The latest “Water Matters” newsletter is hot off the presses from the @COWaterTrust

Rancher Bill Fales stands next to his headgate on the Crystal River.

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Crystal River Project

We are thrilled to announce a pilot agreement between Cold Mountain Ranch and Colorado Water Trust designed to increase flows in the Crystal River during drier years.

Cold Mountain Ranch owners, Bill Fales and Marj Perry, will voluntarily retime their irrigation practices in exchange for compensation to leave water in the Crystal River when the river needs it most. The project provides a model that could be replicated on other rivers in need.

Thanks to a very long list of partners, this three-year agreement came out of the Crystal River Management Plan. It is designed to improve the health of the Crystal River in partnership with agriculture, as we work to keep farms and ranches productive while restoring water to thirsty rivers. To quote our Board Member, Dave Taussig, “We want green fields and blue waters.” Let’s make it happen!

Map of the Roaring Fork River watershed via the Roaring Fork Conservancy

Pitkin County population outlook

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

From The Aspen Times (Scott Condon) via The Glenwood Springs Post Independent:

Pitkin County is part of a cluster of counties on the Western Slope and central mountains that is projected to grow by between 5,000 and 20,000 residents between now and 2050.

Pitkin County is on the low end of that range, according to “The Population of Colorado,” a study completed by the demographer’s office in November.

The county’s population was 18,006 last year. By 2050 it is projected to grow to 23,209, the study said. That’s an increase of 5,203 residents, or 29 percent…

Regardless of how growth in Pitkin County shakes out, its neighbors are expected to grow at a faster clip. Garfield and Eagle counties are expected to gain about 65 percent in population between 2020 and 2050.

Eagle County is forecast to swell from 57,571 residents in 2020 to a population of 94,459 by 2050.

Garfield County is expected to balloon from 64,119 in 2020 to 105,711 by year 2050…

In the bigger picture of Colorado population growth, Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties are dwarfed by the changes expected in counties of the Front Range. Denver, El Paso, Arapahoe, Adams, Weld and Larimer are all expected to gain more than 200,000 residents by 2050. Boulder, Jefferson, Douglas and Pueblo counties are close behind with estimated growth between 50,001 and 200,000 residents.

Rancher on Crystal River agrees to change diversions to benefit river — @AspenJournalism @COWaterTrust

Rancher Bill Fales stands next to his headgate on the Crystal River.

From Aspen Journalism (Sarah Tory):

There is a new way to put water back in Colorado’s parched rivers.

After more than a year of back and forth with Pitkin County officials, the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust announced Tuesday a pilot agreement with a Carbondale rancher to increase streamflows in the Crystal River during dry years.

The three-year agreement will compensate Bill Fales and Marj Perry, who own the 600-acre Cold Mountain Ranch just west of Carbondale, for retiming their irrigation practices to leave water in the Crystal River when it needs a boost.

Although the Water Trust has spearheaded water leasing arrangements to benefit other rivers in Colorado, the Cold Mountain Ranch deal is the first to involve the timing of irrigation diversions.

For Zach Smith, a staff attorney for the environmental nonprofit Water Trust, the pilot agreement is an important test for whether this type of conservation program can work for ranchers and rivers.

“That’s great for the Crystal itself,” Smith said, “and it’s also great for the Water Trust as we try to figure out how to design projects for working ranches.”

Under the terms of the agreement, the Water Trust will monitor flows in the river and, if flows fall to 40 cubic feet per second (cfs), the ranch may voluntarily shift its diversion scheduling. The Water Trust will then measure the changes in the ranch’s irrigation practices and pay Fales and Perry $175 per cfs per day to encourage that shift. Once streamflows reach 55 cfs, the payments would cease.

The pilot agreement can restore as many as 6 cfs per day in the Crystal River for a maximum of 20 days in August and September (no other months are included), offering a maximum payout of $21,000 per year to Cold Mountain Ranch.

The new deal is the culmination of a multi-year effort to help boost streamflows in the Crystal River, which runs from the Elk Mountains above Marble to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River at Carbondale.

During the drought of 2012, demand for water outpaced supply and the Crystal went dry, prompting the Water Trust to look for new sources of water for the river’s benefit.

Although the Colorado Water Conservation Board has an environmental instream flow right on the Crystal, the water right dates from 1975, far lower in priority than the major agricultural water rights on the Crystal — and thus is of little to no use when the river most needs water.

The Water Trust began consulting with local ranchers and farmers whose senior water rights could be useful during times of drought, asking whether they would be willing to lease some of their irrigation water for the Crystal’s benefit. And many were.

However, most of them, including Fales, were wary of arrangements that involved too much bureaucracy. So the Water Trust devised a more flexible deal, requiring no filings in water court.

Fales was the first to volunteer. He offered to let some of his water rights from the Helms Ditch, which dates from 1899, for the Crystal’s benefit and assumed Pitkin County would be on board, as well. (The county co-owns a conservation easement on Cold Mountain Ranch and had to approve the deal with the Water Trust.)

Instead, the rancher found himself embroiled in a frustrating disagreement with Pitkin County officials who insisted that Fales’ willingness to forgo some of his water when the river needed a boost would put his water rights at risk.

For John Ely, the Pitkin County attorney, the biggest problem was that if Fales kept producing the same amount of alfalfa with less water, his water rights could one day be diminished in water court under the “use it or lose it” principle. This was especially concerning to Ely because the county had paid $7.5 million for the conservation easement on Cold Mountain Ranch.

“If you’re preserving agricultural property, you’re not preserving much if you don’t have the water that goes with it,” Ely said.

The new arrangement addresses the county’s concerns. Instead of reducing his annual water use, Fales will simply shift the timing of his diversions to align with the Crystal’s needs.

The end result, Smith said, will bring the same environmental benefits for the river without affecting Cold Mountain Ranch’s water rights.

What’s more, the pilot agreement marks the first step toward implementing the Crystal River Stream Management Plan, released in 2016, which helped quantify the ecological needs of the river. And it means Pitkin County can finally fulfill its long-stated goal of putting more water in local rivers through the Healthy Rivers and Streams program.

For Smith, the process of working out this kind of arrangement also has broader lessons for other water conservation efforts involving conservation easements. Back in 2012, the Water Trust thought it had a leasing agreement that could be rolled out in different river basins throughout Colorado. Now, Smith said, he’s learned that what works in one community might not work for another.

“We need to be flexible,” he said.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times, Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Vail Daily and Summit Daily News. The Times and the Post Independent published this story on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2017.

Here’s the background from Sarah Tory writing for Aspen Journalism:

Bill Fales is a self-described “sucker for experiments.”

The soft-spoken, unassuming 64-year-old grows alfalfa on his 600-acre ranch just west of Carbondale. For 45 years, Fales has irrigated the fields of Cold Mountain Ranch with water from the Crystal River, which flows 35 miles from its headwaters in the Elk Mountains to the Roaring Fork River.

In spring 2016, the Colorado Water Trust, a Denver-based nonprofit devoted to improving river health, announced a new water conservation initiative to ranchers in the Crystal River valley. Fales was eager to jump on board.

It sounded simple enough: The Water Trust would compensate any ranchers willing to leave some of their irrigation water in the Crystal River to boost flows during dry times. In 2013, Colorado had passed a law protecting water rights registered in conservation programs, and Fales assumed his interest would be met with approval.

Instead, the rancher found himself embroiled in a bewildering disagreement with Pitkin County officials who insisted that Fales’ willingness to forgo some of his water when the river needed a boost would put his water rights at risk.

Why, Fales wondered, was it so hard to do something he thought was good?

Bill Fales pictured on his ranch overlooking the Crystal River. His property is one of the last handful of true operating ranches in Pitkin County.

Wary of bureaucracy

Cold Mountain Ranch is one of the few remaining working ranches in Pitkin County, and Fales always felt protective of the land’s open space and agricultural value. To protect his property from development, he sold a conservation easement on the entire ranch in 2009 to Pitkin County and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust. Under the terms of the easement, the water rights that came with the ranch could not be sold separately from the land.

When it came to water conservation initiatives, however, the West’s system of private water rights often clashed with environmental priorities. That was true of the Crystal River valley, as well. When the Colorado Water Trust first put out the call to local farmers and ranchers in 2012 — a dry year — asking if they would be willing to lease some of their water for the river’s benefit, most of them, including Fales, were wary of the bureaucracy involved in the arrangement.

“It took away your whole ability to make decisions — they’d come and shut off your headgate at one of two predetermined dates,” he said.

Still, Fales knew that ranchers and farmers — and their senior water rights — had an important role to play in helping the Crystal, especially during times of drought.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) has an environmental instream flow right on the Crystal for 100 cubic feet per second from May 1 to Sept. 30 and for 60 cfs from Oct. 1 to April 30. The water right dates from 1975, far lower in priority than the major agricultural water rights on the Crystal — and thus of little to no benefit. During drier years, the river regularly drops well below 100 cfs.

Since most ranchers in the Crystal River valley were uninterested in a formal water-leasing arrangement offered by the state, the Water Trust devised another more flexible option, requiring no filings in water court. The arrangement allowed irrigators to let water flow past their headgates to benefit the Crystal’s flows during dry periods.

When the Water Trust advertised the program to ranchers in the Crystal River valley in spring 2016, Fales was the first to volunteer. They settled on a target flow of 40 cfs, which the recently completed stream management plan showed was an important indicator for river health and also a realistic goal for ranchers.

Fales planned to use his water right on the Helms Ditch, which includes an original right for 2.93 cfs with an appropriation date of 1899 and an enlargement right for 3.07 cfs dating to 1924. He irrigates about 100 acres with the water right.

If the river fell below 40 cfs, Fales would decide if he could turn off the headgate for a short period of time and in exchange, the Water Trust would pay him $175 per cfs of water left in the river per day.

Fales isn’t sure how much water he would be able to leave in the river, as it depends on the time of year and his irrigation demands.

However, an application for “approval of a water conservation program” prepared in December 2016 in anticipation of it being submitted to the Colorado River District, which has the ability to approve such programs, did set parameters on the effort. It said Fales could choose to leave up to 6 cubic feet per second of water in the river at a time, for up to 45 days between July 1 and Sept.30, and up to 535 acre-feet a year overall.

The application says “the exact amount of water in any year to be conserved will vary based on Cold Mountain Ranch’s discretion, river calls, and hydrologic conditions.”

The draft application, which was never formally submitted to the River District, has a footnote observing that “the River District recognizes the precise quantification of water savings may be difficult or impossible” and that “estimates and a description of the method of estimation are sufficient.”

Whatever amount of water is left in the river would flow downstream for at least two miles without a chance of it being diverted by another structure.

And Fales hopes that after a week or two of his not diverting water, other irrigators might step up and turn down their headgates, too, so that collectively they could help the river without causing undue burden on any one rancher.

For Fales, volunteering for the program felt important in another way, as well.

“Putting our head in the sand is not a solution,” he said. “If we don’t come up with something ourselves, the state will tell us what to do or the Front Range will come knocking.”

One of three irrigation ditches that delivers water from the Crystal River to Bill Fales’ Cold Mountain Ranch. Fales owns some of the most senior water rights on the river, which he hopes he can use to help improve its flow during dry periods.

A map provided as part of an application for the water conservation program at Cold Mountain Ranch to the Colorado River District, from December 2016. Source: Colorado Water Trust

Confusing signs from county

In fall 2016, Fales presented his proposal to reduce his water for the purpose of boosting flows in the Crystal River to the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust and Pitkin County officials, who both have a stake in the conservation easement on his ranch. The land trust offered a few amendments, but was otherwise on board. Pitkin County, however, was less enthusiastic.

“I thought they’d give me a big kiss and a hug,” Fales said. “They have their Healthy Rivers and Streams program whose goal was to put water back in the river — which they’ve never done — and now we’d finally be able do that.”

Unbeknownst to Fales, the county had become increasingly protective of agricultural water rights on properties with conservation easements — especially the county attorney, John Ely, the architect of Pitkin County water policy.

He saw all sorts of interests pulling at the Western Slope’s water, from climate change to dramatic growth along the Front Range to Colorado’s legal obligations to deliver a certain amount of water from the Colorado River to other states like Arizona and California. There also was Colorado’s own water laws, which encourage water to be used — anywhere. Already, water from Pitkin and Garfield counties’ Roaring Fork River was diverted hundreds of miles across the mountains to Aurora and Colorado Springs.

“We clearly recognize that if water rights disappear from here then our land has a real possibility of drying up and the water will be used somewhere else,” Ely said.

For Ely, senior agricultural water rights protected much of the county’s water from getting diverted over the Continental Divide. The flip side, of course, is that the agricultural diversions are drying up sections of these rivers.

Still, when it came to water rights, Ely did not want to take any risks — even small ones. Although the conservation easement on the Cold Mountain Ranch allows the owner to temporarily reduce their water for the purpose of maintaining or improving streamflows, Fales’ proposal with the Water Trust was too informal for Ely’s taste.

Under state water law, only the CWCB has the authority to keep water destined for the environment in the river, but Fales and the Water Trust had bypassed the state in crafting their agreement.

Ely feared that another water user would claim the water Fales left in the Crystal. And he worried, too, that if Fales kept producing the same amount of alfalfa with less water, his water rights could one day be diminished in water court under the “use it or lose it” principle. This was especially concerning to Ely because the county had paid $7.5 million for the conservation easement on Cold Mountain Ranch.

“One of our central concerns was once the water was in the river there was no mechanism to keep it there,” Ely said. “If you’re preserving agricultural property, you’re not preserving much if you don’t have the water that goes with it.”

In response to Ely’s concerns, Fales and Zach Smith, the Water Trust lawyer who put together the Cold Mountain Ranch proposal, solicited the input of various environmental organizations and water policy experts to find out if the water Fales left in the Crystal would help the river.

And crucially, was Fales imperiling the Cold Mountain Ranch water rights that Pitkin County had invested in?

Smith and Fales received responses from Trout Unlimited, the Aspen Valley Land Trust, and the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

All of those contacted were in favor of the proposal and saw no problem with regard to Fales’ water rights and his making an application to the River District seeking approval for it.

“Once approved by the River District the plan will protect the Helms Ditch right from abandonment, diminution of historical consumptive use, and any assertion of waste,” Alan Martellaro, the Division 5 engineer at the Colorado Division of Water Resources, wrote in an email to Ely on January 11, 2017. “I believe the application is a simple, good first step toward balancing agricultural and ecological river needs in the Crystal River valley desired by the Water Trust and Bill Fales.”

Meanwhile, Fales, Smith, and Pitkin County officials began meeting to try to resolve their disagreements over the proposal. John Currier, the chief engineer at the Colorado River District, attended one of the meetings.

“I don’t think it’s risky at all from a water-rights protection perspective,” Currier later said. He conceded, however, that someone could, in the future, argue that Fales had been wasting his water if he continued to grow the same amount of alfalfa with less water. The risk, he said, was remote.

The whole ordeal has left Fales feeling frustrated and confused.

“We’re supposed to be one of the most environmentally minded counties, so to say to farmers that they should maximize their diversions is really bizarre,” he said.

In search of a new arrangement

Fales, the Water Trust, and Pitkin County officials continued to meet in the hopes of resolving their differences about the Cold Mountain Ranch proposal. After all, they wanted the same thing: more water in the river.

Although they’re still sorting out the details, Fales, Ely, and the Water Trust are optimistic the new arrangement will satisfy both parties: Instead of reducing his water use, the Water Trust will pay Fales to coordinate the timing of his irrigation diversions with the river’s needs so that he turns down his headgate when the Crystal is running low and back on again when the river is flowing well.

Dale Will believes a successful agreement could ripple throughout the area. Will is acquisition and special projects director at the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program, and the program’s former director.

“That’s why everyone is focused on Cold Mountain Ranch,” Will said. “Not because Bill [Fales] by himself can solve the problem, but because if they can make his proposal work, they can expand it to our other agricultural land.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water in collaboration with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, The Aspen Times, the Vail Daily, and the Summit Daily News. The story was published on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2017 by the Post Independent and The Times.

Aspen officials say city needs to store 8,500 acre-feet of water as backup — @AspenJournalism

Site of proposed maroon creek reservoir via Aspen Journalism.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith)

The city of Aspen told the state [in late December, 2017] it will need 8,500 acre-feet of water storage in order to meet water demands in a hotter and drier world.

The disclosure of how much water storage the city thinks it will need to store in 2065 came as part of a response the city provided Friday to state officials in water court, who were seeking a “substantive” written response by Dec. 29 from the city to issues raised about the potential Maroon Creek and Castle Creek reservoirs.

As part of its response, the city included a Dec. 7 letter from its engineering consultants, Deere and Ault of Longmont, who concluded “the required storage capacity for the city of Aspen is approximately 8,500 acre-feet.”

To help put that into context, Lost Man Reservoir holds 100 acre-feet of water; Grizzly Reservoir on Lincoln Creek holds 590 acre-feet; Wildcat Reservoir, visible from the Snowmass Ski Area, holds 1,100 acre-feet; Harvey Gap Reservoir, north of New Castle, holds 5,060 acre-feet; Paonia Reservoir, west of McClure Pass, holds 20,950 acre-feet; and Ruedi Reservoir on the Fryingpan River holds 102,369 acre-feet.

Engineers at Deere and Ault based their storage estimate on a Nov. 30 study done for the city by Headwaters Corp., titled “Aspen’s Water Future: Estimating the Number and Severity of Possible Future Water Shortages.”

The report, which also was submitted to the court, assumed that a warming climate means less water will be flowing down Castle and Maroon creeks, the city’s two main sources of water, and that the runoff will come earlier.

And, working toward a worst-case scenario, they assumed that the city will not increase water conservation efforts, that large irrigation diversions from Maroon and Castle creeks will not be decreased, and that the city will still try to maintain environmental flow levels on both creeks, which it is not legally obligated to do.

The Headwaters report found that water shortages of over 1,000 acre-feet a year could occur in five out of 100 years, with “shortage” defined to include current irrigation diversions and environmental flows on top of domestic uses.

Deere and Ault then used the Headwaters risk-analysis study to come up with a necessary water storage amount of 8,500 acre-feet to offset the potential water shortages, although its two-page Dec. 7 letter does not describe in detail how it reached its conclusion based on the Headwaters report.

The conclusion from Deere and Ault is different than one made for the city by Wilson Water Group in 2016, which concluded in a report — adopted by the city — that the city would not need new water storage if it took other steps, such as increasing conservation, installing ground wells and using “reuse” water to irrigate its golf course.

In 1965, an engineer working for the city of Aspen selected this location, just below the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks, as the location for a potential 155-foot-tall dam. The city is still on record with the state as intending to build the dam here, if necessary, to meet its future water needs.

Storage rights

The city has been maintaining conditional water storage rights since 1965 for the two potential reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks.

The Maroon Creek Reservoir would hold 4,567 acre-feet of water behind a 155-foot-tall dam across upper Maroon Creek, within view of the Maroon Bells, and the Castle Creek Reservoir would hold, as currently decreed, 9,062 acre-feet behind a 170-foot-tall dam across Castle Creek, 2 miles below Ashcroft.

The conditional storage rights, which hold a 1971 decree, are distinct from the city’s absolute diversion rights on Castle and Maroon, which are senior rights and adequately supply the city’s water system today.

In July, the city announced its intention to try to transfer the conditional storage rights out of the Castle and Maroon creek valleys, and it has put a parcel of land next to the gravel pit in Woody Creek under contract and directed staff to begin developing a reservoir there.

A study done by Deere and Ault in September concluded the city could store up to 8,000 acre-feet of water on the Woody Creek site. The city has said it is also looking at other places to potentially store water, including the city’s golf course and the Cozy Point open space at the intersection of Brush Creek Road and Highway 82.

The city has also put forth a settlement proposal to the 10 parties opposing its efforts to maintain its water rights, and the proposal is predicated upon the city transferring its storage rights out of the Castle and Maroon creek valleys.

But no settlement has yet been reached and the city is still officially on the record with the state of Colorado, through its two applications in water court, saying it fully intends to build both the Castle and Maroon creek reservoirs, someday, when necessary.

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

Outstanding questions

After reviewing the two due diligence applications filed by the city in October 2016 seeking to maintain the conditional storage rights, the division engineer and water court referee in Divison 5 in Glenwood Springs raised a set of threshold issues they wanted the city to address.

The officials asked on Jan. 23 for the city to demonstrate it could secure permits and land-use approvals to build the dams and reservoirs, that it could do so in a reasonable time, that it has a specific plan to build them, and that there was sufficient population growth in Aspen’s water service area to justify storing the water.

The city’s water attorney, Cynthia Covell of Alperstein and Covell in Denver, has been reluctant to respond in detail to the court’s request, which came in the form of a summary of consultation.

In her Dec. 29 letter to the court, Covell suggested it was outside of the court’s purview to ask the city to do so at this point in the proceedings.

“Aspen maintains that much of this concern is based on the division engineer’s view of applicable law, and is beyond the proper scope of a consultation report, but nevertheless, responds as follows …” Covell said in her letter.

Covell then reiterated several points that city officials have been making over the past year, including that the city today does not have any “meaningful storage facilities” and that climate change projections “demonstrate the need for storage.”

And while she did not make a detailed case to the court that the city of Aspen could build the Castle Creek Reservoir or the Maroon Creek Reservoir, she did say Aspen could get the necessary permits and arrange financing for reservoirs.

“As a financially stable municipality, Aspen has available to it a number of financing options and therefore will be able to construct a reservoir sufficient to store 8,500 acre-feet,” Covell told the court in her letter in the Castle Creek case. “The decreed location of the Castle Creek Reservoir is primarily on private land. Aspen is able to acquire private land by purchase, lease or eminent domain. Legal procedures and mechanisms exist to obtain land-use approvals and permits on federal land, if necessary, including special-use permit, Congressional authorization and presidential authorization.”

On the other hand, Covell included language that alludes to the city’s stated intent to try to transfer the Castle and Maroon rights out of Castle Creek to another location, such as Woody Creek, and then fill that new reservoir with water from both Castle and Maroon creeks.

“Aspen will develop both the Castle Creek Reservoir storage right (to the extent of 8,500 acre-feet) [and] the companion Maroon Creek Reservoir storage right … in order to provide two sources to meet this storage need,” Covell wrote, without specifically mentioning a reservoir outside of the Castle or Maroon creek valleys. “The total amount of storage will be 8,500 acre-feet from both sources, with no more than 8,500 acre-feet to be diverted annually from Castle Creek. Aspen will relinquish the remaining 562 acre-feet decreed to the Castle Creek Reservoir.”

It’s not clear why the city is willing to relinquish 562 acre-feet from the potential Castle Creek Reservoir right, which is now decreed at 9,062 acre-feet, but it may be a reflection of two earlier agreements with adjoining land owners to reduce the size of the reservoir so as not to flood their properties.

In a separate letter to the court regarding Maroon Creek, Covell took a similar stance, saying the city “will be able to construct a reservoir sufficient to store the 4,567 acre-feet per year to be diverted from Maroon Creek,” but didn’t say where that reservoir might be located.

A status conference in the two water court cases is set for Jan. 4. The parties could agree to keep the case on a quasi-administrative track in front of a water court referee, or the case could be set on a trial track in front of a water court judge.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating on coverage of rivers and water with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Vail Daily, and the Summit Daily News. The Aspen Times published this story in its print edition on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2017 and the Post Independent published it on Jan. 3.

Aspen’s proposal to move rights out of Castle and Maroon creeks well-received — @AspenJournalism

Castle Creek

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

The city of Aspen has put forward a proposal that would move its conditional water-storage rights, and with it two potential dams and reservoirs, out of the Castle Creek and Maroon Creek valleys and spread a proposed 8,500 acre-feet of water storage among as much as six locations between Aspen and Woody Creek.

That deal was well-received Thursday by opposing parties in two water-court cases tied to the potential Castle and Maroon reservoirs during a brief water court status conference. The city circulated a settlement proposal Dec. 8 to the 10 parties opposing the city’s efforts to maintain a conditional right to store 4,567 acre-feet of water in a potential Maroon Creek Reservoir and 9,062 acre-feet in a potential Castle Creek Reservoir.

In its proposal, according to sources close to the negotiations, the city said it will seek to transfer its conditional storage rights from the two reservoirs to other potential reservoirs on a range of other sites that could hold as much as a combined 8,500 acre-feet of water from Maroon and Castle creeks.

The reservoirs, either surface or underground “in-situ,” would be built on a range of potential locations including the city’s golf course, the Moore, Burlingame, and Cozy Point open space parcels, the gravel pit in Woody Creek operated by Elam Construction, and a parcel of vacant land next to the gravel pit the city now has under contract.

Under the deal, the city would make a firm commitment to move its potential reservoirs out of the Maroon Creek and Castle Creek valleys, and the opposing parties would refrain from fighting the city’s future efforts in water court to transfer its conditional storage rights, and its 1971 decree dates, to the new locations.

“Based on what I’ve heard today it sounds like … there is some consensus that the cases are moving toward settlement,” Division 5 water court referee Susan Ryan said Thursday after each of the attorneys in the two cases stated their view of the ongoing settlement negotiations.

Ryan set another status conference in the two cases for Feb. 15.

The city filed two periodic applications with the court Oct. 31, 2016, to show it’s been diligent in developing its conditional storage rights for the Maroon and Castle creek reservoirs, which it first filed in 1965. The recent applications drew opposition from the U.S. Forest Service, Pitkin County, American Rivers, Colorado Trout Unlimited, Western Resource Advocates, Wilderness Workshop, and four private landowners, two in each valley.

James DuBois, an attorney with the U.S. Justice Department in Denver, told the referee during Thursday’s status conference that “as far as the United States’ objections, I think it’s likely we’ll be able to reach settlement.”

Craig Corona, a water attorney representing the Larsen family, which owns property in Maroon Creek, also was bullish on the city’s proposal to move the water rights out of the valleys.

“Larsen Family LP feels like we’re making substantial progress in negotiating toward a settlement,” Corona told the water court referee. “And we’re happy to stay on the referee’s docket at least for another 45 days to try to finalize the settlement agreement.”

Any party in a water court case has the option at any time to re-refer a case away from a settlement track under the purview of a water court referee and put the case on a trial track in front of a water court judge.

Paul Noto, a water attorney representing American Rivers, Colorado Trout Unlimited, and another Maroon Creek landowner, told the court, “My broad view of the status is that we are making some headway toward settlement and I’d prefer, for one, to avoid trial-track deadlines and focus on settlement issues.”

Rob Harris, a staff attorney at Western Resource Advocates, who also is representing Wilderness Workshop, said, “I agree that we’ve made significant progress toward settlement and I think we’d benefit from at least another couple months or so to pursue settlement.”

Attorneys for Pitkin County and the two property owners in Castle Creek said they did not object to the case staying in front of the referee.

Aspen’s water attorney, Cynthia Covell, told the court that the city has only just recently received a number of written comments to its proposal from the opposing parties, and that the city would like about a month to review them and further discuss its proposal with the parties.

The property next to the Elam gravel pit and the Woody Creek raceway that the City of Aspen has put under contract. The city is investigating the site as a place for potential water storage, either underground or above ground.

Storage options

Aspen officials have been reviewing alternative water storage sites for about a year with the help of Deere and Ault, an engineering firm in Longmont.

A study done in September by Deere and Ault identified a range of in-situ and surface reservoirs that could be built, in differing combinations, on the Woody Creek gravel pit site and the neighboring parcel of land the city intends to buy.

The options include a 320 acre-foot in-situ, or underground, reservoir and five options for surface reservoirs in various configurations that would hold between 700 acre-feet and 8,000 acre-feet of water. The Woody Creek reservoirs range in cost from $48 million to $81 million and would require about 6.5 miles of pipeline to reach the city’s water treatment plant.

Deere and Ault has also found, in a screening study of various sites, that the city could store water in a number of potential in-situ reservoirs on other sites upvalley from Woody Creek.

In-situ reservoirs require deep trenches dug 50 to 100 feet down to bedrock, depending on the site. The trenches form the walls of the storage vessel, or bucket, while the bedrock, and sometimes a geosynthetic liner, forms the bottom of the bucket.

The rocks and dirt on the site are not excavated, but left in place between water-tight slurry walls poured into the surrounding trenches. Water is then poured into the bucket and pumped out for later use.

Deere and Ault found that an in-situ reservoir could be built on the city-owned Moore open space, across Maroon Creek Road from the Aspen Chapel, to hold 550 acre-feet of water, at a cost of $26.9 million. The water could then be pumped nearly a mile via a pipeline to the city’s water treatment plant, which is on a hill behind Aspen Valley Hospital.

The city’s golf course could hold two in-situ reservoirs, one holding 650 acre-feet and another holding 760 acre-feet, for a total of 1400 acre-feet, at a combined cost of $71.3 million.

The Burlingame, or Zoline, open space, which is 1.9 miles from the water treatment plant and owned by the city, could accommodate a 650-acre-foot in-situ reservoir, at an estimated project cost of $34 million.

The Cozy Point open space, also owned by the city, could hold two 100-acre-foot reservoirs for a combined 200 acre-feet of storage. The site is 5.6 miles from the water treatment plant and the estimated project cost for the reservoirs and pipeline system is $15.5 million.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Vail Daily, and the Summit Daily on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017.

Agencies clarify status of famed ‘Toilet Bowl’ trout fishing area, anglers will continue having access

The ‘Toilet Bowl” remains open to anglers fishing from shore, but remains closed to water activities, including paddle boarding, free diving, swimming and wading

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife:

Colorado Parks and Wildlife, city of Aspen, Bureau of Reclamation, Eagle County Sheriff’s office and the U.S. Forest Service are confirming anglers will continue having fishing access to the ‘Toilet Bowl from the shore; however, paddle boarding, free diving, swimming, and wading will remain prohibited.

Officials stress the water, located at the base of the Ruedi Dam on the Fryingpan River, is turbulent and subject to sudden changes in depth and flows. In addition, they caution the area has underwater hazards people are unable to see.

The five government agencies met last week to address social media rumors claiming the Toilet Bowl would no longer be accessible to anglers.

“Much of the confusion stems from varied interpretations of the existing signs which were placed to prevent unsafe activities and protect dam infrastructure” said District Wildlife Manager Matt Yamashita of Basalt. “It was made clear during the meeting that the intent is to prohibit in-water recreation in the deep portion of the Toilet Bowl section, for safety and security reasons. Anglers standing on the shore are not the concern.”

Yamashita says the city of Aspen and Bureau of Reclamation will update signs in the area to clarify restrictions.

“Ultimately, for anglers, not much has changed,” he said. “They can continue to fish there, as they always have. Going forward, we ask everyone to follow the rules and regulations as signed, and be sure to respect all current and future signage.”

Officials recently repaired the fence around the hydroelectric plant, replacing a section damaged by a vehicle. Workers also placed posts for a gate they will install this spring. The gate will help keep vehicles away from hydroelectric plant structures.

“The fence and the gate only restrict vehicle access, not foot traffic,” added Yamashita.

The famed fishing hole is popular with anglers, many who travel from around the world to catch the large trout that thrive in the pool.

Aspen increases spending on water rights for 2018

Site of proposed maroon creek reservoir via Aspen Journalism.

From Aspen Public Radio (Elizabeth Steart-Severy):

The city spent $89,000 [in 2017] on legal work to keep their rights to build reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks. The city faces opposition in water court from environmental groups, property owners and other government agencies.

One of the biggest concerns is that reservoirs on those scenic creeks would flood wilderness areas. That legal work will continue into 2018.

Next year, the budget for attorneys fees and other legal issues related to water rights grows to $330,000.

As the city works to keep the rights on Castle and Maroon creeks, staff has also hired consultants to find alternative locations to store water. So far, those studies have cost more than $300,000.