A 10-year agreement between the city of Aspen and Colorado Water Trust will help keep the Roaring Fork River flowing at a healthy rate through the remainder of the summer season…
The project is meant to boost river flows and added up to three cubic feet per second of water to the river’s flow, which will help maintain sustainable water levels, according to a press release from Colorado Water Trust…
“The Roaring Fork is bone low,” Aspen’s utility resource manager Steve Hunter said. “I think every little bit helps — every little bit of water that we can leave in the Roaring Fork, anything we can do to help the fish, the wildlife, the recreation, all those things. Three cfs is a very small number, but we’re doing the best we can with what we have.”
The city uses a headgate at the Wheeler Ditch to store water, and on Tuesday, staff members adjusted it to allow one cfs into the ditch so that the rest of the water stays in the river, Hunter said. He added that it’s important for everyone in the Roaring Fork Valley, not only in Aspen, to do their best to conserve water, especially in back-to-back drought years.
“As we adapt to climate change in Colorado, we’re fortunate to have flexible water sharing tools like the one that allows the city to leave a portion of their Wheeler Ditch water right in the Roaring Fork River,” Colorado Water Trust Program Director Mickey O’Hara said in the press release. “These tools allow communities to build flow restoration projects that support the natural environment while boosting flows for the benefit of the local community.”
Bureau of Reclamation warns of potential impacts to Aspen hydro plant, water contract holders
Water levels at Ruedi Reservoir could fall so low this winter that the city of Aspen could have difficulty making hydro-electric power and those who own water in the reservoir could see shortages.
That’s according to projections by the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the reservoir near the headwaters of the Fryingpan River. At the annual Ruedi operations meeting on Aug. 5, officials estimated the reservoir will fall to around 55,000 acre-feet this winter, what’s known as carry-over storage. According to Tim Miller, a hydrologist with the Bureau of Reclamation who manages operations at Ruedi, the lowest-ever carry-over storage for the reservoir was just over 47,000 acre-feet in 2002, one of the driest years on record. Last year’s carry-over was about 64,000 acre-feet.
At 55,000 acre-feet, the elevation of the water is about 7,709 feet. That’s about two feet lower than Aspen officials would like.
“We don’t like being below 7,711,” said Robert Covington, water resources/hydroelectric supervisor for the city.
That’s because the hydro plant needs a certain amount of water pressure to operate. The higher the water elevation, the more water pressure there is.
According to Covington, power providers Xcel Energy and Holy Cross Energy sometimes temporarily and quickly shut down the hydro-electric plant when there are problems with transmission lines or they need to do repairs.
“It’s very common for these types of plants to automatically shut down,” Covington said.
The problem is that restarting the plant requires a larger amount of water than the 40 cubic feet per second that is roughly the minimum amount required to operate the plant efficiently.
“It’s very difficult for us to get back online so we end up pushing more water through for a very short period of time,” he said.
If Aspen has to shut down the plant because flows are too low, the city could purchase more wind power to maintain its 100% renewable portfolio.
“When we go lower on hydro, we go with wind, which is generally the most cost-effective,” said Steve Hunter, utilities resource manager with the city.
Shortages to contract holders
Another consequence of low carry-over storage means that Ruedi will start out even lower next spring when the snow begins to melt and the reservoir begins to fill again. That means if there is below-average runoff again, some contract holders who own water in Ruedi could have to take shortages, something that has never happened before, Miller said.
There are 32 entities that have “contract water” in Ruedi, which the bureau releases at their request. This is water that has been sold by the bureau to recover the costs of building and operating the reservoir. The contract pool is separated into two rounds and contract holders will take a previously agreed upon shortage amount depending on which round they are in.
“If we get another similar type of runoff this year, there will be shortages most likely to the contract pool,” Miller said.
But there are still uncertainties in predicting how low the reservoir will go. The biggest of these is how much water will be released for the benefit of the endangered fish in the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction.
There is a 10,412 acre-foot pool available for the fish, but in dry years entities that store water in Ruedi will sometimes coordinate to release more fish water in the late summer and fall. This would draw down the reservoir even further. It’s still not clear how much water will be released this fall for the four species of endangered fish.
“The release defines the carry-over,” Miller said.
Despite initial bureau forecasts in April that projected Ruedi could probably fill to its entire 102,373 acre-foot capacity, Ruedi ended up only about 80% full this year. July 11 was the peak fill date at 83,256 acre-feet and an elevation of 7,745 feet.
“It was probably a little over-optimistic,” Miller said of the April forecast. “But at the time our snowpack was average. It was a reasonable forecast given the conditions.”
As climate change worsens the drought in the Western U.S., Ruedi is not the only reservoir to face water levels so low that they threaten the ability to produce hydroelectric power. Last month, the bureau began emergency releases from Upper Basin reservoirs, including Blue Mesa on the Gunnison River, to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to produce hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam.
This story ran in the Aug. 10 edition of The Aspen Times.
High up on Colorado’s Independence Pass, a narrow, winding road weaves through the evergreens and across mountain streams, up and over the Continental Divide at more than 10,000 feet. At one point that road crosses a canal.
It’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, but that canal is part of water infrastructure that makes life on Colorado’s Front Range possible.
The state has a geographical mismatch between where water shows up and where much of the population has settled.
“Wherever you are in this state, you’re either at the source of the drinking water supply, you’re in the middle of the drinking water supply, or you’re at the end of the tap,” said Christina Medved, outreach director at Roaring Fork Conservancy. “So on the Western slope, we are at the source of the water.”
About 80% of Colorado’s water falls on the western side of the state. Much of it is high-mountain snow and rain that eventually trickles down into streams and rivers like the ones on Independence Pass.
But about 80% of Colorado’s people live on the east side of the mountains. Because of gravity, that water doesn’t flow to them naturally. Instead, Colorado’s heavily-populated Front Range relies on a massive plumbing system to keep drinking water flowing to its taps.
For a century and a half, engineers have carved up the mountains with tunnels and canals that pipe water across the state through trans-mountain diversions. Some of that infrastructure is nestled near the high-alpine headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, which eventually flows through Aspen and Glenwood Springs on its way to the Colorado River. Near Lost Man reservoir, a dam and tunnel create a juncture between water that will follow that natural path westward to the Colorado, and water that will be diverted eastward through the mountains and onto cities such as Colorado Springs.
A tunnel through the mountains draws in water that will pass through two reservoirs and the Arkansas River on its way to the southern portion of the Front Range. Water diverted from the Colorado River basin, through trans-mountain diversions, makes up 60 to 70% of the water used by Colorado Springs. Denver, Greeley, Fort Collins and smaller municipalities on the Front Range also rely heavily on Western Slope water.
And these kinds of set ups aren’t confined to Colorado. Similar systems bring water to big cities all across the region. Salt Lake City, Albuquerque and Los Angeles rely on canals and tunnels to ship faraway water into their pipes. New ones are in the works on the Front Range and in southern Utah.
But these systems aren’t without critics.
“When you first learn about it, the concept of a trans-mountain diversion is crazy,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “It seems wrong. It seems antithetical to the health of the river. And I have to say all of that’s true.”
His organization was set up in the 1930s to oppose these diversions and ensure that there is enough water for people on the Western side of the state…
The issue is, contemporary environmental values aren’t written into the West’s water law. Instead, water use is defined by regulations written when Colorado first became a state in the 1800s. The rules say that if you have rights to use water, it doesn’t matter if you want to use it hundreds of miles away from its source – even if that requires miles of cross-mountain plumbing to do so.
At this moment, there is less water to pull from in every part of the state. The Front Range escaped from drought after steady spring rains, but those high-mountain areas that usually provide a dependable source of water for all of Colorado are experiencing a different fate. The western slope is deep in the second year of drought conditions, leaving snowpack and river flows lower than they should be.
Mueller thinks that only sharpens the need for the Front Range to curtail its water use. Although they retain the legal right to use a certain amount of water, he’s asking them to use less – which he says will promote the health of rivers and their ecosystems west of the divide.
On the Front Range, those on the receiving end of diversions say they are listening to their western counterparts when they put up distress signals during particularly critical times. They also say deliberate conservation work is paying off in the longer term. Nathan Elder, water supply manager for Denver Water, said over the past two decades, per capita water use in his district is down by 22%.
“Everyone in Colorado needs to decrease their use,” he said…
Amid tension between demands for water on both sides, exacerbated by extreme drought conditions, is the fact that there is not much of an alternative. Colorado’s water system is built to accommodate the fact that the majority of its people and the majority of its water are far from each other. Without fundamental changes to the bedrock of water law, those asking for water will have to work within a system built on trans-mountain diversions…
Some contingency planning – within the reality of a diversion-centric system – is already in place. In Colorado Springs, which receives some of the flow diverted from the top of Independence Pass, re-use practices are helping the city get more mileage out of the water it’s apportioned.
Abby Ortega, water resources manager for Colorado Springs Utilities, said reused water accounts for 26% of the city’s total portfolio and the city relies heavily on storage to get through dry years like this one.
But climate change threatens to increase the frequency and intensity of droughts, which has water managers on edge and looking more intently at ways to maximize what’s available.
“Every water planner in the state has some worry with the rapidly declining hydrology on the Colorado river,” Ortega said.
State officials are preparing for a future with less water by developing rules and guidance for water users to measure how much they are taking from streams.
State Engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources Kevin Rein is planning a rule-making process on measurement devices that includes stakeholder input. Although state engineers in each water division have the authority to enforce the requirement of measurement devices, Rein said drafting more formal rules through an administrative rule-making process, instead of an ad hoc push like in the Yampa River basin, would affirm that authority. Rules would also include specific technical guidance on the best types of flumes, weirs and meters to use for different types of diversions.
“The idea about rule-making is that we would have consistent guidance across the basin, developed through a formal process,” Rein said. “One thing I’ve found is that when you have stakeholder involvement in the development, then you have stakeholder buy-in during the implementation.”
Yampa/White/Green river basin
Division 6 Engineer Erin Light is still taking a lenient stance with water users in the White and Green river basins while the measurement rules are developed. In fall 2019, Light ordered nearly 500 water users in the Yampa River basin to install measuring devices to record their water use and initially received some push-back from agricultural water users unaccustomed to measuring their diversions.
In March 2020, Light issued notices to water users in the White and Green, but decided to delay sending formal orders after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the economy. Orders are still on pause while Rein’s office develops the measurement rules, which would apply across the Western Slope.
“It made more sense to wait for the measurement rules to at least get started, maybe not necessarily get completed, but allow Kevin to get out and start doing the stakeholder meetings and encourage these structures to be installed without orders,” Light said.
Compliance is gradually increasing across the basin, but at a slower pace than Light would like. In January 2020, 49% of diversions in the Yampa River basin did not have a measuring device; as of April 2021, 42% were still without one. White River basin compliance has improved from 83% without a measuring device to 68% over the same time period; water users in the Green have gone from 69% to 49%. As a whole, Division 6 has gone from 55% of diversions without measuring devices to 46%.
“I would have hoped that we would have had more compliance at this point,” Light said. “I look at those numbers and think we still have some work in front of us and how are we going to accomplish our goal, which is to assure that all of these structures that we maintain records on have operable headgates and measuring devices.”
In some basins on the Western Slope, nearly all diversions already have measuring devices. For example, in the Roaring Fork and Crystal river basins, about 95% of the structures have devices, according to Colorado Department of Natural Resources Communications Director Chris Arend. That’s because there has traditionally been more demand and competition for water in these basins, he said.
Water shortages drive measurement push
The push for Western Slope diverters to measure their water use comes down to impending water shortages. Division 6, in sparsely populated northwest Colorado, has traditionally enjoyed abundant water and few demands, but as climate change tightens its grip on the West, there is less water to go around. Calls by senior water users have gone from unheard of to increasingly common in just the last few years.
“We definitely have systems on call that have never been on call,” Light said of current conditions in the Yampa.
A call occurs when a senior water rights holder is not getting their full amount they are entitled to. They place a call with state engineers, who shut off more junior water rights users so the senior user can get their full amount. Under Colorado’s prior appropriation system, the oldest water rights have first use of the river.
“If you don’t have a measuring device during a call, we are shutting you off, period,” Light said.
As the threat of a Colorado River Compact call and the possibility of a state demand-management program grow, state officials say the need to measure water use grows, too.
A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the lower basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — as required by the 1922 compact. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid this scenario, in part because it could trigger mandatory cutbacks for water users.
If a compact call were to play out, measuring devices would be crucial, because as Rein says, you can’t administer what you can’t measure.
“We need to better measure what has been diverted, so having measurement rules and therefore measuring devices in place will be critical to prepare for and implement compact administration, should it happen,” he said.
The state is also currently exploring a potential demand management program, which would temporarily pay irrigators to not irrigate and leave more water in the river. The goal would be to boost water levels in Lake Powell and avoid a compact call. But in order to participate in the voluntary program, feasibility of which is still being evaluated, irrigators need to first measure their water diversions.
“We would have to know how much they were using in the years before, before we can give them credit for not using it,” Rein said.
Low interest in grant funding
One of the reasons Light originally paused enforcing the measurement device requirement in the White River basin was to give conservancy districts time to secure grant money to help irrigators pay for the potentially expensive infrastructure. But there was not much interest from water users in getting grant money, according to Callie Hendrickson, executive director of the White River & Douglas Creek Conservation Districts.
“We did not proceed with (securing grants),” she said. “We didn’t hear from very many people that they were seeking funding.”
The story was similar on the Yampa. The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District had a $200,000 pot of money — half of it state grant money and half from the district — to reimburse water users for installing measuring devices. Irrigators can get 50% of their costs covered, up to $5,000 through the first tier of the grant program. According to Public Information and External Affairs Manager Holly Kirkpatrick, despite a very simple application process, the program has doled out just under $40,000 so far for about 20 projects.
“I had certainly hoped to have more interest in the first year of the program,” she said.
As Rein plans for webinars and meetings with water users later this summer and fall, the situation in the Colorado River basin grows more dire. The Bureau of Reclamation this week began emergency releases from Upper Basin reservoirs to prop up levels in Lake Powell to try to maintain the ability to produce hydroelectric power at Glen Canyon Dam.
“I recognize the value in having measurement rules as soon as possible because, yes, they would be extremely helpful if we need to take measures toward compact administration,” Rein said. “Having more data sooner rather than later is important.”
The ongoing drought across much of the West and above-average temperatures have water quality managers like [Chad] Rudow concerned.
“We had a below-average snowpack, and that snow melted off quicker than usual,” Rudow said. “The double whammy that we got is we went into the year with below-average soil moisture levels.”
When the snow did melt, a lot of that moisture went toward replenishing depleted soil and did not make it back into the rivers, necessarily.
Tanner Shelp, an employee at Roaring Fork Anglers, said although trout fishing had been “amazing” so far this summer, he was worried about it being short lived due to warmer water temperatures and the sheer number of people out on the water each day…
Trout can easily die, even if an angler adheres to proper catch-and-release techniques when water temperatures exceed the mid-60s…
Once river temperatures hit the mid- to upper 60s, the brown, rainbow and other species of trout swimming their waters get stressed, Shelp said…
According to data from the United States Geological Survey, the Roaring Fork River’s water temperature ranged between 57 and 61 degrees Fahrenheit [July 1, 2021]. The Roaring Fork Conservancy via its Instagram account warned that Wednesday night, the Roaring Fork River reached 64 degrees, adding “several stretches along the Colorado River (Upper Colorado and Utah border) have already reached 70 degrees.”
Officials say back-up water supply plan will not affect Wild & Scenic designation
Representatives from the Colorado River Water Conservation District say their efforts to develop a solution to a water shortage on the Crystal River will probably include natural fixes before a dam and reservoir and that the plan should not impact a future Wild & Scenic designation.
Staff from the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District presented some preliminary findings of a study of a back-up water supply plan, known as an augmentation plan, to Pitkin County commissioners [June 22, 2021]. They said their preference is to find and develop natural infrastructure like aquifer recharge or wetlands restoration before proposing a dam and reservoir.
Water could be diverted and stored in an underground aquifer during peak flows and then be allowed to slowly seep back into the river when it’s needed. Restoring wetlands can raise the water table throughout the valley floor, creating a sponge that holds water.
River District staff said they would absolutely not consider storage on the main stem of the Crystal — any potential small reservoir would be on a tributary — and that whatever solutions they come up with shouldn’t affect the long-held goal of some residents to get a federal Wild & Scenic designation to protect the free-flowing nature of the river.
River District Director of Government Relations Zane Kessler said the River District is working with environmental groups like American Rivers to find a solution to the shortage.
“We see a real opportunity to do something cool here and think outside the box,” he said. “I don’t know that natural infrastructure could take care of all of it, but we want to prioritize that first and look at opportunities.”
The River District, along with Rifle-based West Divide Water Conservancy District, undertook the study, paid for by a state grant, to examine a problem that became evident during the summer of 2018: that in dry years there may not be enough water for both irrigators and residential subdivisions.
“2018 was a wake-up call for water users on the Crystal,” Kessler said.
That August, the Ella Ditch, which irrigates land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the river for the first time ever. That meant that junior water rights holders upstream were supposed to stop taking water so that the Ella Ditch, which has water rights dating to 1902, could receive its full amount. Under Colorado’s prior appropriation system, those with the oldest water rights have first use of the river.
The Colorado Division of Water Resources did not enforce the call by turning off water to homes, but instead told water users they must work together to create a basin-wide augmentation plan.
Most junior water rights holders have augmentation plans, which allows them to continue using water during a call by replacing it with water from another source, like releasing it from a reservoir. The problem on the Crystal is that several residential subdivisions don’t have augmentation plans.
Until water users come up with a permanent solution, DWR has said it may not allow outdoor water use when a senior call is on as a temporary fix. Water managers expect once-rare calls by irrigators to become more frequent as rising temperatures result in less water in streams.
River District staff presented the first step in the study: a demand quantification or putting numbers on the amount of water needed for different uses throughout the year.
Engineers found 90 structures — many of them wells for in-house water use — that take water from the river system and which would need to be included in the augmentation plan. These 90 structures deliver water to 197 homes, 80 service connections in Marble, nearly 23 irrigated acres, Beaver Lake and Orlosky Reservoir in Marble, 16,925 square-feet of commercial space, plus some water for livestock.
In order for these water users to keep taking water during a downstream call by an irrigator, they would have to replace about 113 acre-feet of water in the Crystal River per year. The amount of extra flow that would need to be added to the river is small — just .58 cubic feet per second during July, the peak replacement month.
Some commissioners asked if simply using less water — instead of creating a new supply of water — especially by irrigators on the lower Crystal, could solve the problem.
“I’d love to see an analysis of the conservation opportunities,” said Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury. “What can we do that’s not taking the water out, but preserving it in the stream?”
River District General Manager Andy Mueller acknowledged there may be more “aggressive” irrigators on the Crystal, but that in addition, climate change is decreasing the amount of water available. He said he wants the River District to work more closely with Pitkin County to find conservation opportunities.
“I think those types of opportunities require identifying the potential for them but then developing relationships with the water users,” Mueller said.
Tuesday’s meeting was a chance for board members from both organizations, which have not historically seen eye to eye on water issues, to work together and ask questions. Next steps include public outreach and education, coordinating with water managers and eventually developing a basin-wide augmentation strategy.
“We are going to continue to evaluate alternatives and try to get some additional expertise in the realm of natural infrastructure or aquifer recharge,” Kessler said. “We are going to do our best to make sure that this effort aligns with the Wild & Scenic values that the community supports.”
The Arkansas Valley Conduit promises to bring clean drinking water to more residents of southeast Colorado
n the 1940s, the Arkansas River was dammed south of town to build [John Martin Reservoir], a place locals call the Sapphire on the Plains. The reservoir was tied up in a 40-year battle until Colorado and Kansas came to an agreement, in 2019, to provide an additional water source to help keep the levels high enough for recreation and to support fish.
Forty years may seem like a long time to develop a plan to save fish and improve water levels for a reservoir, but southeastern Colorado is used to long fights when it comes to water…
For nearly a century, leaders in southeastern Colorado have worked on plans to bring clean drinking water to the area through the proposed Arkansas Valley Conduit, but progress on the pipeline project stalled after a major push in the 1960s. Pollution, water transfers and years of worsening drought amid a warming climate continue to build stress for water systems in the area. Adding to that, the area continues to see population decline combined with a struggling economy.
The water needed for the conduit will be sourced from melting snowpack in the Mosquito and Sawatch mountain ranges [ed. and Colorado River Basin]. Under the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project Act, passed in the early 1960s, the water has been allocated for usage in the Lower Arkansas Valley. The water will be stored at Pueblo Reservoir and travel through existing infrastructure to east Pueblo near the airport. From there, the conduit will tie into nearly 230 miles of pipeline to feed water to 40 communities in need.
Renewed plans to build a pipeline to deliver clean drinking water to the Lower Arkansas Valley are bringing hope for many people in southeastern Colorado. But in an area that is inextricably linked to its water, the future can seem unclear…
“Deliver on that promise”
“It was nearly 100 years ago, in the 1930s, that the residents of southeast Colorado recognized that the water quality in the lower valley of the Arkansas River was quite poor,” said Bill Long, president of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and a former Bent County commissioner.
Water systems in the district, which includes Pueblo, Crowley, Bent, Prowers, Kiowa and Otero counties, have two main issues affecting drinking water.
The first is that a majority of those systems rely on alluvial groundwater, which can have a high level of dissolved solids. This can include selenium, sulfate, manganese and uranium, which are linked to human health concerns.
Second, the remaining systems in the water district rely on the Dakota-Cheyenne bedrock aquifer that can be affected by naturally occurring radionuclides. Radium and other radionuclides in the underlying geologic rock formation can dissolve into the water table and then be present in drinking water wells, also carrying health risks.
In 1962, residents in southeastern Colorado thought President John F. Kennedy was delivering a solution to their drinking water problem during a ceremony in Pueblo. Congress had passed the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project Act, and Kennedy came to Pueblo to authorize the construction of a pipeline to deliver clean drinking water…
Residents of the 1930s began working on ideas to deliver clean drinking water to southeastern Colorado. By the 1950s, they were selling gold frying pans to raise money to send backers to Washington, D.C., to encourage Congress to pass the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project Act. But it wasn’t until 1962 that the pipeline authorization became a reality.
Fast forward 58 years, and two more politicians came to Pueblo to address a crowd about the same pipeline project. This time, on Oct. 3, 2020, it was at the base of Pueblo Dam. Because of funding shortfalls, the Arkansas Valley Conduit was never built after it was authorized in 1962.
The Colorado communities could not afford to cover 100% of the costs, as initially required, so in 2009, the act was amended to include a 65% federal share and a 35% local cost share. Additionally, in 2020, Congress appropriated $28 million more toward the project, according to the water conservancy district.
That October day, Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner took turns talking about the importance of the project. They told a small crowd that when the pipeline is built, it will provide clean drinking water to 50,000 residents in southeastern Colorado…
The water conservancy district estimates the pipeline project’s cost will range from $546 million to $610 million…
Physical construction of the pipeline won’t start until 2022, according to the water district…
“The solution to pollution Is dilution”
A hand-painted sign with stenciled letters welcomes travelers on Highway 96 into Olney Springs. The highway cuts across four blocks that make up the width of the small town with around 340 residents.
Olney Springs is one of six water systems in Crowley County that plans to have a delivery point, known as a spur, on the Arkansas Valley Conduit. The plans for the pipeline call for two spurs in Pueblo County, three in both Bent and Prowers counties, and one in Kiowa County. Out of the 40 total participants, the remaining 25 are in Otero County…
Located along the Arkansas River about 70 miles east of Pueblo, La Junta is the largest municipality in Otero County. With its population around 7,000 and a Walmart Supercenter, a Holiday Inn Express and Sonic Drive-In, La Junta can feel like a metropolis when compared to Olney Springs.
La Junta is one of two Arkansas Valley Conduit participants, along with Las Animas, that uses reverse osmosis to remove potentially harmful and naturally occurring toxins from the water. Reverse osmosis is a process that uses pressure to push water through a membrane to remove contaminants. According to the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation’s Arkansas Valley Conduit Environmental Impact Statement, reverse osmosis can treat source water to meet standards, but the brine from the process “is an environmental concern, and operation costs are high.”
The other participants use conventional methods to treat water. The environmental impact statement said those methods can be as simple as adding chlorine for disinfection and filtration or adding chemicals to remove suspended solids, but that those treatments “…cannot remove salt or radionuclides from water.”
Tom Seaba, director of water and wastewater for La Junta, said out of a total of 24 water districts in Otero County, 19 were in violation with the state due to elevated levels of radionuclide.
Four of the 19 came into compliance with the state’s drinking water standards after La Junta brought them onto its water system. The remaining 15 are still in violation with the state, according to Seaba.
La Junta spent $18.5 million to build a wastewater treatment plant that came online in 2019 to help meet water standards for its community. But the city’s water treatment came with its own issue: selenium.
After La Junta treats its water using reverse osmosis, the water system is left with a concentrate, which is safe drinking water. However, it’s also left with a waste stream high in selenium. “That wastewater has to go somewhere,” Seaba said. It goes to the city’s new wastewater treatment plant…
According to the environmental impact statement, “La Junta’s wastewater discharge makes up about 1.5% of average annual flow in the Arkansas River.” The study goes on to say that during drought or low-flow events, the wastewater discharge can contribute up to half of the streamflow downstream from the gage.
Seaba is looking to the Arkansas Valley Conduit as a possible answer. “The solution to pollution is dilution,” he said. The water from the pipeline will not have a selenium problem, Seaba explained. By blending water from the conduit with the selenium waste from reverse osmosis, La Junta hopes to reduce costs and stay compliant with Environmental Protection Agency standards to discharge into the river.
The environmental review studied a section of the Arkansas River from where Fountain Creek runs into the river east to the Kansas border. The study found that a section of the river was impaired by selenium…
“I sure don’t drink it”
The EPA sets a maximum contaminant level in drinking water at 5 picocuries per liter of air for combined radium and 30 micrograms per liter for combined uranium. If contaminant levels are above those numbers, the water system is in violation of drinking water regulations, which the state enforces.
According to data provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Patterson Valley Water Company in Otero County, one of the 40 pipeline participants, had the highest result of 31 picocuries per liter for combined radium in 2020. In that same county, Rocky Ford, another pipeline participant, had a high result of 0.2 picocuries per liter for combined radium. According to the state health department, Rocky Ford’s combined radium sample numbers were last recorded in 2013.
Manzanola, also in Otero County and a pipeline participant, topped the list with the highest result of 42 micrograms per liter for combined uranium in 2020. In contrast, 19 other pipeline participants, from across the valley, had results of 0 micrograms per liter for combined uranium, according to the most recent numbers from the state health department.
Levels of the two carcinogens are sporadic throughout the valley. The average of the highest results of all 40 participants in the pipeline for combined radium is roughly 8 picocuries per liter and combined uranium is roughly 5 micrograms per liter. According to Seaba, averaging the members’ highest results might seem unfair to some individual water systems because it brings their numbers up, but what those averages do show is that water in Pueblo Reservoir, which will feed the future conduit, is approximately three times less affected by combined radium and combined uranium than the average of current water used by pipeline participants. In 2020, the highest result of combined radium in the Pueblo Reservoir was 2.52 picocuries per liter, and the highest result of combined uranium was 1.7 micrograms per liter…
“I sure don’t drink it,” said Manny Rodriquez. “I don’t think anybody in town drinks the water.”
Rodriquez, who grew up in and still lives in Rocky Ford, was not sure if the water at his apartment was in violation of the state’s clean drinking water act or not. State data showed at that time his water was not in violation. Colorado is required to notify residents if their water system is in violation of the clean drinking water act…
MaryAnn Nason, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, used an example to show how violations can add up: “If a public water system has two entry points that fail for both combined radium and gross alpha (measures of radionuclides), and they have those same violations for 10 years each quarter, that is going to appear as 160 violations on the website. But really, it is one naturally occurring situation that exists for a relatively long time,” Nason said.
For some residents like Ruby Lucero, 83, it makes little difference to her if her water is in violation with the state or not. She plans to buy her drinking water no matter what the results say about her tap water…
“The struggling farmer”
In the past decade, Otero County has seen a 2.9% drop in population. Residents have a ballpark difference of $38,000 in the median household income compared to the rest of the state, and the county is not alone. All six counties that are part of current plans for the Arkansas Valley Conduit are seeing economic hard times.
Adding to those factors is drought. Years of drought keep hitting the area’s No. 1 industry: agriculture.
The Rocky Ford Ditch’s water rights date back to 1874, making them some of the most senior water rights in the Arkansas River system. In the early 1980s, Aurora was able to buy a majority of those water rights. Over time, Aurora acquired more shares and has converted them to municipal use…
“We still have a heavy lift before us”
Planned off the main trunk of the Arkansas Valley Conduit, a pump station near Wiley will push water along a spur to support Eads in Kiowa County. Water that ends up in Eads will have traveled the longest distance of the pipeline project. The majority of the pipeline will be gravity-fed, but this section will need to be pumped uphill.
The journey is a good representation of Eads’ battle with water. Not only is clean drinking water needed, but the area is also desperate for relief from years of drought exacerbated by climate change…
Long said that Eads is different from a majority of the other participants in the project because it is not located along the Arkansas River…
The domestic water that will be delivered via the conduit is even more important for a town like Eads, said Long. “It’s very difficult to attract new industry when you have a limited supply of very poor water.”
Long believes the conduit will make a huge difference to support communities in the Lower Arkansas River Valley…
Long has been working on the Arkansas Valley Conduit project for nearly 18 years.
“After such a long fight, to finally be where we are feels good, but honestly I can say it doesn’t feel as good as I thought it would. Only because I know we have so much work still to do, and I know how difficult the past 18 years have been,” Long said. “We still have a heavy lift before us.”
Growing importance of outdoor recreation economy driving push
Three conservation groups aiming to keep more water in rivers for recreation are working on a revision to a state law.
American Whitewater, Conservation Colorado and Western Resource Advocates are proposing an amendment to legislation that would allow natural river features such as waves and rapids to get a water right. Under the state’s current statute, in order to get what is known as a recreational in-channel diversion water right, it must be tied to a man-made structure in the river, such as a design feature that creates the waves in many kayak parks.
Pitkin County Healthy Rivers is supportive of amending the existing statute to include natural river features and said so in an April letter to legislators.
“I think it’s kind of ironic that you have to make a man-made engineered structure in a river to make it somehow be of value to have a water right,” said Healthy Rivers board member and boater Andre Wille. “It would be nice to not have to put a structure in the river.”
According to numbers provided by the Department of Water Resources, there are currently 21 recreational in-channel diversion, or RICD, water rights in the state, all of them tied to an artificial structure. In the Colorado River basin, that includes features in Vail, Silverthorne, Aspen and Avon. Glenwood Springs has an approved RICD for a series of waves. Durango, Steamboat Springs, Salida, Buena Vista and Golden also have whitewater features with RICDs.
This type of water right ties an amount of water necessary for a reasonable recreational experience to the man-made river features.
Hattie Johnson, southern Rockies stewardship director of American Whitewater, likens making the acquisition of water rights dependent on the creation of an artificial feature to protecting backcountry skiing by building a ski jump.
“Right now, we can only protect water in the river for recreation if we build a ski jump,” she said. “So, we are looking for a change that protects the resource to provide all the wide-ranging recreational activities that happen on the river.”
Hawaii Five-0 wave
Proponents aim to tie a water right to a specific naturally occurring river feature, instead of a stretch of river — for example, the wave known as Hawaii Five-0 in the lower reaches of the run that begins with Slaughterhouse Falls on the Roaring Fork, instead of the entire 4.5-mile section of rapids. Slaughterhouse is a whitewater reach that begins at Henry Stein Park in Aspen and ends at Wilton Jaffee Park downstream in Woody Creek. It is a popular after-work run with kayakers and commercial rafting companies. Its many fishing holes also attract anglers.
A water right at Hawaii Five-0 could help keep water in the river for most of this section, since it’s located about a half-mile upstream of the take-out at Jaffee Park.
Scotty Gibsone has been running this section of river for 26 years and is on it nearly every day in the summer. His rafting company, Kiwi Adventure Ko, takes paddlers down the Class IV rapids of Slaughterhouse and the Class III Toothache section on the Roaring Fork in Snowmass Canyon. He said the Slaughterhouse season is short; it’s not usually runnable in boats after July 4. He can sometimes eke out a few more weeks using tubes in low water, but he would like to see higher flows overall.
“More water is always going to help, especially for us in the tourism sector,” he said.
Most RICD water rights are held by municipalities — cities, towns and counties — and many have encountered opposition in water court. When Pitkin County began the process of securing an RICD for the two waves in the Basalt park on the Roaring Fork, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company, two entities that take water from the basin’s headwaters over to the Front Range, opposed the water right.
There will probably be opposition from Front Range water providers to any amended state legislation. That is because an RICD could limit their ability to develop more water from the Western Slope in the future.
American Whitewater has met with representatives from Denver Water, Northern Water and Aurora Water to discuss the legislation.
“We did inform them that we believe there will be significant opposition to the proposal, but Aurora Water would need a draft and go through our process to determine our position,” Greg Baker, manager of public relations for the city of Aurora, said in an email. “There is great potential for unintended consequences from even a modest proposal.”
To appease its opposers, Pitkin County agreed to a “carve out” provision that allowed up to 3,000 acre-feet of new water rights to be developed upstream of the kayak park, without being subject to the county’s new water right. (An acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons, or enough water to cover an acre 1 foot deep.)
Growing recreation sector
A growing recognition of the importance of the outdoor recreation economy to the Western Slope is driving proponents’ push for updating the RICD legislation. And as climate change continues to rob western Colorado of streamflows, there is an increasing sense of urgency to protect and maintain water for recreation into the future.
“What we are trying to do is say that recreation is part of this complex system and we need to take that type of use into consideration,” said Josh Kuhn, water advocate for Conservation Colorado. “When we think about the transitioning economy, especially on the Western Slope, we need to have the security that this economic driver is going to be there in the future.”
Proponents say an amended law would also open up the possibility of RICD water rights to river runners in less-wealthy areas. Rearranging a streambed to create an artificial wave can be problematic: It is expensive, it requires disturbing the river ecosystem with heavy equipment, and engineers don’t always get it right the first time. For example, Pitkin County has spent nearly $3.5 million on the Basalt waves. The county had to reengineer the structures twice after complaints from the public that the waves were dangerous and flipped boats.
Supporters plan to meet with stakeholders throughout the summer and fall to further refine their proposed modifications to the legislation. They hope lawmakers will introduce a bill during the 2022 legislative session.
Water rights for natural river features would represent a shift in a state where putting water to “beneficial use” has traditionally meant taking water out of the river for use in agriculture or cities. It could mean that the often-overlooked river-recreation economy gets a bigger seat at the water-policy table.
“Recreation is a huge part of Colorado’s economy, it’s a huge part of our future, and yet it’s barely recognized in Colorado water law — and to the extent it is, it’s limited to a real-small class of recreation that only some towns and places can afford,” said John Cyran, senior staff attorney with Western Resource Advocates. “I think it’s time for Colorado water law to catch up with what’s actually happening on the rivers.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. For more, go to aspenjournalism.org.
I spent runoff season this year chasing whitewater along the spine of the Rockies, where the impacts of a long-range megadrought feel increasingly painful and obvious. More than half of the western United States is currently experiencing extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, and it’s rapidly getting worse.
Although the Mountain West’s high-country snowpack—the source of water for a wide swath of land on both sides of the Continental Divide—was around 80 percent of its average this winter, the past 12 months have been among the hottest and driest on record there. As the snow melted, runoff was soaked up by parched soils, which are still dry from last year’s monsoon-free summer and fire-filled fall. When it’s as hot as it has been, every living thing needs more water, so plants sucked in moisture, too. In the same area of the mountains where the snow was 80 percent, river flows dripped out at 30 percent of their average. Ted was right: there’s not much water when there’s this level of aridity.
Paddling, for me, is a benchmark, a tangible way to understand what all those drought maps and numbers mean. And these days, the bottom-scraping springtime runs feel like a creepy indicator of how bad things will be downriver, where those waterways are used to grow food, maintain ecosystems, fight wildfires, and provide drinking water. I paddled Westwater Canyon on the Colorado River in Utah while it was running at one-tenth of its average flow, and I checked in on the dam-released drip formerly known as the Dolores River—a sight that made my stomach drop. On the other side of the Divide, I took a turgid run down Browns Canyon on Colorado’s Arkansas River—the most heavily commercially rafted section of river in the nation—and winced watching the guides trying to keep their clients paddling through the slack water, which was flowing well below the midsummer dam-released minimum of 700 cubic feet per second. It’s the scariest year I’ve ever been a river runner, and I’m not alone in thinking that…
“I’m nervous looking forward. It’s wishful thinking to assume it will get better,” says Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River District and coauthor of Science be Dammed. Kuhn has worked in water management for decades and believes the way we’re currently managing rivers isn’t sustainable and hasn’t been for a while. It’s coming to an inflection point where things will really have to change.
The signs (like dry rivers) and symptoms (the wave of early-season fires) are cascading on top of each other. In 2019, I wrote a book called Downriver about water policy with a subtitle that now feels painfully flippant: “Into the future of water in the West.” That was two years ago. Now the future is here—hotter, drier, sooner than predicted, and scarier than imagined.
By June 1, snowpack in the Sierra Nevada was at zero percent of its average, and California’s governor had declared a drought emergency in two-thirds of the state’s counties. After a record-breaking fire year in 2020, wildfire risks were already high, and the state’s agriculture industry, which supplies a huge amount of the country’s veggies, fruits, and nuts, was facing shortages and cutting crops to compensate. In Oregon, fragile, threatened salmon are dying because streams and lakes are drying up. Wide swaths of northern New England and the upper Midwest are abnormally dry. Even Hawaii is at elevated risk for wildfires.
In the Colorado River Basin—a bellwether for dryland watersheds because it’s crucial to millions of people and drying fast—the two big reservoirs in the system, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are crashing toward their lowest levels ever and approaching elevations that will trigger the first-ever federally mandated usage cutbacks. In other words, states, starting with Arizona, will have to start taking less from reservoirs than they’ve historically been legally promised.
A few glaring reasons indicate why we’re at this tipping point. The first is that we’re not operating within our limits. The Colorado River, for example, has been overallocated since the Colorado River Compact was signed in 1922. The agreement, often referred to as the law of the river, gave the seven states in the basin more water than exists in the river. Brad Udall, senior water and climate-research scientist at Colorado State University, found that we’ve been using 1.2 million acre-feet of water more than the river’s natural flow each year, which is one of the reasons why the reservoirs are plummeting. We’re also continuing to build rampantly in dry places and depleting groundwater as we do.
And we’re ignoring scientific limits and increasing demand while climate change is shrinking our supply even further. “This is the new baseline, and there’s no more water left in the system,” Kuhn says. According to a 2017 report coauthored by Udall, we can attribute at least half of the decline in water supply to greenhouse-gas-related warming. For every one degree Celsius of warming, he expects another 9 percent decline in the Colorado’s flow, and similar patterns are showing up in rivers globally.
We know that the supply is shrinking, and now the huge, complicated challenge is changing the way we operate within those limits. Kuhn believes that Mead and Powell are test cases for whether we can adapt to climate change, and what the realities are of doing that. He points out that we can’t call these climatic conditions a drought anymore, because that implies it will end. Years are variable, and snowpack, rainfall, and temperatures oscillate, but we have to look at the science and assume that the hot, dry trends we’re seeing will continue—and continue to get worse.
And then we have to get realistic about cutbacks. Demands have to shrink along with supply.
Part of that is reliant on state, tribal, and federal water managers, who are responsible for allocation. Right now on the Colorado River, those entities are renegotiating what are called interim guidelines, which outline the water levels that trigger those planned cutbacks and delineate which places have to sacrifice water first. Last year a voluntary set of shortages, called the Drought Contingency Plan, was put in place as a stopgap to keep the river from spiraling into crisis.
As the water managers come up with the next set of guidelines, which are slated to go into place in 2026, they’ll have to be much stricter, while also trying to be equitable. It’s going to be extremely difficult, because these decisions are tangled up in states’ rights, environmental equity, and philosophies about growth. Kuhn says he hopes desperation might drive more concession and collaboration than there’s been before. As those negotiations and cutbacks happen on the Colorado—which brings water to 40 million people in the western U.S.—they can be a template for other rivers and other dry places that are facing similar conditions.
Water volumes along the Colorado River are 55% of average for the amount of volume that would normally be seen from April to July, according to Aldis Strautins, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.
That’s due to drought conditions that have persisted over the last year.
The Eagle River’s water volume is also at 55% of the average, and the Roaring Fork River is at 51% of the normal average volume, Strautins said…
Paula Stepp, executive director for the Middle Colorado Watershed Council, said the drought will likely impact the Glenwood Springs area in many ways.
Stepp said there are concerns about how the drought and lower water volumes along the Colorado River will impact agriculture, recreation and aquatic habitat.
Water use by agricultural producers is already stressed by the drought, Stepp said…
Stepp said she’s already heard that there’s not a lot of water available and there’s a need to be conservative with water usage.
On the recreational side of things, Stepp said there could be a much shorter rafting season.
You wouldn’t want to put it in your granola, in the words of Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association President John Armstrong, but a heap of waste material left over from a 1900s smelting operation near the banks of the Crystal River in Marble does not appear to pose enough of an environmental hazard to prevent the donation of 55 acres of otherwise stunning, mostly wetlands terrain to a land conservation organization.
But the road to reach this point has been long for the private owner of the now three contiguous parcels across the river that the owner has been trying since 2016 to see donated and permanently preserved in its natural state. In that time, concerns about potential liabilities associated with the slag pile have held up the initiative.
But support from CVEPA, which agreed to put $1,000 toward an analysis of the material, plus a discussion with the Pitkin County Health Rivers and Streams board about a grant, gave momentum to the effort last year. This spring, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) completed its analysis of the site and determined that contaminant levels in the material are within the range considered to be non-threatening to human health for a day-use recreation site.
In the end, the analysis work was completed pro bono, and proponents hope that funds pledged can be used for materials to fence off the slag heap and put up some interpretive signage explaining the history of the smelter and the slag left behind. This would complement an eventual management framework in which a land-conservation agency holds title to the property and allows passive, non-motorized public access along an existing route following the river.
That would adhere to long-held use patterns on the land, where private owners have allowed the public to hike, bike or Nordic ski. The biodiverse area straddling the river and the wooded hillside, referred to by Marble history museum curator Alex Menard as the Trail With No Name, has been the site of nature walks hosted by the Roaring Fork Conservancy to observe the beaver dams dotting the wetlands. A portion of it near the slag heap is also marked by giant slabs of marble — probably left over from a railroad that used to run through the site to a marble quarry on Treasure Mountain — that a previous owner artistically stacked just off the trail. The trail itself leads to scenic waterfalls on Yule Creek, although the falls are just over the property line on an adjacent parcel controlled by a separate owner.
“This is really a wildlife refuge,” said Menard, who was instrumental in bringing the project to the attention of the CVEPA. “It’s a place where you can see an eagle taking a trout out of water with its talons, then half a mile farther up, there is a moose; walk a little more, there’s a bear, a blue heron. It’s a wild place.”
As noted by Armstrong, it could also be a desirable spot for a “McMansion,” if not for the benevolence of the private donor — an out-of-state woman who also donated the land in town that is becoming Marble Children’s Park. That land is now owned by Aspen Valley Land Trust, which is working with the town and obtaining additional grant funding to spruce up the site.
AVLT is critical to the conservation effort on the wetlands parcel, as well. AVLT staff is completing survey and title work on the property and will soon be proposing action to the land trust’s board. However, the exact shape of that action is still to be determined, according to AVLT director Suzanne Stephens.
“(We) have talked with our lands committee about potentially accepting fee ownership, but we are also investigating potential partnerships and other options for the property, so it’s not a foregone conclusion that we’ll end up with it,” Stephens wrote in an email. “However, we are committed to seeing it protected one way or another.”
Potential partners include Colorado Parks and Wildlife, CVEPA, Pitkin County and other entities, Stephens said.
The site is “unquestionably one of the most important wetlands and riparian parcels in the valley,” Stephens said.
“The fact that it adjoins Beaver Lake and almost the entirety of its acreage is wetland and river make it extremely important from a land and water conservation perspective,” she wrote, referring to the body of water located on a CPW-owned parcel to the north. “The habitat is crucial and threatened across the west, and combined with the proximity to the town of Marble and the fact that the smelter site has historic significance and the parcel offers flat, easy access and a lovely walk make it a rare gem that deserves to be conserved for a multitude of reasons.”
‘Like a glass blob’
In the early days of industrialization and European settlement in the Crystal River Valley, a smelting and ore-crushing operation known as the Hoffman Smelter was erected on the site, according to Menard’s historical accounting. The site processed silver, lead, zinc and copper ore hauled by mule train from mines around Marble from roughly 1898 until 1911.
The smelter is long gone, but its shadow still hangs over the site. According to Armstrong, initial donation efforts in 2016 and 2017 ran aground on concerns about the slag heap, although proponents have long held that such concerns would ultimately be inconsequential.
The heap in question — perhaps 50 feet long and 10 feet high and located near the edge of the trail — “looks like something volcanic,” Armstrong said.
The mostly solid mound is, however, shedding pieces the size of small rocks. But there is not a strong presence of dust or other material that could wash away in a rainstorm or become airborne in dry conditions. CVEPA’s hope has been that any toxic material is inert, locked up in the rock.
“I have a strong feeling that it shouldn’t be something that should preclude something from acquisition,” Armstrong said in December, when CVEPA was awaiting the results of a materials analysis involving a private lab and CDPHE.
CDPHE — which was reviewing the site following a grant process where projects are submitted that present a public benefit — has substantially completed its analysis, and its findings line up with Armstrong’s characterization.
“Nothing is alarming,” said Mark Rudolph, an environmental protection analyst and brownfield site coordinator with CDPHE. He referred to the slag material as “like a glass blob.”
Rudolph noted that vegetation around the slag pile is healthy and that water quality in the Crystal River, about 50 yards from the material, meets the highest standards. Lead concentrations in the material fall in the range deemed acceptable for recreation sites, he said, and most of it appears locked up in the rocklike formation.
A final report from CDPHE is pending and will include recommendations on how to manage the site for public use. Those recommendations are likely to include clearing from the road any particles that have come off the slag heap. The road was recently built using a historic easement that allows access to a neighboring property owner, who is developing a home. Other strategies could include reseeding areas around the heap and using crushed marble or some other material to cover the slag particles that are visible on the shoulder of the road.
“It’s going to be a great addition to the town if we can get it all the way through,” Menard said of the conservation effort.
For Armstong and CVEPA, there is further work to be done to ensure public access to the falls, which are about 1.5 miles in from the beginning of the walk through the wetlands. The falls are on the property owned by the man who recently built the road. He could not be reached for comment.
“The owner of the private property seems amenable to allowing access, as he has placed ‘no trespassing’ signs farther up the road beyond the access to the falls,” the CVEPA wrote in a winter 2020 newsletter article about the Marble wetlands donation initiative.
This story ran in the May 29 edition of The Aspen Times.
Watering restrictions are in place for Glenwood Springs residents, according to a news release.
Odd numbered home addresses can water on odd days of the month and even numbered home addresses can water on even days of the month.
Watering on both odd and even numbered days is prohibited from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m…
Glenwood Springs spokesperson Bryana Starbuck said the watering schedule was enacted during the response to the Grizzly Creek Fire last year as a necessary precaution to maintain water capacity due to fire activity near one of the city’s water sources…
The city expects the water schedule to remain in effect throughout the summer to help encourage water conservation during the drought conditions, Starbuck said.
Colorado water shortage plays role in difficulty of securing designation
According to Crystal River valley resident Chuck Ogilby, there are three ways to protect rivers in Colorado. The first two involve using the state’s water court and water rights system. But the third is the one he places the most faith in.
“Who’s going to look after and be the parents, so to speak, of a free-flowing river? It’s the people,” Ogilby said. “The people of Colorado are the thing that will save our rivers. We have the right to fight for it the way we want, and we can advocate for free-flowing streams.”
Ogilby is one of a handful of river advocates in Pitkin County who are reviving a grassroots effort to secure a federal Wild & Scenic designation on the Crystal. But in a state where the value of water is tied to its use, and landowners’ fear of federal government involvement stokes opposition, a campaign to leave more water in the river for the river’s sake may face an uphill battle.
Proponents want protection of 39 miles of river from the headwaters of both the north and south forks, in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, to the Sweet Jessup headgate, the first major agricultural diversion on the lower end of the river. Advocates have three goals: no dams on the main stem, no diversions out of the basin and protection of the free-flowing nature of the river. As the Crystal is one of the last undammed rivers in Colorado, they want to keep it that way.
“I can’t tell you what the experience of walking up to a river and being on the river, whether I catch fish or not, does to me,” Ogilby said. “I can’t put it into words. It’s, I want to say, a religious experience. It’s very emotional.”
A history of development plans and pushback
The Wild & Scenic River Act of 1968 brings protection from development. For example, new dams cannot be constructed on a designated stretch, and federal water-development projects that might negatively affect the river are not allowed. The National Wild & Scenic Rivers System seeks to preserve rivers with outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic and cultural values in a free-flowing condition.
There are three categories under a designation: wild, which are sections that are inaccessible by trail, with shorelines that are primitive; scenic, with shorelines that are largely undeveloped, but are accessible by roads in some places; and recreational, which are readily accessible by road or railroad and have development along the shoreline.
The U.S. Forest Service determined that the Crystal, which flows through both Gunnison and Pitkin counties, was eligible for designation in the 1980s and reaffirmed that finding in 2002. There are four segments being proposed: about seven miles of the north fork inside the wilderness boundary would be classified as wild; from the wilderness boundary on the north fork to the junction of the south fork, about two miles, would be classified as scenic; from the headwaters of the south fork through its confluence with the north fork and on to Beaver Lake, about 10 miles, would also be scenic, and from Beaver Lake to the Sweet Jessup headgate, about 20 miles, would be recreational. The outstandingly remarkable values are scenic, historic and recreational.
In 2012, conservation group American Rivers deemed the Crystal one of the top 10 most endangered rivers. This was spurred by plans from the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Conservation District to renew their conditional water rights for nearly 200,000 acre-feet worth of storage in the form of Placita and Osgood reservoirs. Osgood would have inundated Redstone.
The dam and reservoir projects were eventually abandoned after they were challenged in water court by Pitkin County, but the memory of the threat lingered for river activists, who decided to actively pursue a Wild & Scenic designation in 2012, with the goal of eliminating the possibility of this type of development in the future.
The group shelved the discussion with the presidential election of Donald Trump in 2016. Some trace the moment they realized they were temporarily defeated to a community meeting in Marble and subsequent opinion piece by former director of the Bureau of Land Management William Perry Pendley. A 2016 column for the conservative Washington Times, which also ran in Western Ag Reporter, titled “When ‘wild and scenic’ spells trouble,” stoked fear among landowners in the town of Marble and Gunnison County that a designation means the federal government has power over private property.
“There were some mistruths spread in Marble that really moved them in the wrong direction from my perspective,” said Matt Rice, director of American Rivers’ Colorado Basin Program.
But the meeting was enough for the opposition to gain ground. If the town of Marble wouldn’t support the designation, neither would Gunnison County. The proposal was dead in the water.
Larry Darien was one of those opponents in 2016. He remains opposed to the Wild & Scenic proposal this time around because he said federal involvement in river management could bring unintended consequences. Darien owns a ranch on Gunnison County Road 3 that borders the Crystal.
“Whatever they come up with probably looks real good until you end up with something you didn’t bargain for,” he said. “I don’t want the federal government having anything to do with my property.”
Darien said he doesn’t want to see dams or reservoirs on the Crystal either, but a federal designation is not the right way to go about preventing that. He would support a designation of the headwaters that flow through the wilderness, but would prefer if private property owners downstream along the river were left out of it.
Wild & Scenic Act
While the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act does give the federal government the ability to acquire private land, there are many restrictions on those abilities. Condemnation is a tool that is rarely used. The legislation written for each river is unique and can be customized to address stakeholders’ values and concerns.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams has worked on Wild & Scenic designations in Oregon, where there are more than 65 sections of designated rivers. He said that in the next step of the process, which would be a suitability determination and an Environmental Impact Statement by the Forest Service, the protection of private property rights would be paramount.
“I’ve often said that if they changed the name to ‘leave the river as it is act,’ which is really what it does, people would be less concerned,” Fitzwilliams said.
Although Wild & Scenic supporters initially squabbled about the best way to address opposition — some said engaging staunch opponents was like inviting a wolf into the hen house — most now agree the best way forward is to bring them into the conversation early.
Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury is heading up a steering committee, which will decide how to proceed with the campaign. Pitkin County supports Wild & Scenic and commissioners have allocated an additional $100,000 to the Healthy Rivers board to work on getting a designation.
Committee members are tight-lipped about their strategy moving forward, and have not yet laid out a plan for spending the money, but many are eager to not repeat what they view as the mistakes from the first time around. McNicholas Kury stresses that this time the group will engage any and all stakeholders who want to participate in the process, even and especially those who have been vocally opposed to a federal designation. She said the group will probably hire a neutral facilitator to direct the process and bring all the perspectives to the table.
“The challenge will be ensuring we will reach all the interested parties and they will have a meaningful opportunity to contribute to what the final designations and river protections will be,” McNicholas Kury said. “It may require personally knocking on someone’s door and saying, ‘we need to hear from you.’”
Darien said he would be interested in participating in a stakeholder process, but that so far no one from the advocacy group or Pitkin County has reached out to him.
Colorado protective of water use
Despite its renowned river rafting, fishing and scenic beauty, which contribute to the recreation-based economy of many Western Slope communities, Colorado has just 76 miles of one river — the Cache La Poudre — designated as Wild & Scenic. That’s less than one-tenth of 1% of the state’s 107,403 river miles, according to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System website.
By comparison, Oregon — a state with a contentious history of clashes between ranchers and the federal government over land management — has 110,994 miles of river, of which 1,916.7 miles are designated as wild & scenic—almost 2% of the state’s river miles.
Instead of backing the federal designation on its rivers, the state of Colorado instead funds a program for an alternative designation that carries some of the same protections as Wild & Scenic. In June of 2020, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service approved an alternative management plan on the Upper Colorado River which takes the place of a Wild & Scenic designation. The process took 12 years and involved cooperation between many stakeholders.
Experts say the main reason there is opposition from water managers to Wild & Scenic in Colorado is not fear of a federal land grab, but the shortage of water in an arid state that is only getting drier with climate change. Fitzwilliams called water “the most valuable commodity in Colorado, without question.” A designation would lock up water in the river, making it unavailable for future development.
“In these very, very arid states where we just don’t have the water, we are very protective of making sure that water is available for all public uses,” said Jennifer Gimbel, interim director of Colorado State University’s Water Center and former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “As we try to figure out how to manage the drought, we want to maybe figure out better how to move water from here to there and that Wild & Scenic designation would play a big part in that for better or for worse.”
The two main ways to ensure water stays in the river in Colorado are instream flow rights and recreational in-channel diversion water rights. Instream flow water rights are a minimum streamflow set by the Colorado Water Conservation Board with the goal of preserving the natural environment to a reasonable degree. A recreational in-channel diversion creates a water right for a recreational experience, like the waves in the Basalt whitewater park.
But Ogilby says these state protections don’t go far enough for the Crystal.
“We have to be able to convince people that getting it out of the Colorado adjudication system is the way we are going to ultimately protect it,” he said. “We are not going to save it with Colorado water law. We’ve got to get a (federal) overlay.”
Fears of development have recently returned in response to a study of a back-up water supply plan for the Crystal, undertaken by the same conservation districts who were behind the dam projects. The results aren’t in yet, but the study could find the need for storage to meet the demands of downstream water users in dry years.
Early indications of support
The next few months will be crucial for the steering committee as they chart a path forward and decide how best to spend the money from Pitkin County. Broad-based local support is critical and there is some evidence the idea of Wild & Scenic is gaining ground.
As part of her capstone project in sustainable studies at Colorado Mountain College, Carbondale resident Monique Vidal is conducting an online survey about recreation on the Crystal River. So far, she has received about 65 responses, about 95% of which support moving forward with Wild & Scenic legislation.
“Our community overwhelmingly so far is supportive,” Vidal said.
Ogilby owns Avalanche Ranch, a small hot springs resort near the Crystal River just north of Redstone. He has spent much of his life advocating for rivers in the Vail Valley and Crystal River valley, and has helped defeat plans for Front Range water providers to take more from the headwaters of the Colorado River. He served for years on the Colorado Basin Roundtable as a representative of Eagle County and is now a member of Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers board.
“I felt a little frustrated being on the roundtable because our position didn’t always gain ground,” he said. “We were up against the big boys. When I came over here, I feel this is my home. And maybe I can’t change everything about all the rivers in Colorado, but maybe I can make a real difference on the Crystal.”
For Wild & Scenic proponents, the clock is now ticking if they hope to get a designation while there is a Democratic administration under President Joe Biden. Ogilby said he feels a sense of urgency.
“Everybody feels that,” he said. “It feels like, oh my god, we have been blessed so let’s get after it. We are going to be pushing.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and Swift Communitications publications. This story ran in the May 17 edition of The Aspen Times.
FromThe Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Shannon Marvel):
The Glenwood Springs City Council passed a resolution which will adjust rates for all customers during their April 15 council meeting.
The rate change will appear on water bills arriving in July…
A 5,000-gallon user’s monthly combined bill will increase in year one from $92 to $122.
The resolution also includes a regular, yearly 5% increase until 2030, according to the release…
“Current utility revenues will not cover the cost for critical infrastructure improvements, some of which are immediately necessary to ensure safe and reliable service,” the release states. “Other capital needs primarily include replacement or rehabilitation of utility assets reaching the end of their service lives and additional storage capacity for firefighting capabilities.”
The city’s water and sewer fund operates on system improvement fees and user fees.
“Currently, water department revenues only pay for annual costs, bonding, and depreciation,” the release states.
Funding for capital projects currently comes from city reserves, low interest loans and competitive grants…
Upcoming or in-progress city water projects include:
• A new raw water pump line from the Roaring Fork Pump station up to the Red Mountain water plant
• Replacement of the lift station adjacent to the Colorado River, which is over 40 years old
• Red Mountain South subdivision water and roadway rebuild
• A second Cardiff water tank
• Restoring the Park East raw water irrigation system
• A city-wide water model to analyze distribution under various demands
• Sewer and/or water line repairs or replacements on more than 25 city streets
• A new North Glenwood water tank
• Review and repairs to all sewer lift stations and replacement of two of the remaining existing lift stations
Reservoir expected to reach only about 90% of capacity this summer
The dry, warm month of April prevented the snowpack from building and sunk the chances to fill Ruedi Reservoir this summer, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation…
The snowpack in the upper Fryingpan Valley was only about 60% of median as of May 1, he said. Forecasts are for runoff into the reservoir to be only about 55% of average…
Ruedi Reservoir is at about 60% full right now. It holds 102,000 acre-feet of water. It would need about 42,000 acre-feet to fill.
Current projections are for it to reach about 90,000 acre-feet this summer, according to Miller…
The Roaring Fork River basin, like much of Colorado and the Western United States, has been battling a prolonged drought. AccuWeather Inc. reported Wednesday that 75% of the Western U.S. is experiencing drought conditions. About 21% of the areas are facing exceptional drought, which is the most extreme…
A lower water level in the reservoir also will mean lower releases into the lower Fryingpan River through the summer. Water levels won’t be as high as usual in late spring and early summer, so there won’t be a disruption to the Gold Medal trout stream.
However, low water levels and high summer temperatures are a regular cause for concern. The Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy has sounded the alarm in past summers about high water temperatures stressing trout.
Water releases could increase in June once downstream entities that possess senior water rights make a “call” for water for agricultural uses, Miller said.
April Long, director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, said the reservoir is used to meeting numerous water needs in the Roaring Fork Valley and on the Colorado River system. It is hard to know the full impact of the reservoir not filling, she said.
With the snowpack and precipitation levels in Pitkin County below last year at this time, local officials are bracing for an active wildfire season this summer.
“We’re the only county in the northwest region (of the state) that did not deal with a significant wildfire last summer,” Valerie MacDonald, Pitkin County’s emergency manager, said Thursday. “We have no reason to believe our luck is going to hold. All the predictive services we use indicate that we’re going to have another bad wildfire season in Colorado.”
Currently, the snowpack in Pitkin County and most of the area west of the Continental Divide is at between 70% and 80% of the normal average, said Jeff Colton, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. Last year, the snowpack at the end of February stood at 118% of normal.
In addition, precipitation this winter measured at the Aspen-Pitkin County airport is 3.27 inches of liquid compared with 3.45 inches last year at this time, he said. The average for this time of year is 4.69 inches.
Despite the larger than normal snowpack last year, it melted quickly and the monsoons never materialized, he said. Along with higher than normal temperatures, that led to about 2,300 wildfires in the Rocky Mountain region and more than 1 million acres burned, though those statistics are not yet available, Colton said…
This year, the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center is predicting that drought conditions will persist through June, traditionally the driest month of the year, he said. Also, the weather service is predicting a 65% chance that temperatures through June in Pitkin County will be above normal…
On the Western Slope, the snowpack isn’t melting as quickly this year as last, he said, while the monsoon season prediction this year is not as bad as last year…
MacDonald suggested going to http://www.pitkinwildfire.com — which features tips on how to protect property and people from wildfire in English and Spanish — for information on how to create defensible space and use fire resistant materials. Residents also should sign up for the Pitkin Alert system, which will keep residents informed of emergency situations, she said.
Here’s the release from the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Chris Woodka):
Five Directors were reappointed to the Board of Directors of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, and were sworn in on Thursday, April 15, 2021.
Reappointed are: Seth Clayton, Executive Director of Pueblo Water, representing Pueblo County, and Secretary of the Board; Andrew Colosimo, Government Affairs Manager for Colorado Springs Utilities, representing El Paso County; Greg Felt, Chaffee County Commissioner and a member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board; Carl McClure, a Crowley County farmer; and Howard “Bub” Miller, an Otero County farmer and rancher.
The Southeastern District is the state agency responsible for the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which is operated by the Bureau of Reclamation. The Fry-Ark Project includes Pueblo Reservoir, Twin Lakes, Turquoise Reservoir, Mount Elbert Forebay and Power Plant at Twin Lakes, Ruedi Reservoir, a West Slope Collection System, and the Boustead Tunnel.
The Fry-Ark Project is designed to import 69,200 acre-feet annually for use by cities and farms in the Arkansas River basin from the Fryingpan River watershed near Basalt. Fry-Ark Operating Principles list environmental conditions that must be met when water is diverted.
The District also operates the James W. Broderick Hydropower Plant at Pueblo Dam, which was completed in 2019 under a Lease of Power Privilege with Reclamation.
The District is working with Reclamation to build the Arkansas Valley Conduit, a pipeline that will deliver a clean source of drinking water to 50,000 people in 40 communities east of Pueblo.
The District includes parts of nine counties, and has 15 directors who are appointed to 4-year terms by a panel of District Court judges.
Other directors of the Board are: President Bill Long, Bent County; Vice-President Curtis Mitchell, El Paso County; Treasurer Ann Nichols, El Paso County; Pat Edelmann and Mark Pifher, El Paso County; Patrick Garcia and Alan Hamel, Pueblo County; Tom Goodwin, Fremont County; Kevin Karney, at-large; and Dallas May, Prowers and Kiowa Counties.
Pitkin County on Wednesday inched a bit closer to having an additional 100 acre-feet of water flow down the Roaring Fork River with the approval of an intergovernmental agreement and memorandum of understanding.
Pitkin County commissioners unanimously approved on first reading the IGA with the city of Aurora and the MOU between the county, Aurora and the Bureau of Reclamation. The agreements are the final step in a yearslong effort by the county to get more water into the often water-short upper Roaring Fork by means of a complicated exchange.
As part of a 2018 settlement of a water court case, Aurora is allowed, in exchange for leaving more water in the Roaring Fork, to continue diverting water out of the headwaters of the Fryingpan River basin to the Front Range through the Busk-Ivanhoe system.
This can be done because Aurora owns about 5% of the diversions of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company, the entity that owns and operates the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System.
The IGA and MOU bring the total amount of water to be left by Aurora in the Roaring Fork to 1,000 acre-feet. That amount is about half of the water that Aurora owns in the Twin Lakes company.
Pitkin County’s goal was to get more water into the habitually stressed reach of the Roaring Fork that flows through Aspen during the summer and fall. Aurora has released water into the Roaring Fork for the past two summers under this settlement agreement.
“It was definitely noticeable by users of the river, and they were excited,” said Commissioner Patti Clapper. “It worked exactly like we wanted it to work, and the fact that we were able to draw this water when we needed it most was really a key point in this whole deal.”
But the extra water in the Roaring Fork could be diverted and used by any downstream senior water-rights holder. The new agreements would allow Aurora — which still maintains ownership of the water, even though it’s being released to the benefit of Pitkin County — to “call” the water down to the confluence of the Roaring Fork with the Fryingpan in Basalt. This water could then be used to satisfy downstream water users, who usually meet demands by releasing water they store in Ruedi Reservoir.
Leaving this water, up to 900 acre-feet, stored in Ruedi would allow Aurora to take half that amount (up to 450 acre-feet) from Ivanhoe Reservoir and send it to the Front Range for municipal use. Pitkin County would be entitled to about a quarter of the water (up to 100 acre-feet), which Aurora would release back into the Roaring Fork, bringing the complicated exchange full circle.
Benefits to using Fork water
There are secondary benefits to using Aurora’s water released into the Roaring Fork to satisfy downstream needs and leaving stored water in Ruedi, said Pitkin County Attorney John Ely. Fewer releases from Ruedi means reservoir levels can stabilize, and it would be better for anglers in the Fryingpan’s gold-medal trout fishery.
“You won’t see as many surges of water being released from Ruedi down the lower Fryingpan, making it more difficult for fishermen to access the river,” Ely said. “Those three benefits alone are pretty good scores for us.”
Ely said with the additional 100 acre-feet on top of the earlier agreement already in effect, there could be an extra 20 to 30 cubic feet per second of water flowing down the Roaring Fork, making it possible to run the Slaughterhouse rapid later in the season, among other benefits.
“I think if we are going to get 20 cfs on top of that, that saves the life of the upper Roaring Fork,” said Commissioner Greg Poschman. “I am really, really grateful and excited to see this happen.”
The IGA will have a second reading and final approval by commissioners on April 28. The agreement will allow the governments to move ahead with a storage contract and water-court filing to execute the exchange.
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the April 15 edition of The Aspen Times.
Water forecasting agencies in Colorado have released their April streamflow predictions, confirming what many already knew: Drought and dry soils will diminish rivers this spring.
“The main story of this water supply outlook season is the effect of last year’s drought going into winter,” said Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist and assistant supervisor with the Natural Resources Conservation Service Colorado Snow Survey. “We are anticipating significantly lower runoff compared with the snowpack because we entered winter with such dry conditions that the soils are going to have to soak up a ton of moisture before it actually makes it through the system into the river.”
The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center and NRCS both released streamflow forecasts this week for the months of April through July. This is the second year in a row parched soils will rob rivers of their water.
If soils were not so dry, streamflow predictions would track closely with snowpack. But this year, in many areas streamflows are predicted to be down by 15% to 20% compared with the snowpack, and streamflow for all river basins in the state are predicted to be below average.
NRCS relies heavily on data from SNOTEL (short for snow telemetry) sites for its water supply forecasts. These automated sensors collect snow and weather data from remote, mountainous areas around the state. At the beginning of the month, the snow-water equivalent, which is a measure of how much water is contained in the snowpack, was 90% of average for the Colorado River headwaters, which includes the Roaring Fork River basin. Warm weather the first few days of the month had dropped that number to 78% by Wednesday.
According to NRCS models, streamflow for the Roaring Fork River, measured at its confluence with the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs will be 70% of average. The CBRFC model predicts just 68% of average. Throughout the Colorado headwaters, streamflow predictions range from 57% to 77% of average.
According to CBRFC hydrologist Cody Moser, most river basins in Colorado were in the bottom five driest years for soil moisture going into the winter and some places, like the San Juan River basin in the southwest corner of the state, had record low soil moisture.
“We had poor soil moisture entering the season,” Moser said. “We also have below normal snow, so a lot of things are working against a good runoff season.”
The Lake Powell inflow forecast, at 3.2 million acre-feet, is just 45% of normal and a 2% decrease from the CBRFC March forecast.
Another tricky year for Ruedi
Tim Miller, a hydrologist at the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Ruedi Reservoir, said predicting inflow into the reservoir from the Fryingpan River and surrounding tributaries is like “looking out into the crystal ball.”
It’s Miller’s job to release enough water from the reservoir to make room for the inflow. Filling it to capacity — roughly 102,000 acre-feet — requires precision and can be tricky. Last year Miller missed the mark by about 5,000 acre-feet, leaving reservoir levels a bit low. It was because streamflow forecasts didn’t fully account for the spring’s lack of precipitation, warmer-than-normal temperatures and dry soils, he said.
“We were over-forecasting until right at the very end,” Miller said. “It wasn’t until the end of May and early June that we realized we just weren’t going to get that volume. Last year, because of those forecasts, I was releasing quite a bit more water at this time because I was expecting a bigger inflow.”
This year, Miller said he plans on releasing just the minimum needed to meet the instream flow needs of the lower Fryingpan until he knows there will be enough runoff to fill the reservoir. Much of the water stored in Ruedi is either “fish water,” released for the benefit of endangered fish downstream or contract water, which has been sold by the bureau to cover the costs of building and operating the reservoir. Many different entities and water providers, including Ute Water Conservancy District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, own some of this contract water.
The reservoir has a decent chance of filling this year, Miller said, but there is another factor that could negatively impact those chances. Ruedi is currently 57% full, down from where it was at this time last year, about 66% full, according to Miller.
“Ruedi is lower starting out than what it would have been starting out last year, so that’s going to be an issue,” Miller said. “There are just a lot of things to juggle.”
The bureau is predicting about 112,000 acre-feet of runoff for the upper Fryingpan River basin this year, but about half that will be taken through the Boustead Tunnel system to the Front Range, Miller said.
So how might low runoff affect local water providers and users? For starters, the city of Aspen is still in Stage 2 drought restrictions, a carry-over from last August. That means restrictions on washing sidewalks and vehicles, and outdoor watering. One of the biggest water uses in Aspen is outdoor watering of lawns and landscaping.
“We are going to do our damnedest to make sure people are responsible,” said Steve Hunter, utilities resource manager with the city of Aspen.
Hunter said he has been talking with other local water managers about creating a valley-wide unified message about the drought, to target residents and visitors alike. The next city drought response committee meeting is April 23.
Despite the bleak streamflow outlook, weather is still a big unknown. Late spring storms and summer monsoon season — which mostly failed to materialize in 2020 — could begin to turn things around.
“We are just going to be prepared,” Hunter said. “We need to be adaptable. It may get worse, it may get better, it may stay the same.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the April 9 edition of The Aspen Times.
Snowmass picked up the most snowfall among Aspen Skiing Co.’s four ski areas in March with 68 inches, according to Skico’s records. That’s a foot above the ski area’s average snowfall of 56 inches for the month…
Snowmass received snow on 20 of 31 days for the month, including dumps of 8 inches on March 13 and another 11 inches on March 14. There was a surprise dump of 8.5 inches on March 29…
While the snowfall during March was impressive, it wasn’t up to par with really big years. In March 2019, for example, Snowmass reaped 96 inches. The ski area’s record for the month was 119 inches in 1995…
Even with above average snowfall in March, the Roaring Fork River basin is still struggling to bounce back from a dry start to winter. As of March 31, snowpack on Independence Pass was 91 percent of the 41-year median, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which operates automated snow telemetry sites. That is up from 84 percent of median at the beginning of the month.
McClure Pass was at 84 percent of median snowpack while Schofield Pass was at 86 percent. The North Lost Trail site near Marble fared better with snowpack at 97 percent of average.
In the Fryingpan Valley, snowpack was close to the median for April 1.
The weather over the next few weeks will be crucial in determining runoff in western Colorado. The Colorado River District’s website said snowpack in the region typically peaks between April 8-10. While it usually snows more after that, the snowfall is more than offset by melting from warmer weather later in the month…
The implications go beyond water availability for irrigation. Reservoirs that are popular sites for boating and other recreation might not fill to capacity.
“Ruedi Reservoir is forecasted not to fill this year,” Langenhuizen said.
Last summer, the Aspen Global Change Institute’s first subalpine soil-moisture and snowpack-monitoring station began transmitting live data to researchers, stakeholders and the Aspen water department.
The station, which sits at 11,500 feet on Cooper Basin Road near the edge of the Castle Creek watershed, tracks soil moisture at multiple depths; soil temperature; snow depth; wind speed and direction; air temperature; humidity; and radiative balance. That data is made available online in real time.
“The new station fills a gap in that there wasn’t information being measured at that elevation,” AGCI research director Julie Vano said recently.
AGCI now has 10 stations covering the major elevation zones and ecosystems present in the Roaring Fork Valley.
The stations, known as the Interactive Roaring Fork Observation Network (iRON), gather data on soil-moisture levels, which are key but understudied variables in streamflow forecasting. In the 2020 Western Water Assessment report for the Colorado River upper and lower basins, scientists emphasized that surface soil-moisture data — critical for streamflow forecasting and for monitoring the impacts of climate change on the hydrologic cycle — was sparse.
Gathering data at all elevations throughout the Roaring Fork Valley provides scientists with a localized, clearer picture of how climate change is impacting the hydrologic cycle at the Colorado basin’s headwaters. The study of headwater areas is important because 15% of the upper and lower basins’ surface area — primarily the high mountains of the Western Slope, but also spanning mountainous areas in Utah and Wyoming — provides 85% of total annual runoff into the Colorado River.
A storehouse of data
The AGCI network gives scientists the opportunity to study how elevation and varying ecosystems shape soil-moisture retention.
“People who live in the mountains know that everything varies a lot in a pretty small geographic distance,” said AGCI community science manager Elise Osenga. “You’ll have changes in soil type, changes in plants, even changes in rainfall from one mile to the next mile over.”
As the network continues to accumulate data, it will create a local picture of climate change’s impacts on the water cycle. Throughout the upper basin, scientists have shown that snowmelt and runoff are occurring earlier than they did between 1950 and 2000. Every degree Fahrenheit of warming is expected to reduce upper-basin runoff by between 2-6%. Having a data record for a specific basin will give these impacts a local focus, Vano said.
Since 2015, AGCI staffers have been submitting their data to international hydrologic and soil-moisture databases.
“Since we started sharing, over 1,800 requests for our data have been made,” Osenga said.
The AGCI is working to create partnerships with other soil-moisture monitoring basins and research institutions across the West to share data, allowing for future hydrologic studies involving intrabasin comparisons.
“Nothing is fully underway just yet,” Osenga said.
Determining climate-change trends via iRON data will take time to develop. The first iRON station was created in 2012. Of the 10, six have been installed since 2015. As the length of the record grows, it will become increasingly easier to detect climate change trends, Vano said.
Adding to the uncertainty, the Colorado River basin has been in an extended dry period marked by frequent droughts since 2000, marking “the driest 21-year period in the Colorado River basin in more than 100 years of record keeping and one of the driest in the past 1,200,” according to a 2021 U.S. Bureau of Reclamation report on water-supply security.
“We have really short data records, and those data records exist within an already really dry period,” Osenga said of iRON.
So, in order to gain an understanding of soil moisture in the Roaring Fork Valley, data from future potentially droughtless years is needed, Osenga said.
While drought is predicted to become more frequent and intense in the future, it is less clear how precipitation trends — which are the greatest drivers of soil moisture — will take shape. Some models indicate that precipitation could increase in the upper basin in the coming decade, which would reshape iRON’s soil-moisture data, Osenga said.
Don’t be so predictable
While long-term trends from the Roaring Fork data remain ambiguous, yearly data provides useful insights for the Aspen water department in predicting spring- and summer-streamflow conditions.
“When I’m not in meetings and other obligations, I’m constantly looking at data,” said Steve Hunter, utilities resource manager for the city of Aspen.
To better predict spring streamflow, Hunter checks weather and snowpack data from national organizations such as the U.S. Geological Service and the National Resource Conservation Service. Hunter frequently checks data from the NRCS Snow Telemetry (SNOTEL) sites in the Roaring Fork watershed. The SNOTEL site at Independence Pass is closest to Castle Creek, which provides the majority of Aspen’s water, Hunter said. On Wednesday, the snow-water equivalent measured at Independence Pass was at 13.8 inches, which is 91% of average, calculated from data from 1981 to 2010. Snow depth, which is different from SWE, at Independence Pass was at 52 inches. At the Castle Creek iRON station, snow depth was at 53 inches.
Hunter also tracks the information coming from iRON. Soil-moisture data ends in the fall, when frozen water begins accumulating on the soil as snow. In the fall of 2020, seven of nine stations had the lowest levels of soil moisture on iRON station record, said Osenga. (The Castle Creek iRON station was not included in analysis.) Of the two with higher water levels than prior years, one station is in an irrigated area, providing an artificial boost to moisture levels, Osenga said.
Dry fall soil conditions mean that as snow begins to melt this spring, more water will soak in — and be absorbed by plants and the atmosphere — before running into local creeks and rivers, Osenga said.
Hunter is holding out hope that more stormy weather could give the snowpack the boost it needs for adequate streamflow this spring and summer.
“We’re just hoping we get a lot of snow and then liquid precipitation in the spring,” said Hunter.
Deciding what’s important
While the AGCI plans on expanding its reach through collaborations, the organization does not plan to add more iRON sites in the near future. Each site has been funded by a combination of partners, including private organizations, government entities and educational interests.
“It’s supported by the community, which is really amazing,” Vano said of iRON. “You don’t see that often in the world of science. So, the community is really deciding that understanding these changes is really important.”
This story ran in the March 26 edition of The Aspen Times.
A consultant working for the city of Aspen is presenting both new sources and storage as part of its water future.
Denver-based Carollo Engineers is working on Aspen’s Water Integrated Resource Plan, which aims to predict and plan for water needs through 2070.
A main goal of the plan is figuring out how to address what they say are potential future water shortages, especially in late summer under hotter and drier conditions fueled by climate change. Carollo expects to submit a final IRP with recommendations and a plan to implement them in late spring or early summer.
Engineers define a shortage as the inability to meet all water uses — potable, irrigation, goals for instream flow (ISF), and hydropower generation — at the same time. ISF water rights are held by the state of Colorado and set a requirement for minimum flows between specific points on a stream. They are aimed at improving the natural environment to a reasonable degree. The ISF for the creeks that provide Aspen’s municipal water is 14 cubic feet per second on Maroon Creek and 13.3 cfs on Castle Creek.
The city’s consultants calculated future water demands using the variables of population, occupancy rates, climate change, water-use efficiency and unmetered water use. They claim that Aspen’s future water demand for the next 50 years, depending on these variables, could be between 4,900 and 9,300 acre-feet per year, according to a slide show presented at a public engagement meeting March 3.
Consultants say they are planning for the worst and, instead of hoping for the best, making the IRP flexible and adaptable. The factors that, according to the consultants, would contribute to Aspen having 9,300 acre-feet of water demand would include a 3.6 degree (Celsius) increase in temperature due to climate change and an annual population increase of 1.8% by 2070, according to John Rehring, senior project manager and vice president of Carollo Engineers.
This demand forecast already includes conservation measures and drought restrictions, which would decrease indoor use by 2% and outdoor use by 5% to 15% by 2070.
Rehring said that even under stage-three drought restrictions limiting water use, his firm’s projections show future supply gaps.
For the past several years, Aspen’s water demands have hovered between about 4,000 and 5,000 acre-feet per year. A 2016 study by Wilson Water concluded that Aspen did not need any storage, although drought years could cause the creeks to dip below the ISF standard without more water conservation.
Looking for storage locations
In this month’s earlier public meeting, consultants presented six different portfolios for meeting a potential projected shortage. Five of the six — all except the current status quo — included storage as a component.
The city has identified five potential reservoir sites: the city golf course; the Maroon Creek Club golf course; Cozy Point open space; the Woody Creek gravel pit; and a 63-acre parcel of land next to the gravel pit. Officials believe water could be stored underground at some of these sites.
A map included in the presentation with city officials and Carollo representatives on March 3 included three new possible sites: the Aspen airport, Zoline Open Space and North Star Nature Preserve.
But Aspen Utilities Resource Manager Steve Hunter said it’s highly unlikely the city would pursue water storage at these locations. Hunter said they were included on the map because the consultant used a geographic information system (GIS) mapping tool to pick out large tracts of city-owned land that would be big enough to store water.
“The three are low if not off the list,” he said. “I don’t see the city pursuing any of these three.”
According to Hunter, Zoline is probably too small and the airport too fraught with logistical challenges. North Star is valued for its natural beauty and important riparian habitat, and building city water infrastructure there is something Hunter said won’t happen.
“I don’t ever see it happening in my lifetime due to the pushback they would get,” Hunter said. “I’m almost 100% confident that is not going to fly.”
The pushback to which Hunter is referring would be of the same sort Aspen faced when it attempted to hang onto conditional water rights to build dams and reservoirs in the Castle and Maroon valleys. The Maroon Creek Reservoir would have held 4,567 acre-feet of water and the Castle Creek Reservoir would have held 9,062 acre-feet of water.
After a lengthy water court battle in which 10 entities opposed the city’s plans, the city gave up its water rights, which date to 1965, in those particular locations. The final water court decree in the case granted Aspen the right to store up to 8,500 acre-feet from Castle and Maroon creeks combined.
Now that the Castle and Maroon valleys are out of the question, part of the IRP process is figuring out where the city should store the water granted by those conditional water rights.
Consultants are proposing two different storage pools: seasonal/operational and emergency.
The seasonal/operational pool would be used as a traditional reservoir to retime flows by capturing spring runoff and saving it for use later in the summer, when creek flows have dwindled but demands — especially outdoor watering — are still high.
Emergency storage would be left untouched most years and only tapped if there was a disaster such as a wildfire or a flood that made the city’s water sources temporarily unusable. The two pools could be combined in the same reservoir or stored in two different locations.
Diversified supply of water encouraged
Consultants are also working toward a recommendation that the city develop additional sources of water in order to protect supply.
The city takes nearly all its water from Castle Creek and some from Maroon Creek, which consultants say makes Aspen vulnerable to drought, wildfire or avalanches. In addition to storage, the portfolio options included combinations of new sources from groundwater wells, tapping the flows of Hunter Creek, reuse of wastewater and enhanced conservation measures.
“We see strength in diversity, when we diversify the supply sources,” Rehring said.
Each of the six portfolios were ranked based on six criteria: supply availability; supply resilience; community and environmental benefits; affordability; ease of implementation; and ease of operations. (Supply availability is the most important of these.) Portfolio 6 — which includes storage, groundwater wells, enhanced conservation and reuse, in addition to current supplies from Castle and Maroon creeks — scored the highest.
The portfolios did not include an “everything but storage” option; storage was a part of all the portfolios except for the “do nothing” option. Rehring said storage is an effective way of helping the city use its current sources of Castle and Maroon creeks and avoid or defer bringing another water source online as quickly.
Hunter said he sees conservation, wells and reuse leading the charge on the front end, but he adds that the city will also use storage.
“Yes, storage will be a component,” he said. “It’s a phased approach — we don’t need to go out and put in … a 2,500 acre-foot reservoir and fill it up tomorrow.”
In addition to holding three public-engagement sessions on the IRP, the city also formed a technical working group — with representatives from Pitkin County, the Bureau of Reclamation, Western Resource Advocates, Aspen Global Change Institute, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and other entities — to provide input.
Laura Belanger, a senior water-resources engineer and policy adviser with Western Resource Advocates and a member of the technical working group, said the city is doing a good job getting input from stakeholders, including those who have been opposed to some of Aspen’s water plans in the past. WRA was one of the 10 opposing parties in the city’s conditional water-rights case.
Belanger said it’s encouraging that the city is considering enhanced conservation and reuse as part of the IRP.
“I think we actually like the way the city is approaching this,” Belanger said.
Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the March 20 edition of The Aspen Times.
Wildfire, infrastructure failure and persistent drought are the three biggest risks to the city of Aspen’s main water sources of Castle and Maroon creeks, according to consultants Carollo Engineers.
“The (risks) you worry about most are the ones that are fairly likely to happen and would have a pretty high consequence if they did,” said John Rehring, senior project manager and vice president of Carollo Engineers.
The risks to Aspen’s water supplies are just one of many topics consultants are taking into account as they develop a roadmap for the next 50 years of the city’s water management. As part of consultants’ data-gathering process, the city is holding the third and final community engagement session from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The first two sessions were lightly attended, but city officials are hoping more citizens will show up Wednesday.
“I always like to see more people be involved,” said Steve Hunter, utilities resource manager for the city of Aspen. “We want to be completely transparent with the public.”
Carollo is working toward a final water integrated resource plan, or IRP, which they are expected to release by mid 2021. A main component of the plan will be how to address Aspen’s potential water shortages.
Although numbers are still preliminary, according to a presentation engineers gave to the city in January, the city’s estimated shortage is about 2,500 acre-feet on an annual basis. A shortage is defined as an inability to meet all demands at the same time, for example if prolonged drought cut streamflows such that the city could not provide enough water for outdoor irrigation or meet instream flow requirements.
One potential solution would be to bring online three groundwater wells in downtown Aspen, which are currently not being used because of water quality issues like too much fluoride. Having different water sources that might not be subject to natural disasters like wildfires and avalanches the same way Castle and Maroon creeks are would make Aspen’s water supply less vulnerable.
“Having the groundwater in there would help with diversity and risks and vulnerabilities,” Rehring said.
The city has a portfolio of water rights on various local waterways, ditches and wells. But it’s main source of potable water is Castle Creek.
Consultants also are working on finding a location to which to move Aspen’s conditional water-storage rights and determining whether the city needs storage at all. After a lengthy water court battle, in June 2019 the city gave up its rights that could have someday allowed it to build dams and reservoirs on upper Castle or Maroon creeks.
The city has identified five other locations 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.
Previous 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.
“We are trying to identify just what the storage needs are and better define just how much storage is needed or maybe how to phase in that storage capacity over time,” Rehring said. “We have not zeroed in on any particular site at this point.”
Wednesday’s meeting will take place on Zoom. To register and for more information, go to aspencommunityvoice.com.
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the March 1 edition of The Aspen Times.
Work currently underway in the Roaring Fork River between old town Basalt and Willits will make for a smoother ride for boaters beginning this spring.
The project, with an estimated price tag of $935,000, requires a temporary cofferdam during construction across much of the river’s channel, with heavy machinery in the exposed river bed. It will create two new “grade-control” structures to replace a weir that was used to channel water toward a diversion for the Robinson Ditch. That weir created a difficult passage for boaters that was often referred to as Anderson Falls.
Instead of that steep drop with no clear passage around or through, the project has been designed by Carbondale-based River Restoration to create a gradual riffle drop between the grade-control structures. The Robinson Ditch diversion structure, which delivers raw water for outdoor irrigation from April through October to customers in the Mid Valley Metropolitan District, will also be rebuilt as part of the project.
Work on the project, which was approved for funding in March by Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams board of directors, began in December and is permitted to take place through March 15, said Quinn Donnelly, an engineer with River Restoration.
The weir, he said, created “probably one of the bigger navigation hazards” on the Roaring Fork, resulting in many boaters avoiding that stretch, which is just above a boat ramp near the FedEx facility off of Willits Lane.
“We are trying to make a natural riffle here” that meets the needs of boaters, Donnelly said. Making that stretch of the middle Roaring Fork more accessible might also have the added benefit of taking pressure off other stretches of river and more crowded boat ramps farther downvalley, he said.
The project should also improve fish habitat as water scours the riverbed around the newly placed boulders.
The cofferdam is blocking the river across most of the channel, funneling the Roaring Fork’s winter flow into a series of culverts on river right. On Thursday morning, an excavator was picking up 3- to 6-foot-diameter boulders and arranging them in a line to form the upper grade-control structure. The site is visible from the bike path connecting Willits Lane to Emma Spur.
Donnelly said that most of the boulders that were being placed this week will be buried by alluvium below “scour depth,” with more rocks placed on top. The project has been designed to keep the ditch headgate clear of sediment and debris carried downstream.
Once the grade-control structures are completed, the current cofferdam will be removed. A second temporary cofferdam will be installed at river right to allow for the new headgate to be built. That, too, will be removed before the project is complete and the river flows unimpeded through the section.
As of last year, project planners had secured $256,200 in grants, including a $171,216 Colorado Water Plan grant and a $45,000 Water Supply Reserve Fund grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, as well as a $40,000 Fishing Is Fun grant from Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers fund, supported by a 0.1% sales tax, will cover the difference when all grants have been applied, said Lisa MacDonald, who works in the Pitkin County Attorney’s Office and provides staff support for the Healthy Rivers program.
MacDonald and Donnelly credited the Roaring Fork Conservancy and the Roaring Fork Fishing Guide Alliance for supporting the project. Donnelly noted that in any river project, there are myriad interests in play involving water users, riparian habitat and recreation. It is a balancing act, he said, but a successful model involves bringing stakeholders together and that has been the goal here.
Robinson Ditch Co. president Bill Reynolds, who is also the director of the Mid Valley Metropolitan District, said he’s happy to see the project making progress and believes it will enhance the experience for river users.
The ditch company paid for the engineering and design of its diversion infrastructure, he said. That infrastructure makes it possible for users in a wide swath of the midvalley to irrigate using raw water, as opposed to more-expensive treated potable water, which the district also provides via a series of wells, he said.
Ditch companies typically rely on government grants to make infrastructure improvements, he said, expressing gratitude for Pitkin County’s model of supporting river projects.
“Pitkin County and the funding mechanisms they’ve been using have been a blessing,” Reynolds said.
This story ran in The Aspen Times on Jan. 30.
The headgate for the Robinson Diversion is located on river right, just upstream from the boat ramp on Willits Lane on the Roaring Fork River. The Pitkin County Healthy Rivers Board is moving forward on a nearly $1 million project to fix the Robinson Diversion structure. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism
The headgate for the Robinson Diversion is located on river right, just upstream from the boat ramp on Willits Lane on the Roaring Fork River. The Pitkin County Healthy Rivers Board is moving forward on a nearly $1 million project to fix the Robinson Diversion structure. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism
The Robinson Diversion, located just upstream from the boat ramp on Willits Lane has long presented a hazard for boaters on the Roaring Fork River. Pitkin County Healthy Rivers has secured roughly $256,000 in grant money to permanently fix the area. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism
A view of the headgate on the Robinson Ditch and the boulder structure in the Roaring Fork River that maintains the grade of the river so water can reach the headgate. Pitkin County has received a water-plan grant to help repair the diversion structure and improve boating passage. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has denied local groups’ request for a public hearing in the case of a marble quarry that violated the Clean Water Act.
In a Dec. 28 letter to Pitkin County and others, Benjamin Wilson, project manager for the Army Corps’ Colorado West Section, said the agency does not intend to conduct a hearing or public meeting.
“We do not believe there would be a valid interest served or that we would receive any substantial new information we would not otherwise obtain through the public notice comment and review process we are currently engaged in,” the letter reads.
In separate comments submitted to the Army Corps, Pitkin and Gunnison counties, the Crystal River Caucus, the Roaring Fork Conservancy and the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA) had asked for monitoring, restoration, mitigation and a chance for the public to weigh in about the situation at the Pride of America Mine, which sits above the town of Marble.
“We are definitely not going to accept this,” said John Armstrong, director of CVEPA. “To not even offer to hear what the public has to say in a public hearing is kind of shocking to me.”
In the fall of 2018, mine operator Colorado Stone Quarries (CSQ) diverted a roughly 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 that it could build a road. Operators piled the streambed with 97,000 cubic yards of fill material, including marble blocks.
In March, the Army Corps determined that these actions, which were done without the proper permit, violated the Clean Water Act. CSQ is now retroactively applying for that permit, known as a 404 individual permit. 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 and wetlands.
In its permit application, CSQ proposed making the creek relocation permanent by leaving it where it is on the east side of the ridge. The company says this is the most efficient and environmentally sound option, and it results in the closest return to pre-diversion stream conditions.
Wilson said the Army Corps received more than a dozen comments, which have been forwarded to the mining company, along with additional questions from the Army Corps. Wilson said mining company officials must address these comments and propose a plan to mitigate the damage caused by the creek relocation. The deadline for the quarry to respond is Jan. 23, but Wilson said it will probably take the company longer than that to come up with a mitigation plan.
“We are working towards figuring out which alternative is indeed the least environmentally damaging,” Wilson said in an interview with Aspen Journalism. “I think it’s understood that no matter what alternative we choose to go forward with, additional mitigation will be required.”
Pitkin County wants the mining company to restore the riparian habitat, conduct water-quality monitoring at multiple sites in the basin and compensate for any damage by doing restoration projects in other areas. County representatives identified eight projects that could provide compensatory mitigation in the Crystal River basin, including restoration of Filoha Meadows streambanks, Thompson Creek riparian restoration and Crystal River streambank stabilization.
Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop agrees. The conservation organization is also getting involved in the issue, signing on to the comments provided by CVEPA.
“It is a shocking issue,” said Peter Hart, conservation analyst and staff attorney for Wilderness Workshop. “Obviously, the damage is done, but I think that we’d like to see fines for violations imposed and see those funds actually utilized for restoration projects in the Crystal River valley.”
CSQ senior consultant Katie Todt, who is with Lewicki & Associates, said the company is evaluating potential mitigation options, including improvements to the current stream channel within the quarry’s permit area, which should stabilize the creek bank and promote vegetation growth. The company will more fully set out mitigation options in its expected Jan. 22 response to the Army Corps.
Wilson said that even though there won’t be another opportunity for the public to formally provide comments, the Army Corps is still obligated to consider any new information that comes to light.
Assistant Pitkin County Attorney Laura Makar said it was disappointing that the Army Corps decided not to hold a public hearing, especially since this is an atypical, retroactive permit application, submitted after the work needing a permit was already complete. There was significant information that could have been shared in a public hearing, she said.
“It would have been a good opportunity to ensure the record was complete,” Makar said.
This story ran in the Jan. 8 edition of The Aspen Times.
Months of dry weather have left much of the Roaring Fork Valley in critical levels of drought, even after snow in December. The region has not been so dry this time of year since 2002. The Roaring Fork River and many others across the state are below normal levels of flow, which is unlikely to change without an extraordinarily wet winter.
“An average or slightly below average snowpack is not going to get us out of this drought,” said Steve Hunter, a hydrologist with the City of Aspen. “So we need a pretty epic year.”
What this year’s winter will bring for the Roaring Fork Valley is unclear. Forecasters are focused on the effects of La Niña, a weather phenomenon that helps shape long-term snow predictions.
Northern Colorado tends to see more snow because of that phenomenon, while the southern part of the state gets less. The Roaring Fork Valley sits between those two regions and tends to see roughly average precipitation during La Niña years…
He said this area’s municipal water supply – which is fed by local creeks – is not at risk right now, but his team could issue usage restrictions if that changes.
“If we have back-to-back droughts – we had a significant drought in 2020, and if we don’t have a significant snow year – we’re going to be doing water restrictions, mainly on the irrigation and landscaping end, to protect water for drinking and residential use.”
Long-term climate data shows a shift toward shorter snow seasons, higher temperatures and less precipitation.
Ruedi Reservoir release will increase tomorrow morning by approximately 14 cfs. The flow at the Fryingpan River gage below Ruedi Reservoir will increase from 46 cfs to 60 cfs for the next two months. The release increase is due to a contract release, and the goal is to mitigate formation of anchor ice within the Fryingpan River channel.
Local governments and environmental groups don’t think a proposal submitted by a mining company goes far enough to restore the damage done when the company diverted a section of creek near Marble, and they are asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to hold a public hearing to address various concerns.
They also say the company, which was found to have violated the Clean Water Act for moving the section of Yule Creek without first applying for a permit, should undertake river restoration projects elsewhere in the Crystal River basin as compensatory mitigation for damage the company caused when it moved the waterway to construct a road to better access its marble quarry.
The quarry site and Yule Creek are in Gunnison County, but the creek is a tributary of the Crystal River, which flows through Pitkin County.
In separate comments submitted to the Army Corps, Pitkin and Gunnison counties, the Crystal River Caucus, the Roaring Fork Conservancy and the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA) are asking for monitoring, restoration, mitigation and a chance for the public to weigh in about the situation at the Pride of America Mine above the town of Marble.
“I think this is an activity of significant interest for those living in the Crystal River Valley,” said Pitkin County Assistant Attorney Laura Makar.
In its comment letter, CVEPA requested that the Army Corps hold a public hearing in the Crystal River Valley to “allow impacted residents a meaningful opportunity to engage in this decision-making process, and to better understand the situation that has transpired in our local watershed.”
In the fall of 2018, mine operator Colorado Stone Quarries (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 a road. Operators piled the streambed with 97,000 cubic yards of fill material, including marble blocks.
In March, the Army Corps determined that these actions, which were done without the proper permit, violated the Clean Water Act. CSQ is now retroactively applying for that permit, known as a 404 individual permit. 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 and wetlands.
In its permit application, CSQ proposed making the creek relocation permanent by leaving it where it is on the east side of the ridge. The company says this is the most efficient and environmentally sound option, and it results in the closest return to pre-diversion stream conditions. But that analysis doesn’t sit well with some local groups.
The Crystal River Caucus, which represents Pitkin County residents downstream of the site, said in its comment letter that the company’s proposed solution focuses too much on practicability above environmental factors.
“CSQ’s illegal activities have severely reduced, if not eliminated, many viable alternatives which could have been considered if the mining company had complied with the state and federal laws intended to regulate its activities,” the caucus wrote in its comment letter. “CSQ should not be rewarded for its violation of those laws.”
In its comment letter, Pitkin County said CSQ has not demonstrated that it has a plan that eliminates its detrimental impacts. In addition to a public hearing, the county wants the mining company to restore the riparian habitat, conduct water-quality monitoring at multiple sites in the basin and compensate for any damage by doing restoration projects in other areas.
Pitkin County and the Healthy Rivers board identified eight projects that could provide compensatory mitigation in the Crystal River basin, including restoration of Filoha Meadows streambanks, Thompson Creek riparian restoration and Crystal River streambank stabilization.
“These projects could provide the following types of benefits to the watershed: riparian zone improvement, floodplain connectivity, erosion control, habitat for aquatic life and water quantity increase,” the letter reads.
The Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy, in its letter, said it is interested in assisting with developing and implementing a long-term water-quality monitoring plan. According to the conservancy’s 2016 Crystal River Management Plan, the areas near Marble were some of the most ecologically intact prior to the recent mining activity on Yule Creek.
“RFC strongly encourages the applicant to undertake significant efforts, through a qualified and independent organization(s) to design and implement restoration projects and related long-term monitoring to restore the necessary and lasting ecological function in this severely impacted reach of Yule Creek,” the letter reads.
In a prepared statement, CSQ said it is awaiting guidance from the Army Corps on next steps in the process.
“Once CSQ has received all of the public comments and the Corps’ response, it will review all of this information and consider the best course of action,” said CSQ senior consultant Katie Todt, who is with Lewicki & Associates.
The Army Corps will now decide whether to issue a permit after the fact — an unusual situation. CSQ did not submit any compensatory mitigation plans as part of its application, but the Army Corps could require them if it determines that CSQ can’t minimize all its impacts.
“The applicant is currently considering various options to conduct compensatory mitigation, if needed,” says the Army Corps’ public notice of the application from October. “Discussions thus far have included wetland enhancement and preservation near the confluence of Yule Creek and the Crystal River in effort to improve water quality within the watershed, among other options that seek to improve the ecological function of the Yule Creek watershed. CSQ is amenable to receiving information related to additional compensatory mitigation options.”
According to its public notice, the Army Corps says it will use the public comments received to prepare an environmental assessment of CSQ’s activities.
The public comment period closed Dec. 16, a deadline that had been extended by a month at the request of the Crystal River Caucus. According to Susan Nall, chief of the Colorado West Section of the Army Corps, it is the Army Corps’ goal to issue a decision on a permit within 120 days after receiving the application.
The Pride of America Mine, known locally as the Yule Quarry, is owned by Italy-based Red Graniti. The quarry has been the source of marble for many well-known monuments, including the Lincoln Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Colorado Capitol building. In 2016, the state Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety granted the quarry a permit for a 114-acre expansion for a total of 124 permitted acres. CSQ officials say there is enough marble in its quarries to continue mining at the current rate for more than 100 years.
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 Dec. 21 edition of The Aspen Times.
The drought that kept its grip on Pitkin County and most of Colorado all summer is now reaching into early winter.
November was the eighth month this year that precipitation at the Aspen Water Treatment Plant was below average…
There’s not much relief at least over the next weeks, [Kris Sanders] said. Expect generally dry conditions with an occasional storm…
The La Niña weather pattern that’s in place generally favors precipitation in the Northern Rockies. Colorado is in the transition zone, with conditions generally drier farther to the south. That leaves Aspen in a toss-up area.
The weather report filed by the Aspen Water Department for November detailed the lack of snow last month.
“There was 14 inches of snowfall recorded at the Water Treatment Plant, noticeably below the average of 21.8 inches,” the report said. “This correlated with below average total precipitation with 1.76 inches of moisture measured. The average is 1.99 inches.”
The dry conditions have affected ski season already. Aspen Highlands will be forced to open later than planned due to sparse snow cover, Aspen Skiing Co. announced Thursday.
January, March, May and July through November all fell short of par. Only February, April and June exceeded average.
For the calendar year, the water plant has received 17.95 inches of precipitation. The average is 20.62, according to data recorded by the water department. That’s a decrease of 8.7%.
The water plant tends to get decent precipitation due to its elevation at 8,148 feet. The farther downvalley, the drier conditions have been this year. At the National Weather Service station at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, for example, only 8.5 inches of precipitation has fallen year-to-date, well below the average of 16.19 inches.
The snowpack at the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River was at 69% of median Thursday.
The latest map released Thursday by the U.S Drought Monitor showed the western half of Pitkin County remains in the “exceptional drought” category, the highest possible. The eastern half of the county is considered in “extreme drought.” Almost all of Eagle and Garfield counties also are in the “exceptional drought” classification.
The outlook for December is for below average precipitation and above average temperatures for all of Colorado, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center Long Range Forecasts.
The three-month outlook indicates temperatures will be warmer than average for Colorado. Aspen and the Central Rocky Mountains have an equal chance of precipitation being above or below average.
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.