes and gardens, rain and snowfall prompt reduced water use and probably correspond to declined treatment-plant figures.
“A period of rain (in late August) allowed us to shut down irrigation for three or four days. Truly, this saves the largest amount of water,” Barr said. Yet, more data would need to be analyzed in order to draw statistically sound conclusions about the relationship between weather and water use for the entire city water system, said Steve Hunter, utilities operations manager for the water department.
Due to the many factors that influence treatment-plant numbers, it is difficult to discern from the data how resident behavior changed after the Sept. 1 water restrictions and how behavioral changes influence city water use, Hunter said.
City population, visitation, humidity, weather and special events also influence the daily volume of treated water, according to Hunter.
“Just like our weather, no two days are exactly the same,” he said.
The reduction targets identified with Stage 2 restrictions are meant to give water users a goal to hit compared to their normal usage, according to water plant officials.
Community adaptation efforts
Aspen City Council enacted Stage 2 water restrictions after the U.S. Drought Monitor on Aug. 18 classified all of Pitkin County to be in extreme drought. The goal of the restrictions is to protect the streamflow of Castle Creek, which provides the majority of Aspen’s water, with flows throughout the Roaring Fork River basin running 40% to 70% below median, according to a memo from the utilities department concerning the water restrictions.
In 1997, the city agreed with the Colorado Water Conservation Board to maintain 12 cubic feet per second on Castle Creek, except in extreme drought conditions, according to the state resolution. Dropping below this rate threatens the aquatic ecosystem, as warmer waters stress native fish populations and alter the aquatic environment through increased algal blooms, according to Brad Udall, a water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University.
Many local businesses report following Stage 2 guidelines, which may be associated with the 20% decline in water in the four weeks after the week of Aug. 24. The restrictions put residents and businesses on a staggered watering schedule and prohibit the construction of new landscapes and water systems, as well as prompt other regulations. (Residents and businesses, for example, cannot wash sidewalks with treated city water.) Managers and directors at Aspen Alps, The Gant, Limelight Hotel, Aspen Mountain Lodge and Aspen Meadows Resort said they follow the new protocol.
“Everyone cares about water use and is very compliant with water restrictions,” said Aspen Mountain Lodge general manager Allison Campbell. “We see it when we’re touring around our state, how dry we are.”
Many businesses are implementing additional measures to reduce water. Staffers at Aspen Mountain Lodge winnowed their watering window to 15 minutes every three days, compared with every other day required by Stage 2, according to Campbell. At Bumps restaurant, which sits at the base of Buttermilk Mountain, staffers are testing new technology that reduces the quantity of water needed to thaw food, according to Ryland French, energy manager at Aspen Skiing Co. Businesses could not provide data for these reductions, as many do not collect daily water data but make changes based on the monthly water bill from the Aspen utilities department, according to Campbell, French and Aspen Meadows Resort general manager Jud Hawk.
Other major water users, such as the city golf club and the parks and open space department, have enacted new water practices following the Stage 2 announcement. Golf club staffers cut irrigation to native plants on the course and reduced water to the driving range by 75%, from 62,667 gallons dispensed on the driving range each night to 15,667, according to golf director Steve Aitken.
After Sept. 1, the parks department shortened watering times and limited those periods to every other day. Staffers continued low water-use practices established during the 2018 drought, such as limiting water to native-plant zones, Barr said. From this past August to September, the department reduced irrigation to parks and gardens by an average of 43%, according to data provided by the parks and open space department. The department used less water in 83% of Aspen parks and gardens in September compared with August, according to parks department data.
More changes needed to maintain streamflows
This summer is not the first time that the city of Aspen has tried to meet water-use reduction targets. In 2013, the water department enacted water restrictions with a 20% reduction goal. The city did not meet this target, according to a 2016 water-availability study by the Wilson Water Group. In 2015, the water department lowered the Stage 2 reduction goal to 15%, according to the 2016 study.
The water department also enacted Stage 2 restrictions on Aug. 13, 2018. No analysis was conducted on whether the city met the 15% reduction target, according to Tyler Christoff, director of utilities for the water department.
Despite current drought conditions, Castle Creek’s streamflow remains above the state-mandated minimum level. The creek averaged 35.6 cfs in the five weeks from Aug. 24 to Sept. 27, with a minimum cfs of 32 the week of Sept. 21, according to water department data.
The days of Aug. 24 to Sept. 27 fall within the city’s peak water-use period, which runs from June to September, according to the 2016 water availability study. Higher temperatures and evaporation rates mean that Aspen’s parks and landscapes demand more irrigation, Barr said. Last week, the parks department began blowing out and shutting off its irrigation system for the winter, according to Barr. This may cause a decline in demand for city water.
While current drought conditions did not endanger running below the minimum instream flow, studies show that climate change will demand revisions to city water sourcing and use in order to keep Castle Creek above 12 cfs.
Temperature is predicted to rise throughout Colorado by 2.5 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2065, according to a report by the research institute Western Water Assessment. Rising temperatures increase evaporation in all forms, transferring water from streams to the atmosphere, Udall said.
“Under a warming climate, the atmosphere has a greater thirst for water. It wants to hold more water as it warms,” he said.
Rising temperatures and the resulting increased evaporation can be expected to reduce Castle Creek’s streamflow by 35% by 2065, according to a 2017 study done by Headwaters Corporation for the city of Aspen. This reduced streamflow, in conjunction with population growth, will lower Castle Creek’s streamflow below 12 cfs, according to a 2016 water availability study by Wilson Water Group. Yet, 12 cfs can be maintained if the water department draws more municipal water from local wells and implements a water-reuse program, where the city golf course is irrigated by upcycled wastewater treatment plant water instead of water from Castle Creek, according to the 2016 study. While the 2016 study concludes that Castle Creek’s minimum streamflow can be maintained with these mitigatory actions, Aspen officials in 2018 asked the state for rights to 8,500 acre-feet of water storage to prepare for the effects of climate change.
“In extreme or prolonged drought, reservoir storage would help create a more resilient water supply for the Aspen community,” Hunter said.
The Wilson study’s authors also suggest implementing Stage 2 or Stage 3 water restrictions to maintain Castle Creek’s instream flow. Stage 3 water restrictions aim to reduce water use by 20%. But the authors add that if city water users fall short of the target reductions, well water can fill the deficit to ensure the required 12 cfs.
Stage 2 conditions will last as long as Pitkin County remains in extreme drought, which will probably be into 2021, Hunter said. In April, the water department will assess winter snowpack — which is predictive of spring and summer streamflow — and will decide to continue State 2 or lift it, Hunter said.
Hunter believes the ordinance unites the city in environmental goals.
“We believe the community’s knowledge and participation in conservation practices creates a more resilient future,” he said.
Dignitaries from throughout the nation, including U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, gathered at Lake Pueblo for the groundbreaking of a pipeline that will deliver clear water to the Lower Arkansas River Valley…
As the conduit will bypass the Arkansas River, including the portion on Pueblo’s lower East Side where the heavily polluted Fountain Creek dumps into the river, it is seen as a regional solution to drinking water quality problems facing rural communities of Southeastern Colorado…
It may be a decade or more before the conduit will be built, but the project is well on its way now.
When completed, the conduit will serve an estimated 50,000 people in Southeastern Colorado via some 260 miles of pipeline.
Bill Long, president of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and former Bent County commissioner, said: “It’s kind of an emotional event because generations have actually worked on this project and to finally see this kind of progress where we can deliver safe water to folks, which also provides a great opportunity for economic development is close to unbelievable. It truly is a great day.”
John Singletary, former chairman of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, agreed:
“As a young boy in the Arkansas Basin, I sold gold frying pans to support the effort that eventually lead to President Kennedy coming to Pueblo to sign the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project into a law,” Singletary said. “This was the first step in seeing the Arkansas Valley Conduit built. In the decades since, people like Senator Michael Bennet have never lost sight that this project is more than politics. The Conduit is a vision turned reality to help reduce dry-up of farm ground and provide clean drinking water for 50,000 people in 40 communities east of Pueblo.”
The total project cost is estimated at somewhere between $564 and $610 million to complete over a 15-year period and about $30 million a year for the next 15 years will need to be appropriated to see it finished.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, who also has spent a lot of time and effort on the project throughout his career, echoed Long’s comments about ground finally being broken for the conduit.
“It is a testament to the commitment of generations of people in the Lower Arkansas Valley to bring clean drinking water to communities that were promised it in the early ’60s and never had that promise fulfilled,” Bennet said. “One of the first things I heard about when I became a senator was the Arkansas Valley Conduit because of Bill (Long) and because of Ray Kogovsek, who had been the congressman for that area, and made the case about how important it was.”
Bennet said the progress made on getting the conduit built has been a true bipartisan effort in which Democrats and Republicans have worked hand-in-hand…
The conduit, part of the original Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, would bring water from Pueblo Dam to Lamar and Eads, serving about 40 communities along the route. As it will bypass the Arkansas River, including the portion on Pueblo’s lower East Side where Fountain Creek dumps into the river, it is seen as a regional solution to drinking water quality problems facing rural communities of Southeastern Colorado.
Many of those water providers are facing enforcement action for high levels of naturally occurring radionuclides in well water. A new source of clean water through the Arkansas Valley Conduit is the least expensive alternative, according to a 2013 Environmental Impact Statement.
While the project is breaking ground, there is still a long way to go, Bennet cautioned.
The total project cost is estimated at somewhere between $564 and $610 million to complete over a 15-year period and about $30 million a year for the next 15 years will need to be appropriated to see it finished.
“It’s not going to be easy to do but we’re going to fight for it,” Bennet said.
Pitkin County groups are keeping a close eye on a local marble-mining company that violated the Clean Water Act, as the company prepares to submit a permit application.
In March, the Army Corps of Engineers determined that Colorado Stone Quarries — the operator of the Pride of America Mine, above the town of Marble — violated the Clean Water Act when it relocated Yule Creek to make way for a mining road. CSQ is now retroactively applying for a permit from the Army Corps, which will require a 30-day public notice, public review and comments.
The Crystal River Caucus sent a letter to Gunnison County and Pitkin County commissioners on July 17 urging them to get involved during this upcoming public process to ensure the protection of local waterways Yule Creek and the Crystal River.
“Residents of the valley are concerned that future negligent or illegal actions taken by this company may put both Yule Creek and the Crystal River at additional risk,” the letter reads. “Even remedial actions, if not properly designed or carried out, could result in negative impacts downstream.”
Caucus chair John Emerick said that his group is supportive of protecting the water quality of the Crystal River and that the board plans to submit comments to the Army Corps.
“The place, to me, looks to be a mess, and they need to have a plan before they are allowed to operate,” Emerick said, referring to the state of the new channel.
Creek diversion and diesel spill
In the fall of 2018, CSQ diverted a 1,500-foot section of Yule Creek from its natural channel on the west side of Franklin Ridge, a rock outcropping, to the east side of the ridge so it could build an access road. Operators piled the streambed with fill material, including marble blocks.
Although this move probably spared Yule Creek the impacts of a diesel spill last October, it was done without the proper permits or oversight, according to the Army Corps. CSQ was fined $18,600 by the state Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety for the 5,500-gallon diesel spill.
Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, a project requires a permit from the Army Corps if it includes the discharge of dredged or fill materials into waters such as rivers, streams or wetlands. CSQ did not initially obtain a permit because company officials believed the work was exempt, citing the temporary nature of the access road and creek diversion.
Army Corp officials disagreed and determined the lack of a permit was a violation of the Clean Water Act.
CSQ now plans to submit a permit application next week, according to company spokesperson Lisa Sigler. The application will include alternative alignments for Yule Creek, including leaving the creek in the new channel or rerouting it back to the natural channel. At the Army Corps’ request, the application will include a biological assessment, cultural-resource survey and aquatic-resource delineation, Sigler wrote in an email.
The mine, known locally as the Yule Quarry, is owned by Italian company Red Graniti and employs 30 to 40 people. CSQ says there are enough marble reserves contained in its six galleries to continue mining at the current rate for more than 100 years. The quarry has supplied the pure white marble for renowned monuments such as the Lincoln Memorial, the Colorado Capitol building and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The creek diversion and access-road construction came after the quarry was granted a permit by DRMS in 2016 for a 114-acre expansion for a total of 124 permitted acres in the Yule Creek drainage.
Healthy Rivers concerns
Although the quarry sits in Gunnison County, about 3 miles up County Road 3 from the town of Marble, the relocation of the stream could have downstream impacts in Pitkin County. Yule Creek flows into the Crystal River, which flows through Pitkin County before it joins the Roaring Fork River in Carbondale.
Members of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board have said they support water-quality monitoring, especially regarding turbidity, or water clarity.
“We are concerned about sedimentation and water-quality impacts on the Crystal down in Pitkin County,” said Andre Wille, chair of the Healthy Rivers board. “We try to think on a watershed basis, so we don’t just focus on county lines.”
Heavy equipment in the streambed could kick up sediment, which is then suspended in the stream’s flow, Wille said.
“More concerning is probably the way those sediments then settle down and fill in the spaces in the gravel and in the rocks and smother insects,” he said. “If they are spawning, it smothers eggs of trout and fish, so it really kind of wrecks the habitat.”
CSQ general manager Daniele Treves said in a prepared statement that the quarry already has a water monitoring program at three locations on Yule Creek and has installed groundwater monitoring wells related to the diesel spill. The marble blocks placed in the new stream channel are intended to create step pools that encourage fine sediment to settle, he said.
“CSQ’s diversion of the Yule Creek simply redirected a portion of the creek from its then-present western channel to a historical channel approximately 200 feet to the east,” Treves said.
A video by Redstone resident and longtime local Maciej Mrotek shows how the area looked in May 2018, before the diversion, when Yule Creek was on the west side of Franklin Ridge. Drone footage from this past May shows the creek now running on the east side of the ridge in a channel filled with cut marble chunks and a road on the west side of the ridge where the creek used to be.
Mrotek, who said he has fond memories of playing in the area as a child, said the change was devastating.
“I took it very personally when I saw that, because I think it could have been handled in a much better way,” he said. “My goal is not to stop the mining. My goal is simply to channel the future activity of this mine in a positive fashion with a lot more oversight and respect.”
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Sept. 28 edition of The Aspen Times.
The district’s new, $27 million-plus wastewater treatment facility is nearing the end of its finishing touches after a three-year construction process. A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new plant is tentatively set for Thursday.
Financed by a mill levy approved by the SWSD’s voters in May 2016, the facility was completed in March, whereupon the old plant was retrofitted to work in tandem with the new plant. Now, both facilities are online and working as designed, according to Hamby.
Some $23.3 million in bonds were sold for the project; the additional $4 million for the retrofitting of the old wastewater plant was financed through development-fee revenue from Snowmass construction projects, the district manager said.
In a tour of the new plant last week, Hamby beamed with pride as he described the reasons for the new plant, the complicated construction process of integrating the two plants and how SWSD employees accomplished retrofitting the old plant themselves…
While the plant took three years to build, the actual work started in 2013 when SGM, the Glenwood Springs-based company of consulting engineers, began talking to SWSD about new regulations that had recently been passed in 2012 in Colorado to reduce nutrient pollution in lakes, rivers and streams.
Regulation 85 by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment regulates nutrient discharges such as nitrogen and phosphorus and requires wastewater treatment plants to reduce both substances in the water that they discharge.
In the beginning, SGM and SWSD considered retrofitting the existing SWSD wastewater plant that was originally constructed in 1968 after the Snowmass ski area opened and then modified since then with additional construction.
A challenge for SWSD and the design and construction companies working on the new plant was the fact that the existing wastewater plant had to remain in operation while the new one was being constructed in order for Snowmass to meet current water regulations.
Because of this, the project was built in phases over the three-year period.
“Both plants have to be run in tandem to make this work, so we first had to build this new plant and put it online,” explained Hamby.
“Once it was constructed, we took the old plant offline, retrofitting it with new equipment, but we also had to remove a lot of the equipment that was over there. Our own people did the retrofitting work so it is really extraordinary to me that the people that maintain the plant also took responsibility to build basically a new plant inside,” he said.
From email from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Rob Viehl):
Proposed Acquisition of Contractual Interest in Ruedi Reservoir Water for ISF Use on the Fryingpan River and the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River
The Colorado Water Conservation Board will be considering an offer from the Colorado River Water Conservation District, acting through its Colorado River Water Projects Enterprise (“District”) of a short-term lease of 3,500 acre-feet of water that the District holds in Ruedi Reservoir for instream flow (“ISF”) use. The proposal is to use the released water to supplement winter flows in the Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir from January 1, 2021 – March 31, 2021; and from April 1 – December 31, 2021, to help meet or reduce shortfalls to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s flow recommendations for the endangered fish critical habitat in the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River. The Board will consider this proposal at its September 16-17, 2020 virtual meeting. The agenda for this Board meeting can be found at:
Consideration of this proposal initiates the 120-day period for Board review pursuant to Rule 6b. of the Board’s Rules Concerning the Colorado Instream Flow and Natural Lake Level Program (“ISF Rules”), which became effective on March 2, 2009. No formal Board action will be taken at this time.
Information concerning the ISF Rules and water acquisitions can be found here.
The following information concerning the proposed lease of water is provided pursuant to ISF
Decree: 81CW0034 (Second Filling)
Appropriation Date: 1/22/1981
Adjudication Date: 12/31/1981
Decreed Amount: 101,280 acre-feet
Bureau of Reclamation Contract: 139D6C0101
Contract Use: Municipal use in Colorado River Basin; includes “use of water by . . . piscatorial users, including delivery of water to supplement streamflow. . . .”
Contract Amount: 4,683.5 acre-feet
Amount Offered for Consideration: Up to 3,500 acre-feet.
Proposed Reach of Stream:
Fryingpan River: From the confluence with Rocky Ford Creek, adjacent to the outlet of Ruedi Reservoir, downstream to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River, a distance of approximately 14.4 miles.
15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River: From the confluence with the headgate of the Grand Valley Irrigation Company (lat 39 06 06N long 108 20 48W) downstream to its confluence with the Gunnison River.
Purpose of the Acquisition and Proposed Season of Use:
The leased water would be used to supplement the existing 39 cfs ISF water right in the Fryingpan River to preserve the natural environment, and used at rates up to 70 cfs to meet the Roaring Fork Conservancy and Colorado Parks and Wildlife flow recommendations to improve the natural environment to a reasonable degree. The leased water would be used to also supplement the existing ISF water rights in the 15-Mile Reach to preserve the natural environment from July 1 – September 30, 2019, and to provide water at rates above the existing decreed ISF rates to help meet or reduce shortfalls to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (“USFWS”) flow recommendations for the endangered fish critical habitat in that reach to improve the natural environment to a reasonable degree from April 1 –December 31, 2019.
Water stored in Ruedi Reservoir will be released to the Fryingpan River during the winter time period. The existing instream flow water right is decreed for 39 cfs from November 1 – April 30. The objective of the lease would be to maintain Fryingpan River flows at a rate of 70 cfs to prevent the formation of anchor ice at times when temperatures and low flows could otherwise combine to create anchor ice, which adversely impacts aquatic macroinvertebrates and trout fry.
The 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River provides critical habitat for two species of endangered fish: the Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker. This reach is sensitive to water depletions because of its location downstream of several large diversions. It provides spawning habitat for these endangered fish species as well as high-quality habitat for adult fish. Due to development on the Colorado River, this reach has experienced declining flows and significant dewatering during the late summer months, and at times, there are shortages in the springtime. As a result, the USFWS has issued flow recommendations for the 15-Mile Reach since 1989 to protect instream habitat for the endangered fish.
Available information concerning the purpose of the acquisition and the degree of preservation and improvement of the natural environment, and available scientific data is available at:
Ranchers were left with a backlog of cattle earlier this year when meatpacking plants had to close or slow production due to COVID-19 outbreaks among employees and public health orders forced restaurants to shut down indoor dining.
They are now facing the compounding challenge of a drought, which is decreasing the amount of available hay and forcing more tough choices about herd management.
“We had cattle that we would generally sell in like February and March, and that market kind of fell apart right then,” said Brackett Pollard, the Holy Cross Cattlemen’s Association local president who owns a ranch in Silt.
Pollard was finally able to sell some of his cattle in mid-July.
According to data collected by the Food and Environment Reporting Network, there have been eight outbreaks in meatpacking plants in Colorado that have led to more than 500 COVID-19 cases. That includes 316 cases at a JBS facility in Greeley. The facility had to close April 15 to 24. There have been nearly 40,000 meatpacking workers infected nationwide.
COVID-19 impacts at meatpacking plants, as well as market uncertainty as demand fell off from restaurants and schools, meant that commercial feedlots — where ranchers send cows before they are slaughtered — were packed and unwilling to buy additional cattle, according to ranchers interviewed for this story and a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.
So Pollard, like many other ranchers, didn’t have any other choice but to keep his yearling cattle that would have been sold or slaughtered earlier in the year.
That meant he had to take land that he would normally use for growing hay and repurpose it to pasture these yearling cattle, which are between 1 and 2 years old. Cattle are typically slaughtered when they are between 18 and 24 months old.
The change in operations could affect him in the long run.
“We not only do have to keep them because there was nowhere to go with them, and then all of a sudden we find ourselves in the middle of a drought,” Pollard said, noting that he was running low on hay to feed his cattle. “We basically got to the point where we had to get rid of them, whatever price was being offered.”
Pollard said he sold his cattle at their current market value, but if COVID-19 hadn’t happened, he probably would have received $200 more per head.
Beef prices rose, but cattle selling prices went down
On July 22, the USDA released the Boxed Beef and Fed Cattle Price Spread Investigation Report, which investigates the nationwide surge in retail beef prices. Between late March and early April, a large number of workers at meat-processing plants got sick, which by mid-April led to facility closures and slowdowns that reduced beef production.
The weekly number of slaughters nationwide fell from more than 684,000 head at the end of March to under 439,000 at the end of April, a decrease of 36%.
“This reduced demand for cattle may have contributed to lower fed cattle prices,” according to the report’s summary of impacts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Feedlot placements by producers and feeders were 22% lower in April than in 2019.”
Consumers began stocking up on beef in grocery stores in March when public health orders closing restaurants to indoor dining were first introduced. Demand from restaurants fell off dramatically, and many producers struggled to quickly shift away from restaurants and toward grocery stores, according to the report.
Consumers continued stocking up in April, as news of plant closures and fears of beef shortages spread, further driving up the cost of groceries.
The weekly average choice boxed beef cutout price — which measures the value of a beef carcass based on prices paid by end users — rose from about $255 per 100 pounds at the beginning of April to more than $459 by the second week of May.
In the meantime, packers purchased fewer fed cattle and dropped cattle prices because of the meatpacking-plant closures or production slowdowns. Fed cattle prices decreased by 18% between early April and early May.
The gap between the selling price of fed cattle to packers and the retail price of boxed beef increased from $66 per 100 pounds in early April to $279 in the third week of May, a 323% increase, the largest spread since 2001, according to the report. The gap started to narrow in June, from $279 per 100 pounds in the middle of May to $119 in the beginning of June.
Working through packer issues
According to Bill Fales, a Carbondale rancher, the gap between what ranchers are getting for their cattle and what consumers are paying for beef illustrates the problem with “packer consolidation,” or fewer meatpacking firms controlling more of the marketplace.
“It really showed the problem with the kind of conventional beef system because people who had cattle ready to be slaughtered got just slammed,” Fales said. “If they could get them killed, the price they were selling for went way down, (and) the packers started paying way less and charging way more on the other side of the plant — to the consumers.”
Fales wasn’t impacted by the drop in selling prices, he said, because his cattle are part of a program called Country Natural Beef.
Country Natural Beef is an Oregon-based cooperative of nearly 100 family ranches located in 13 Western states and engaged to produce beef from vegetarian fed cattle. The co-op, which works mainly with the grocery chain Whole Foods, sets its prices in January for the fiscal year.
Fales said at the outset of the pandemic, he experienced a slowdown in the amount of cattle he could send for processing. But as Whole Foods’ shelves were emptying in April, the grocery chain began asking for more beef. The cooperative was able to shift cattle to different processors to keep up with the demand, Fales said.
Amy Daley and Nicholas Krick are partners in Daley’s family-owned ranch in New Castle that also is part of the Country Natural Beef network, and they also sell beef products through their own business, nickandamysfarm.com. Like Fales, they were able to maintain their selling prices but still were left with an excess of cattle.
“We ended up reducing the amount of head that had been scheduled to go in to be processed, which left a lot of our animals still in the feedlot or unable to be processed,” Krick said. “We’re spending more money for that feed when they should be a beef product.”
Krick said they still have a backlog of cattle but are getting back on schedule.
Dry weather challenges ranchers
Perhaps most worrying to ranchers is the drought. This summer’s windy, dry conditions have made it difficult to grow hay, which is used to feed the cattle over the winter.
The National Drought Mitigation Center’s map and data released Sept. 1 show an extreme drought in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties.
For the first time since 2013, the entire state is experiencing some level of drought. About 54% of Colorado is experiencing severe drought, and more than 35% extreme drought.
When drought is considered severe, snowpack and surface water levels are low and river flow is reduced, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. When the drought becomes extreme, which is a worse condition, wildfire risk increases, pasture conditions worsen and reservoirs are extremely low. At any stage, drought forces farmers to reduce planting and ranchers to sell cattle.
Fales was cutting hay near Catherine Store in Carbondale, a few miles from his ranch. This year’s drought didn’t allow the hay to grow as high as usual.
“I used to think that one of the advantages of ranching here is we had a really stable climate,” Fales said. “I’ve been ranching here since 1973 — I’ve never seen less hay production than this year.”
Fales, who was hoping for a better second hay cutting, said his first cutting is down 40% from what he would normally harvest. “I’m going to have to sell cows because I just don’t have enough hay and it’s too expensive to buy to feed to cattle,” Fales said.
The hay shortage will probably lead to a surge in production costs for ranchers.
“We’re going to be having to make some decisions this fall, going into reducing herd numbers or buying hay — and from where we are getting that hay,” Daley said.
When a drought occurs, Pollard said, the increase in hay prices usually leads to a decrease in production and a surge in prices paid by consumers if demand remains the same.
For ranchers, he said, spring was the cattle-raising season, so many weren’t selling cattle yet.
“Now comes October,” he said, “(and) if the market hasn’t rebounded by then, there’s a real chance it could be very difficult for young ranchers or farmers, or those who have a lot of debt.”
This story ran in The Aspen Times in print and online on Sept. 7 and online in the Vail Daily on Sept. 7.
On a recent morning, Liza Mitchell of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails rolled out fiber mats over a soil-filled portion of a ditch in the North Star Nature Preserve, adding a final layer to a wetland plug that the natural resource planner and ecologist and her team had been working on for the three weeks prior.
The plug is the central component of the program’s fen-restoration project, which aims to enhance the wetland’s ability to provide habitat, store and filter groundwater, and sequester carbon.
While North Star is known as an idyllic paddleboarding and beach destination, 77% of the preserve is closed to public access. This includes the property west of the Roaring Fork River, where the fen sits.
The preserve’s 245 acres function primarily to protect native species and ecosystems. The first 175 acres of the preserve were bought by the Nature Conservancy in 1977. In 2001, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails and the city of Aspen jointly purchased the 70 acres below the initial property, creating the current North Star Nature Preserve, according to the 2020 North Star management plan.
“It’s for wildlife,” Mitchell said of North Star.
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Critical to the nature preserve
Aligning with the goal of conservation, Open Space and Trails staff identified the North Star fen as a site for ecological restoration. Situated in the northwest corner of the property, the 14-acre fen, which is a peat-filled wetland, is populated with sedges, reeds and grasses.
The wetland is critical to the entire preserve, providing wildlife habitat, water filtration and flood mitigation. In dry months, groundwater stored in the fen percolates into the Roaring Fork River, benefiting the watershed and its thirsty users, Mitchell said.
Yet, due to human alterations to the watershed and North Star, the fen is drying out. In 1936, two tunnels, multiple canals, and the Grizzly and Lost Man reservoirs were completed as part of the Independence Pass Trans-Mountain Diversion System. The system moves water from the upper Roaring Fork River basin to the east side of the Continental Divide, satisfying the water needs of Colorado’s largest cities, according to the 2020 management plan.
This system diverts as much as 40% of the Roaring Fork’s headwaters upstream of the preserve, reducing the volume of river water that flows into the property and saturates the fen, Mitchell said.
The fen underwent further drying in the 1950s, when the preserve was a private ranch owned by James Smith. Smith dug ditches through the fen for pasture and hay cultivation, and those ditches continue to drain standing water into the Roaring Fork, according to Mitchell.
The wetland plug combats the drying by slowing the outflow of water from the fen into the Roaring Fork River. Mitchell, two staffers from Basalt-based Diggin It Riverworks and two ecological consultants began the plug construction Aug. 10. The first week, the team filled 130 feet of the main ditch with a mixture of locally sourced and imported soil. In the second and third weeks, the team added a layer of local soil, scattered native plant seeds and sealed it all with hay, mulch and matting, Mitchell said.
“It’s been a pretty quick project,” she said. “We’ve really tried to get in, get out and minimize disturbance as much as possible.”
6,700 years of carbon sequestration
The wetland plug increases saturated conditions in the fen, or the presence of standing water, enhancing the fen’s ability to provide ecological services to the preserve. For instance, saturated conditions allow fens to function as carbon sequesters by storing peat, or carbon-rich plant material.
Peat accumulates at a rate of 8 inches per 1,000 years, according to David Cooper, wetland ecologist and professor at Colorado State University. With 53 inches of peat soil, the North Star fen is estimated to be 6,700 years old, according to a Pitkin County news release.
“Peatlands make up about 5% of the land surface of the world,” Cooper said, “but almost 45% to 50% of all the soil carbon on Earth is in peatlands.” When fens dry up, the carbon stored as peat is released as carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming, he said.
Saturated conditions also support wildlife. Standing water creates the ideal habitat for native plants, such as beaked and blister sedge, as well as native amphibians and waterfowl. Saturated conditions suffocate canary grass, an invasive species that spread increasingly through the fen as it dries up, Mitchell said.
Wet by standing water, fens filter groundwater. The peat body removes excess nitrogen as well as heavy metals that would otherwise accumulate in watershed fish populations, Cooper said.
A positive for North Star neighbors
Mitchell anticipated finishing the construction phase of the restoration project this past week. She plans to place wattles, or cylinders of hay, across the wetland plug to prevent soil and seed erosion. She also will add hay bales and cylinders to the fen’s two smaller ditches to retain water and provide a surface for native plants.
After this construction phase, a hydrologist and botanist hired by Open Space and Trails will monitor the fen for three years. The consultants will conduct studies and submit reports to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issued the initial permit for the project in 2018, according to Mitchell.
In the spring of 2021, Open Space and Trails staffers hope to get the local community involved with the project by having volunteers plant native sedges and rushes over the plug.
Already, community response to the restoration project has been very positive. Even without physical access to the fen, neighbors are excited about the prospect of improving habitat for wildlife, such as blue heron and elk, which they enjoy watching from their windows, Mitchell said.
“North Star can get a lot of negative attention surrounding the paddleboarding and recreation use, so it’s really nice to have another project that there seems to be widespread agreement on,” Mitchell said. “Everyone can get behind that it’s a pretty light touch for a pretty big benefit.”
This story ran in the Sept. 5 edition of The Aspen Times.
The Grizzly Creek Fire in Glenwood Canyon has many people praying for rain. But the very thing that could douse the blaze, which has burned 32,000 acres as of Tuesday, has some experts concerned it also could create problems for downstream endangered fish.
A heavy rain could wash dirt — no longer held in place by charred vegetation — and ash from the steep canyons and gullies of the burn area into the Colorado River. Scorched soils don’t absorb water as well, increasing the magnitude of the flood. And the heavy sediment load in the runoff could suffocate fish. A similar scenario played out in 2018 when thousands of fish were killed by ash and dirt that washed into the Animas River from the 416 Fire burn area.
Downstream from the Grizzly Creek Fire, beginning in DeBeque Canyon, is critical habitat for four species of endangered fish: humpback chub, Colorado pikeminnow, bonytail and razorback sucker.
“Yes, we are very concerned about a fire in that kind of terrain that close to critical habitat. There’s just no question,” said Tom Chart, director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. “There’s a probability we could have an effect all the way down into the 15-mile reach.”
The Colorado River’s so-called 15-mile reach, near Grand Junction, is home to those four species of fish. This stretch often has less water than is recommended for these fish by Fish & Wildlife mainly because of two large irrigation diversions that pull water from the river to irrigate Grand Valley farms: DeBeque Canyon’s Grand Valley Project, which takes water from the river at a structure known as the Roller Dam, and the Grand Valley Irrigation Canal, which takes water from the river near Palisade.
Between these diversions and the confluence of the Gunnison River is a problem spot where water managers constantly work to bolster water levels through upstream reservoir releases. According to Chart, there is currently a total of about 250 cubic feet per second being released from Ruedi, Wolford and Granby reservoirs for the benefit of fish in the 15-mile reach.
With hot, dry weather, a weak monsoon season and the ongoing diversions for irrigation season, which continue into the fall, current river conditions are already stressful for the fish, Chart said. Water managers say they have seen fish using fish ladders to swim upstream and downstream of the 15-mile reach in search of deeper, cooler water.
“As far as concern about the ecological health of the 15-mile reach right now, we are very concerned about conditions there right now,” Chart said. “Native fish do move out of those dewatered stretches in search of better conditions.”
A debris flow on top of these already-challenging conditions could be devastating for fish populations.
“The potential with the Grizzly Creek Fire could be as bad as it gets if we get a rainstorm on top of a low baseflow,” Chart said. “You pray for rain, but at the same time this would be a tough time to get a flow of ash and retardant off the burned area.”
Burned area assessment begins
The U.S. Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Response team has done a preliminary assessment of the severity of the soil burns to determine where debris flows would most likely occur, according to Lisa Stoeffler, deputy forest supervisor for the White River National Forest.
Areas of concern include Dead Horse Creek, Cinnamon Creek and No Name Creek, among others. More than an inch of rain in an hour — or a quarter-inch in 15 minutes, as occurs in a fast-moving thunderstorm — could trigger a debris flow, the BAER team found.
But this initial assessment, Stoeffler said, is mostly focused on potential impacts to Interstate 70, and water and power infrastructure, not on impacts to the aquatic environment.
“We may look at environment later on, once we have a final footprint of the fire,” she said. “The BAER process is really looking at things that we would need to address because it would cause an emergency-type situation.”
When the Grizzly Creek Fire first broke out, the city of Glenwood Springs switched its municipal water source from Grizzly and No Name creeks, which are near the burned area, to the Roaring Fork River.
“We are concerned about the ash and debris entering the water system and the costs we are going to incur because of this,” said Hannah Klausman, public information officer for Glenwood Springs.
Solution is dilution
Since preventing the dirty runoff from reaching the river would be difficult, if not impossible, in the steep, rocky terrain, the best bet, Chart said, would be tapping into upstream reservoir water to flush sediment and ash.
In other words: The solution to pollution is dilution.
The Roaring Fork River, which flows into the Colorado at Glenwood Springs, also would help dilute the ash and sediment before it got to the 15-mile reach. Some of it would probably settle out before it got there anyway. But that would do little to help native fish populations closer to the burn area. Although not listed as endangered, other species such as flannelmouth sucker, bluehead sucker and roundtail chub also could be impacted.
“We get concerned about the endangered fish the most, but it’s really the entire native fish community we need to be paying attention to,” Chart said.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District has some water in Wolford and Ruedi reservoirs that could potentially be used for a flushing flow. But it would take careful coordination between reservoir operators. And it could be a complicated juggling act to figure out how to accommodate all the different demands for that limited water supply, said River District chief engineer John Currier.
“I think we stand ready to try and figure out how to do something,” Currier said. “It will be a topic of discussion sooner rather than later.”
Managing the impacts of the burned landscape on the fish will be ongoing long after the fire is extinguished.
“I think this is going to be an issue for years to come,” Chart said. “That landscape is going to take a long time to heal.”
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Aug. 26 edition of The Aspen Times and the Vail Daily.
The city of Aspen is now under stage 2 water restrictions due to extreme drought conditions.
Aspen City Council on Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution to move from stage 1 restrictions to stage 2, acknowledging that as of Aug. 18, the U.S. Drought Monitor elevated Aspen and Pitkin County from severe drought to extreme drought conditions countywide…
The last time the city declared a stage 2 water shortage was in 2018.
“We haven’t received any sort of measurable rainfall in over a month and we’re already in stage 1,” he told council. “Current stream flows are around the lows that we had experienced in 2018 and forecasted precip and temperature projections are not looking favorable to ending this drought.”
Stage 2 necessitates a 15% to 20% reduction in water use citywide, along with some stricter rules that are mandatory rather than voluntary, which was part of stage 1 restrictions passed in July…
As such, watering of any lawn, garden, landscaped area, tree, shrub or other plant is prohibited from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Alternating odd-even water schedules for addresses ending in odd numbers and even numbers are now mandatory.
Swimming pools can’t be filled with city water, and washing sidewalks, driveways, parking areas, tennis courts, patios, or other paved areas are not allowed.
Also, privately owned cars, other motor vehicles, trailers or boats cannot be washed except from a bucket and from a hose equipped with a positive shutoff nozzle.
New public or private landscaping installations are not allowed, with the exception that they are required as a minimum for erosion control of disturbed surfaces as determined by the city.
Staff will enforce the restrictions first by education and then by fines, which range from $500 for the first offense to $1,500 for subsequent offenses, as well as a disconnection of water services by the city.
Temporary rate increases for large water users also will go into effect to encourage efficient use of the commodity.
Without a citywide reduction in normal water usage, agricultural and recreational activities and fish and wildlife habitat along the Maroon, Castle, Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers will be more negatively impacted, according to city officials.
FromThe Snowmass Sun (Maddie Vincent) via The Aspen Times:
By Sept. 16, the new plant — which started being constructed in 2017 and has now been up and treating local wastewater for more than a month — will be fully working in tandem with the newly renovated current plant, creating a refined wastewater treatment system that goes beyond more stringent state and federal requirements and discharges cleaner water into Brush Creek.
“To see the water flow from that plant through this and actually go out to the stream, to actually see the clarity of the water that goes out to the stream is very gratifying,” Hamby said.
As Hamby stood in the sanitation district parking lot looking at the three buildings, he explained that the primary reason for creating this newly refined wastewater treatment system was the need to align with Regulation 85, the state Nutrients Management Control Regulation passed in 2012 to help reduce phosphorus and inorganic nitrogen pollution to Colorado waterways.
According to Colorado Department of Public Health and Safety documents, Regulation 85 established new limits for how much phosphorus and inorganic nitrogen could be in the clean water discharged from state wastewater treatment plants, new and existing, and put new nutrient monitoring requirements in place.
All 44 wastewater treatment districts in Colorado must meet these new requirements by specified dates, with Snowmass being one of the first on deadline due to its size and location in a priority watershed, as previously reported.
Snowmass Water and Sanitation District voters approved a mill-levy tax to help construct the new plant in May 2016 and the district also was able to sell $23.3 million in bonds for the project, Hamby said.
The total cost for the whole renovated system — including construction of the new plant and renovation of the current plant — is around $27.6 million, Hamby said. The district anticipates it will be about 1% over budget when the project is completed this fall, but will be able to cover the extra cost with system development fee revenue from village construction projects, he explained.
And once it is fully up and running, the improved wastewater system will be able to filter out phosphorus to 1 milligram per liter and nitrogen down to 11.4 milligrams per liter, Hamby said. This is even stricter than the state’s limit of 1.75 milligrams of total phosphorus per liter at the 95th percentile (or 95% level of all samples taken in a given year) and 14 milligrams per liter of total inorganic nitrogen for new treatment plants.
Utilizing aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, the wastewater moves between plants through various aeration tanks, clarifiers, filters, UV disinfecting light and eventually out to Brush Creek. The predominately biological nutrient removal process will take around three days from start to finish and have a multitude of automated data collection and monitoring in place along the way to ensure it all runs smoothly.
“The idea of the process is we go from no air, to very, very little air, to a lot of air … that helps grow different types of bacteria. Different steps get you different nutrient removal,” Fineran explained.
Fineran and Hamby said the type of treatment plant and refined process isn’t unprecedented, but that the district was able to carry out the $3.5 million worth of improvements to the current plant in-house, or without any outside contractors to do the work — a feat the three men are proud of and a part of the district’s cost-effective philosophy.
Ruedi Reservoir is feeling the effects of an unusual water year, with less water for endangered fish and with low reservoir levels predicted for late summer and fall.
“This year was a strange year,” Tim Miller, a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist who manages operations at Ruedi, said at an annual public meeting about reservoir operations held virtually Wednesday. “For most of the year, it seemed like we were doing well, we thought we would get a fill on the reservoir. However, things really turned around in late spring and early summer.”
At the meeting convened by the Bureau of Reclamation, Miller said the reservoir, which holds just over 102,000 acre-feet of water, topped out at 96,750 acre-feet this year — about 5,000 acre-feet short of filling. That means there is 5,000 acre-feet less water available this season to boost flows downstream for endangered fish in what’s known as the “15-mile reach” of the Colorado River near Grand Junction.
As reservoir levels continue to drop over the next month, Aspen Yacht Club members may not be able to access the boat ramp over Labor Day weekend. By Sept. 1, reservoir levels are predicted to be down to about 84,500 acre-feet and the surface to be at an elevation of 7,747 feet, which is 19 feet lower than when it’s full.
“After Sept. 1, it’s going to be dicey,” Miller said of accessing the private marina’s boat ramp. The U.S. Forest Service boat ramp will still be accessible at those levels, he said.
Bruce Gabow of the Aspen Yacht Club said that when water levels are 13 feet below full, the club’s docks become grounded and inoperable. He said that most years, boats are taken out of the reservoir by mid-September, but with water levels dropping sooner this year, many will need to go before the end of August.
“Everyone has kind of been expecting it, but they will be bummed out,” he said of the club’s members.
Ruedi Reservoir is currently 92% full, at 94,065 acre-feet. It topped out on July 17 at 96,914 acre-feet. In 2018, the reservoir also didn’t fill, topping out at 92,650 acre-feet, according to Miller.
Each spring, Miller must decide how much water to release from Ruedi and when to release it to make room for inflow from snowmelt. Those decisions are based on streamflow forecasts from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, as well as the Bureau of Reclamation’s statistical forecasts.
This year’s unusual conditions made for tricky forecasting, leading some to question whether more and better data collection is needed, instead of relying primarily on snow telemetry, or SNOTEL, data. These automated remote sensors collect weather and snowpack information in remote watersheds, but they provide only a snapshot of a specific location. Each of the three forecasting agencies over-predicted Ruedi inflow for the months of April, May and June.
Usually, the amount of runoff closely mirrors snowpack. And with snowpack in the Roaring Fork River basin slightly above normal, as measured by SNOTEL sites, it seemed that is where runoff would also end up. But parched soils from a dry fall sucked up some of the moisture before it made its way to streams and eventually the reservoir. Miller also suspects that a high rate of sublimation — where snow goes from a frozen state to vapor, skipping the liquid phase — may have also played a role.
“To do our statistical forecast, it’s 90% snowpack only,” Miller said. “We had some different variables this year.”
By the end of May, Miller realized inflow projections were too high and began scaling back releases. Ruedi also did not participate in Coordinated Reservoir Operations this year. In the annual CROS, which began around May 29, water managers from across the state aimed to enhance peak spring runoff by releasing water from reservoirs at the same time. The peak flows have ecological benefits, especially for fish in the 15-mile reach.
“It was pretty much a last-minute declaration we couldn’t do CROS,” Miller said.
April Long, executive director of Ruedi Water & Power Authority, suggested that water managers should explore other ways of collecting data in addition to SNOTEL information to improve forecast accuracy. The city of Aspen and Denver Water have experimented with LiDAR technology — which analyzes the reflection of laser light to create detailed three-dimensional maps — to track the depth of mountain snowpack, providing a more complete picture of the water contained in that snowpack.
“With this year of unexpected results from our snowpack and the way it melted off, I have concern that with climate change and climate variability, we are going to see more uncertainty,” Long said in a follow-up interview with Aspen Journalism. “I wonder how much benefit we could gain if we knew a little more.”
This map shows the snowpack depth of the Maroon Bells in spring 2019. The map was created with information from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory, which will help water managers make more accurate streamflow predictions. Jeffrey Deems/ASO, National Snow and Ice Data Center
A flight from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory gathers data about the snowpack above Dillon Reservoir on a flight. Information gathered from the flight helped Denver Water manage reservoir operations. Photo courtesy of Quantum Spatial
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the date Ruedi storage peaked in 2020.
Aspen Journalism is a local, investigative, nonprofit news organization that collaborates on coverage of water and rivers with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Aug. 7 edition of The Aspen Times.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Trust, et al. (Mark Harris, Mark Harris, Donald Anderson, and Scott McCaulou):
On Saturday, August 1, Colorado Water Trust, Grand Valley Water Users Association, and Orchard Mesa Irrigation District will initiate their implementation of an agreement that will deliver 877 acre-feet of water to the Grand Valley Power Plant and the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River above its confluence with the Gunnison River near Grand Junction, Colorado this summer. Grand Valley Water Users Association and Orchard Mesa Irrigation District identified available capacity in their water delivery system for Colorado Water Trust to deliver water decreed for power generation through the Grand Valley Power Plant, from where it subsequently returns to the 15-Mile Reach. This delivery will mark the second execution of an innovative agreement that Colorado Water Trust, Grand Valley Water Users Association, and Orchard Mesa Irrigation District entered last year with assistance from the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program and the Bureau of Reclamation.
The agreement furthers common goals of streamflow restoration for the 15-Mile Reach and takes steps toward unlocking a $425,000 grant from Walton Family Foundation to renovate the aging Grand Valley Power Plant. Thanks to donor support, Colorado Water Trust has purchased stored water from the Colorado River District. That water will be released from Ruedi Reservoir to the Colorado River for use in the power plant and to increase 15-Mile Reach flows to support four species of endangered fish including the Colorado Pikeminnow, Humpback Chub, Bonytail, and Razorback Sucker.
“We are so grateful to Grand Valley Water Users Association and Orchard Mesa Irrigation District for coordinating with us to boost flows in the 15-Mile Reach. Seeing the project work for a second year in a row proves the lasting success of our partnerships, and it’s particularly important to the fish this year, with flows as low as they are.” says Kate Ryan, Senior Staff Attorney for Colorado Water Trust.
This is the second time in the past two summers that Colorado Water Trust purchased water stored in Ruedi Reservoir for release to the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River to help maintain healthy streamflow and water temperatures. Purchases since 2019 will result in delivering over 1200 acre-feet of water to the Colorado River. Colorado Water Trust works closely with Grand Valley Water Users Association and Orchard Mesa Irrigation District to identify when there is available capacity in the power plant. Colorado Water Trust also works closely with the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program to determine when the 15-Mile Reach needs supplemental water most to support the fish. When these two conditions overlap, Colorado Water Trust releases the water purchased out of storage for delivery to the power plant and then the 15-Mile Reach.
“Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and the Grand Valley Water Users Association appreciate the Colorado Water Trust’s facilitation of this agreement–it benefits our two organizations at the Grand Valley Power Plant, and the many other water users who support flows through the 15-Mile Reach. We believe these kinds of collaborative efforts to be of great value to the people of Colorado, the Colorado River, and the fish,” says Mark Harris, General Manager of Grand valley Water Users Association.
“Maintaining adequate flows for endangered fish through the 15-Mile Reach is possible only because of the extraordinary cooperation our Recovery Program enjoys from multiple partners and stakeholders. We are delighted to add the Colorado Water Trust to that mix of cooperators. This year, in light of unusually low flow conditions in the Colorado River, the additional water made available through this leasing arrangement is especially welcome,” says Donald Anderson, Hydrologist and Instream Flow Coordinator for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.
The Roaring Fork Conservancy also helps to inform Colorado Water Trust of conditions on the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork Rivers to so that releases will complement flows on the stream sections between Ruedi Reservoir and the Colorado River. This year, the water released from Ruedi Reservoir will serve a few purposes before it supports the health of endangered, native fish in the Colorado River in the 15-Mile Reach. The water will bring flows in the Fryingpan River closer to their average, and will cool water temperatures on the Roaring Fork River. Finally, on the Colorado River, the water will generate hydropower, helping to produce clean energy.
“Flowing rivers are an economic engine in Colorado, providing immense value to irrigators, drinking water providers, and recreation across the state,” says Todd Reeve, CEO of Bonneville Environmental Foundation and Director of Business for Water Stewardship. “It is for this reason that we are seeing more and more corporate funders step forward to invest in innovative projects like this one that help keep the rivers in Colorado flowing.”
Essential to the project’s success are dedicated donors: Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Coca Cola, Colorado Water Trust donors, and Daniel K. Thorne Foundation. Without these generous donations and the collaborative work of local and state agencies, water releases to support the health of the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River would not be possible.
ABOUT COLORADO WATER TRUST: Colorado Water Trust is a statewide nonprofit organization that works collaboratively with partners all across Colorado on restoring flow to Colorado’s rivers in need using solutions that benefit both the people we work with and our rivers. Since 2001, we’ve restored 12 billion gallons of water to rivers and streams across the state.
The Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled the annual public meeting to discuss the Ruedi Reservoir Water Operations for the 2020 water year.
The meeting will be held on August 5, 2020, from 6:30-8:00 pm using Webex (Webex is a web-based platform that hosts online meetings with HD video, audio and screen sharing.)
To join from a mobile device (attendees only):
Dial: 1-415-527-5035, 1992510741## US Toll
To join by phone:
Dial: 1-415-527-5035 US Toll
The meeting will provide an overview of Ruedi Reservoir’s 2020 projected operations for late summer and early fall, which are key tourist seasons in Basalt. Also, representatives of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will give a presentation on the upcoming implementation of the Ute Water Conservancy District and Garfield County leases of Ruedi Reservoir water to the Board for instream flow use in the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River. The meeting will include a public question and answer session.
For more information, please contact Tim Miller, Hydrologist, Eastern Colorado Area Office, by phone or e-mail: (970) 290-4895, or email@example.com.
The City of Aspen is in a stage one water shortage, citing continued drought conditions. The city will make efforts to reduce water usage by 10%, but water-saving measures for residents are voluntary.
After an exceptionally hot and dry spring, most Pitkin County is in a state of “moderate drought,” with some portions in a state of “severe drought” that applies to much of Western Colorado.
Steve Hunter, a hydrologist with Aspen’s utility office, said officials are keeping tabs on water conditions before they become problematic. Aspen’s main water supply, he said, has no storage and comes from Castle Creek and Maroon Creek watersheds.
“Right now we’re fine,” Hunter said. “But without storage, you don’t have a backup, so you need to be really cognizant of the supply and meeting the demand.”
Construction of the Arkansas Valley Conduit is expected to begin in the near future following the state’s approval of a $100 million financing package for it.
The Colorado General Assembly has approved the annual Colorado Water Conservation project bill that contains the funding, and Gov. Jared Polis signed that bill into law earlier this week…
The Arkansas Valley Conduit is estimated to cost between $564 and $610 million to complete over a 15-year period, according to Chris Woodka of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
The $100 million in state funding would include $90 million in loans and $10 million in grants over the life of the project. When complete, the conduit will provide clean drinking water to 50,000 people in 40 communities.
The conduit had received funding since 2010 to prepare for construction of the 130-mile pipeline which will deliver a safe drinking water supply to the Lower Arkansas Valley.
In February, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that $28 million of fiscal year 2020 funding was being directed to the conduit in an effort to move from planning and design into construction. An additional $8 million has been requested for fiscal year 2021 and is under consideration by Congress, Woodka said.
Pitkin County has approved funding for a study that aims to protect recreational flows in the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers, and how future water development projects and climate change might affect those flows.
At a meeting earlier this month, Pitkin County commissioners approved a recommendation from the county’s Healthy Rivers Board to fund the $19,355 proposal from American Whitewater. The project includes an extensive survey of river users — specifically boaters — about what flows are optimal for certain popular river segments.
Kayakers, commercial river outfitters, stand-up paddleboarders and anyone else who runs local rivers can weigh in with their flow preferences for popular reaches of the Roaring Fork like North Star, Slaughterhouse, Toothache and the river below Basalt. They will also ask about the Crystal River, which gets less recreational traffic than the Roaring Fork, but has some well-known stretches, like the Narrows and Meatgrinder, which are favored by experienced kayakers, and the more accessible reach from Avalanche Creek to the BRB campground.
The lower Roaring Fork is increasingly popular with anglers, but this survey will focus on boating, both commercial and private.
Once American Whitewater determines what flows boaters prefer, the organization will use its “boatable days” tool, which compares the flow preferences to the historic river hydrology to see if and when the flow preferences are met and how that might change in dry or wet years.
“It allows us to actually quantify river recreation opportunities so it can be used to inform water management decisions and understand future impacts,” said Kestrel Kunz, Southern Rockies stewardship assistant for American Whitewater. “We can see how climate change might affect the number of boatable days in the valley.”
According to a report by the Colorado River Outfitters Association, the economic impact of commercial boating on the Roaring Fork in 2019 was $4.8 million. The economic impact statewide was $188 million. But despite the size of its contribution to the economy, recreation is an area often overlooked by traditional water planning and management, according to Pitkin County Healthy Rivers Board Chair Andre Wille.
“Recreation seems to really get the short end of the stick when it comes to streamflow management,” Wille said. “I think water managers in the Roaring Fork area and in a lot of other Western Slope rivers, the water managers are all about irrigation and recreation isn’t really taken into as much consideration as it should be, especially considering the economic impact of recreation and the importance to the citizens.”
About 40% of the headwaters of the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers is sent to Front Range fields and cities — including Aurora, Colorado Springs and Pueblo — through transmountain diversions. When the Twin Lakes tunnel underneath Independence Pass ratchets its intake up or down, it can affect boating conditions downstream on the Roaring Fork and diversions out of the Fryingpan can affect flows on the lower Roaring Fork.
The information collected in the survey could help water managers better plan when and how much water to divert.
“It’s just a chance to get some data from recreation users and it would be nice if water managers would take that into consideration,” Wille said. “There might be other stream management strategies that are beneficial to the Roaring Fork. There might be a better way to manage filling (Twin Lakes) reservoir.”
The survey, which will be available on the American Whitewater and Pitkin County Healthy Rivers websites and local paddling forums, will ask boaters about their skill level, frequency of participation and craft type. The survey will allow boaters to assign use-acceptability ratings to various streamflows and ask them for their perspectives on water management planning. American Whitewater aims to collect at least 150 surveys each from boaters on the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers.
James Foerster, owner of Aspen-based rafting company Elk Mountain Adventures, said he’s excited to see the county focusing on recreational boating. The company is one of three, along with Blazing Adventures and Aspen Whitewater that run trips on the Roaring Fork.
Foerster’s company runs what they call “adventurous” rafting trips from Cemetery Lane to Jaffee Park in Woody Creek on the Slaughterhouse section of the Fork, as well as “family-friendly trips” from Jaffee Park to Wingo Junction above Basalt on the Toothache section and from Hooks Spur Bridge, near the Fed Ex outlet by Willits, down the river to the Catherine Store Road bridge above Carbondale.
He says guides will change the put-in and take-out locations to adapt to changing flows as the season goes on.
“I think every commercial outfitter would tell you more water is better,” Foerster said. “I think what it really comes down to is the flows we get coming through Aspen in late July and August, they are unsustainable. And the lower Crystal as well, mainly because of diversions and ditches.”
Carbondale-based Lotic Hydrological will develop the survey. The findings will be synthesized and presented as technical reports by December 2020.
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the June 30 edition of The Aspen Times.
Flows in local rivers are peaking this week, with a spring runoff that is slightly earlier and lower than normal.
“It kind of depends on where you are, but on the Colorado (River’s) main stem, for sure, the peak is below average,” said Cody Moser, senior hydrologist with the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center in Salt Lake City.
But despite the lower-than-average flows, this weekend is probably one of the best of the year to go boating on local waterways.
Vince Nichols, owner of the Aspen-based rafting company Blazing Adventures, said this weekend’s relatively big water is akin to a powder day.
The company is running trips on the upper Roaring Fork River, especially the Slaughterhouse section between Cemetery Lane and Woody Creek, and doing so in accordance with Pitkin County-mandated social-distancing and cleaning guidelines due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This will likely be one of the high-water weekends of the year,” Nichols said. “For the next seven to 10 days, there will be really good rafting conditions on the Roaring Fork.”
Flows in the Roaring Fork, at its confluence with the Colorado in Glenwood Springs, are predicted to be 74% of average for April through June. According to stream gauges, the Roaring Fork appears to have hit its peak seasonal flow on June 2 at just over 4,000 cubic feet per second. The normal period for peak runoff at this location is between May 29 and June 23, at about 5,900 cfs.
Predicting the exact day of peak flows near Aspen is trickier. The forecast center is predicting a peak for the Roaring Fork in Aspen on Saturday, at 490 cfs, because of rain expected that day. The Roaring Fork at Mill Street was running at a daily high of about 330 cfs on Thursday.
There would be more water flowing through Aspen if not for the Twin Lakes Tunnel, which takes water from the Roaring Fork headwaters near Independence Pass to Front Range water providers. About 600 cfs of water from the upper Roaring Fork basin was being diverted through the tunnel Thursday.
“The challenge is we’ve got that big warmup and precipitation in the forecast in this weekend,” Moser said. “It’s kind of a tough call.”
The low runoff, despite a snowpack that was slightly above normal, is due to 2019’s dry late summer and fall, plus this year’s drier-than-average March, April and May. Dry soils and plants sucked up a lot of the moisture before it made its way into the streams.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey gauges, the Crystal River near Redstone appears to have peaked on June 2, at about 1,750 cfs. The Crystal at this location usually peaks between May 25 and June 18, at about 1,930 cfs.
Downstream on the Colorado, flows peaked in DeBeque Canyon, above Grand Junction, on June 2, at about 13,300 cfs. A typical peak is about 17,000 cfs between May 24 and June 12.
This year’s peak flows on the Colorado near Grand Junction were augmented by releases from several upstream reservoirs to the benefit of endangered fish in the 15-mile reach between Palisade and the Gunnison River, which flows into the Colorado in central Grand Junction.
Beginning May 29, Green Mountain Reservoir, Wolford Mountain Reservoir, the Moffat Tunnel and other water-storage facilities released water to enhance the Colorado’s natural peak in the 15-mile reach. The augmented high flows enhance fish habitat.
Ruedi Reservoir, above Basalt on the Fryingpan River, did not participate in the coordinated reservoir operations this year because there was not surplus water to contribute, said Tim Miller, a hydrologist with the Bureau of Reclamation who manages water levels in Ruedi.
“I was getting kind of worried about fill a month ago,” Miller said. “I was pretty sure we didn’t have extra. We haven’t received anything near average precipitation for part of April or all of May.”
Ruedi Reservoir, which can hold 102,373 acre-feet of water, is currently 79% full. Releases from Ruedi will decrease Friday to allow it to fill, bringing flows on the Fryingpan to 115 cfs. Miller said it could end up about 5,000 acre-feet short of filling this year, which usually happens in early July.
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit and investigative news organization that covers water and river issues in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the June 5 edition of The Aspen Times.
The city of Aspen is moving ahead on a project aimed at increasing the reliability of its water supply and environmental flows through what’s known as an “alternative transfer method,” or ATM.
But water managers will have to think outside the box since the usual process of an ATM is transferring water from agricultural to municipal use, and there isn’t much irrigated agriculture in the upper Roaring Fork River basin.
In Colorado, most water rights are held by irrigators. So when towns and cities want to increase their water supplies, they often turn to agriculture to secure extra acre-feet. Permanent water-transfer agreements, often derided as “buy and dry,” can harm agricultural communities and economies, and ATMs are seen as a way to reallocate water more fairly and sustainably from agriculture to municipalities.
These voluntary water-sharing agreements would allow local irrigators to temporarily loan their water to Aspen and get paid for doing so. The most straightforward way for this to happen would be for water-rights holders above the city’s diversions on Castle and Maroon creeks to loan their water to the city.
But according to Colorado’s Decision Support System, which is the state database that tracks irrigated land, there is no irrigated land above Aspen.
“Certainly, the easiest way to meet the most goals is to find water above the city,” said Jason Brothers, principal at Summit Water Engineers, the engineer on the project. “If that’s not available, we will have to look at creative ideas.”
Most of the irrigated acreage in the upper Roaring Fork River valley is grass pasture in the Woody Creek area.
Aspen’s ATM project is funded with a $183,356 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, plus $15,000 each from the city and Western Resource Advocates. It would be the first program designed for a Western Slope headwaters municipality.
In addition to increasing city water supplies, a secondary goal of the project is to improve river flows for the benefit of the environment, especially in the reach of the Roaring Fork through downtown Aspen. In dry years, flows can fall short of the 32 cubic feet per second of water required by the CWCB’s junior instream flow right, which is meant to protect the river environment “to a reasonable degree.”
The 2015 Colorado Water Plan sets a goal of 50,000 acre-feet of water transfers through ATMs by 2030.
“I think that backdrop (of buy and dry) really kind of set the stage for more of a state focus on how do we meet our continuing water-supply needs and can we do that in a way that minimizes harm to ag,” said Alex Funk, agricultural water resources specialist for the CWCB.
According to the grant application, city officials say there are 2,800 irrigated acres in the upper Roaring Fork valley and tributary basins, which the team could explore for compatibility with an ATM program, and that if a third or a quarter of these irrigated lands were in such a program, it could yield 1,000 acre-feet of water.
City officials won’t clarify exactly where those irrigated acres are. The project is still in its infancy and officials don’t have many answers yet, said Steve Hunter, utilities resource manager for Aspen’s water department.
“We just kicked this off,” Hunter said. “I don’t see answers coming for months, if not the latter end of a year into the project.”
One of those creative opportunities Brothers mentioned could involve participation by Front Range water providers that divert water from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River. The cities of Colorado Springs, Aurora and Pueblo divert water from the upper Roaring Fork through the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System via the Twin Lakes Tunnel.
“We are not just looking at in-basin ATMs, but exploring the concept of ATMs on the east slope and if entities would be willing to forego their diversions from the West Slope,” said Todd Doherty, president of Western Water Partnerships. “We are seeing if there’s a willingness between the stakeholders to even consider that.”
Transmountain ATM opportunities are still conceptual at this point, and a water transfer from a transmountain diverter to Aspen would be a break from the way ATMs are typically conducted. However, Funk said the CWCB would be supportive of a municipal-to-municipal transfer of water under the ATM program.
Doherty’s organization is based in Denver and is a Colorado Public Benefit Corporation. The city has contracted with WWP for $213,356 to complete Phase 1 of the ATM investigation, which will entail examining all the water rights that could potentially be available to participate in an ATM program and approaching the holders of those water rights to see whether they are interested. No water-sharing agreement will happen unless the irrigators think it’s a better deal than what they are growing, Doherty said.
“I think it will be a success if we can get a few, hopefully a few larger ones, that will help demonstrate to the other irrigators in the basin that maybe this deal is worth looking at,” Doherty said.
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit and investigative news organization that collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story ran in the May 29 edition of The Aspen Times.
From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent via The Sky-Hi News (John Stroud):
Rivers are rising faster than usual throughout the Colorado and Roaring Fork river watersheds, as warm temperatures have led to early melting of the high-country snowpack.
Higher river flows have also drawn paddlers to the Glenwood Springs Whitewater Park, as the facility officially reopened this week with public health guidelines in place amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic…
Commercial rafting is on hold until later this month or early June while guidelines are being developed for that and other tourist activities. Private boats are allowed on the rivers, but with social-distancing and other health guidelines in mind.
The higher river flows are the result of warmer-than-normal temperatures across Colorado’s Western Slope, and the lack of precipitation to add to the mountain snowpack in April, according to Ken Leib, hydrologist with the United State Geological Survey in Grand Junction…
Leib said the Colorado River could see peak flows earlier than usual if the warmer weather continues, or possibly an early peak and then a second peak in June if temperatures modify.
After the record snowpack during the winter of 2018-19, the peak flow on the Colorado River below the confluence with the Roaring Fork River in Glenwood Springs didn’t come until July 1, 2019, according to USGS historical data.
The flow last year topped out at 20,800 cubic feet per second (cfs), at a depth of 9 feet, 8 inches at the Glenwood measuring station.
Dating back to 1967, the highest peak flow at Glenwood was 31,500 cfs on May 25, 1984. The earliest peak flow came on May 20, 1996, at 18,200 cfs.
As of Thursday evening, according to realtime USGS data, the Colorado at Glenwood was flowing at 5,150 cfs with a depth of 5 feet, 8 inches — down from the Monday high this week of 6,000 cfs and 6 feet, 1 inch.
Just above the confluence on the Roaring Fork River at Veltus Park, the flow in the Fork was topping out at 1,200 cfs with a gage depth of 3 feet, 3 inches. The peak flow on the Roaring Fork at that location last year also came on July 1, at 8,960 cfs.
USGS data goes back to 1906 for that location on the Roaring Fork. The earliest recorded peak came on May 12, 1934, when the flow topped out at 4,100 cfs.
The Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation recently adopted a project management plan that will guide construction of the Arkansas Valley Conduit…
Terry Scanga, general manager of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District, said he didn’t see the AVC having much impact on Salidans and others in the area. “It’s not going to change river flows,” he said. “It’s not going to impact the allocation (of water) communities in the upper basin get.”
After thinking about it for a second he said some transit loss might have a “minimal impact” on irrigators, but added that the advantages of the project far outweigh those potential effects.
[Sam] Braverman said they’re not creating any new water diversions from Colorado’s Western Slope. The big change, he said, is that water will now be piped from Pueblo to surrounding municipalities instead of letting it flow to them in the river, which will improve drinking water quality…
Salinity, selenium and uranium found in the natural environment all pose water-quality challenges for the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado.
Several communities the conduit will serve currently can’t drink their tap water.
“There’s at least 5,000 people who literally have radioactive water coming out of their pipes,” Braverman said. “They can’t drink their water, and (the municipalities) can’t afford to filter it out.”
Braverman said another 11,000-12,000 people in the communities get their water from reverse osmosis, but the state doesn’t see those systems as permanent solutions because they put their effluent back into the river. He said drying the effluent, packing it and taking it to landfills would be too costly to be a realistic solution.
“There’s no way those communities could afford to do that,” he said. “The AVC is really the only answer for all of these communities; this a game changer for disadvantaged areas.”
The AVC will provide water for municipal and industrial use.
The project management plan describes how the project will be executed, monitored and controlled.
Under the plan, the Pueblo Board of Water Works will deliver AVC water to a point east of Pueblo. A contract among the Reclamation Bureau, Pueblo Water and Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District is in the discussion stage. From that point, the bureau will construct the trunk line, a treatment plant and water tanks, while Southeastern will coordinate with communities to fund and build connections.
Southeastern will serve as lead on the “spur and delivery lines” portion of the project and seek funding to design and construct this portion of the project, $100 million of which has already been secured from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, subject to legislative approval.
Braverman said they just started final design on the first 12 miles of the pipeline…
Braverman said communities the AVC will serve have been hearing about it for decades, but getting the $28 million recently was the first chunk of money they’ve secured to begin construction.
“That was a complete shift from where we were,” Braverman said. “Now it’s just a matter of the funding stream continuing.”
Sue Anschutz-Rodgers, the owner of Crystal River Ranch above Carbondale, has told the state she is making progress toward building two 55-foot-tall dams that would form two 500-acre-foot reservoirs on land she owns in the Four Mile Creek basin and along Dry Park Road.
The cattle and hay operation has been owned by the Anschutz family since 1966. Water attorneys for Anschutz-Rodgers and the ranch are in state water court seeking to maintain conditional water-storage rights tied to the two potential reservoirs: Sue’s Four Mile Reservoir No. 1 and Sue’s Four Mile Reservoir No. 2.
They would be located on ranch-owned land in the Four Mile Creek drainage and along Dry Park Road, respectively.
The dam that would form Reservoir No. 1 would be 55 feet tall and 950 feet long, and the resulting reservoir would inundate 22 acres with water. The dam for Reservoir No. 2 would be 55 feet tall and 800 feet long, and the reservoir would inundate 30 acres. Each reservoir would hold as much as 500 acre-feet of water. By comparison, Grizzly Reservoir on Lincoln Creek above Aspen holds 590 acre-feet of water and is formed by a 56-foot-tall dam that floods 44 acres of land.
Anschutz-Rodgers is a philanthropist and environmentalist whose brother Phil Anschutz is worth $12 billion, according to Forbes. She has served locally on the boards of the Aspen Valley Land Trust and the Thompson Divide Coalition, and Anschutz-Rodgers is listed on the application as general partner of Crystal River Ranch Co., LLC.
On March 13, her water attorney, Glenn Porzak of Boulder-based Porzak Browning & Bushong, told the court in a proposed ruling that Crystal River Ranch “has exercised reasonable diligence in the development” of the two dams and reservoirs. He also noted that “the measure of diligence is the steady application of effort to complete the appropriation in a reasonably expedient and efficient manner.”
As such, the ranch is requesting that the conditional water-storage rights tied to the two potential dams — rights first decreed in 2006 — be extended for another six-year period.
“I believe we have shown the necessary amount of work to show diligence and extend these conditional rights,” Porzak said.
Any start of the dams’ construction, Porzak said, “is still at a preliminary stage.”
Irrigating more than 600 acres
The water from the potential reservoirs could be used to irrigate 535 acres of land along Dry Park Road, which drains into the Roaring Fork River, and another 93 acres of land in the Four Mile Creek basin. Four Mile Creek flows into the Roaring Fork downstream of the Ironbridge golf course.
The Crystal River Ranch house and the main part of the sprawling 7,600-acre site is located just off Garfield County Road 108, which leads from Carbondale up to the popular Spring Gulch cross-country ski area. The section of the ranch visible from CR 108 is irrigated with water diverted from the Crystal River via the Sweet Jessup Canal.
Another section of the ranch where elk are often seen roaming the irrigated hay meadows is off Dry Park Road, which runs between CR 108 and 4 Mile Road. The land in Dry Park is currently irrigated with water diverted from Four Mile Creek via the McKown Ditch, which crosses the ridge that separates Dry Park from the Four Mile Creek valley.
The headgate for the McKown ditch on Four Mile Creek is about 1½ miles downstream from the Sunlight ski area.
According to its application, the 1,000 acre-feet of water that the ranch hopes to store would be used for four purposes: stock watering, piscatorial, wildlife and irrigation. (Piscatorial pertains to fish.)
Crystal River Ranch filed its initial water-rights application for the two potential dams in Division 5 Water Court in Glenwood Springs in 2006. After working through some issues with five other water-rights holders in the case, a conditional water-rights decree for the two dams and reservoirs was issued by Judge James Boyd in 2013.
The 2013 decree required Crystal River Ranch to submit a due-diligence application in 2019 in order to maintain the conditional water rights.
In the diligence application, Porzak said since 2013 the ranch has spent $70,000 to “survey the reservoir sites; prepare layouts of the dams and reservoirs; (and) design work on the spillways, inlets, and outlet infrastructures of the reservoirs.”
A portion of the $70,000 also went to “design irrigation improvements and conduct layout of the pumps and sprinklers for the lands to be irrigated by the reservoirs; conduct a hydrology analysis for each reservoir site; drill boreholes at each reservoir site; test soil samples and perform a geotechnical analysis of each reservoir site; and prepare cost estimates for each reservoir site and all of the associated infrastructure.”
In reviewing a diligence application, the division engineer and the water court’s referee, who functions as an administrative judge, apply a standard of diligence. The standard is often met by the applicant listing the work they’ve done on the potential facilities that are tied to the water rights and are necessary to put the water to use.
“You have to show you are moving forward in a reasonable manner,” said Alan Martellaro, the Division 5 engineer.
No entities filed a statement of opposition to the application.
Martellaro reviewed the diligence application along with Susan Ryan, the water court’s referee, and then filed a memo — called “a summary of consultation” — with the court Feb. 28.
The summary said Crystal River Ranch “should provide reports and other documents, which support the diligence activities performed within the relevant diligence period as claimed in the application.”
To date, however, none of these documents have been filed with the court, and only a hard-to-read map of the general area where the reservoirs would be located has been made public.
Porzak said the work done on the two potential reservoirs has not yet been reduced to final written reports.
He also said that the activities in the diligence application were verified under oath by Craig Ullmann, the engineer who oversaw the work. Ullmann is president of Applegate Group Inc., a water-engineering firm with offices in Glenwood Springs.
Martellaro said the word “should” in the court’s summary of consultation means “should,” not “must,” so it is not clear whether the design documents for the two dams will be made public through the court process. He also said the documents cited in the application would be helpful for the state to have on file for the next diligence filing.
Porzak said all the relevant information was contained in the application.
Should the dams ever be built, the associated water rights would hold a priority date of 2006, a junior right under Colorado’s system of prior appropriation. As such, Crystal River Ranch couldn’t count on the water being there to store in dry years, Martellaro said.
“It’s a really junior water right on a stream that’s over-appropriated,” he said. “This is one of those creeks that just doesn’t have surplus. They are pretty much limited to snowmelt runoff to fill these ponds.”
Aspen Journalism is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supported by its donors and funders and partners with The Aspen Times and other Swift communications publications on water coverage. This story ran in the May 4 edition of The Aspen Times.
Although snowpack in the mountains near Aspen is hovering above normal for this time of year, streamflows in the Roaring Fork River are predicted to be just 85% of normal for April.
The snow-telemetry, or SNOTEL, site at Independence Pass, near the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, is at 106% of normal snow-water equivalent. The SNOTEL site at Kiln, near the headwaters of the Fryingpan River, is at 106% of normal. And at Scofield Pass, home to the headwaters of the Crystal River, the SNOTEL site shows snowpack at 90% of normal. The Roaring Fork basin as a whole is at 112% of normal snowpack.
But the April water-supply outlook released by the National Resources Conservation Service predicts streamflows at just 85% of normal at the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers in Glenwood Springs.
“It’s kind of an anomalous year,” said Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with NRCS and assistant supervisor with the Colorado Snow Survey. “More commonly, the streamflow forecasts do pair with the snowpack pretty well.”
The reason for the discrepancy is dry soils, which soak up spring snowmelt before it gets to streams. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, abnormally dry conditions crept back into Pitkin County in mid-September. By Oct. 22, the western half of the county was in severe drought, while the eastern half was in moderate drought. The western half of Pitkin County is still experiencing either abnormally dry conditions or moderate drought.
“All of late summer was really dry, but before the snow started to accumulate, it was extremely dry,” Wetlaufer said. “The soil can be like a really dry sponge right now and soak up more runoff than usual.”
That lower-than-normal runoff could have impacts on the city of Aspen, which takes its municipal water supply directly from Castle and Maroon creeks. Tyler Christoff, director of Aspen’s utilities department, said city staff is constantly monitoring the variables in the watershed — U.S. Geological Survey gauges, SNOTEL sites, weather forecasts, Drought Monitor — but so far, they are treating this as an average year.
“Being close to average, we are going to let it play out and see if there’s any action we need to take,” Christoff said. “I think regardless of the year and the season, it’s important for our community to be conscious of our use of water as a resource; we do not have an unlimited supply.”
The Colorado River basin typically reaches its peak snowpack for the year in early to mid-April.
NRCS has two main ways of measuring snowpack, which feed into the water-supply forecasts. The first is through SNOTEL sites, which are an automated system of sensors that collect weather and climate data hourly from 115 areas around Colorado, mostly in remote, mountainous watersheds between 9,000 and 11,000 feet. They measure snow depth, water content of the snow, precipitation and air temperature.
The other way is through snow courses, which are manual measurements of snow depth and water content.
But due to the COVID-19 crisis, NRCS staff did not conduct end-of-March manual snow surveys. Wetlaufer said the agency wanted to follow social-distancing guidelines and not have employees traveling in the same vehicle to remote mountain communities.
“We need to go out in pairs for backcountry work,” he said. “We have been talking about options for next month. Some sites that are key, maybe we can still go out and drive two vehicles.”
But streamflow forecasts for the Colorado River basin barely use any snow-course data, Wetlaufer said, so those forecasts should still be accurate without the manually collected data.
“In the Colorado River basin, there’s really pretty minimal impact,” he said.
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story ran in the April 13 edition of The Aspen Times.
The release from Ruedi Reservoir will increase Friday afternoon by 25 cfs. The flow at the Fryingpan River gage below Ruedi Reservoir will change from 135 cfs to 160 cfs where it will remain for the near future.
For any concerns regarding Ruedi Reservoir operations please contact either Brittany or Elizabeth Jones at (406) 247-7611 or (406) 247-7618.
Friday, April 03 2020, 1400 hrs
Increase the reservoir release by approximately 25 cfs (carried out by High Country Hydro, Inc. personnel). After this change, the flow at the Fryingpan River gage below Ruedi Reservoir is expected to increase from 135 cfs to approximately 160 cfs, with a gage height of 1.76 feet.
Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers board is moving ahead with a nearly $1 million project to fix a problem spot on the Roaring Fork River between old town Basalt and Willits.
For the past few years, the board has been steadily accumulating grant money to fix the Robinson Diversion, an area known to boaters as Anderson Falls. The diversion is a line of rocks across the river, designed to help water flow into a channel on river right and into the headgate of the Robinson Ditch.
The spot, just upstream of the small boat ramp on Willits Lane near the FedEx outlet, has long presented a tricky obstacle to boaters, especially at low water.
And although repairs last April by the ditch company created a much-improved boat channel, the area remains vulnerable to winter ice flows and spring runoff, which could rearrange the rocks. Pitkin County is hoping to fund a more permanent fix.
Last month, Healthy Rivers board members informally decided to move forward with restoration project “option A” with an estimated cost of $935,000.
The work, by Carbondale-based River Restoration, would include creating two smaller drops in the river, instead of one large drop, which would still allow water to reach the Robinson Ditch’s headgate. The project also would make some improvements to the diversion structure and result in better fish habitat.
River Restoration also presented Healthy Rivers with an “option B,” which would modify the existing rocks and extend the drop downstream to make for a more mellow ride in a raft, ducky or kayak. That option would cost roughly $586,000 but would not include fish-habitat work or improvements to the diversion headgate.
Board members decided to stick with the more complete “option A.”
“We might be wasting money if we don’t go big on this project,” said Healthy Rivers board member Lisa Tasker. “Going big means finding a solution to the Robinson Ditch rearranging the river bed year after year. One of the biggest goals is to have less equipment get into the river.”
Pitkin County commissioners have to approve expenditures from the Healthy Rivers board, which is a recommending body.
Blazing Adventures runs commercial river trips from Snowmass Canyon to just below the Robinson Diversion structure, usually starting in July as spring runoff fades. Owner Vince Nichols said the boat chute last year was a great improvement, but he would welcome a more permanent fix.
“Our main takeaway would be safety and having a boatable passage,” he said.
It’s unclear yet whether the Robinson Ditch Co., which owns and operates the structure and headgate, will contribute monetarily to the project, but manager Bill Reynolds said he is in support of fixing the structure.
“I welcome anything that helps all the boaters, fisherman, all the users on the river,” he said. “And if the ditch company can gain a better structure out there, that will help everybody. It’s a win-win.”
These are matching grants, with the county currently committed to contributing at least roughly $246,000 toward the project.
According to Lisa MacDonald, a paralegal in the county attorney’s office, Healthy Rivers has no other grants in the works for the project, but it continues to look for more opportunities and funding. The project is still short of funding by about $430,000, and as time goes on, project costs continue to rise.
The price tag on the project in 2017 was $800,000. By this year, it had increased to $935,000.
“(The project) has a large footprint and we have to move the river during construction,” said Quinn Donnelly of River Restoration. “There are so few contractors that do the work, and it’s involved. There is risk involved.”
To make up the funding gap, MacDonald said the county could seek contributions from Eagle County, the town of Basalt, the ditch company and grants from Great Outdoors Colorado.
“The board does need to talk about exactly where the rest of that funding will come from,” Tasker said. “We are moving forward and will have discussions about how to cover what our grants do not.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story ran in the March 8 edition of The Aspen Times.
The National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, turned 50 years old on Jan. 1. A fundamental component of the law is public involvement. Projects such as a new ski lift, trail or natural-gas lease each receives a NEPA review, and most of the time the public weighs in. NEPA has evolved over the years, but the biggest change may come in a new proposal from President Donald Trump.
A NEPA case study: The trail between Redstone and McClure Pass
Katherine Hudson lives near the Crystal River between Carbondale and Redstone. She said she loves living close to nature but thinks a proposed multi-use recreation trail will disturb the river.
“For me, it’s not just about the view,” she said. “I value this incredible waterway and how lucky we are to have it.”
Hudson, a member of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers Board, believes bridges planned along the trail will constrict the river.
A five-mile section of the proposed trail sits on Forest Service land and will get, thanks to NEPA, a close review. Hudson was one of about 50 people looking over maps and visiting with Forest Service staff at an open house in Carbondale in late January.
Under NEPA, federal agencies must consider impacts to the environment when projects such as the Redstone to McClure Pass Trail are proposed on public land. The law applies to all major federal actions, including infrastructure permitting and road construction. One goal is to “create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Proposed changes from Washington
In January, the White House released a plan to streamline NEPA, marking the first major update in decades. The changes would impose strict deadlines on completing analyses; would more closely involve contractors in studies; and would eliminate requirements to consider climate change.
“It would make it really difficult to analyze the impacts on climate in any project,” said Will Rousch, executive director at Wilderness Workshop, a public-lands watchdog group based in Carbondale. “It would redefine what a major federal action is. That might eliminate some projects from going through the NEPA process.”
Also, he said, fewer projects undergoing a review means fewer opportunities for the public to weigh in.
But supporters say NEPA has become time consuming for federal agencies, project applicants and people seeking permits.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Republican from Colorado, points to a NEPA review of an Interstate 70 project near Denver that took 13 years to complete. He said lawsuits and reviews from multiple agencies kept it from moving forward more quickly.
“This was a good example of how we do need to make sure that we’re doing the right thing environmentally but also that we’re not creating roadblocks that stifle any kind of development at all,” Tipton said.
Local efforts to make NEPA more efficient
President Richard Nixon signed NEPA into law in 1970. Two catastrophic events prompted its creation: Millions of gallons of crude oil leaked into the Pacific, and a heavily polluted river in Ohio caught fire. Now, agencies such as the White River National Forest use the law all the time.
“It’s part of our work daily, for sure,” said WRNF supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams. “We use NEPA on almost every single project. But there’s varying levels of it.”
For large, complex projects, a team of scientists may analyze a project’s impacts and create alternatives informed by public input. Small-scale projects, such as replacing a trailhead sign, don’t get in-depth reviews and public comments. The Forest Service determines how a project is analyzed based on its significance.
The White River National Forest, like the Trump administration, sees ways to make NEPA more efficient. The agency has developed tools that reduce the time it takes to do an environmental analysis. Their work began with a Forest Service-wide effort in 2017. The White River National Forest’s efficiencies have reduced NEPA document size and planning by more than 80% compared with the national average.
“We’re trying to be more efficient with the taxpayer’s money and really streamline where it’s appropriate,” Fitzwilliams said. “That doesn’t mean we cut corners; we still have a responsibility to disclose impacts, consider alternatives and involve the public, but we want to do it in a way that’s a little less bureaucratic.”
Since the streamlining began, Fitzwilliams estimates his agency has saved time and money by not conducting three environmental-impact statements — the most-in-depth analyses — that would have been done before. An EIS is still utilized, he said, if a project is significant enough.
“We’ve been doing less EIS’s and more EAs (environmental analyses),” said Fitzwilliams.
The approach began with ski areas. Hundreds of NEPA analyses have been done on ski hills in the White River National Forest, so a new project, such as a lift, may receive a lighter review because previous studies help inform it.
“We know the ground really well, and so we really focus on what the key issues are,” said Fitzwilliams. “Instead of doing a full specialist report on all the wildlife potential impacts, we may just focus on elk-calving areas.”
The agency isn’t cutting corners, he said, and still focuses on considering impacts, alternatives and public involvement, the latter of which remains a high priority.
“People expect that of their government,” Fitzwilliams said. “They don’t expect government to waste time and money just because.”
The White River National Forest’s efforts to innovate NEPA earned the agency national distinction in December at the Under Secretary’s Awards and Chief’s Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.
What’s next locally and nationally?
The NEPA process for the Redstone to McClure Pass Trail is just getting started. It will take one year to complete, partly because it’s contentious. It’s getting an environmental assessment — a middle-ground approach under NEPA. It’s neither the law’s deepest analysis nor its lightest-touch approach, and the public will have two chances to give feedback.
The concerns raised at the open house — river health, maintaining biodiversity and preventing habitat fragmentation — will inform the final assessment.
“It’s an issue that a lot of people care about, and I think without the NEPA process, you’d end up with a much worse project regardless of how it turned out because people wouldn’t get a say,” said Rousch.
Hudson said she’s glad for the opportunity to comment on the trail project.
“I’m in it for the long haul because there are a lot of things that are at stake,” she said. “The Crystal River is a jewel of this watershed, and decisions could be made with this project that could permanently alter that treasure.”
She said she will submit concerns during both comment periods.
Aspen Journalism collaborates with Aspen Public Radio and The Aspen Times on coverage of environmental issues. A version of this story ran in The Aspen Times and aired on Aspen Public Radio on Feb. 13.
Through the release of water it owns in Ruedi Reservoir, Garfield County will help endangered fish species in an often-depleted section of the Colorado River.
Garfield County will lease 350 acre-feet of water annually over the next five years to the Colorado Water Conservation Board under the CWCB’s instream-flow program. The water will bolster flows July through October in the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction, home to the endangered humpback chub, bonytail, razorback sucker and Colorado pikeminnow. The CWCB board approved Garfield County’s offer at its meeting last week in Westminster.
Garfield County owns 400 acre-feet a year of Ruedi water as a backup source for the county, municipalities and other water users within its service area. Since the county does not immediately need the water, it will lease the water to the CWCB for five years at $40 an acre-foot for the first year and $45 an acre-foot for the second year. The price would go up in years three through five by 2% annually. The maximum price the CWCB would pay for the water is $14,000 in 2020 and $78,915 over the five years of the lease.
Water from Ruedi Reservoir flows down the Fryingpan River and into the Roaring Fork, which flows into the Colorado River at Glenwood Springs.
“We are really appreciative that Garfield County stepped up and offered to lease the water,” said Linda Bassi, CWCB’s stream- and lake-protection chief. “You never know what kind of water year we are going to have, so it’s great to have an extra supply to send down to the reach for those fish.”
Preserving Fryingpan fishing
Late summer, flows in the 15-mile reach are often lower than what is recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for healthy fish habitat mainly because of two large upstream irrigation diversions: DeBeque Canyon’s Grand Valley Project, known as the Roller Dam, and Palisade’s Grand Valley Irrigation Canal.
Gail Schwartz, who represents the Colorado River mainstem, Fryingpan and Roaring Fork region on the CWCB board, reminded staffers of the need to coordinate flows out of Ruedi to preserve conditions for anglers. When flows exceed about 300 cubic feet per second, it becomes difficult to wade and fish the Fryingpan’s popular Gold Medal Fishery waters. At critical wading flows of 250 to 300 cfs, Colorado Parks and Wildlife recommends releases be capped at 25 cfs to avoid dramatic changes for anglers.
“We want to support the economy and the recreation on the Fryingpan and we want to support the success of the 15-mile reach for the species,” Schwartz said.
More fish water
At its March meeting, the CWCB board will consider another lease of Ruedi water for endangered fish. The Ute Water Conservancy District, which provides water to about 80,000 people in the Grand Junction area, is offering to renew its lease of 12,000 acre-feet of water it stores in Ruedi Reservoir. The CWCB could lease the water at $20 an acre-foot for 2020, at a total cost of $240,000.
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story was published in the Feb. 6 edition of The Aspen Times.
On Sunday, a group of roughly a dozen locals took part in this snow science method as well, collecting core samples and learning about how snowpack contributes to watersheds during a “field trip for adults” in the Marble area.
Led annually by the Roaring Fork Conservancy and United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service officials for the past six years, the daylong, hands-on snow science education course has aimed to help locals see snow as integral to our ecosystems year-round, not just as a recreational benefit in the winter, according to Megan Dean, director of education for Roaring Fork Conservancy…
…[Megan] Dean said the Roaring Fork watershed contributes about 11% of the water that goes into the Colorado water basin, mostly because the valley’s mountains capture and hold a great deal of water via snow…
After Dean touched on geographic climate trends and key snow science definitions — like the snow water equivalent, which is the actual amount of water in a given volume of snow — soil conservationist Derrick Wyle jumped in to talk snowpack data.
According to Wyle, who works with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, snowpack, precipitation, temperature and other climatic conditions are collected consistently throughout the winter season at NRCS SNOTEL sites…
So far this year, Wyle said historic and current data for the Colorado water basin show snowpack is about average for this time of year, with a “coin flip chance” of being above or below average for the whole season…
During the second half of the Sunday field trip on McClure Pass, Wyle and Dean showed the group both how to look at snow depth, density and the snow water equivalent manually using a [Federal Snow Sampler] and by digging a snow pit, and how the McClure Pass SNOTEL station works to collect the same data on its own.
From small measurements to big picture graphs and newer technology to traditional scientific methods, Wyle and Dean aimed to give the group a snow science crash course and to help put the snowpack numbers they may hear in passing or see online into perspective.
Pitkin County will begin construction next week on the latest fix to a whitewater park on the Roaring Fork River in Basalt that some said was too dangerous during high water last summer, sources said Wednesday.
“The primary goal of the adjustment is to improve high-flow navigation from runoff,” said Quinn Donnelly, an engineer with River Restoration of Carbondale, which designed the park. “(High water) was creating big holes and people were flipping.”
Contractors next week will begin altering two man-made concrete wave structures in the riverbed to make them less difficult to navigate during high-water conditions, Donnelly said. Crews will move around boulders and create ramps to better flush water through the area and create a wave-train, he said.
“The goal of this winter’s work is to strike a better balance between the fun surfability of the waves and their high-water navigability,” Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board Chairman Andre Wille said in a news release Wednesday. “The end result will be wave features that are easier for river runners to bypass at high flows.”
Despite repeated requests Wednesday for how much the project will cost and where the money will come from, a spokesperson for the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board declined to release it. The park was initially built for $770,000 with Healthy Rivers funds, though it’s not clear how much has been spent since then to tweak it.
This winter’s project will mark the second time the whitewater park has had to be re-engineered because of safety concerns.
Snowfall in Aspen is pacing well ahead of average this ski season thanks to a big opening blast in October and above-averages dumps in December.
The Aspen Water Treatment Plant recorded 84.70 inches of snowfall for October through December, according to the monthly weather reports. That is 28.45 inches or 51% above the average of 56.25 inches, according to the water department’s records.
Each month has been well above average at the plant, which is situated at 8,161 feet, slightly above downtown Aspen’s elevation. The cold-weather months started with a bang when 26.70 inches of snow fell in October. The average is 9.20 inches.
November was closer to typical conditions when 23.50 inches fell, the water department reported. The average snowfall for the month is 21.90 inches.
December kept the trend going with 34.50 inches of snowfall, well above the average of 25.15 inches.
None of the months came close to breaking a record for snowfall. The December record, for example, is 72 inches in 1983.
More snowfall than usual at the 8,100-foot level hasn’t translated into a significantly higher snowpack than average at higher elevations. The snowpack at the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River east of Aspen is at 107% of median as of Friday, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency that has automated snow telemetry sites scattered around the Roaring Fork watershed.
The snowpack at the Independence Pass site was at 7.7 inches of snow water equivalent — the amount of water produced when the snow is melted. Last year on the same date it was 7 inches.
The snowpack at the headwaters of the Crystal River Valley was 97% at Schofield Pass and 97% at McClure Pass as of Friday.
The snowpack at the headwaters of the Fryingpan River Valley was 147% at Ivanhoe Lake and 131% at Kiln, according to the snow telemetry sites.
Approaching Labor Day weekend of 1961, many Aspenites who had plans to go camping or enjoy outdoor concerts watched in trepidation as monsoon rains didn’t let up for two days. Then, that Friday night, the damp chill turned rain to snow — large, wet snowflakes fell overnight and for the next two days, thoroughly coating the green, late-summer landscape. Tree limbs bent and snapped, the music tent started to rip under the weight of the snow, motorists were stranded when Independence Pass closed and the power went out in the city for two days.
“It was a hell of a mess,” said lifelong Aspenite Jim Markalunas.
The mayor called Markalunas and asked him to reboot the defunct hydroelectric plant he had previously run while the regional electric utility struggled to restore the downed lines.
He managed to restore power to Aspen, and by the time residents woke up to a cold, sunny Labor Day morning, 27 inches of snow had fallen in town, a record that still stands, according to Markalunas, author of “An Aspen Weather Guide” and “Aspen Memories.”
Now 89, Markalunas also has tales of being surrounded by massive snowbanks as a 6-year-old in the 1930s and worrying about roofs collapsing from the heavy-snow years of the 1980s.
“Big snow years are oh-be-joyful for the (Aspen Skiing Company) and skiers but made for a lot of hard work for people maintaining the streets and intakes and such,” he recalled.
Markalunas remembers lean years, too, most notably the winter of 1976-77. That ski season didn’t start until January and recorded just 86 inches of snow all winter. It also spurred massive investments in technologies to battle drought impacts, such as snowmaking and cloud-seeding.
Markalunas likes to say that Aspen’s weather is “consistently inconsistent.” But he started noticing a difference in patterns in the 1980s — in particular, less-frequent below-zero temperatures.
“The trend is we just don’t have the super-cold weather we used to have,” he said, pointing to weather data he has compiled from water department records showing that Aspen has hit a low of less than minus 20 just once since 1997.
“It seems as though the weather pendulum swings more extremely than in years of old,” Markalunas writes in “An Aspen Weather Guide.” “Storms are more violent but less frequent. The weather appears to be more volatile than in past years. … Unless we act to decrease carbon dioxide emissions, ski racks on SUVs might become useless accessories here.”
Markalunas’ observations are supported by other data, analyses and studies that paint a picture of a changing local climate. Pitkin County is warming, the number of frost-free days is increasing and snowpack is declining — all of which have myriad impacts on recreation, the ecosystem, wildlife, streamflow, water availability, droughts and wildfires. One of the most notable impacts is on the underpinning of modern Aspen’s economy: snow and skiing.
Officials at Aspen Skiing Company, or SkiCo, have been aware of changing temperatures and snowfall for some time. Like others, the biggest change that Rich Burkley, SkiCo’s senior vice president of strategy and business development, has seen in his 30-year career is more variability.
“It’s a feast of riches or famine, and you have to deal with that,” he said.
Pitkin County’s average temperature has been rising at a rate of 0.4 degrees per decade since 1950, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 2018, the average temperature throughout the year in Pitkin County was 39.5 degrees — 2.9 degrees warmer than the mean temperature during the baseline period of 1950-75.
More-dramatic changes are happening in the cold-season months. Temperatures are rising almost half a degree per decade between November and April, compared with about one-quarter of a degree the other half of the year.
March is by far the fastest-warming month, heating up at a rate of 1 degree per decade since the 1950s. The average temperature of 34.4 degrees in March 2017, when Aspen hosted the World Cup ski racing finals, was a record 9.4 degrees higher than the 1950-75 baseline temperature.
The race venue on the lower half of the mountain lost several inches of snow surface per day, Burkley said. The only reason there was enough snow to race on was extra early-season snowmaking that at the time was considered excessive.
Markalunas’ theory of fewer really cold days shows in this data as well. Average annual low temperatures have risen in Pitkin County and appear to be accelerating — average minimum temperatures were more than 5 degrees higher than the baseline during three of the past five winters.
“Even since 1980, there has been a pretty sharp annual average temperature increase over time,” said Elise Osenga, research and education coordinator for the nonprofit Aspen Global Change Institute, or AGCI. “Even just a couple degrees difference is a notable difference in annual average temperatures — especially if you are a seasonal-sensitive plant or animal.”
A 2014 report by AGCI notes that rising low temperatures, particularly in early winter, can affect the ability to make snow on the ski mountains, an activity typically limited to November and December. This hasn’t impacted SkiCo much yet, according to Burkley. Snowmaking now is about twice as efficient as it was two decades ago, thanks to automation and improved technology.
SkiCo also has plans to expand snowmaking to the top of Aspen Mountain next season, which Burkley said will be key to Thanksgiving openings as the upper part of the mountain often doesn’t have enough natural snow in November.
Zooming out, a recent Washington Post feature found that Pitkin County and much of the Colorado Rockies are warming faster than other places. Pitkin County’s average temperatures have risen 2.34 degrees since 1895, at the height of the Industrial Revolution; the average across the United States is 1.8 degrees. In fact, western Colorado and eastern Utah comprise a large “hot spot” that warns of greater climate shifts to come.
Freezing? Not so much
One critical trend related to rising temperatures — in particular, rising low temperatures — is an increase in the number of frost-free days, which AGCI counts as consecutive days of above-freezing temperatures from the last freeze of spring to the first time it dips below 32 degrees after that. Like temperature, the number of frost-free days has risen sharply in recent decades.
Since the 1980s, there’s now an additional month each year without freezing temperatures in Aspen, according to AGCI’s analysis. The actual number of days above freezing varies widely from year to year, but there is a clear upward trajectory, as seen in the Forest Health Index, which is produced by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies with help from AGCI.
Higher temperatures mean less snow
Changes are, of course, also being felt beyond ski-area boundaries. In the summer of 1994, big-mountain skier Chris Davenport first skied 14,092-foot Snowmass Mountain, named for the massive snowfield that historically stretched across a wide bowl below its summit.
“In the next decade or so, it seemed like that permanent summer snow was getting smaller and smaller, until one summer in the mid-2000s, it was totally gone,” said Davenport. “It’s a direct effect of warming — even if it’s a few degrees, that snowfield couldn’t hang on.”
Winter snow might still linger into the summer months on Snowmass, Davenport said, but most years, the formerly year-round snowfield is gone by mid-July.
The waning snowfield on Snowmass Mountain is representative of a larger trend. Summer snow covering the Northern Hemisphere receded from 10.28 million square miles at its peak in 1979 to a low of 3.69 million miles in 2013, according to Climate Central’s website WXshift.com. Not only does that impact water supplies, but less snow cover means more sunlight absorbed by Earth, driving a feedback loop of further temperature increases.
Snowfall has also decreased in many parts of the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, although no significant trends in precipitation have been found in the Aspen area or Colorado in general. Some climate models predict more precipitation in the future, but rising temperatures could mean that precipitation comes more often as rain rather than snow.
In Pitkin County, as in the American West and other mountain drainages around the world, snowpack is arguably the most consequential climate-change indicator. Mountain snowpack not only determines availability of snow for recreation but also how much water will be available for all manner of natural and human uses. In Colorado, including the Roaring Fork River valley, snowpack — usually measured by the amount of water in the snow, known as snow water equivalent, or SWE — is generally variable and can range widely from year to year. But this, too, has become more extreme in recent years.
“We’ve observed these huge year-to-year shifts,” said Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Colorado Snow Survey, which collects and manages snowpack data. “So that does feel like a trend: Over the last 15 years, things seem to be much more erratic, with more extreme years on both high and low ends.”
The scientific community considers the April 1 snowpack the peak of the water year. Only once since 2010 has the Roaring Fork basin’s snowpack on April 1 been measured between 85% and 115% of normal, said Wetlaufer. That range was more common in earlier periods.
The last two winters feature some of the wildest snowpack swings — and the most extreme weather events. From October 2017 to September 2018, snowpack peaked at 72% of normal; the following snow season, it peaked at 144%.
The low-snow season resulted in such tinder-dry conditions that the Lake Christine fire, the most threatening fire in recent valley history, burned for months in the summer of 2018. That was followed by a winter capped off with an unprecedented avalanche cycle, the result of a steady buildup of the snowpack on a weak base layer, ultimately unleashed by a massive storm cycle that was fueled by warm atmospheric rivers from the Pacific Ocean.
Besides more variability, some recent scientific analyses, including this map produced by the EPA and AGCI’s 2014 report, have found that Colorado’s snowpack is decreasing. A study published by Peter Goble and Nolan Doesken of Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center found that central Colorado’s snowpack is diminishing by an average of .49 inches of SWE per decade, which was the most of the four regions studied. This calculation includes measurements taken at a station near Independence Pass.
A half-inch of SWE can equate to 7.5 to 10 inches of snowfall, Goble said, which over 100 years could mean 75 to 100 fewer inches of snow — about one-third of the roughly 300 inches that fall on average on the Aspen Snowmass slopes.
“Considering that loss may accelerate, those numbers look a little threatening to the local lifestyle,” said Goble.
Recent research also accounts for factors such as dust on snow, likely to be more frequent in the future given the increasing aridity of areas west of Colorado and more human disruption of those areas. Dust on snow, similar to rain on snow, melts the snowpack more quickly.
Scientists agree that the main factor contributing to a declining snowpack is not less snowfall but warmer temperatures due to increased greenhouse-gas emissions. And because temperatures are expected to continue to rise — the amount depends on how much emissions are curbed — snowpack around Aspen and elsewhere will continue to decline.
Still, Goble is hopeful.
“When you look at the projections and how winters might change, it’s not a totally hopeless situation,” he said. “We still have control over our future. If this is a problem humans take seriously and we see a lot of action on a large scale over the next couple decades, it will make the outlook for the back half of the century a lot brighter than if it was business as usual.”
AGCI’s 2006 report for the city of Aspen, on the other hand, painted a dire scenario for future skiers (as well as downstream water users) with continued warming, including the potential for shorter ski seasons and substantially reduced snow cover.
Aspen Mountain will still be skiable in 2030 under all emissions scenarios, the report concluded, but “by 2100 the base area of Aspen Mountain has essentially lost a skiable snowpack, with the exception of the lowest greenhouse-gas concentrations.”
In all future emissions scenarios, the AGCI report found that Aspen Mountain’s base snowpack will start to accumulate later in the fall and melt earlier in the spring due to warming temperatures. Snow depths at all elevations are projected to be reduced throughout the season. In the worst-case scenario, the ski season will be 10 weeks shorter by 2100 and “snow depth goes to near zero for the entire lower two-thirds of the mountain.” That’s everything below the base of the Ajax Express chair.
“Under these scenarios, some of our seasons are shortened and our terrain could be reduced,” Burkley said. “We would be in download situations more frequently. We would build and concentrate snowmaking at higher elevations. We might have more hike-to or hike-out terrain. We would build lifts to access areas that have more consistent snowpack.”
Burkley said with existing infrastructure, SkiCo can offer lift-served, high-elevation skiing on three mountains. The proposed 180-acre Pandora expansion on top of Aspen Mountain also would expand into terrain that “will probably have the best snow in the future.”
Even as SkiCo relies more on snowmaking, Burkley acknowledges minimum streamflow requirements could be an additional challenge. There could be a time when natural snowpack declines to the point that there won’t be enough water in local streams to make all the snow it needs, in which case the company might have to decide to shut down one or more of its four mountains and focus efforts on what remains open.
SkiCo is also increasing its focus on summer operations, including Snowmass Bike Park. For now, this helps ensure a return on expensive infrastructure; later, it could help make up for shorter winters.
Ironically, the Aspen Snowmass ski areas could actually benefit in the short term from climate change. They’re situated at higher elevations with colder temperatures than many other resorts, especially those outside of Colorado, and could see increased visitation as lower-elevation ski areas become less viable.
Clearly, Aspen isn’t the only ski resort facing an existential crisis. Ski areas across the country are recognizing the challenges that climate change poses to their viability, and that’s provoking a shift in industry thinking.
“In recent memory, climate was an uncomfortable conversation. Resorts said it was politicized science,” said big-mountain skier Davenport, who is now a climate activist and board member of the advocacy group Protect Our Winters, or POW. “Now everyone’s on board.”
The scale of action is bigger than resorts switching to renewable energy or lobbying for climate-friendly policies in Washington, D.C., as SkiCo has been doing for years. Three of the largest industry groups — Outdoor Industry Association, Snowsports Industries America and National Ski Areas Association — recently formed the Outdoor Business Climate Partnership to provide leadership and inspire action on climate change. Using POW’s playbook, SIA launched United by Winter, a climate-advocacy platform for its members. And POW is now on the radar of elected officials in every state where the outdoor industry has a presence.
“It used to be inconvenient for outdoor companies to talk about climate change, but now the opposite is true: If you’re not having that conversation, consumers aren’t buying from you,” Davenport said. “Look how we’ve changed the conversation.”
Untreated, polluted water flowing into the Roaring Fork River in the heart of Aspen and failing underground storm water infrastructure has the municipal government looking for new revenue streams to put toward an underfunded clean river program.
The city has made progress with capturing and filtering runoff before it hits the Roaring Fork from the Aspen Mountain basin on the south side of the river, with catch basins and wetlands near the Rio Grande park and trail.
But on the north side of the river, where east end neighborhoods and homes on Red Mountain are located, untreated storm water runoff goes directly into the Roaring Fork.
That is one likely cause of why the state has put the Roaring Fork on its watch list of impaired waterways, said April Long, the city’s clean river program manager.
Long has been charged with finding new revenue sources to fund the storm water department and clean river program in which almost $19 million in capital projects have been identified.
Ramping up the program is a priority that Aspen City Council zeroed in on earlier this year as it learned it is woefully underfunded…
The main funding source for the clean river program now is a property tax passed by voters in 2007 and put in place in 2008. It generates about $1.2 million annually.
But with underground corrugated metal pipes that are more than 40 years old and are rusting out, replacing just a third of the infrastructure is anticipated to cost $4 million, according to Long…
City Engineer Trish Aragon noted it costs more to replace pipes in emergency situations, and getting out in front of it is a better use of taxpayer money…
The department has identified just under two dozen projects that would create a more robust clean river program and address some of the state’s concerns.
One of them that will get some preliminary attention next year is designing a catch basin on the north side of the river at Mill Street and Gibson Avenue, near the old powerhouse.
It would collect runoff from the east end residential complexes including Hunter Creek and Centennial and some of Red Mountain…
Long and Aragon are beginning to look at funding options based on what other municipalities do, as well as other research and brainstorming exercises.
The establishment of some type of fee, along with grants and creating special districts in neighborhoods where the infrastructure needs to be done are options on the table.
Long said she plans to bring funding options, along with prioritized projects with timeframe scenarios to council sometime next year.
The fight over damming the Crystal River has been resurrected, this time before there are even any dam projects to fight over.
The Colorado Basin Roundtable voted Monday to recommend the state give $25,000 toward a water study in the Crystal River basin, despite calls from some to deny the Water Supply Reserve Fund request because of concerns that a study might conclude there is a need for water storage.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District brought the grant request to the roundtable in Glenwood Springs in an effort to solve a long-acknowledged problem on the Crystal: In dry years, there may not be enough water for both irrigators and some residential subdivisions.
On Nov. 18, the Gunnison Basin Roundtable gave its unanimous support to the grant application, even though its support was not necessary. Although the Crystal is in the Colorado River basin, its headwaters are in Gunnison County, and so the Gunnison roundtable decided to voice its support.
The feasibility study would look at water demands and options for creating a basinwide backup water supply plan, known as an augmentation plan. The study will look at small storage alternatives, probably off the main stem of the Crystal. Until the study is completed, it’s unclear how much water is needed for a basinwide backup supply.
But some fear that the plan could include dams and reservoirs on the free-flowing Crystal, and they opposed the grant unless storage was off the table.
Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury requested two amendments to the grant application: that any reservoir would be off the main stem of the river and would only be located downstream of the Sweet Jessup Canal diversion (about 2 miles downstream of Avalanche Creek) to preserve the possibility of designating 39 miles of the Crystal River as Wild and Scenic.
“We are not going to support this application as it’s currently written,” McNicholas Kury told roundtable members Monday. “The county continues to support Wild and Scenic designation on the Crystal.”
McNicholas Kury and two other roundtable members voted against the funding: recreation representative Ken Ransford and Eagle County representative Chuck Ogliby, who owns the Avalanche Ranch Cabins & Hot Springs in the Crystal River Valley.
The Crystal River Caucus, which doesn’t have a seat on the roundtable, also objected to the grant application and passed a resolution at its Nov. 14 meeting to that effect. In a letter to the roundtable, the caucus said it does not support the grant and urged voting roundtable members to deny the request. The caucus would, however, support a study and augmentation plan that evaluates options other than storage.
But others downplayed the threat of dams, insisting they won’t happen.
“You’re not going to see a dam on the main stem of the Crystal,” said Colorado River District President Dave Merritt. “It’s not going to happen. The river district is not predisposed to dams. There is a need for a small amount of augmentation water up there. We are talking tens of acre-feet, probably.”
No backup supply
During the historic drought of late summer of 2018, 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, which has water rights dating to 1885, can receive its full decreed amount.
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 reservoir or exchange. The problem on the Crystal is that several residential subdivisions don’t have augmentation plans.
Without an augmentation plan, these entities — which are the town of Carbondale, the Marble Water Company, Chair Mountain Ranch, Crystal River Resort, Crystal View Heights and Seven Oaks Commons — could be fined for every day they are out of priority and could potentially have their water shut off, if there is a call on the river.
Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 5 engineer Alan Martellaro said instead of each subdivision coming up with its own augmentation plan, a basinwide approach makes more sense.
“We think it would save everyone money if we had a reasonable regional solution,” he said. “It looks a lot to us that a call from the Ella Ditch is going to be more common in the future.”
To understand why some groups are opposed to even just a study whether storage is an option, it helps to review the contentious history of water development in the Crystal River Valley.
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 on the Crystal River after local groups — Crystal River Caucus, Pitkin County and Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association — opposed the reservoirs tied to the conditional rights. Known as the West Divide project, the now-defunct conditional water rights were tied to a dam on the Crystal just downstream from Redstone, which would have created Osgood Reservoir, and a dam on the Crystal at Placita, which is at the bottom of McClure Pass.
To try to prevent the specter of dams coming back to haunt the Crystal in the future, Pitkin County and other local groups have pushed for a federal designation under the Wild and Scenic River Act of 1968, which requires rivers to be free-flowing. The Colorado River District opposes the designation.
“With our challenging history with both the river district and West Divide … this is why we are very nervous whenever we hear discussion of any dams on the Crystal River,” said Bill Jochems, Redstone resident and member of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board.
In the end, the roundtable approved the grant request. A motion to amend the request with a no-storage requirement failed.
“Obviously, storage is not the first choice,” said Ken Neubecker, the roundtable’s environmental representative and Colorado project director for environmental organization American Rivers. “But you have to look at all the options, including storage, or you’re just not being responsible.”
The two conservation districts plan to ask for a $50,000 grant from the Colorado Water Plan grant fund in early 2020 to fund the roughly $100,000 project. West Divide plans to contribute $15,000 and the Colorado River District $10,000.
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Aspen Times.
With the clock ticking on moving its conditional water-storage rights, the city of Aspen is taking steps toward developing a water integrated resource plan, or IRP.
City Council last month approved spending $81,674 to hire Broomfield-based Carollo Engineers as a consultant for the first phase of the IRP. A main goal of the plan will be to decide where to move the city’s conditional water-storage rights after a water court judge in June approved the city’s settlement with opposing parties in two water court cases. The decrees issued by the judge in those cases rule out the possibility of the city building dams or reservoirs on upper Castle or Maroon creeks.
The city has six years to finalize a plan to move the water rights and associated storage to new locations. That and the increasing effects of a hotter, drier climate, which means less water in streams, have the city feeling a sense of urgency when it comes to figuring out its water supply.
“We do have a sense of urgency, but we also recognize we are only going to get one chance to make such a large change to our system,” said Margaret Medellin, Aspen’s utilities resource manager. “We want to do it right.”
Conditional water rights
All 10 parties who settled with the city in water court, one of which was environmental group American Rivers, agreed not to oppose the city’s efforts to change its conditional water-storage rights to different sites.
Instead of flooding two pristine valleys to create reservoirs, the city has identified five other locations to where it could possibly store water. Those sites are the city golf course; the Maroon Creek Club golf course; the city’s Cozy Point open space; the Woody Creek gravel pit; and a 63-acre parcel of land next to the gravel pit, which the city bought in 2018.
“We don’t have any issue with Aspen’s plan to move forward with those conditional water rights,” said Matt Rice, director of American Rivers’ Colorado Basin Program. “That’s a decision for them and local stakeholders to make.”
Carollo Engineers was one of five firms that responded to the city’s summer request for proposals. The more than $81,000 that the City Council approved will pay for Carollo to complete only Phase 1 of the IRP, which will define goals and develop a detailed scope of work. Phase 2 would create the IRP using community input.
“Normally, when we do an IRP, we are looking at what the future looks like in terms of water needs and trying to characterize those and predict them out several decades,” said John Rehring, senior project manager and vice president of Carollo Engineers.
City officials maintain that a lack of reservoir storage is a problem.
Medellin said the lack of water-storage facilities is a big weakness in the city’s water system and that it is controversial to build dams and reservoirs “because every valley up here is beautiful.”
But, Medellin said, climate change may increase the need for water storage.
“We’ve acknowledged these storage rights are very important to the future of Aspen, especially as we start to see climate-change implications,” she said.
Carollo Engineers agrees with that assessment.
“Clearly, the city of Aspen’s system lacks the water storage it needs to reliably meet demands through a range of supply-and-demand conditions even now — before the impacts of climate change have fully taken hold,” the proposal reads.
The issue of storage came to the forefront in the Aspen community in 2012 when news broke that the city was contemplating using its conditional water-storage rights to build dams and reservoirs in Castle and Maroon valleys.
Consultants have come to different conclusions about how much water storage the city actually needs. A 2017 report by Deere and Ault Consultants, which was based on conclusions in a risk analysis by Headwaters Corporation, said Aspen needs 8,500 acre-feet of water storage. But a 2016 study by Wilson Water concluded Aspen does not need any storage.
Two other areas that the IRP will address is the vulnerability of Aspen’s water supply to natural disasters such as 2018’s Lake Christine Fire and last winter’s historic avalanches in Castle and Maroon valleys, as well as how to decrease customers’ demand for water. Even though Aspen has taken steps to reduce the use of water for outdoor irrigation through a landscape ordinance, those gains could be wiped out because in a warmer future, there will be less water flowing in local streams.
“It’s almost like you are playing this game where you, on one hand, lower the level of demand but, on the other side of the equation, climate change is decreasing our supply,” Medellin said.
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Nov. 26 edition of The Aspen Times.
On a recent snowy morning, aquatic ecologist Bill Miller dipped what’s known as a Hess sampler into the frigid waters of Castle Creek near Aspen.
Miller stirred up the streambed with his hands, funneling the rocks, sediment and leaves — along with macro-invertebrates such as insects and worms — into the collection container.
After putting the organic material into smaller jars and giving each one a squirt of alcohol as a preservative, heferried them to a lab in Fort Collins. Scientists there will count the number and types of bugs in each sample.
“By the different species that are there, you can get a good indication of stream and water quality, and overall ecological function,” Miller said.
Miller’s work is part of a program that will monitor the health of Castle and Maroon creeks, ensuring that Aspen Skiing Co.’s increased water use for snowmaking on Aspen Mountain won’t harm the aquatic environment of the creeks. The stream-monitoring program was set out in September as a condition of Pitkin County’s approval of Skico’s Aspen Mountain Ski Area Master Plan.
“I think the idea of this is we don’t want the snowmaking to cause significant harm to the creeks,” said Andre Wille, chairman of Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board.
Aspen Mountain expansion
As part of its planned expansion, Aspen Mountain will use an additional 57 acre-feet of water per season, bringing the total average snowmaking water use to roughly 257 acre-feet. For context, Wildcat Reservoir, which is visible from the Snowmass Ski Area, holds about 1,100 acre-feet of water.
Skico is expanding its snowmaking for the 2020-21 season on 53 acres near the summit of Aspen Mountain, which will make it easier to have reliable and consistent snow coverage to ensure a Thanksgiving opening. Skico draws its water for snowmaking on Aspen Mountain from the city’s treated municipal supply, which is from Castle and Maroon creeks.
When Skico makes snow in November and December, the upside is there are fewer municipal water users pulling from local streams — outdoor irrigation season is over and holiday crowds have yet to arrive —but snowmaking uses water when natural streamflows are at some of their lowest points of the year.
“We were definitely concerned with the possibility of too much water being taken out in those early months of the winter,” Wille said.
Miller collected samples from above and below the city’s diversion dams on both lower Castle and Maroon creeks. His samples will act as a baseline against which the condition of the streams in future — and perhaps drier — years will be measured.
According to the resolution approving Aspen Mountain’s master plan, if the county’s aquatic ecologist determines, in future years, that the additional water usage is having a negative effect on stream health, the county could limit Skico’s water use to historical levels — about 200 acre-feet a year.
There is another safeguard to keep water in the river, but some say it may not go far enough to ensure stream health.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board, a state agency, holds instream-flow water rights on both Castle and Maroon creeks. And the state has determined that it requires at least 12 cubic feet per second of flowing water to protect the environment to “a reasonable degree” on lower Castle Creek and 14 cfs on lower Maroon Creek.
“We don’t feel it’s advisable to look at what the CWCB may have decreed in the past for a minimum instream flow,” said John Ely, Pitkin County attorney. “That’s not necessarily indicative from a scientific point of view of what is actually needed to maintain a healthy stream.”
That’s why the county hired Miller — who also is the longtime consulting biologist for the city of Aspen — to do its own assessment of stream health.
Ely said stream samples may not need to be taken every year — just in dry years when snowmaking could exacerbate already low flows. He estimated the annual cost of the monitoring program at about $5,000 to $10,000.
Jeff Hanle, Skico’s vice president of communications, said the company is taking steps to increase the efficiency of its on-mountain storage for snowmaking, such as adding two new ponds on Gent’s Ridge, so it won’t need to pull as much water from the city’s supply during the early season.
Although Skico and Pitkin County still need to work out the details of the stream-monitoring program, Hanle said the company is on board with preserving the ecological health of Castle and Maroon creeks.
“We would not make snow if it’s harming the stream, even if it could shorten a season,” he said. “We aren’t going to damage our home.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. This story ran in the Nov. 11 edition of The Aspen Times.
On a recent, clear, cold Saturday morning, local students from Carbondale-based Youth Water Leadership Program packed into a six-seat, single-engine Cessna 210 piloted by Gary Kraft of EcoFlight.
From the cockpit and high above the Roaring Fork watershed, certain features jumped out — the long, straight line of Red Mountain Ditch cutting across the hillside; infrastructure of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. siphoning water to the Front Range; the ponds that feed Aspen Skiing Co.’s snowmaking system; and the glittering surface of Ruedi Reservoir.
One goal of the flight was to give students a firsthand experience of natural resources — in this case, rivers and water. Aspen-based EcoFlight flies policymakers, students and journalists over Western landscapes to highlight man-made impacts to the natural world.
“The best way to teach people about places is to get them in the places,” said Sarah Johnson, watershed-education specialist and founder of the Youth Water Leadership Program.
The plane took off from the Aspen airport, gaining altitude as it flew up Independence Pass to the headwaters of the Roaring Fork, down the Fryingpan River valley, around the white flanks of Mount Sopris and up the Crystal River valley before cruising past the Maroon Bells and Aspen Mountain back to the airport.
How humans modify water
Also evident from the air were the burn scars from 2018’s Lake Christine Fire on Basalt Mountain, as well as the many large homes near Aspen with ponds on the property. For Coal Ridge High School senior and youth-water program leader Aidan Boyd, it was striking to see the patterns of land use in the valley.
“It is really interesting to compare the remote mountains that seem completely untouched to as you get more into the towns it’s just a very different feeling,” he said. “We’ve talked a little bit about how a lot of really wealthy houses will modify water — houses with lakes and pools. It was really interesting to see that.”
From 13,000 feet, it also became apparent just how near to one another are the headwaters of the watershed’s three main tributaries: the Roaring Fork, Fryingpan and Crystal rivers — something that isn’t evident when one travels the region by car. All three begin as trickles in close proximity, high among the 14,000-foot peaks of the Elk and Sawatch ranges.
“I never really realized how close everything is to each other because I’ve always driven up to Aspen and Basalt,” said Isla Brumby-Nelson, an eighth-grader at the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork.