The effort to explore getting a federal designation of wild and scenic for the Crystal River is about to get turned up a notch. The Wild and Scenic Feasibility Collaborative announced Monday it has selected Wellstone Collaborative Strategies and P2 Solutions to facilitate and lead a community engagement and stakeholder process. American Whitewater, a national nonprofit that advocates for the preservation and protection of whitewater rivers, will support Wellstone in the administration of its outreach efforts…
Denver-based Wellstone Collaborative Strategies and Loveland-based P2 Solutions were selected for their experience and competence in facilitation and community engagement. Both Jacob Bornstein, founder and principal of Wellstone Collaborative Strategies, and Wendy Lowe, owner of P2 Solutions, have demonstrated exceptional facilitation skills and experience shepherding broad community conversations to successful outcomes, according to a statement from the selection committee, according to an announcement. The principals in the businesses have strong backgrounds in natural resource issues and direct knowledge of the Crystal River…
With a goal of identifying long-lasting river protection, the collaborative envisions the creation of a stakeholder group that would engage in fact finding, identification of overlapping interests and concerns, and a robust discussion of shared goals and strategies. The initial phase of the stakeholder process will bring together a representative cross section of interested individuals to provide informed input; examine, explore and investigate river protection; access and rely on experts in river and riparian health; engage experts to provide factual information relevant to protective designations; agree upon rules of engagement; be a process grounded in the highest integrity and inclusiveness; and result in identification of shared principles for protection of the Crystal River.
A study of a water replacement plan on the Crystal River is looking at nature-based solutions, but experts say some type of storage will also probably need to be built to solve shortages in dry years.
Wendy Ryan, an engineer with Colorado River Engineering who is heading up an analysis of a basin-wide backup water-supply plan, gave a progress update at the Colorado Basin Roundtable meeting this week. The study was funded largely by a state grant and undertaken by the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Conservancy District.
“We have a couple landowners near Marble we are working with to see if we can put storage supplies on their properties,” Ryan said in response to a question asking her what solutions she had found. “We don’t have any shovel-ready projects. We did a lot of work upfront, and now it’s simply trying to find what we can build.”
During the hot, dry summer of 2018, the Ella Ditch, which pulls water from the Crystal River and irrigates hayfields south of Carbondale, placed a call for the first time. That means the Ella Ditch wasn’t getting the full amount to which it is entitled and upstream junior water users had to stop taking water so that the Ella could get its full amount.
The Ella Ditch has water rights that date to 1902, and any water rights younger than that — including those held by the town of Carbondale, the Marble Water Company and several residential subdivisions along the Crystal River — were technically supposed to be shut off under a strict administration of the river by the state Division of Water Resources. Under Colorado’s system of water law known as prior appropriation, those with the oldest water rights have first use of the river.
Most junior water rights holders have what’s known as an augmentation plan, which allows them to continue using water during a call by releasing water from a backup source, such as a nearby reservoir. The problem on the Crystal is that several of these residential subdivisions don’t have an augmentation plan.
Engineers from Division 5 of the Colorado Division of Water Resources have said that if water users work together to find solutions and come up with an augmentation plan, they won’t shut off indoor residential water use if the call happens again. Outdoor watering could still be shut off.
The first phase of the study, which River District representatives presented to Pitkin County commissioners in June 2021, was a demand quantification, which put numbers on the amount of water needed at different times of 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 structures deliver water to 197 homes; 80 service connections in Marble; about 23 irrigated acres; Beaver Lake and Orlosky Reservoir in Marble; 16,925 square-feet of commercial space; and 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 in the Crystal River per year. (An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of 1 foot and can typically meet the annual needs of one or two families.) 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.
Wild & Scenic jeopardized?
Ryan and staff from the River District have said they are not considering storage on the mainstem of the Crystal River, which could jeopardize a federal Wild & Scenic designation, a long-sought-after goal of Pitkin County, local environmental groups and some residents. A Wild & Scenic standing would mean no dams or out-of-basin diversions.
“We were never going to consider any mainstem storage on the Crystal River,” Ryan said. “We don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that potential designation on the Crystal, and what we are looking at shouldn’t.”
But Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said it’s hard to see how upstream storage and a Wild & Scenic designation won’t conflict.
“It troubles me to hear the engineers say it’s hard to envision a solution that doesn’t involve storage,” she said. “So that’s just a red flag. It’s always been a red flag for Pitkin County.”
McNicholas Kury and two other roundtable members voted in 2019 against funding the study unless storage was off the table.
A parallel study, undertaken by the River District and environmental-and-recreation advocacy group American Rivers, is looking at nature-based solutions. The idea is that by keeping water on the landscape higher in the basin, it could recharge aquifers and boost river flows in late summer.
“We have been analyzing whether the reconnection of floodplains can assist with aquifer recharge and natural water storage while also improving the resilience of watersheds and potentially contributing to later-season flows,” said Fay Hartman, American Rivers conservation director for the Southwest region.
According to Zane Kessler, the River District’s director of government relations, there are four potential areas for nature-based projects: the Coal Basin area; Avalanche Creek upstream of its confluence with the Crystal; the Janeway area, downstream of the confluence of Avalanche Creek and the Crystal; and the confluence of Thompson Creek and the Crystal. But none of the sites are perfect, Kessler said.
“The River District and American Rivers are partners in this effort investigating whether turning back the clock on past alterations that have degraded the Crystal River can help recapture some of the climate resilience we have lost,” he said. “Improving the storage in floodplains and wetlands I think we see as an innovative and lower-impact approach to meeting late-season water needs than dams or storage in the headwaters.”
Findings and recommendations from the nature-based solutions analysis are expected by the end of the month. But Ryan said some kind of storage is still needed because nature-based solutions will still not be enough to meet the supply-demand gap in dry years, according to her analysis.
“It might meet a portion of our demands, but it’s not going to meet all our demands,” she said.
In an effort to unify the Roaring Fork watershed, a local agency has developed valley-wide outdoor watering standards that its board members hope will be adopted by municipal water providers.
Last week the Ruedi Water and Power Authority board, which is made up of representatives from local towns and counties, gave its unanimous support to a set of unified permanent watering standards. The standards are focused on time of day and day of week for outdoor watering and would apply to any residential or commercial customer receiving municipal water from the city of Aspen, town of Basalt, town of Carbondale, city of Glenwood Springs, Snowmass Water & Sanitation District and Mid-Valley Metropolitan District.
The proposed schedule would limit outdoor watering to between 6 p.m. and 9 a.m. three days a week. Properties with odd-numbered addresses could irrigate on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays; even-numbered properties could water on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. No outdoor watering would be allowed on Mondays. Water providers could still enact more stringent restrictions depending on local conditions in their areas; the standards are intended to be a new baseline.
“If we can make this change, the idea that (watering restrictions) change from year to year to year will go away,” said Rachel Richards, Aspen City Council and RWAPA board member. “It’s going to be much easier and less expensive than having to tell people every year what the rules are this summer.”
The new watering standards were developed with the help of a project accelerator grant from WaterNow Alliance, which according to its website is a network of water leaders advancing climate resilient water strategies, and Boulder-based environmental advocacy group Western Resource Advocates. Outdoor watering of lawns and landscaping is often the largest water use category for local water providers; for the city of Aspen, outdoor irrigation represents about 70% of total water use.
The proposed schedule would result in water savings because watering would happen during the coolest periods of the day, peak demands would be reduced and one day a week of no watering would allow storage to be refilled, according to a memo from WaterNow Alliance and WRA.
“The three-day-per-week schedule is relatively easy to communicate to residents and other water users and it can be easily programmed into all types of irrigation controllers,” the memo reads.
The valley-wide watering standards were an outgrowth of the regional water efficiency plan, said RWAPA Executive Director April Long.
“We learned from the providers that were part of that plan that they still really needed some unified messaging about outdoor water use,” Long said. “We realized we don’t even have common ground to tell people exactly what to do because we have so many drought stages, and restrictions implemented in different ways. We actually need some baseline standards so we can provide a common message that’s not confusing for all of our residents.”
There are some exceptions to the standards. Outdoor watering can still occur any time of day with a handheld hose or drip irrigation. And those who irrigate with water from a ditch, like many residents in the town of Carbondale, are not subject to the standards, but are encouraged to comply.
The standards lay out penalties for violation, including a written warning for a first violation, and fines increasing to $500 for a fourth violation. But proponents will focus solely on an education campaign for the first season before issuing warnings or fines.
The next step is for Long to present the watering standards to each of the participating municipalities and get them approved by elected officials.
A streambank stabilization project on the Crystal River just west of Marble is on hold after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that the work undertaken this past summer fell outside what is allowed by the project’s permit.
The corps sent a letter of noncompliance, dated Sept. 27, to Susan Blue, longtime manager of the Marble airstrip, regarding work on the Crystal River as it runs through the property. Corps staff determined that the activities did not fall within the parameters of the project’s Nationwide Permit 3, which covers maintenance, according to Tucker Feyder, a regulatory project manager for the corps who signed the letter.
“If they were just doing maintenance on that section that was previously authorized, it could have fit a Nationwide Permit 3,” Feyder said. “The current project went a little above and beyond that.”
A Nationwide Permit 3 authorizes streambank restoration work covering up to 450 linear feet, but the current project “appears to extend significantly beyond what was previously authorized,” the letter reads.
Feyder said the noncompliance did not rise to the level of a violation of the Clean Water Act. A Clean Water Act violation would typically occur when a project has no permit at all from the corps, he said.
“They made a good-faith effort to work under a nationwide permit, and unfortunately, it got away from the intent of Permit 3,” Feyder said. “So we are viewing it as a noncompliance at the moment.”
ERO, a natural resources consultant with an office in Hotchkiss, is leading the project for the property owner, Marble Airfield LLC.
Marble Airfield LLC was, until Sept. 8, registered to the same post office box in Bentonville, Ark., as Walton Enterprises LLC. According to its LinkedIn page, “Walton Enterprises is a family-led, private family office supporting the personal, philanthropic and business activity for multiple generations of Sam & Helen Walton’s family.” Sam Walton was the founder of Walmart. (Aspen Journalism’s water desk is supported by a grant from Catena Foundation, a Carbondale-based philanthropic organization tied to Sam R. Walton, a grandson of Sam and Helen Walton’s.) On Sept. 8, the address to which Marble Airfield LLC was registered was changed to a location in Medford, Ore., according to the Colorado secretary of state website.
The letter says Marble Airfield has 30 days to provide a plan on how to bring the project into compliance. There are three options: They can argue that the work does fall under the Nationwide Permit 3 classification; they can apply for a different permit; or they could voluntarily restore the site. In addition, the property owners must provide information on the work that has been completed; information on the work that still needs to be completed; an updated map of the work site; and a description of any proposed mitigation.
This past summer, ERO contractors began work to restore the streambank along the Crystal River near the airstrip, which is about 1 mile long and was installed in the 1950s and ’60s. Annual maintenance of the riverbank has been required to prevent damage to the airstrip, according to ERO.
“Extreme weather events during the 2021 monsoon season and ongoing spring runoff have resulted in extensive erosion of the adjacent (eastern) riverbank and opposite (western) riverbank, causing many large conifer trees to topple into the river, ponding water and pushing river flows toward the airstrip,” ERO president Aleta Powers wrote in a memo to Gunnison County officials on Aug. 26.
This past summer, contractors began the work, which the corps had said in December was covered under the Nationwide Permit 3. But heavy machinery along the river attracted the attention of neighbors who contacted local environmental group Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association. CVEPA alerted Gunnison County, which issued a stop-work order on Aug. 12.
“We really believed at first report and as the information came in that this far exceeded the Nationwide Permit 3 for bank stabilization,” said CVEPA president John Armstrong. “We are happy the corps is taking action, but we are not necessarily pleased with the consequences.”
ERO is also working to resolve violations of the Gunnison County Land Use Resolution that led the county to issue the stop-work order. The county said the project violated its restrictive buffer for protection of water quality and standards for development in sensitive wildlife-habitat areas. The county also said the project needed a floodplain development permit.
In response to the stop-work order, ERO on Aug. 26 submitted a memo and reclamation plan to the county. In the memo, ERO said the project was exempt from county regulations because it had a federal permit from the corps and because there are exemptions from county regulations for projects designed primarily for enhancement, protections, and/or restoration of water body banks or channels.
ERO said the project includes removal of fallen timber caused by bank erosion, reestablishment of the deepest part of the river, revegetation of the bank, and reshaping native river cobble into jetties, all of which they say is exempt from the county’s standards for protecting water quality. ERO also asserted the project is in compliance with the county’s standards for development in sensitive wildlife-habitat areas.
“ERO is committed to assist Marble Airfield LLC in demonstrating full compliance with the Gunnison County LUR, and to assist Marble Airfield LLC with ensuring the protection and preservation of the natural environment and wildlife,” the memo reads.
Gunnison County has requested additional information from the property owners, including a wetlands delineation and the floodplain-development application.
“We need additional information from the property owners in order to figure out next steps and determine a path towards compliance,” Gunnison County Building and Environmental Health official Crystal Lambert said in an email. “I imagine that this will take a lot more time, at least weeks, if not months.”
To comply with Gunnison County, Powers from ERO said they will submit a floodplain-development permit application and have already submitted a reclamation permit application. She said they will also submit a preconstruction notification for a new permit from the corps per their requirement.
On the 13th of September, 2022, Cold Mountain Ranch, with compensation from Colorado Water Trust, is boosting streamflows in the Crystal River, which is suffering from low flows during this hot and dry summer. This is the first year of implementation in a second pilot program with Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch to add flow to the River during dry years. The agreement compensates the Cold Mountain Ranch owners, Bill Fales and Marj Perry, for leaving their irrigation water in the Crystal River when it needs it most.
The Crystal River drops out of the Elk Mountains near Marble and flows north to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River in Carbondale. The river supports a number of traditional ranching operations as well as towns, recreationalists, and fish populations. Cold Mountain Ranch relies on the Crystal River to irrigate grass meadows that support its cow-calf operation. Under the agreement, the Water Trust monitors flows in the river. When flows fall to 40 cubic feet per second (cfs) in August and September, the ranch may voluntarily decide to cease diversion from the Crystal River in August through October. Colorado Water Trust determines the amount of water left in the natural stream and then pays the ranch $250 per cfs per day for up to 20 days each year. Once streamflows reach 55 cfs in the River (based on a 3-day rolling average), payments cease, but should flow again drop below 55 cfs, diversions can stop again and compensation resume. The pilot agreement can restore up to 6 cfs in the Crystal River.
In 2018, Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch signed a similar three-year pilot agreement that ended in 2020. Unfortunately, within this initial three-year period, Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch were unable to run the project. In 2018, the Crystal River’s flows were too low to implement the agreement – there was not enough water available to result in significant benefits instream. In 2019, the river was high enough to avoid triggering the agreement during the timeframe of the agreement. Although it flirted with the low flow trigger in the late fall, the timing was out of range for the agreement. And in 2020, because of dry and hot conditions and impacts to their hay crop, Colorado Water Trust’s partners at Cold Mountain Ranch needed to use as much water as possible to maximize their late season production and keep their ranching operation sustainable.
Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch’s initial three-year pilot agreement was the first crack at a highly customized, market-based solution that works for agriculture and rivers on the Crystal River, and offered lessons for the renewal and re-tooling of that initial agreement. In this new contract, the partners tried to account for drier years and changing climatic conditions, as well as the economic needs of the Ranch. The changes include a $5,000 signing bonus to support agricultural operations, additional payment and flexibility for coordination, and extending potential coordination into October.
“Although we certainly wish conditions were wetter, we are excited for a chance to run the program. On one hand it enables an active, family-owned ranching operation to use its water rights portfolio in a new and flexible way. On the other hand, it keeps water in the river when it is most in need. It checks the boxes for the definition of a win-win solution,” Alyson Meyer Gould, Staff Attorney, Colorado Water Trust.
The legal and technical framework created by Colorado Water Trust and informed by local interests and support from Lotic Hydrological, has the potential, if successful, to have far-reaching implications. In the end, it brings environmental benefits to the river without affecting enrolled ranches’ long-term sustainability. Thus, the project will support both people and the environment.
The Water Trust would like to thank Cold Mountain Ranch, Public Counsel of the Rockies, the Roaring Fork Conservancy, Lotic Hydrological, WestWater Research, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Pitkin County, Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, the Aspen Skiing Company Environment Foundation, Catena Foundation, and the stakeholders of the Crystal River Management Plan for making this project possible.
In July, Cold Mountain Ranch and the Colorado Water Trust penned an agreement they hope will improve the Crystal River’s streamflow in dry years. The contract compensates the Ranch owners, Bill Fales and Marj Perry, for adjusting the timing of their water diversions when late summer flows dip.
The Crystal River has its headwaters in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, but as the river descends through the wide pastures above the Town of Carbondale, more than 30 agricultural diversions, representing around 300 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water rights, pull water from the Crystal and its tributaries to irrigate around 4,800 acres of land. In drought years, which are becoming more frequent, sections of the Crystal River run dry.
“A river is like a circulatory system,” says Alyson Meyer Gould, staff attorney & policy director for the water trust, “if you have a point where the circulatory system doesn’t work, it can have negative effects both upstream and downstream.”
A 2016 report on the Crystal River found there are specific stretches of the lower Crystal River that are most impaired, primarily after major ditches divert water from the river and before their return flows rejoin the Crystal downstream. This change to the river’s hydrology can impact water temperature, habitat quality and habitat availability, diminishing the ecosystem.
Cold Mountain Ranch is right next to one such beleaguered section of the Crystal River. The property has been in Marj Perry’s family since 1924. A cow-calf operation, the ranch irrigates several hundred acres for pasture and hay, utilizes grazing permits on nearby public lands and leases pasture nearby. In a typical year, Fales flood irrigates from early May through early October, moving water via ditches around his property in a three-week cycle. Fales gets two cuttings of hay, and spring and fall pasture with their water rights.
Under the new six-year agreement with the Colorado Water Trust, when river flows dip to 40 cfs or below, Cold Mountain Ranch will decide whether to enact the diversion coordination agreement. The ranch will be paid a $5,000 signing bonus for entering the updated agreement, an acknowledgment of the time and effort required to negotiate such a contract.
In addition to the bonus, for each cfs per day — up to 20 days total per year in up to five years — that they don’t divert during the contract period, they will be paid $250. The agreement will lift when flows hit 55 cfs. If the ranch is able to enact the agreement for their maximum decreed flow rate for the 100 potential days in the agreement, they could be paid $150,000 over five years.
Says Fales, “It’s the right thing to do. I’m not sure it’s a perfect thing to do, but I try not to let perfect be the enemy of the good. We’ll try it, we’ll see if it works and see what we learn from it.”
This is the second time that Cold Mountain Ranch and the Colorado Water Trust have entered such an agreement. The first ran from 2018 to 2020 but was never implemented. In 2018, flows in the Crystal were so low that “there was not enough water available to result in significant benefits instream,” according to the water trust. In 2019, flows were high enough that the threshold was never met. In 2020, heat and drought meant the ranch couldn’t afford to give up any water and still grow the hay and pasture they needed to feed their cows.
The water for this agreement will come from the Helms Ditch, which can divert up to around 6 cfs. In late summer this can be about 30% of the ranch’s available water. About half those rights were adjudicated in 1903 and the other half in 1936, making the diversion significantly more senior than the environmental instream flows on the river, which date to the 1970s. Cold Mountain Ranch uses water from three ditches, but the Helms Ditch is not shared with any neighbors, which makes it an easier candidate for an agreement with the water trust.
One barrier to in-stream water conservation is the fact that water voluntarily left in the river can simply be diverted by another user downstream. In this case, the agreement is designed to alleviate drought stress on a concise stretch of stream, an area that in the dry year of 2012 was completely dewatered. If the water stays in the river for as little as a mile or two, it can make a big difference. As Heather Tattersall Lewin, director of science and policy at the Roaring Fork Conservancy explains, “As little as 6 cfs can make a difference in temperature resiliency, the existence of a cool pool versus a shallow riffle, or the ability for a fish to move from pool to pool or not.”
This agreement with Cold Mountain Ranch is not the only one of its kind for the Colorado Water Trust. In 2012, when much of the state was in a severe drought, there were insufficient laws in place to protect water users who wanted to conserve. In 2013, the Colorado Legislature passed Senate Bill 13-19, allowing some water users to temporarily reduce their water use without jeopardizing their legal rights. Without that protection, a water user who conserved could legally be considered to be abandoning their valuable rights to water, a rule often referred to as “use it or lose it.”
Senate Bill 13-019 was first used by the Colorado Water Trust and a rancher on Willow Creek in 2016. Willow Creek is a tributary of the Colorado River southwest of Rocky Mountain National Park. The rancher had noticed Willow Creek sometimes ran dry during the late summer months and reached out to the water trust. That agreement has been used to restore flows in 2016, 2021 and 2022. According to the water trust, “The project restores a fairly small amount of water to the stream, but because there are no other diverters immediately downstream, that additional water helps to keep Willow Creek connected to the Colorado River.” This style of agreement has since been drawn up by the water trust for four other projects, including Cold Mountain Ranch.
Climate change is impacting both the supply and timing of flows in streams like the Crystal River. Average peak runoff is moving to earlier in the season, extending the amount of time in late summer when streams run low. Warmer temperatures make the soil thirstier, so more snowmelt gets absorbed by the land instead of turning into runoff, even when snowpacks are typical, increasing the frequency of low-flow years.
“The Colorado Water Trust sees diversion agreements as one of many tools in the toolbox to improve flows in Colorado Rivers in the face of climate change,” says Blake Mamich, water transactions coordinator for the water trust.
For some water users, dry years will make changing their diversions more challenging — many agricultural water users on the Crystal River and its tributaries already experience water shortages in dry years. But, continues Mamich, “these agreements may be advantageous to agricultural producers in sub-optimal production years, as a way to diversify income while supporting the health of the river.”
Agriculture represents the majority of water use in Colorado, so ranchers and farmers will need to be part of any major water conservation strategy. But it’s not as simple as just buying agricultural water rights. Farms and ranches around the state are a significant part of the state’s economy and lifestyle — permanently drying them up can have profound negative effects on local communities.
That’s why the water trust is trying these voluntary and temporary agreements, hoping to find a solution that benefits both the environment and agriculture. But, in the quest to improve flows around the state, the water trust uses many statutory tools to get more water in rivers, including purchasing and leasing water rights, creating agreements around the timing of reservoir releases, and more.
For the Crystal River, water from Cold Mountain Ranch is just a start. The Crystal River Management Plan cites a need for 25 cfs during severe drought to meet goals for maintaining the ecosystem. The agreement between the water trust and the ranch will, at most, contribute 6 cfs for just 20 days of the year. To continue to build the river’s resilience in the face of climate change, Mamich says it will likely take a combination of various tools, from new infrastructure to additional diversion agreements with more water rights holders in the watershed.
Olivia Emmer is a freelance journalist based in Carbondale, Colorado. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A campaign to protect one of the last free-flowing rivers in Colorado is moving forward, but some proponents say not enough progress has been made over the past year.
Last spring a handful of advocates led by Pitkin County revived an effort to secure a federal Wild & Scenic designation, which would protect the upper Crystal River from future development, dams and diversions. A year into the effort, some say a planned stakeholder process is moving too slowly, while others say a designation can’t be rushed and must be approached carefully and inclusively.
The different philosophies underscore a rift between those who say a cautious and thorough multi-year approach is what’s needed to ensure success and those who say mounting threats to the river, driven by the climate crisis, demand bold and immediate action.
“That difference of opinion concerns me a great deal,” said Kate Hudson, Crystal River Valley resident and western U.S coordinator for Waterkeeper Alliance. “We are at an existential moment both in terms of water and climate and our congressional balance of power that requires we at least try and do this faster. We should at least try to move this as quickly as possible.”
In 2021 Pitkin County Healthy Rivers granted $35,000 to Carbondale-based environmental conservation group Wilderness Workshop to start up a public outreach and education campaign, with the goal of laying a foundation of grassroots support for the effort. The organization has built a website, held events and collected about 1,000 signatures on a petition supporting the designation. The next step will be working with Pitkin County to hire a facilitator for a formal stakeholder process.
At the June Healthy Rivers board meeting, Wilderness Workshop’s Wild & Scenic campaign manager Michael Gorman gave a presentation about progress so far. Board member Wendy Huber asked about the timeline and whether the process should be moving faster. Gorman said a designation could take several more years.
“I’m feeling a little urgency,” she said. “To sort of dilly dally seems to be losing opportunities.”
Grant Stevens, communications director for Wilderness Workshop, said that while he understands the community’s urgency, it’s important to develop a proposal that Colorado’s congressional representatives can get behind. A designation must be approved by Congress and advocates have been in contact with representatives from Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper’s offices.
“We want to make sure we have something that a federal elected official will support, and we need to make sure we go through a community-driven process to get to that point,” Stevens said. “We don’t want to rush that.”
The U.S. Forest Service first determined in the 1980s that the Crystal River was eligible for designation under the Wild & Scenic River Act, which seeks to preserve rivers with outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic and cultural values in a free-flowing condition. There are three categories under a designation: wild, which are sections that are inaccessible by trail, with shorelines that are primitive; scenic, with shorelines that are largely undeveloped, but are accessible by roads in some places; and recreational, which are readily accessible by road or railroad and have development along the shoreline.
The potential proposal for the Crystal includes all three types of designation: wild in the upper reaches of the river’s wilderness headwaters, scenic in the middle stretches and recreational from the town of Marble to the Sweet Jessup canal headgate. Each river with a Wild & Scenic designation has unique legislation written for it that can be customized to address local stakeholders’ values and concerns.
Despite its renowned river rafting, fishing and scenic beauty, which contribute to the recreation-based economy of many Western Slope communities, Colorado has just 76 miles of one river — the Cache La Poudre — designated as Wild & Scenic. This underscores the difficulty of trying to preserve free-flowing streams, especially in a water-scarce region where some would like to see rivers remain available for future water development.
Since the Crystal flows through Gunnison County and the town of Marble, advocates say getting those residents and elected representatives on board will be key to moving the effort forward. A first attempt at a Wild & Scenic designation, which sought to prevent the possibility of a future dam and reservoir project, couldn’t get buy-in from some Marble residents or Gunnison County. Advocates shelved the discussion in 2016 with the election of President Donald Trump. This time around, they hope to secure at least the participation if not the support of past opponents.
Marble Town Administrator Ron Leach acknowledged there is still a lot of work to be done as far as gauging public sentiment and building awareness.
Leach has been heavily involved in the town’s multi-year process to address overcrowding on the Lead King loop, a popular off-highway vehicle route near Marble. He said when it comes to these things, slow and methodical is the right strategy and that town officials are totally supportive of the Wild & Scenic stakeholders group, in which he participates as the Marble representative.
“The more process, the better the product,” Leach said. “I’ve learned that the hard way. Take it easy and make sure it’s right.”
Gunnison County Commissioner Roland Mason agreed. He said more conversations need to happen before he could say whether Gunnison County would support a designation.
“I appreciate the fact that they are not trying to rush the timeline,” Mason said. “From my perspective it’s moving at a little bit of a slow pace because of trying to get everyone on board but at the same time, it’s kind of necessary.”
But supporters may never get everyone on board. Larry Darien, who owns a ranch on County Road 3 that borders the river, was one of the early opponents to the designation and still remains opposed to Wild & Scenic because of its potential effect on private property.
While the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act does give the federal government the ability to acquire private land, there are many restrictions on those abilities. Condemnation is a tool that is rarely used, according to a Q&A document compiled by the Interagency Wild and Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council.
“I’m not in favor of a dam on the Crystal River and I’m not in favor of water being taken out and sent someplace else and I’m not in favor of Wild & Scenic designation,” he said. “There are other ways we can manage this besides Wild & Scenic and I think that’s the way we need to go instead of getting the federal government involved.”
The alternate route Darien is referring to is a collaboratively created alternative management plan on the Upper Colorado River, which offers some of the same protections as Wild & Scenic, but still allows for some water development.
Advocates will have to decide whether total consensus is a realistic goal and if they should move forward even though some opposition remains.
Threats to the Crystal?
While there may be a general feeling of worry about drought and falling reservoir levels in the Colorado River basin overall, it’s unclear what — if any — specific, imminent threats there are to the upper Crystal River. In 2012, conservation group American Rivers deemed the Crystal one of the top 10 most endangered rivers. This was spurred by plans, which have since been scrapped, from the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Conservation District to preserve water rights tied to reservoirs near Redstone.
Still, in a place where much of the state’s headwaters are taken across the Continental Divide to thirsty Front Range cities, Wild & Scenic proponents say it could happen on the Crystal, even if those threats are currently hypothetical. Many of Colorado’s rivers have been overly tapped, but there’s still water left to develop on the Crystal.
“To me, the greatest threat to the Crystal isn’t so much the storage facility, it’s that there’s still water in the Crystal,” said Pitkin County Attorney John Ely. “The biggest risk to the Crystal is just taking water out of the drainage. That’s why I think the (Wild & Scenic) effort is still worth doing.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.
A Crystal River Valley rancher and a nonprofit organization are teaming up for the second time to try to leave more water in a parched stream.
Cold Mountain Ranch owners Bill Fales and Marj Perry have inked a six-year deal with the Colorado Water Trust to voluntarily retime their irrigation practices to leave water in the Crystal River during the late summer and early fall, when the river often needs it the most. In addition to a $5,000 signing bonus, the ranchers will be paid $250 a day up to 20 days, for each cubic foot per second they don’t divert, for a maximum payment of $30,000.
The water would come from reducing diversions from the Helms Ditch and could result in up to an additional 6 cfs in the river. The agreement would become active in the months of August and September any time streamflows dip below 40 cfs and once becoming active, will extend through October. The agreement will lift if streamflows rise above 55 cfs.
The goal of the program is to use voluntary, market-based approaches to encourage agricultural water users — who often own the biggest and most senior water rights — to put water back into Colorado’s rivers during critical times.
The program has the hallmarks of demand management, a much-discussed concept over the past few years at the state level: it’s temporary, voluntary and compensated. Other pilot programs that focus on agricultural water conservation usually involve full or split-season fallowing of fields, but with this agreement Fales still intends to get his usual two cuttings of hay.
“The idea is to find something that is a flexible way for water rights owners to use their water in years where it makes sense for something different than strictly agricultural practices,” said Alyson Meyer-Gould, director of policy with the Colorado Water Trust. “It’s another way to use their water portfolio.”
Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Trust and the Cold Mountain Ranch (Alyson Meyer Gould and Bill Fales):
Cold Mountain Ranch and Colorado Water Trust finalized an agreement intended to increase streamflow in the Crystal River in drier years. The six-year agreement will compensate the Cold Mountain Ranch owners, Bill Fales and Marj Perry, for retiming their irrigation practices to leave their irrigation water in the Crystal River when the river needs it most.
The Crystal River, in 2012, was listed as the eighth most endangered river in the country by American Rivers. It is still a struggling river today. Owing to diversions off the river and the impacts of climate change decreasing snowpack, it runs very low or dry in most years. This impacts the fish and wildlife that depend on it. Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch are trying to help. This innovative agreement would provide the ranch the opportunity to add flows to their local river when it needs it most and hopefully contribute to a healthier aquatic and riparian habitat for those that depend on it. Together, we aim to show that agriculture and conservation can go hand in hand.
Cold Mountain Ranch relies on the Crystal River to irrigate pastures and hay fields that support its cow-calf operation. Under the agreement, Colorado Water Trust will monitor flows in the river and if flows fall to 40 cubic feet per second (cfs) in August or September, the ranch may voluntarily decide to shift its irrigation schedule to allow Colorado Water Trust to lease the water for environmental benefit. Colorado Water Trust will monitor and measure the changed practice and pay the ranch a $5,000 bonus for signing the agreement at the outset of the five-year contract and then $250 per cfs per day to encourage that shift. Once streamflows reach 55 cfs, payments would cease. The agreement can restore up to 6 cfs in the Crystal River.
In 2018, Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch signed a similar three-year pilot agreement that ended in 2020. Unfortunately, within this initial three-year period, Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch were unable to run the project. In 2018, the Crystal River’s flows were too low to implement the agreement – there was not enough water available to result in significant benefits instream. In 2019, the river was high enough to avoid triggering the agreement during the timeframe of the agreement. Although it flirted with the low flow trigger in the late fall, the timing was out of range for the agreement. And in 2020, because of dry and hot conditions and impacts to their irrigated crops, Colorado Water Trust’s partners at Cold Mountain Ranch needed to use as much water as possible to maximize their late season production and keep their ranching operation sustainable.
Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch’s initial three-year pilot agreement was the first crack at a highly customized, market-based solution that works for agriculture and rivers on the Crystal River, and offered lessons for the renewal and re-tooling of that initial agreement. In this new six-year contract, the partners tried to account for drier years and changing climatic conditions, as well as the economic needs of the Ranch. The changes include a $5,000 bonus to support agricultural operations, additional payment and flexibility for coordination, and extending potential coordination into October.
One of the most important goals of Colorado Water Trust’s work on the Crystal River was to design a solution that allows water rights owners to maintain healthy agricultural operations – and Colorado Water Trust continues to accomplish that goal.
Our past agreement also shows other ranchers on the Crystal River that when we say our solutions are voluntary and are NOT designed to harm their operations, we mean it. The vision for this project is that other ranchers on the Crystal River will see that Cold Mountain Ranch is fully empowered to make their own decisions in the best interest of their business, and will feel comfortable to sign on to the project as well. The Crystal River needs more water than just that of Cold Mountain Ranch’s and we hope others will get involved to maintain a healthy river.
ABOUT COLORADO WATER TRUST: Colorado Water Trust is a statewide, nonprofit organization that restores water to Colorado’s rivers in need. Colorado Water Trust accomplishes its mission with voluntary, market-based projects.
Rivers in western Colorado have already peaked for the season, creating challenging conditions for reservoir managers and rafting companies.
Fueled by spring windstorms that deposited snow-devouring dust on the mountain snowpack, most streams saw their peak flows between May 19 and 21 for this year, according to data from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.
On May 19, the Crystal River near Avalanche Creek hit its high mark for the spring at about 1,870 cubic feet per second. On that day in the southwest part of the state, the San Miguel River at Placerville peaked at 823 cfs; and the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs hit its high mark of 2,915 cfs..
On May 20, the Roaring Fork River just above its confluence with the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs peaked at 4,450 cfs; the Eagle River at Dotsero peaked at about 4,950 cfs.
On May 21, just upstream of major agriculture diversions to the Grand Valley at a location known as Cameo, the Colorado River peaked at about 10,730 cfs. At the Utah state line, streamflows peaked at 16,130 cfs.
The peak streamflow volumes for these locations were within the range of what’s considered normal.
Although there may be a second, smaller peak in coming days as summer temperatures return, forecasters say most of the snow below 11,000 feet has already melted out, meaning not enough is left to fuel a bigger peak than the one that has already happened.
For several locations — the Roaring Fork at Glenwood, the Crystal, the San Miguel and the Colorado at Cameo — the peak came so early that it was outside the window of what’s considered normal. The rest of the locations — the Yampa, the Eagle and the Colorado at the Utah state line — were inside the normal range, although on the earlier side.
These conditions can be partly attributed to dust on snow, which causes the snowpack to melt earlier and faster.
“Dust on snow has played a pretty big role this year,” said Cody Moser, a senior hydrologist with the CBRFC. “It really allows the energy from the sun to get absorbed into the snowpack much more than if you have this white, clean snow surface.”
According to Jeff Derry, executive director of the Silverton-based Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, a total of 11 dust events occurred in April and May. A total of six or seven occur during a normal year.
This spring has been unusually windy, which has kicked up dust from northern New Mexico and Arizona and deposited it on Colorado’s snow-capped peaks; the San Juans Mountains, in the southwestern part of the state, were the hardest hit. Each year, the center ranks the severity of the dust storms.
“A number of those were really nasty events,” Derry said. “This is the first time since 2013 that we have said it’s a severe dust year.”
Early runoff brings challenges
The early runoff is a challenge for Blazing Adventures, a rafting company based in Aspen and Snowmass that runs trips on the Roaring Fork River. According to owner Vince Nichols, they usually try to run the Roaring Fork through the Fourth of July before heading to other sections of the Arkansas and Colorado rivers that see higher flows later in the summer. This year, it will be closer to mid-June, he said.
“It’s certainly been a strange runoff this year,” Nichols said. “We came out of the ski season with some optimism, but when we mixed in those high winds and dust, it ran off a lot faster than we were anticipating.”
The early runoff could also have implications for reservoir managers, who may have to begin releasing water earlier in the summer to meet downstream calls. A call happens when a senior water right is not receiving its full amount of water and junior upstream water users must cut back in order to send water to the senior user downstream.
This may end up being the situation with Green Mountain Reservoir, which is on the Blue River, is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and is affected by the call from the Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon. The call comes on most years in midsummer, but this year, it may be earlier.
“I may have to start making storage releases earlier,” said Victor Lee, an engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation. “That’s pretty typical of dry years, but with this early runoff, the call might come much earlier than what I expected.”
The same may happen at Ruedi Reservoir, on the Fryingpan River. Ruedi is also operated by the Bureau of Reclamation and is affected by the call at Cameo, which comes on most summers.
Although Ruedi had been forecast to fill by the skin of its teeth this year, Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist Tim Miller said he now thinks it will end up 1,000 to 6,000 acre-feet short. He said he will continue releasing the minimum required flow of 110 cfs until downstream calls come on and he has to release more stored water.
“I always like to point out that our snowpack is a natural reservoir and if that reservoir releases its water earlier than what’s normal, you can kind of imagine the disruptions and problems that occur,” Derry said. “It makes reservoir management a little bit more complicated if you have the water coming down earlier than what you expected.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the June 4 edition of The Aspen Times.
The USGS gauge on the Roaring Fork River near Aspen at Stillwater, located upstream of town, measured streamflow at 247 cfs on May 15, which is 148.8% of average. That’s up from last week, when the riveu,r was flowing at 144 cfs. On May 15, 2021, the river ran at 92 cfs.
The ACES gauge, located near the Mill Street Bridge in central Aspen, measured the Roaring Fork River flowing at 223.66 on May 15. That’s lower than the Stillwater reading because the Wheeler and Salvation diversion ditches are again operating for the season. It’s also up from 128.6 cfs last week.
The Crystal River above Avalanche Creek, near Redstone, flowed at 1,340 cfs, or about 195.9% of average, on May 15. The warmer temperatures of the past week increased the streamflow of the river as the Crystal jumped from 1,060 cfs on May 13. The Crystal River at the CPW Fish Hatchery bridge ran at 1,650 cfs on May 15, up from 1,300 cfs on May 8.
Snowpack in the Roaring Fork Basin was at 48% of average, according to NOAA on May 15. It’s been below average since April 20, reaching that designation for the first time this season, the Roaring Fork Conservancy wrote on April 21.
Crystal River Ranch, the huge expanse of irrigated land just west of Carbondale owned by Sue Anschutz-Rogers, a member of one of Colorado’s wealthiest families, is applying for another water right. This time, the ranch is asking for 5 cfs of water from the Crystal River for stockwatering. The majority of the 5 cfs would be to keep the water in the ditch ice-free so the cattle can drink from it in the winter. CRR pulls water from the Crystal via the Sweet Jessup Canal, and although it’s the first major agricultural diversion out of the lower Crystal, the land it irrigates is several miles downstream. The Sweet Jessup is also one of the biggest diversions on the Crystal and one of the oldest, with a water right dating to 1905. Its three water rights can pull a combined 74 cfs from the river. The Colorado Water Conservation Board and the city of Aurora have both filed statements of opposition to the application. In 2020, Crystal River Ranch filed to maintain a conditional water right for dams and reservoirs on the property, which a water court later granted.
The Marshall Fire that destroyed more than 1,000 structures in Boulder County Dec. 30 has increased the urgency of completing wildfire mitigation projects in the Aspen area and Pitkin County.
The U.S. Forest Service is working with the governments of Aspen and Pitkin County as well as fire districts and homeowners associations to identify places that are the highest priorities for fuels reduction. The private lands on Red Mountain and public lands surrounding the high-end neighborhood are one of the highest priorities…
Richards said the Marshall Fire that swept through parts of Louisville and Superior show the importance of fire mitigation on private lands as well as national forests…
A working group loosely referred to as the Roaring Fork Fuels Collaborative is looking at numerous wildland fire mitigation projects, including one called Sunnyside, which would treat lands adjacent to Red Mountain subdivision. Between 1,000 and 1,500 acres would be targeted, according to Kevin Warner, Aspen-Sopris District Ranger. It would require mechanical treatment of tree and vegetation removal and prescribed burns in areas away from homes. The earliest that project could advance is probably spring 2024, Warner said.
Cooperation from the homeowners would be essential so that land within the subdivision would be treated as well. Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine said his department is working on demonstration projects to show homeowners that easing wildfire risk doesn’t mean ruining their property…
The Forest Service led a project in 2016 to treat lands near Red Mountain in the Hunter Creek Valley. Additional work on up to 1,500 acres in Hunter Creek could be undertaken as soon as this spring, according to Gary Tennenbaum, director of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program. He credited the Forest Service for leading the successful 2016 project and not causing alarm in Aspen. He also credited the agency for its willingness to propose working close to Red Mountain…
Warner said five wildland fire mitigation projects throughout the region are being planned. The Forest Service and its partners probably don’t have the resources to pursue them all this year, but priorities will be dictated by factors such as moisture levels this spring and the ability to get a permit from the state over air quality.
The contending projects include 2,000 acres in Collins Creek east of the settlement of Woody Creek, 2,000 acres in Braderich Creek west of Redstone, the 1,500 acres in Hunter Creek in Aspen’s backyard, a project in Cattle Creek north of Basalt Mountain in Eagle County and a project in the Seven Castles area in Fryingpan Valley…
Pitkin County has budgeted $300,000 over three years to assist the Forest Service. The highest priority for the county is “where the forest meets homes,” said county emergency manager Valerie MacDonald. The county has collaborated in recent years on several small projects that reduced fuels on federal lands in the Crystal River Valley that are adjacent to private properties, such as Swiss Village, she said.
A project north of Redstone treated 100 acres. “It gives the historic town of Redstone a fighting chance to evacuate safety,” MacDonald said.
Like other speakers at the meeting, she said getting cooperation from private landowners is the key to building resiliency. Pitkin County is 83% public lands, but much of its private property is in what’s known as the wildland-urban interface…
The local planning comes as the U.S. Forest Service released a major new initiative called “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis.” It will target “firesheds” in the Western U.S. — areas 250,000 acres and larger with a high likelihood that an ignition could expose homes, communities and infrastructure to wildfire.
The initiative will target 20 million acres on national forestlands as well as up to 30 million acres on other federal, state and private lands over the next 10 years. It will also come up with a maintenance plan beyond the next decade.
President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill earmarked $3 billion for the effort beyond regular funding for wildfire mitigation. The strategy is drawing criticism from some environmental groups.
The town of Carbondale and the Roaring Fork Conservancy are finalizing funding to restore a half-mile stretch of the Crystal River and 18 acres of riparian habitat — provided they can convince Colorado Parks and Wildlife that it can be done with a light touch.
The location, next to the River Valley Ranch subdivision on the south side of town, is the ideal spot for the effort due to Carbondale’s Riverfront Park on the west side and the headgate for the town-owned Weaver Ditch on the east side, with some associated in-stream impacts.
As spelled out in a Water Plan grant request to the Colorado Water Conservation Board — originally slated for consideration in September but since pushed back to January — improvements will include streambank stabilization and river channel restoration, plant diversification and better access to the park as well as an automated ditch headgate. Efficiency work is ongoing on the ditch itself, but it is not officially part of the project.
The cost of the whole effort was originally estimated at $1,466,478, with roughly half hinging on the Water Plan grant. The multifaceted nature of the project lends itself to a wide array of sources to pay for the rest.
At least eight other agencies have committed funding or are considering grant applications. This includes $100,000 awarded from the Colorado River Water Conservation District in October. Other agencies partnering in the project include the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers Program, Great Outdoors Colorado, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Fishing Is Fun Program and the Aspen Valley Land Trust. Carbondale has committed at least $220,000 toward the effort to improve the reach of river described in the Water Plan grant application as “severely to unsustainably degraded.”
The project’s many layers make it a perfect fit for the Roaring Fork Conservancy (RFC), according to Heather Lewin, director of Watershed Science & Policy.
“You’ve got so many different things that we’re interested in doing — a flow issue, a riparian corridor, this older ditch outtake and the potential for efficiencies within the ditch itself,” she said.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pitkin County groups are keeping a close eye on a local marble-mining company that violated the Clean Water Act, as the company prepares to submit a permit application.
In March, the Army Corps of Engineers determined that Colorado Stone Quarries — the operator of the Pride of America Mine, above the town of Marble — violated the Clean Water Act when it relocated Yule Creek to make way for a mining road. CSQ is now retroactively applying for a permit from the Army Corps, which will require a 30-day public notice, public review and comments.
The Crystal River Caucus sent a letter to Gunnison County and Pitkin County commissioners on July 17 urging them to get involved during this upcoming public process to ensure the protection of local waterways Yule Creek and the Crystal River.
“Residents of the valley are concerned that future negligent or illegal actions taken by this company may put both Yule Creek and the Crystal River at additional risk,” the letter reads. “Even remedial actions, if not properly designed or carried out, could result in negative impacts downstream.”
Caucus chair John Emerick said that his group is supportive of protecting the water quality of the Crystal River and that the board plans to submit comments to the Army Corps.
“The place, to me, looks to be a mess, and they need to have a plan before they are allowed to operate,” Emerick said, referring to the state of the new channel.
Creek diversion and diesel spill
In the fall of 2018, CSQ diverted a 1,500-foot section of Yule Creek from its natural channel on the west side of Franklin Ridge, a rock outcropping, to the east side of the ridge so it could build an access road. Operators piled the streambed with fill material, including marble blocks.
Although this move probably spared Yule Creek the impacts of a diesel spill last October, it was done without the proper permits or oversight, according to the Army Corps. CSQ was fined $18,600 by the state Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety for the 5,500-gallon diesel spill.
Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, a project requires a permit from the Army Corps if it includes the discharge of dredged or fill materials into waters such as rivers, streams or wetlands. CSQ did not initially obtain a permit because company officials believed the work was exempt, citing the temporary nature of the access road and creek diversion.
Army Corp officials disagreed and determined the lack of a permit was a violation of the Clean Water Act.
CSQ now plans to submit a permit application next week, according to company spokesperson Lisa Sigler. The application will include alternative alignments for Yule Creek, including leaving the creek in the new channel or rerouting it back to the natural channel. At the Army Corps’ request, the application will include a biological assessment, cultural-resource survey and aquatic-resource delineation, Sigler wrote in an email.
The mine, known locally as the Yule Quarry, is owned by Italian company Red Graniti and employs 30 to 40 people. CSQ says there are enough marble reserves contained in its six galleries to continue mining at the current rate for more than 100 years. The quarry has supplied the pure white marble for renowned monuments such as the Lincoln Memorial, the Colorado Capitol building and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The creek diversion and access-road construction came after the quarry was granted a permit by DRMS in 2016 for a 114-acre expansion for a total of 124 permitted acres in the Yule Creek drainage.
Healthy Rivers concerns
Although the quarry sits in Gunnison County, about 3 miles up County Road 3 from the town of Marble, the relocation of the stream could have downstream impacts in Pitkin County. Yule Creek flows into the Crystal River, which flows through Pitkin County before it joins the Roaring Fork River in Carbondale.
Members of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board have said they support water-quality monitoring, especially regarding turbidity, or water clarity.
“We are concerned about sedimentation and water-quality impacts on the Crystal down in Pitkin County,” said Andre Wille, chair of the Healthy Rivers board. “We try to think on a watershed basis, so we don’t just focus on county lines.”
Heavy equipment in the streambed could kick up sediment, which is then suspended in the stream’s flow, Wille said.
“More concerning is probably the way those sediments then settle down and fill in the spaces in the gravel and in the rocks and smother insects,” he said. “If they are spawning, it smothers eggs of trout and fish, so it really kind of wrecks the habitat.”
CSQ general manager Daniele Treves said in a prepared statement that the quarry already has a water monitoring program at three locations on Yule Creek and has installed groundwater monitoring wells related to the diesel spill. The marble blocks placed in the new stream channel are intended to create step pools that encourage fine sediment to settle, he said.
“CSQ’s diversion of the Yule Creek simply redirected a portion of the creek from its then-present western channel to a historical channel approximately 200 feet to the east,” Treves said.
A video by Redstone resident and longtime local Maciej Mrotek shows how the area looked in May 2018, before the diversion, when Yule Creek was on the west side of Franklin Ridge. Drone footage from this past May shows the creek now running on the east side of the ridge in a channel filled with cut marble chunks and a road on the west side of the ridge where the creek used to be.
Mrotek, who said he has fond memories of playing in the area as a child, said the change was devastating.
“I took it very personally when I saw that, because I think it could have been handled in a much better way,” he said. “My goal is not to stop the mining. My goal is simply to channel the future activity of this mine in a positive fashion with a lot more oversight and respect.”
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Sept. 28 edition of The Aspen Times.
Pitkin County has approved funding for a study that aims to protect recreational flows in the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers, and how future water development projects and climate change might affect those flows.
At a meeting earlier this month, Pitkin County commissioners approved a recommendation from the county’s Healthy Rivers Board to fund the $19,355 proposal from American Whitewater. The project includes an extensive survey of river users — specifically boaters — about what flows are optimal for certain popular river segments.
Kayakers, commercial river outfitters, stand-up paddleboarders and anyone else who runs local rivers can weigh in with their flow preferences for popular reaches of the Roaring Fork like North Star, Slaughterhouse, Toothache and the river below Basalt. They will also ask about the Crystal River, which gets less recreational traffic than the Roaring Fork, but has some well-known stretches, like the Narrows and Meatgrinder, which are favored by experienced kayakers, and the more accessible reach from Avalanche Creek to the BRB campground.
The lower Roaring Fork is increasingly popular with anglers, but this survey will focus on boating, both commercial and private.
Once American Whitewater determines what flows boaters prefer, the organization will use its “boatable days” tool, which compares the flow preferences to the historic river hydrology to see if and when the flow preferences are met and how that might change in dry or wet years.
“It allows us to actually quantify river recreation opportunities so it can be used to inform water management decisions and understand future impacts,” said Kestrel Kunz, Southern Rockies stewardship assistant for American Whitewater. “We can see how climate change might affect the number of boatable days in the valley.”
According to a report by the Colorado River Outfitters Association, the economic impact of commercial boating on the Roaring Fork in 2019 was $4.8 million. The economic impact statewide was $188 million. But despite the size of its contribution to the economy, recreation is an area often overlooked by traditional water planning and management, according to Pitkin County Healthy Rivers Board Chair Andre Wille.
“Recreation seems to really get the short end of the stick when it comes to streamflow management,” Wille said. “I think water managers in the Roaring Fork area and in a lot of other Western Slope rivers, the water managers are all about irrigation and recreation isn’t really taken into as much consideration as it should be, especially considering the economic impact of recreation and the importance to the citizens.”
About 40% of the headwaters of the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers is sent to Front Range fields and cities — including Aurora, Colorado Springs and Pueblo — through transmountain diversions. When the Twin Lakes tunnel underneath Independence Pass ratchets its intake up or down, it can affect boating conditions downstream on the Roaring Fork and diversions out of the Fryingpan can affect flows on the lower Roaring Fork.
The information collected in the survey could help water managers better plan when and how much water to divert.
“It’s just a chance to get some data from recreation users and it would be nice if water managers would take that into consideration,” Wille said. “There might be other stream management strategies that are beneficial to the Roaring Fork. There might be a better way to manage filling (Twin Lakes) reservoir.”
The survey, which will be available on the American Whitewater and Pitkin County Healthy Rivers websites and local paddling forums, will ask boaters about their skill level, frequency of participation and craft type. The survey will allow boaters to assign use-acceptability ratings to various streamflows and ask them for their perspectives on water management planning. American Whitewater aims to collect at least 150 surveys each from boaters on the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers.
James Foerster, owner of Aspen-based rafting company Elk Mountain Adventures, said he’s excited to see the county focusing on recreational boating. The company is one of three, along with Blazing Adventures and Aspen Whitewater that run trips on the Roaring Fork.
Foerster’s company runs what they call “adventurous” rafting trips from Cemetery Lane to Jaffee Park in Woody Creek on the Slaughterhouse section of the Fork, as well as “family-friendly trips” from Jaffee Park to Wingo Junction above Basalt on the Toothache section and from Hooks Spur Bridge, near the Fed Ex outlet by Willits, down the river to the Catherine Store Road bridge above Carbondale.
He says guides will change the put-in and take-out locations to adapt to changing flows as the season goes on.
“I think every commercial outfitter would tell you more water is better,” Foerster said. “I think what it really comes down to is the flows we get coming through Aspen in late July and August, they are unsustainable. And the lower Crystal as well, mainly because of diversions and ditches.”
Carbondale-based Lotic Hydrological will develop the survey. The findings will be synthesized and presented as technical reports by December 2020.
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the June 30 edition of The Aspen Times.
Flows in local rivers are peaking this week, with a spring runoff that is slightly earlier and lower than normal.
“It kind of depends on where you are, but on the Colorado (River’s) main stem, for sure, the peak is below average,” said Cody Moser, senior hydrologist with the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center in Salt Lake City.
But despite the lower-than-average flows, this weekend is probably one of the best of the year to go boating on local waterways.
Vince Nichols, owner of the Aspen-based rafting company Blazing Adventures, said this weekend’s relatively big water is akin to a powder day.
The company is running trips on the upper Roaring Fork River, especially the Slaughterhouse section between Cemetery Lane and Woody Creek, and doing so in accordance with Pitkin County-mandated social-distancing and cleaning guidelines due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This will likely be one of the high-water weekends of the year,” Nichols said. “For the next seven to 10 days, there will be really good rafting conditions on the Roaring Fork.”
Flows in the Roaring Fork, at its confluence with the Colorado in Glenwood Springs, are predicted to be 74% of average for April through June. According to stream gauges, the Roaring Fork appears to have hit its peak seasonal flow on June 2 at just over 4,000 cubic feet per second. The normal period for peak runoff at this location is between May 29 and June 23, at about 5,900 cfs.
Predicting the exact day of peak flows near Aspen is trickier. The forecast center is predicting a peak for the Roaring Fork in Aspen on Saturday, at 490 cfs, because of rain expected that day. The Roaring Fork at Mill Street was running at a daily high of about 330 cfs on Thursday.
There would be more water flowing through Aspen if not for the Twin Lakes Tunnel, which takes water from the Roaring Fork headwaters near Independence Pass to Front Range water providers. About 600 cfs of water from the upper Roaring Fork basin was being diverted through the tunnel Thursday.
“The challenge is we’ve got that big warmup and precipitation in the forecast in this weekend,” Moser said. “It’s kind of a tough call.”
The low runoff, despite a snowpack that was slightly above normal, is due to 2019’s dry late summer and fall, plus this year’s drier-than-average March, April and May. Dry soils and plants sucked up a lot of the moisture before it made its way into the streams.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey gauges, the Crystal River near Redstone appears to have peaked on June 2, at about 1,750 cfs. The Crystal at this location usually peaks between May 25 and June 18, at about 1,930 cfs.
Downstream on the Colorado, flows peaked in DeBeque Canyon, above Grand Junction, on June 2, at about 13,300 cfs. A typical peak is about 17,000 cfs between May 24 and June 12.
This year’s peak flows on the Colorado near Grand Junction were augmented by releases from several upstream reservoirs to the benefit of endangered fish in the 15-mile reach between Palisade and the Gunnison River, which flows into the Colorado in central Grand Junction.
Beginning May 29, Green Mountain Reservoir, Wolford Mountain Reservoir, the Moffat Tunnel and other water-storage facilities released water to enhance the Colorado’s natural peak in the 15-mile reach. The augmented high flows enhance fish habitat.
Ruedi Reservoir, above Basalt on the Fryingpan River, did not participate in the coordinated reservoir operations this year because there was not surplus water to contribute, said Tim Miller, a hydrologist with the Bureau of Reclamation who manages water levels in Ruedi.
“I was getting kind of worried about fill a month ago,” Miller said. “I was pretty sure we didn’t have extra. We haven’t received anything near average precipitation for part of April or all of May.”
Ruedi Reservoir, which can hold 102,373 acre-feet of water, is currently 79% full. Releases from Ruedi will decrease Friday to allow it to fill, bringing flows on the Fryingpan to 115 cfs. Miller said it could end up about 5,000 acre-feet short of filling this year, which usually happens in early July.
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit and investigative news organization that covers water and river issues in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the June 5 edition of The Aspen Times.
Sue Anschutz-Rodgers, the owner of Crystal River Ranch above Carbondale, has told the state she is making progress toward building two 55-foot-tall dams that would form two 500-acre-foot reservoirs on land she owns in the Four Mile Creek basin and along Dry Park Road.
The cattle and hay operation has been owned by the Anschutz family since 1966. Water attorneys for Anschutz-Rodgers and the ranch are in state water court seeking to maintain conditional water-storage rights tied to the two potential reservoirs: Sue’s Four Mile Reservoir No. 1 and Sue’s Four Mile Reservoir No. 2.
They would be located on ranch-owned land in the Four Mile Creek drainage and along Dry Park Road, respectively.
The dam that would form Reservoir No. 1 would be 55 feet tall and 950 feet long, and the resulting reservoir would inundate 22 acres with water. The dam for Reservoir No. 2 would be 55 feet tall and 800 feet long, and the reservoir would inundate 30 acres. Each reservoir would hold as much as 500 acre-feet of water. By comparison, Grizzly Reservoir on Lincoln Creek above Aspen holds 590 acre-feet of water and is formed by a 56-foot-tall dam that floods 44 acres of land.
Anschutz-Rodgers is a philanthropist and environmentalist whose brother Phil Anschutz is worth $12 billion, according to Forbes. She has served locally on the boards of the Aspen Valley Land Trust and the Thompson Divide Coalition, and Anschutz-Rodgers is listed on the application as general partner of Crystal River Ranch Co., LLC.
On March 13, her water attorney, Glenn Porzak of Boulder-based Porzak Browning & Bushong, told the court in a proposed ruling that Crystal River Ranch “has exercised reasonable diligence in the development” of the two dams and reservoirs. He also noted that “the measure of diligence is the steady application of effort to complete the appropriation in a reasonably expedient and efficient manner.”
As such, the ranch is requesting that the conditional water-storage rights tied to the two potential dams — rights first decreed in 2006 — be extended for another six-year period.
“I believe we have shown the necessary amount of work to show diligence and extend these conditional rights,” Porzak said.
Any start of the dams’ construction, Porzak said, “is still at a preliminary stage.”
Irrigating more than 600 acres
The water from the potential reservoirs could be used to irrigate 535 acres of land along Dry Park Road, which drains into the Roaring Fork River, and another 93 acres of land in the Four Mile Creek basin. Four Mile Creek flows into the Roaring Fork downstream of the Ironbridge golf course.
The Crystal River Ranch house and the main part of the sprawling 7,600-acre site is located just off Garfield County Road 108, which leads from Carbondale up to the popular Spring Gulch cross-country ski area. The section of the ranch visible from CR 108 is irrigated with water diverted from the Crystal River via the Sweet Jessup Canal.
Another section of the ranch where elk are often seen roaming the irrigated hay meadows is off Dry Park Road, which runs between CR 108 and 4 Mile Road. The land in Dry Park is currently irrigated with water diverted from Four Mile Creek via the McKown Ditch, which crosses the ridge that separates Dry Park from the Four Mile Creek valley.
The headgate for the McKown ditch on Four Mile Creek is about 1½ miles downstream from the Sunlight ski area.
According to its application, the 1,000 acre-feet of water that the ranch hopes to store would be used for four purposes: stock watering, piscatorial, wildlife and irrigation. (Piscatorial pertains to fish.)
Crystal River Ranch filed its initial water-rights application for the two potential dams in Division 5 Water Court in Glenwood Springs in 2006. After working through some issues with five other water-rights holders in the case, a conditional water-rights decree for the two dams and reservoirs was issued by Judge James Boyd in 2013.
The 2013 decree required Crystal River Ranch to submit a due-diligence application in 2019 in order to maintain the conditional water rights.
In the diligence application, Porzak said since 2013 the ranch has spent $70,000 to “survey the reservoir sites; prepare layouts of the dams and reservoirs; (and) design work on the spillways, inlets, and outlet infrastructures of the reservoirs.”
A portion of the $70,000 also went to “design irrigation improvements and conduct layout of the pumps and sprinklers for the lands to be irrigated by the reservoirs; conduct a hydrology analysis for each reservoir site; drill boreholes at each reservoir site; test soil samples and perform a geotechnical analysis of each reservoir site; and prepare cost estimates for each reservoir site and all of the associated infrastructure.”
In reviewing a diligence application, the division engineer and the water court’s referee, who functions as an administrative judge, apply a standard of diligence. The standard is often met by the applicant listing the work they’ve done on the potential facilities that are tied to the water rights and are necessary to put the water to use.
“You have to show you are moving forward in a reasonable manner,” said Alan Martellaro, the Division 5 engineer.
No entities filed a statement of opposition to the application.
Martellaro reviewed the diligence application along with Susan Ryan, the water court’s referee, and then filed a memo — called “a summary of consultation” — with the court Feb. 28.
The summary said Crystal River Ranch “should provide reports and other documents, which support the diligence activities performed within the relevant diligence period as claimed in the application.”
To date, however, none of these documents have been filed with the court, and only a hard-to-read map of the general area where the reservoirs would be located has been made public.
Porzak said the work done on the two potential reservoirs has not yet been reduced to final written reports.
He also said that the activities in the diligence application were verified under oath by Craig Ullmann, the engineer who oversaw the work. Ullmann is president of Applegate Group Inc., a water-engineering firm with offices in Glenwood Springs.
Martellaro said the word “should” in the court’s summary of consultation means “should,” not “must,” so it is not clear whether the design documents for the two dams will be made public through the court process. He also said the documents cited in the application would be helpful for the state to have on file for the next diligence filing.
Porzak said all the relevant information was contained in the application.
Should the dams ever be built, the associated water rights would hold a priority date of 2006, a junior right under Colorado’s system of prior appropriation. As such, Crystal River Ranch couldn’t count on the water being there to store in dry years, Martellaro said.
“It’s a really junior water right on a stream that’s over-appropriated,” he said. “This is one of those creeks that just doesn’t have surplus. They are pretty much limited to snowmelt runoff to fill these ponds.”
Aspen Journalism is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supported by its donors and funders and partners with The Aspen Times and other Swift communications publications on water coverage. This story ran in the May 4 edition of The Aspen Times.
The National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, turned 50 years old on Jan. 1. A fundamental component of the law is public involvement. Projects such as a new ski lift, trail or natural-gas lease each receives a NEPA review, and most of the time the public weighs in. NEPA has evolved over the years, but the biggest change may come in a new proposal from President Donald Trump.
A NEPA case study: The trail between Redstone and McClure Pass
Katherine Hudson lives near the Crystal River between Carbondale and Redstone. She said she loves living close to nature but thinks a proposed multi-use recreation trail will disturb the river.
“For me, it’s not just about the view,” she said. “I value this incredible waterway and how lucky we are to have it.”
Hudson, a member of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers Board, believes bridges planned along the trail will constrict the river.
A five-mile section of the proposed trail sits on Forest Service land and will get, thanks to NEPA, a close review. Hudson was one of about 50 people looking over maps and visiting with Forest Service staff at an open house in Carbondale in late January.
Under NEPA, federal agencies must consider impacts to the environment when projects such as the Redstone to McClure Pass Trail are proposed on public land. The law applies to all major federal actions, including infrastructure permitting and road construction. One goal is to “create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Proposed changes from Washington
In January, the White House released a plan to streamline NEPA, marking the first major update in decades. The changes would impose strict deadlines on completing analyses; would more closely involve contractors in studies; and would eliminate requirements to consider climate change.
“It would make it really difficult to analyze the impacts on climate in any project,” said Will Rousch, executive director at Wilderness Workshop, a public-lands watchdog group based in Carbondale. “It would redefine what a major federal action is. That might eliminate some projects from going through the NEPA process.”
Also, he said, fewer projects undergoing a review means fewer opportunities for the public to weigh in.
But supporters say NEPA has become time consuming for federal agencies, project applicants and people seeking permits.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Republican from Colorado, points to a NEPA review of an Interstate 70 project near Denver that took 13 years to complete. He said lawsuits and reviews from multiple agencies kept it from moving forward more quickly.
“This was a good example of how we do need to make sure that we’re doing the right thing environmentally but also that we’re not creating roadblocks that stifle any kind of development at all,” Tipton said.
Local efforts to make NEPA more efficient
President Richard Nixon signed NEPA into law in 1970. Two catastrophic events prompted its creation: Millions of gallons of crude oil leaked into the Pacific, and a heavily polluted river in Ohio caught fire. Now, agencies such as the White River National Forest use the law all the time.
“It’s part of our work daily, for sure,” said WRNF supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams. “We use NEPA on almost every single project. But there’s varying levels of it.”
For large, complex projects, a team of scientists may analyze a project’s impacts and create alternatives informed by public input. Small-scale projects, such as replacing a trailhead sign, don’t get in-depth reviews and public comments. The Forest Service determines how a project is analyzed based on its significance.
The White River National Forest, like the Trump administration, sees ways to make NEPA more efficient. The agency has developed tools that reduce the time it takes to do an environmental analysis. Their work began with a Forest Service-wide effort in 2017. The White River National Forest’s efficiencies have reduced NEPA document size and planning by more than 80% compared with the national average.
“We’re trying to be more efficient with the taxpayer’s money and really streamline where it’s appropriate,” Fitzwilliams said. “That doesn’t mean we cut corners; we still have a responsibility to disclose impacts, consider alternatives and involve the public, but we want to do it in a way that’s a little less bureaucratic.”
Since the streamlining began, Fitzwilliams estimates his agency has saved time and money by not conducting three environmental-impact statements — the most-in-depth analyses — that would have been done before. An EIS is still utilized, he said, if a project is significant enough.
“We’ve been doing less EIS’s and more EAs (environmental analyses),” said Fitzwilliams.
The approach began with ski areas. Hundreds of NEPA analyses have been done on ski hills in the White River National Forest, so a new project, such as a lift, may receive a lighter review because previous studies help inform it.
“We know the ground really well, and so we really focus on what the key issues are,” said Fitzwilliams. “Instead of doing a full specialist report on all the wildlife potential impacts, we may just focus on elk-calving areas.”
The agency isn’t cutting corners, he said, and still focuses on considering impacts, alternatives and public involvement, the latter of which remains a high priority.
“People expect that of their government,” Fitzwilliams said. “They don’t expect government to waste time and money just because.”
The White River National Forest’s efforts to innovate NEPA earned the agency national distinction in December at the Under Secretary’s Awards and Chief’s Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.
What’s next locally and nationally?
The NEPA process for the Redstone to McClure Pass Trail is just getting started. It will take one year to complete, partly because it’s contentious. It’s getting an environmental assessment — a middle-ground approach under NEPA. It’s neither the law’s deepest analysis nor its lightest-touch approach, and the public will have two chances to give feedback.
The concerns raised at the open house — river health, maintaining biodiversity and preventing habitat fragmentation — will inform the final assessment.
“It’s an issue that a lot of people care about, and I think without the NEPA process, you’d end up with a much worse project regardless of how it turned out because people wouldn’t get a say,” said Rousch.
Hudson said she’s glad for the opportunity to comment on the trail project.
“I’m in it for the long haul because there are a lot of things that are at stake,” she said. “The Crystal River is a jewel of this watershed, and decisions could be made with this project that could permanently alter that treasure.”
She said she will submit concerns during both comment periods.
Aspen Journalism collaborates with Aspen Public Radio and The Aspen Times on coverage of environmental issues. A version of this story ran in The Aspen Times and aired on Aspen Public Radio on Feb. 13.