#CrystalRiver restoration finding its footing in #Carbondale park: #Colorado Water Conservation Board considering grant to fund half of $1.46 million effort — @AspenJournalism

The Crystal River widens and becomes shallower just before it passes under the southern bridge into River Valley Ranch. A group of local organizations is working to restore both the stream and the banks.
CREDIT: WILL GRANDBOIS / ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Will Grandbois):

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.

Although better access and an outdoor classroom are part of the plan, the majority of the property will remain relatively rustic to provide an authentic outdoor experience and good wildlife habitat.
CREDIT: WILL GRANDBOIS / ASPEN JOURNALISM

State engineers developing measurement rules for water diversions — @AspenJournalism #COleg

This Parshall flume, which was installed in the Yampa River basin in 2020 and is shown in this August 2020 photo, replaced the old, rusty device in the background. State engineers are developing rules for measuring devices, which would apply to the entire Western Slope.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

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.”

Sprinklers and a ditch irrigate this section of Crystal River Ranch outside of Carbondale on Wednesday. According to state officials, about 95% of diversions in the Crystal and Roaring Fork River basins already have measuring devices.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

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.

Scott Hummer, water commissioner for District 58 in the Yampa River basin, checks out a recently installed Parshall flume on an irrigation ditch in this August 2020 photo. Compliance with measuring device requirements has been moving more slowly than state engineers would like.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

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.

Sprinklers irrigate this section of Crystal River Ranch outside of Carbondale on July 14, 2021. State engineers are creating rules that will lay out guidelines for water users to install measurement devices for their diversions from the river.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

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.”

Aspen Journalism covers waters and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. For more, go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

River District looks for natural solutions to #CrystalRiver water shortage — @AspenJournalism #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Ella Ditch, in the Crystal River Valley, placed a call for the first time ever during the drought-stricken summer of 2018. That meant the Town of Carbondale had to borrow water from the East Mesa Ditch under an emergency water supply plan. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

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 Crystal River in August 2018 was running at 8 cfs near the state fish hatchery. Colorado River Water Conservation District staff said a study of a back-up water supply will look at natural infrastructure before dams and reservoirs to address a water shortage.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Water shortage

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.

Sprinklers irrigate land on the east side of the Crystal River (in foreground) in August 2018, one of its driest years in recent history. A call by a downstream senior water rights holder during the drought of 2018 illustrated a long-simmering problem: several subdivisions in the Crystal River Valley don’t have back-up water plans.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Demand quantification

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.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. For more go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

Environmental analysis puts Marble wetlands donation within reach — @AspenJournalism #CrystalRiver #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The slag pile left over from a 1900s smelting operation on a wetlands property subject to a unique conservation play that is working its way through various agencies. An analysis by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found that the material does not post a significant health risk if it is fenced off.
CREDIT: CURTIS WACKERLE/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Curtis Wackerle):

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.

Blocks of marble, likely connected to a historic railroad line running to a quarry, were artistically stacked by a previous owner along what one Marble resident referred to as “The Trail With No Name.”
CREDIT: CURTIS WACKERLE/ASPEN JOURNALISM

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.

A beaver dam along the Crystal River as it runs through a property that a private owner is seeking to donate for conservation purposes. Also visible in this photo is a Canada goose island nesting site with a large beaver lodge.
CREDIT: COURTESY PHOTO BY ALEX MENARD

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.”

The parcels outlined in yellow across the Crystal River from Marble are subject to a unique conservation effort. Beaver Lake is located on state-owned land abutting one of the parcels to the north.
CREDIT: SCREENSHOT VIA GUNNISON COUNTY GIS MAPPING WEBSITE

‘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.

A close-up view of the rock-like material that crumbles off the slag heap, left over from a 1900s smelting operation near Marble.
CREDIT: CURTIS WACKERLE/ASPEN JOURNALISM

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.

Protecting continued public access to these waterfalls along Yule Creek, just over the property line from a parcel set to be donated to a land conservation agency, is an ongoing priority for the CVEPA.
CREDIT: COURTESY PHOTO BY JOHN ARMSTRONG

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.

#CrystalRiver Wild & Scenic advocates hope to learn from the past — @AspenJournalism #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The view looking upstream on the Crystal River below Avalanche Creek. A Pitkin County group wants to designate this section of the Crystal as Wild & Scenic.
CREDIT: CURTIS WACKERLE/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

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.”

Crystal River Valley resident Chuck Ogilby on the banks of the river near the confluence with Avalanche Creek. Ogilby believes a Wild & Scenic designation on the Crystal is the best way to protect it from dams and out-of-basin diversions.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

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.

The Crystal River near the town of Marble forms a wetland area. A Pitkin County group wants to designate this section of the Crystal as Wild & Scenic.
CREDIT: CURTIS WACKERLE/ASPEN JOURNALISM

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.

Avalanche Creek flows into the Crystal River north of Redstone near Avalanche Ranch. A group of Pitkin County river advocates are gearing up for another attempt at getting a Wild & Scenic designation on the Crystal.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

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.

A view of the former coal mining village of Placita, with the upper Crystal River winding along the valley floor as seen from from Colorado 133 as it climbs up McClure Pass.
CREDIT: BRENT GARDNER-SMITH/ASPEN JOURNALISM

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.

U.S. Army Corps won’t hold public hearing on marble quarry that relocated Yule Creek — @AspenJournalism

The Crystal River flows through the town of Marble just after its confluence with Yule Creek. Gunnison County, Pitkin County and local environmental groups want to see a marble mining company mitigate its illegal relocation of a creek by improving downstream riparian habitat. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

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.”

The Filoha Meadows area of the Crystal River is one of the places that could benefit from riparian revegetation to improve water quality. Pitkin County would like a mining company to undertake mitigation projects in the Crystal River valley to compensate for damage caused when the company relocated a high-country creek. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

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 groups want mitigation, public hearing on marble quarry water issue — @AspenJournalism

Vehicles and machinery were parked outside the entrances to the marble galleries of the Pride of America Mine in January. Local governments and environmental groups want the quarry operators to undertake mitigation projects to compensate for moving a creek, which violated the Clean Water Act. Photo credit: EcoFlight via Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

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.”

These marble blocks stamped with quarry owner’s name, Red Graniti, and operator’s initials, CSQ, line the banks of the Crystal River near the company’s load-out area in the town of Marble. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is considering whether to issue the operator a retroactive permit to allow it to move a stream. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Mitigation projects

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.

Yule Creek can be seen from a small viewing area at the entrance to the Pride of America Mine, three miles up County Road 3C from the town of Marble. The creek now flows on the east side of Franklin Ridge because mine operators moved it without a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Next steps

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.

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

Degrees of #warming: How a hotter, thirstier #atmosphere wreaks havoc on #water supplies in Pitkin County — @AspenJournalism #ActOnClimate #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Crystal River runs low outside of Carbondale on September 1, 2020. With average temperatures warming in summer months by as much as 3.5 degrees since the 1950s in Garfield County, streamflows are trending down as peak runoff comes earlier and more water is sucked up by evaporation and dry soils, stressing available water supplies in late summer and fall. Photo credit: Dan Bayer/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Catharine Lutz):

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.”

Marble Town Manager Ron Leach is looking for ways to augment the town’s water supply, which comes from the Crystal River aquifer. In 2018, that supply was threatened when the river was running too low to satisfy all water-rights holders. Photo credit: Catharine Lutz/Aspen Journalism

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.

A 2019 report prepared for the town of Carbondale hints that warming has accelerated in the 21st century, with three of the five warmest years on record over the past decade. Also, this past August was the hottest on record for Colorado. In Aspen, the average temperature of 66.9 degrees in August was 5.6 degrees above normal.

Marble Town Manager Ron Leach is looking for ways to augment the town’s water supply, which comes from the Crystal River aquifer. In 2018, that supply was threatened when the river was running too low to satisfy all water-rights holders. Credit: NOAA via Aspen Journalism

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.

This graph shows the range of average maximum temperature increases projected for Carbondale under both and high and low emissions scenario. Credit: NOAA via Aspen Journalism

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.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2019 of the #coriver big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck

“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.”

A table showing hydroclimate trends from Western Water Assessment’s “Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology State of the Science” report.

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.

Since 2000, according to a recent report, the average annual volume of water in the upper Colorado River basin, from its headwaters to Lees Ferry (just below Lake Powell in Arizona), has dropped 15% below the long-term average from 1906 to 2019. Published last April, the Western Water Assessment’s “Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology State of the Science” report synthesizes all of the recent studies and data on this massive topic. The report’s authors compiled ever-increasing evidence about how rising temperatures are contributing to less water in the Colorado River, which supplies the needs of 40 million people. Although precipitation is still an important factor, some research shows that warming accounts for up to half of the water loss. One study calculated that every 1 degree Fahrenheit of warming decreases runoff by 7.5%.

Jeff Lukas, a researcher on NOAA’s Western Water Assessment team, has calculated that between 2000 and 2018, the Roaring Fork River at Glenwood Springs had 13% less water than the 20th century average, which in large part is attributable to declining peak flows, shown here in this graph. Credit: Lauren Lassalle/Aspen Journalism

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.

Projections on how runoff will change in the coming decades from Western Water Assessment’s “Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology State of the Science” report.

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 Crystal River showing a fraction of its normal summer volume in September. Water supply challenges related to climate change have been evident along the waterway as warmer summer temperatures stress streamflows. Photo credit: Dan Bayer/Aspen Journalism

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.”

The Aspen Global Change Institute has been tracking local soil moisture since 2013. In each of the past three years, soil moisture has dipped well under the 2013-2017 average for most of the summer.

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 concerned about marble quarry’s impacts on waterways — @AspenJournalism

The Crystal River runs parallel to County Road 3 as it flows past the town of Marble. The Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board has expressed interest in a water quality monitoring program to see if the diversion of Yule Creek, a tributary of the Crystal, is having downstream impacts. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journlism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

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.

Portals to the marble galleries of the Pride of America Mine can be seen in this still photo from drone footage. Quarry operators Colorado Stone Quarries relocated Yule Creek in 2018 to build an access road. Photo credit: Maciej Mrotek via Aspen Journalism

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.

This photo from September 2020 shows how quarry operators moved Yule Creek into a channel lined with marble blocks. Pitkin County groups are concerned the creek diversion could have downstream impacts. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

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.

Boating survey aims for better river management for recreation — @AspenJournalism

Russell and Andrea Shaffran, of Aspen, ready their boat for a float down the lower Roaring Fork River. Pitkin County is funding an American Whitewater survey of recreational flows on the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

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.

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290878

#Runoff news: Generally below average streamflow W. of the Continental Divide of the Americas @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Roaring Fork River near Mill Street in Aspen was flowing around 255 cfs on Thursday afternoon. The Colorado River Basin Forecast Center predicts spring runoff will peak here for the year on Saturday. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

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.

This photo taken on Thursday, June 4, shows little snow left on top of Independence Pass, the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River. This year’s peak spring runoff is slightly earlier and lower than normal. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Below-average flows

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.

From The Pagosa Sun (Chris Mannara):

As of June 3, the San Juan River had a reported flow of 745 cfs, lower than the average for June 3 of 1,560 cfs.

The highest reported flow total for the San Juan River came in 1948 when the river had a reported flow of 4,090 cfs.

The lowest flow total for the San Juan River came in 2002 when the river had a flow of just 116 cfs.

Crystal River Ranch near Carbondale seeks to preserve water rights tied to potential dams, reservoirs — @AspenJournalism

Elk gather in irrigated hay fields below Dry Park Road on the Crystal River Ranch, which is seeking to maintain conditional water storage rights tied to two potential 55-foot-tall dams. One of the dams would be located at the edge of the hayfields, to the left in the photo, and another would be located in the Four Mile Creek valley. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

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.”

Water from Four Mile Creek irrigates land on Crystal River Ranch off of Dry Park Road above Carbondale. Ranch owner Sue Anschutz-Rodgers has told the state she is making progress toward building two dams and reservoirs on the property. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

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.)

A herd of elk could be seen roaming amid the irrigation sprinklers of Crystal River Ranch on Thursday. Ranch owner Sue Anschutz-Rodgers has told the state she is making progress toward building two dams and reservoirs on the property. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Diligence application

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.”

A stony irrigation channel runs past rolled hay on the Crystal River Ranch, just below Dry Park Road, with Basalt Mountain in the background. The pond in the lower field, to the right of the white trailer, drains to the Roaring Fork River and is the approximate location for a potential 55-foot-tall dam that would hold 500 acre-feet of water. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Next steps

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.

#NEPA turns 50 amid new challenges to public process — @AspenJournalism

A proposed trail connecting Redstone to McClure Pass is going through a federal environmental review. The existing trail switchbacks up McClure Pass. Photo credit: Pitkin County Open Space and Trails

From Aspen Journalism (Marci Krivonen):

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.

Katherine Hudson looks over a map that features the proposed trail between Redstone and McClure Pass. Hudson plans to voice her concerns about the project during the public comment period required by NEPA. Photo credit: Marci Krivonen/Aspen Journalism

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.

Proposed Redstoen to McClure Pass trail. Map credit: USFS

“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.

Katherine Hudson speaks with Roger Poirier of the White River National Forest at an open house in Carbondale in late January. The meeting was part of initial steps in the Forest Service analysis of the trail’s environmental impacts. Photo credit: Marci Krivonen/Aspen Journalism

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.

Meanwhile, the Council on Environmental Quality, which oversees NEPA, is also taking public input on Trump’s proposed changes to NEPA until March 10.

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.

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290878

Colorado Basin Roundtable OKs grant to study Crystal River backup water supply — @AspenJournalism

The Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Conservancy District gave up their conditional water rights in 2011 that could have allowed for a reservoir on the Crystal River at Placita. A proposed back-up water supply study has some groups worried that the idea of dams on the Crystal could be resurrected. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

The fight over damming the Crystal River has been resurrected, this time before there are even any dam projects to fight over.

The Colorado Basin Roundtable voted Monday to recommend the state give $25,000 toward a water study in the Crystal River basin, despite calls from some to deny the Water Supply Reserve Fund request because of concerns that a study might conclude there is a need for water storage.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District brought the grant request to the roundtable in Glenwood Springs in an effort to solve a long-acknowledged problem on the Crystal: In dry years, there may not be enough water for both irrigators and some residential subdivisions.

On Nov. 18, the Gunnison Basin Roundtable gave its unanimous support to the grant application, even though its support was not necessary. Although the Crystal is in the Colorado River basin, its headwaters are in Gunnison County, and so the Gunnison roundtable decided to voice its support.

The feasibility study would look at water demands and options for creating a basinwide backup water supply plan, known as an augmentation plan. The study will look at small storage alternatives, probably off the main stem of the Crystal. Until the study is completed, it’s unclear how much water is needed for a basinwide backup supply.

But some fear that the plan could include dams and reservoirs on the free-flowing Crystal, and they opposed the grant unless storage was off the table.

Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury requested two amendments to the grant application: that any reservoir would be off the main stem of the river and would only be located downstream of the Sweet Jessup Canal diversion (about 2 miles downstream of Avalanche Creek) to preserve the possibility of designating 39 miles of the Crystal River as Wild and Scenic.

“We are not going to support this application as it’s currently written,” McNicholas Kury told roundtable members Monday. “The county continues to support Wild and Scenic designation on the Crystal.”

McNicholas Kury and two other roundtable members voted against the funding: recreation representative Ken Ransford and Eagle County representative Chuck Ogliby, who owns the Avalanche Ranch Cabins & Hot Springs in the Crystal River Valley.

The Crystal River Caucus, which doesn’t have a seat on the roundtable, also objected to the grant application and passed a resolution at its Nov. 14 meeting to that effect. In a letter to the roundtable, the caucus said it does not support the grant and urged voting roundtable members to deny the request. The caucus would, however, support a study and augmentation plan that evaluates options other than storage.

But others downplayed the threat of dams, insisting they won’t happen.

“You’re not going to see a dam on the main stem of the Crystal,” said Colorado River District President Dave Merritt. “It’s not going to happen. The river district is not predisposed to dams. There is a need for a small amount of augmentation water up there. We are talking tens of acre-feet, probably.”

The Sweet Jessup Canal’s diversion structure is on the Crystal River about two miles downstream from Avalanche Creek. Pitkin County wants any storage on the Crystal that an augmentation study might recommend to be located below the Sweet Jessup to keep open the possibility that the upper portion of the Crystal can one day qualify as Wild and Scenic. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

No backup supply

During the historic drought of late summer of 2018, the Ella Ditch, which irrigates agricultural land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the river for the first time ever. This means, in theory, that junior-rights holders upstream have to stop taking water so that the Ella Ditch, which has water rights dating to 1885, can receive its full decreed amount.

Most junior-rights holders have what’s known as an augmentation plan, which lets them continue using water during a call by replacing the called-for water with water from another source, such as a reservoir or exchange. The problem on the Crystal is that several residential subdivisions don’t have augmentation plans.

Without an augmentation plan, these entities — which are the town of Carbondale, the Marble Water Company, Chair Mountain Ranch, Crystal River Resort, Crystal View Heights and Seven Oaks Commons — could be fined for every day they are out of priority and could potentially have their water shut off, if there is a call on the river.

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 5 engineer Alan Martellaro said instead of each subdivision coming up with its own augmentation plan, a basinwide approach makes more sense.

“We think it would save everyone money if we had a reasonable regional solution,” he said. “It looks a lot to us that a call from the Ella Ditch is going to be more common in the future.”

The Ella Ditch, which irrigates agricultural land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the Crystal River for the first time ever in 2018. Water managers are seeking solutions in the form of a basin-wide augmentation study, which the Colorado River Basin Roundtable recommended for grant money. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Contentious history

To understand why some groups are opposed to even just a study whether storage is an option, it helps to review the contentious history of water development in the Crystal River Valley.

In 2011, the West Divide district and the Colorado River District abandoned their conditional water rights for nearly 200,000 acre-feet of water storage on the Crystal River after local groups — Crystal River Caucus, Pitkin County and Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association — opposed the reservoirs tied to the conditional rights. Known as the West Divide project, the now-defunct conditional water rights were tied to a dam on the Crystal just downstream from Redstone, which would have created Osgood Reservoir, and a dam on the Crystal at Placita, which is at the bottom of McClure Pass.

To try to prevent the specter of dams coming back to haunt the Crystal in the future, Pitkin County and other local groups have pushed for a federal designation under the Wild and Scenic River Act of 1968, which requires rivers to be free-flowing. The Colorado River District opposes the designation.

“With our challenging history with both the river district and West Divide … this is why we are very nervous whenever we hear discussion of any dams on the Crystal River,” said Bill Jochems, Redstone resident and member of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board.

In the end, the roundtable approved the grant request. A motion to amend the request with a no-storage requirement failed.

“Obviously, storage is not the first choice,” said Ken Neubecker, the roundtable’s environmental representative and Colorado project director for environmental organization American Rivers. “But you have to look at all the options, including storage, or you’re just not being responsible.”

The two conservation districts plan to ask for a $50,000 grant from the Colorado Water Plan grant fund in early 2020 to fund the roughly $100,000 project. West Divide plans to contribute $15,000 and the Colorado River District $10,000.

Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Aspen Times.

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290878

Leaders of youth-water program get bird’s-eye view of #RoaringFork watershed — @AspenJournalism

The blue expanse of Ruedi Reservoir as seen from the air. Students with the Carbondale-based Youth Water Leadership Program took to the air with EcoFlight to see how people have modified water in the Roaring Fork watershed. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

On a recent, clear, cold Saturday morning, local students from Carbondale-based Youth Water Leadership Program packed into a six-seat, single-engine Cessna 210 piloted by Gary Kraft of EcoFlight.

From the cockpit and high above the Roaring Fork watershed, certain features jumped out — the long, straight line of Red Mountain Ditch cutting across the hillside; infrastructure of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. siphoning water to the Front Range; the ponds that feed Aspen Skiing Co.’s snowmaking system; and the glittering surface of Ruedi Reservoir.

One goal of the flight was to give students a firsthand experience of natural resources — in this case, rivers and water. Aspen-based EcoFlight flies policymakers, students and journalists over Western landscapes to highlight man-made impacts to the natural world.

“The best way to teach people about places is to get them in the places,” said Sarah Johnson, watershed-education specialist and founder of the Youth Water Leadership Program.

The plane took off from the Aspen airport, gaining altitude as it flew up Independence Pass to the headwaters of the Roaring Fork, down the Fryingpan River valley, around the white flanks of Mount Sopris and up the Crystal River valley before cruising past the Maroon Bells and Aspen Mountain back to the airport.

This snowmaking pond on the east side of Aspen Mountain as seen from the air with EcoFlight. Students from Carbondale-based Youth Water Leadership Program got a tour of water infrastructure in the Roaring Fork Valley. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

How humans modify water

Also evident from the air were the burn scars from 2018’s Lake Christine Fire on Basalt Mountain, as well as the many large homes near Aspen with ponds on the property. For Coal Ridge High School senior and youth-water program leader Aidan Boyd, it was striking to see the patterns of land use in the valley.

“It is really interesting to compare the remote mountains that seem completely untouched to as you get more into the towns it’s just a very different feeling,” he said. “We’ve talked a little bit about how a lot of really wealthy houses will modify water — houses with lakes and pools. It was really interesting to see that.”

From 13,000 feet, it also became apparent just how near to one another are the headwaters of the watershed’s three main tributaries: the Roaring Fork, Fryingpan and Crystal rivers — something that isn’t evident when one travels the region by car. All three begin as trickles in close proximity, high among the 14,000-foot peaks of the Elk and Sawatch ranges.

“I never really realized how close everything is to each other because I’ve always driven up to Aspen and Basalt,” said Isla Brumby-Nelson, an eighth-grader at the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork.

From left, youth water student leaders Aidan Boyd, Isla Brumly-Nelson and water education specialist and program founder Sarah Johnson in EcoFlight’s Cessna 210. Students got a bird’s-eye view of how humans have modified water in the Roaring Fork watershed. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Youth Water Leadership Program

The goal of the Youth Water Leadership Program is not only to increase students’ knowledge of their local watershed and Colorado River issues, but also to create student-driven, call-to-action projects. Students will present these projects — on topics that range from how drought affects small farmers to microplastics and desalination — at the annual Youth Water Leadership Summit in December.

The invitation-only event is sponsored by Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams. Representatives from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and Sen. Michael Bennet’s office have already confirmed they will attend.

“The program is about teaching young people how to participate in public life,” Johnson said.

The Saturday field trip culminated with a tour of the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District and Zeigler Reservoir. But the bird’s-eye view of the watershed that students experienced with EcoFlight is the experience that is most likely to stay with them, Johnson said.

“I think that perspective is eye-opening,” she said, “when you start to see all the ditches and diversions, man-made lakes versus natural lakes and how many more water-storage structures there were than we thought. … They are going to have this reference point and bring that into the conversation, and I think that is powerful.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. This story ran in the Nov. 2 edition of The Aspen Times.

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

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

Sprinklers irrigate land on the east side of the Crystal River (in foreground) in August 2018, one of its driest years in recent history. A call by a downstream senior water rights holder during the drought of 2018 illustrated a long-simmering problem: several subdivisions in the Crystal River Valley don’t have back-up water plans. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

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

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

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

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

No back-up water supply

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basinwide cooperation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ella Ditch, in the Crystal River Valley, placed a call for the first time ever during the drought-stricken summer of 2018. That meant the Town of Carbondale had to borrow water from the East Mesa Ditch under an emergency water supply plan.

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drought illustrates vulnerability

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

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

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

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

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

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

A wake-up call

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

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

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

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

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

Carbondale “State of the Rivers” Meeting recap

From The Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Thomas Phippen):

“What a difference a year makes,” Zane Kessler of the Colorado River District said at the State of the Rivers meeting in Carbondale Thursday, comparing current snowpack averages to last year.

But as Kessler pointed out, 134 percent of average is only 34 percent better than average, and one good year doesn’t change the rising temperatures or the facts of living in the west, or the southwestern states that rely on Colorado River water are using more and more water.

The high snowpack will translate to fuller rivers and reservoirs, but it won’t solve the larger issues of what happens during the next low-precipitation year.

“One thing we noticed this year … is that our soil moisture was horribly low. So a lot of the moisture that came in the early part of this season, went to restoring those soils, and a lot of the water was sucked up,” Kessler said.

More water is being used up as temperatures rise, and both natural forests and agriculture lands have longer growing seasons.

This year, however, the biggest reservoirs in the region “are all expected to fill,” Alan Martellaro, division engineer with the Department of Water Resources, said at the meeting Thursday.

With the exception of [Granby] Reservoir, “the rest are expected to fill and spill. Hopefully, not spill,” Martellaro said.

As the weather warms and more snow melts, there is a risk of flooding on the Crystal River near Carbondale and near the Fryingpan River in Basalt.

The Crystal River “definitely will be above-bank full” at the peak flow for the year, which will likely be weeks later than usual, Martellaro said.

The usual peak occurs by June 7, but this year it will likely be between June 12 and 25, Martellaro said. The peak is also projected to last for weeks instead of days.

While snowpack is well above last year’s average and historical averages, river flows for many rivers only exceeded historical averages this week. The Colorado River just below Glenwood Springs reached 12,700 cubic feet per second Friday, above the historic median peak of 11,200 cfs, according to the USGS…

Another likely flooding area is on the Roaring Fork River just after the confluence with the Fryingpan in Basalt, Lewin said. The park was designed in part to allow the river to overflow there, she said.

Streamflow On The Crystal, LOCC Carbondale Short Film — CIRESVideos

Why is the Crystal River significant and what would happen if it dried up? LOCC students look into the importance of this river to the people of Carbondale. This film was made by students in Carbondale, Colorado during summer 2018.

Learn more: http://cires.colorado.edu/outreach/LOCC

Crystal River low streamflow update

Cows graze near the Crystal River, just upstream from the fish hatchery. The Crystal just downstream was running at around 8 cfs on Aug. 1, spurring action by state officials. Photo credit: Heather Sackett via Aspen Journalism

From The Sopris Sun (Will Grandbois):

A voluntary afternoon fishing ban is in place for sections of the lower Crystal and Roaring Fork rivers, among others.

“When those flows drop, you reduce habitat space, and warm waters are extremely stressful for trout,” explained Liza Mitchell, Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Roaring Fork Conservancy (which is opening its new River Center at 11:30 a.m. Aug. 10). “It seems like there’s been pretty good compliance. It’s pretty cool when you have everyone in the industry working together.”

Mitchell sends out the Conservancy’s weekly streamflow report, which of late shows mostly red (meaning flows less than 55 percent of average) or only-recently-needed maroon (less than 30 percent). The one bright spot is the Fryingpan River, which is flowing at slightly above average thanks to an agreement that increases how much is released from Ruedi Reservoir, as well as the “Cameo call” on the Colorado River which has basically shut down diversions to the Eastern Slope in favor of senior water rights downstream.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board has also placed a call on the Crystal, but the junior water rights may not be enough to keep water in the river. Additionally, a recent agreement aimed at reducing agricultural diversions won’t be enacted this year.

Still, Mitchell sees efforts at conservation as a step in the right direction amid increasing aridity. She praised the Town of Carbondale’s decision to enact water restrictions on both treated and ditch systems, and encouraged individual residents to do what they can to reduce their use.

“It’s easy to become complacent, but it’s better to act than not act,” she said. “Any little thing you do shows that you’re invested in protecting our local waterways.”

“There’s nothing we can do to make more water appear in the river” — Linda Bassi @AspenJournalism @CWCB_DNR

The lower Crystal River was running at 8 cfs near the state fish hatchery on Aug. 1, 2018. Lows flows on the Crystal have spurred action from the state, including curtailment and a call for instream flows. Photo credit: Heather Sackett via Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Extremely low flows on the Crystal River have led to action by state officials, including turning down a diverter’s headgate and placing a call for water.

On Friday, the Colorado Water Conservation Board placed a “call” on the Crystal River, asking Division of Water Resources officials to administer an instream flow right on the river. The CWCB has an instream flow right on the Crystal for 100 cubic feet per second between Avalanche Creek and the confluence with the Roaring Fork River from June 1 through Sept. 30 each year.

The CWCB used the river [gage] near the state fish hatchery in Carbondale to determine that flow conditions were too low. As of Friday morning, the Crystal at that location was running at roughly 8.8 cfs.

Instream flow rights are owned and used by the state to help preserve and protect the natural environment, ecosystems and aquatic life, especially fish.

These rights, however, are junior to most agricultural and municipal rights in Colorado, which means the call may not do much to leave more water in the Crystal. The CWCB’s right on the Crystal dates to 1975.

Cows graze near the Crystal River, just upstream from the fish hatchery. The Crystal just downstream was running at around 8 cfs on Aug. 1, spurring action by state officials. Photo credit: Heather Sackett via Aspen Journalism

The goal, Bassi said, is to make sure future augmentation plans take into account instream flow rights.

“We have a duty to protect these water rights that we hold for the people of the state and we take it seriously,” said Linda Bassi, stream and lake protection chief at the CWCB. “It’s useful to have a record of when instream flow is not being met.”

Not having enough water in the lower Crystal River has been a concern in recent years. The 2012 drought left a section of the Crystal between Thompson Creek and the state fish hatchery dry during the late summer irrigation season. Several large diversions, including Town of Carbondale ditches, are located on that section.

This year conditions are approaching a similarly dry state, despite a goal of the 2016 Crystal River Management Plan to leave an additional 10 to 25 cfs in the river during moderate drought.

“It’s a sad state of affairs,” Bassi said. “There’s nothing we can do to make more water appear in the river.”

Sprinklers irrigate land on the east side of the Crystal River (in foreground), which is facing one of its driest years in recent history. Low flows on the Crystal have spurred action from the state, including curtailment and a call for instream flows. Photo credit: Heather Sackett via Aspen Journalism

Waste curtailed

On July 23, amid rapidly dropping flows on the Crystal, District 38 Water Commissioner Jake DeWolfe made the decision to turn down the headgate of the Lowline Ditch.

The diversion point for the Lowline is located on the Crystal River just north of the KOA campground, and has two water rights: one from 1902 for 19 cfs and one from 1936 for 21.5 cfs. The ditch irrigates land on the west side of Highway 133 roughly between River Valley Ranch Golf Club and Sustainable Settings.

At issue was a “tail ditch,” which is used to return water to the stream after it is used for irrigation. The amount of water in a tail ditch can vary during the irrigation season, but if irrigators are being efficient, in theory, not much water should be returned to the stream.

“There was excess water coming out of one of the tail ditches,” DeWolf said. “If there is an excess, we can go ahead and turn (the headgate) back down and leave the water in the river.”

DeWolf said they first turned the Lowline’s headgate down by about 5 cfs on July 23, then again the next day for a total reduction of about 8 cfs.

“There have been a couple of years when we asked the irrigator to turn it down themselves,” DeWolf said. “We did not even give them the opportunity in this case. We have the option to go ahead and curtail the ditch, which is what we did this time.”

The problem, Wolfe said, was not that the Lowline was diverting more than its decreed amount of 40.5 cfs; in fact it was diverting slightly less. The problem was that the Lowline Ditch was violating the newly implemented state guidelines regarding wasting water.

An internal guide to understanding waste, approved in June 2017 by the Colorado Division of Water Resources, defines “waste” as diverting water when not needed for beneficial use or running more water than is reasonably needed for application to beneficial use.

So how much is too much water in a tail ditch?

The guidelines say it is a judgement call that should be made on a case by case basis, but that “if the water commissioner can make adjustments to a diversion with no risk of depriving the irrigated land of the water necessary to accomplish the consumptive use of the plants being irrigated, then the amount of water at the tail end of the ditch is not reasonable and is waste.”

These new guidelines are a departure from the age-old Colorado water law doctrine of “use it or lose it,” which encourages water users to divert their full decreed amount, lest their water right be considered abandoned.

“With our new direction, (curtailment) is become more common,” DeWolfe said.

Because of diminishing flows on the Crystal, Wolfe said the Lowline Ditch was diverting roughly half the volume it was running at after it was curtailed July 23, which was about 19 cfs as of Friday.

But in a dry year like 2018, the Crystal River flows, not the state, will dictate if and how much diverters can take. There is so little water, in some cases senior water rights holders are having trouble getting enough water into their headgates, DeWolf said.

“There might be some ground to go unirrigated in this second cutting,” he said.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Independent on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Aug. 6, 2018 print edition of both papers.

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

Flows in Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers are nearing record levels, and that’s not good news — @AspenJournalism

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith) via The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent:

Like children, every water year is different, but 2018 is now hanging out with some of the most notorious low-flow years in history.

This year started with a thin snowpack that ran off early and now has found trouble in a hot and dry summer.

The Bureau of Reclamation determined this week that 2018 had produced the fifth-lowest amount of runoff from the Colorado and Green rivers down to Lake Powell, between April and the end of July. That puts 2018 behind only 2013, 2012, 1977 and 2002, the low-water mark.

And locally, this year is now revealing dry reaches in the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers not seen since 2012 or 2002.

Friday just before noon, the upper Roaring Fork River was dribbling through Aspen at 9.12 cubic feet per second, well below the environmental flow level of 32 cfs set by the state.

Also Friday morning, which saw some rare rain to the valley, a section of the lower Crystal River just above the state fish hatchery outside of Carbondale was barely running at 8.86 cfs.

The state’s environmental flow level in that reach of the Crystal is 100 cfs, and the 2016 Crystal River Management Plan set a less-ambitious flow target of 40 cfs for the reach.

Hunter Creek in Aspen was “flowing” at 0.48 cfs at its confluence with the Fork on Friday. That’s less than even half-a-basketball full of water in the stream bed.

“It’s a bad year,” said Alan Martellaro, a division engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources who manages water in the Colorado River basin above Grand Junction. “It’s not 2002, I don’t think, but it’s up there.”

This year already has a bad reputation on Colorado’s Western Slope, and especially in the southwest corner, which remains under exceptional drought conditions.

“Hydraulically, 2018 is stacking up across western Colorado as, potentially, depending upon your specific location, the driest year on record,” said John Currier, the chief engineer for the Colorado River District.

Another indicator of how dry 2018 is shaping up to be is the gage on the Roaring Fork River at Stillwater Road, just east of Aspen.

The gauge showed the Fork on Friday was flowing at 28 cfs, without any significant upstream diversions dropping the flow. The lowest flow on Aug. 3, in 53 years of record-keeping, was in 2002, when the river was flowing at 31.7 cfs.

A similar indicator can be found on the Crystal River at the gage that measures the river’s flow below Redstone, and above a series of diversion structures on the lower river.

Friday morning, that gauge showed the Crystal flowing at 68.5 cfs. The lowest flow on Aug. 3, in 62 years of record keeping, was in 1977 when the river was at 64 cfs.

In response to such low flows in the region, the River District on July 27 started releasing water it controls out of Ruedi Reservoir into the Fryingpan River, something it has not arranged to do since 2002.

By increasing flows by about 80 cfs up to 200 cfs in the lower Fryingpan, which runs into the Roaring Fork in Basalt, the District’s water helped cool the warm water in the Fork down to its confluence with the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs.

The water then also helped boost flows in the Colorado River near Grand Junction, where senior water rights known as “the Cameo call” are still calling for more water.

Such calls are often met by releasing water from Green Mountain Reservoir, south of Kremmling. But the River District and other water managers want to keep as much water as they can in Green Mountain until September, and the water released from Ruedi helps with that.

There was the added incentive this year to add water to the Fork and Pan to dilute the still-expected flow of ash and mud from Basalt Mountain in the wake of the Lake Christine Fire and the next heavy rainstorm.

There’s no easy way, however, to add water to the nearly-dry sections of the upper Roaring Fork and the lower Crystal rivers.

On Friday, for example, no water was being diverted upstream off the top of the Fork via the Twin Lakes/Independence Pass diversion system, and a related 3,000 acre-foot allotment of water that can be used to bolster flows already has been sent downstream.

In response to the low-flows, the city of Aspen has dropped its diversions into the Wheeler Ditch, which takes water from the Fork near the Aspen Club, from a potential maximum diversion of 10 cfs down to 0.5 cfs.

On the Crystal, a non-diversion agreement between the Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch, which diverts water from the Crystal, was not implemented this year, despite the dry conditions.

The agreement was meant help boost moderately low flows in the Crystal of around 40 cfs, not to help bring the river up from, say, 10 cfs to 25 cfs, which may not help the environment that much.

“If it’s not going to have an ecological benefit, it is not worth irrigators making the sacrifice,” said Heather Tattersall Lewin, the watershed action director at the Roaring Fork Conservancy.

On Thursday evening, Jim Kravitz, the naturalist program director at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, took note of the distressing lack of water in the upper Fork and lower Hunter Creek.

“I didn’t think flows were going to get this bad locally,” he said after walking up a dry Hunter Creek. “It’s eerie to hike up with no sound from the creek.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water in the Roaring Fork and Colorado river basins for The Aspen Times. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

West Drought Monitor July 31. 2018

CPW is implementing voluntary fishing closures on sections of the Eagle River, Colorado River, Crystal River, and Roaring Fork River in northwest Colorado.

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife:

Due to high water temperatures and low flows, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is implementing voluntary fishing closures between 2 p.m. – 12 a.m. on sections of the Eagle River, Colorado River, Crystal River, and Roaring Fork River in Northwest Colorado. The fishing closure is effective immediately, until further notice.

Although anglers are not legally prohibited from fishing in these stretches, CPW is asking anglers to fish early in the day and find alternative places to fish until conditions improve.

Sections for the voluntary fishing closures include:

Eagle River from Wolcott downstream to its confluence with the Colorado River

Colorado River from State Bridge downstream to Rifle

Crystal River from Avalanche Creek downstream to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River

Roaring Fork River from Carbondale downstream to its confluence with the Colorado River.

“We appreciate the patience of our angling community as we work through some tough climate conditions,” said Northwest Regional Manager JT Romatzke. “Conserving our state’s fisheries is critical, not just for anglers, but for the local communities and businesses that rely on these resources for their livelihoods.”

CPW will place signs along the four sections of rivers to notify anglers and encourage them to consider fishing at higher elevation lakes and streams where environmental factors are much less severe, particularly during the afternoons and evenings.

If current conditions persist, CPW may consider further fishing restrictions which may include all-day voluntary fishing closures or mandatory fishing closures.

CPW recommends anglers contact their local CPW office for the most recent information relative to fishing closures, fishing conditions, and fishing opportunities.

Local watershed organizations are also good resources for information on river health including the Roaring Fork Conservancy, Eagle River Watershed Council, and the Middle Colorado Watershed Council.</blockquoteL

Town of Carbondale’s Weaver Ditch focus of study on water efficiency — @AspenJournalism

The Weaver Ditch as it winds through Sopris Park in Carbondale. While the ditch is an amenity for the community, the water in the ditch comes directly out of the Crystal River, which is often stressed from lack of water.

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

A project funded by Pitkin County aims to keep more water in the Crystal River by improving the efficiency of Carbondale’s Weaver Ditch.

The Weaver Ditch Existing Conditions Assessment will survey the roughly three miles of ditch that flow through downtown Carbondale from its diversion point at the headgate just west of state Highway 133 near South Crystal Bridge Drive to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River.

From the survey will come a detailed engineering plan to pinpoint where improvements could increase efficiency, delivery and use of the irrigation water. Four gauges will be installed in the ditch to help measure and understand the flow pattern.

The Weaver Ditch (also known as the Weaver and Leonhardy Ditch) is mostly used for raw water irrigation of Carbondale’s open space, parks, golf courses, schoolyards and residents’ yards. The Weaver Ditch runs through Carbondale and Sopris Park, and residents can use it to water their lawns and gardens for free.

Built over a century ago, the open (unpiped) and unlined Weaver Ditch could potentially be leaking water into the surrounding soil in some areas.

“Most of these ditches are pretty old, and the folks get in there and they clean them out and they do everything they can with them with the resources they have, but they were built and designed and created basically with the technology from the 19th century,” Ken Neubecker told the audience at a May 31 State of the River meeting in Carbondale.

Neubecker is associate director of the Colorado Basin Program for American Rivers and a Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams board member.

The Weaver Ditch diversion structure, known as a ‘push-up dam,’ will be upgraded as part of the Weaver Ditch Efficiency Project. A conditions assessment this fall will survey the three miles of ditch that run through Carbondale.

Town rights

Carbondale has three water rights that allow it to divert water from the Crystal River into the Weaver Ditch, a total decreed use of 12.36 cubic feet per second. The oldest of these rights dates back to 1885.

According to Carbondale Utilities Director Mark O’Meara, the town diverts on average about 3.5 cfs from the Weaver Ditch during the irrigation season and has not diverted its full decreed amount in quite some time.

Part of the reason, O’Meara said, is because there often isn’t enough water in the Crystal River, especially during the late summer irrigation season, for the town to divert its full decreed amount.

The survey is a collaboration between the town of Carbondale, the Roaring Fork Conservancy and American Rivers. Pitkin County commissioners approved $30,000 in funding for the project from the county’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Fund at a May 8 work session.

The survey has a total cost of $40,000 and work is slated to begin this fall once the ditch has been turned off for the season. The remaining $10,000 in funding will come from private donors, according to Heather Tattersall Lewin, watershed action director at the Roaring Fork Conservancy.

In the hot, parched summer of 2012, the Crystal River south of Carbondale was reduced to a trickle. Photo/Ken Neubecker via The Mountain Town News.

By example

Besides leaving more water in the river, another goal of the project is to serve as an example for other upstream irrigators on the Crystal, especially those who might be reluctant to participate in a ditch survey.

“This is a pilot project within the town,” Neubecker said. “Hopefully it’s something that we will be able to expand with the other ditches in the town, the ranch irrigators and other people around the Crystal and Roaring Fork valleys and get this to work.”

Not having enough water in the lower Crystal River has been a concern in recent years. The 2012 drought left a section of the Crystal between Thompson Creek and the state fish hatchery dry during the late summer irrigation season.

Leaving more water in the lower Crystal River — an additional 10 to 25 cfs during times of moderate drought — is a goal of the 2016 Crystal River Management Plan.

To accomplish this, the plan calls on the town of Carbondale to line its leaky irrigation ditches. It also suggests creating non-diversion agreements, or paying irrigators to reduce their diversions, and helping them improve ditches and install sprinkler systems.

According to the Crystal River Management Plan, converting an earthen ditch to a concrete ditch or pipeline conserves as much as 30 percent of diverted water because it reduces water loss to seepage and evaporation.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board holds a junior instream flow right of 100 cfs in summer and 60 cfs in winter, which is currently the only permanent mechanism in place to ensure there is water for ecological purposes. But during times of drought, the instream flow right is often not met due to the board’s junior status to most other diverters under Colorado water law.

The Weaver Ditch is downstream from where the worst dewatering takes place. But Lewin Tattersall hopes the Carbondale project will inspire upstream diverters to survey their own ditches.

“We know there are places upstream where efficiencies could be beneficial and having the town of Carbondale demonstrate that they bought into the process and be an example is great because anywhere on that lower Crystal River could use more water,” Tattersall Lewin said.

Fix the headgate

The Weaver Ditch also will see its headgate and diversion structure improved as part of the Crystal River Restoration and Weaver Ditch Efficiency Project. In March, the board approved $20,700 in funding for the project.

Currently, town staff adjusts the headgate manually, depending on demand, rainstorms and other factors. But the goal, O’Meara said, is for the system that opens and closes the headgate to eventually become telemetry-based and automated.

“It’s a demand-based system that can automatically make adjustments so that you aren’t wasting water,” O’Meara said. “We are constantly looking at areas where we can improve on the ditches.”

Ultimately, the Weaver Ditch survey is a first step toward addressing the potential of a future with less water. As climate change raises temperatures, that could mean longer growing seasons for crops and a greater demand for more water.

“Overall, the need for water is going to grow,” Neubecker said. “It’s going to come down to how efficiently can you use your water.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Vail Daily and the Summit Daily News on the coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Saturday, June 16, 2018.

State grants flowing into Colorado, Roaring Fork, and Eagle rivers — @AspenJournalism

The Colorado River, flowing west at the wave in Glenwood Springs. The river, from Dotsero at the upper edge of Glenwood Canyon to DeBeque Canyon, is being studied as part of an integrated water management plan being prepared by the Middle Colorado Watershed Council. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Five water plans or projects concerning the Roaring Fork, Colorado and Eagle rivers are on track to receive $337,000 in state funds to study water users’ needs, plan for future water use and restore river ecosystems.

The efforts include a web-based information system about the Roaring Fork River watershed, restoration work on the Crystal River near Carbondale, an agricultural-water study in Garfield County and funding for two integrated water management plans for the Eagle River basin and a section of the Colorado River.

All five of the projects are part of a bigger effort toward stream management planning and list that goal in their grant applications. An objective of the 2015 Colorado Water Plan is to cover 80 percent of rivers with stream management plans.

Such plans already exist, or are in process, for the Poudre River, the Crystal River, the North Fork of the Gunnison, the Upper Gunnison Basin and the San Miguel River and have been proposed on the Eagle, Yampa, Upper San Juan and Middle Colorado rivers.

Looking upstream toward the confluence of the Roaring Fork River, left, and the Crystal River, right, just below Carbondale. More information about these and other rivers will be made available to the public with the help of a recent $37,000 state grant to the Roaring Fork Conservancy. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

Roaring info, Crystal headgate

Last month the Colorado River basin roundtable, which meets in Glenwood Springs and reviews and votes on water-project grant requests before sending them to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, approved a $37,000 request from the Roaring Fork Conservancy to create a $50,000 public interactive map and information system.

Anyone from school kids to scientists would be able to access, search and sort data about the Roaring Fork. The project will organize the information contained in the 145-page Roaring Fork Watershed Plan so it’s easier for the public to find and understand.

In March, the CWCB approved a $20,700 grant from the town of Carbondale to restore and enhance a half-mile stretch of the Crystal River near the state fish hatchery, as well as make improvements to the town-owned Weaver Ditch headgate and diversion structure.

The project aims to restore ecological health by reconnecting the river with its flood plain, improve river channel stability and enhance a riverfront park with signs and trails. The project, at a total cost of $200,000, also is being funded by the town, Great Outdoors Colorado, and Aspen Skiing Co.’s environmental fund.

The CWCB also approved grants last month to the Eagle River Watershed Council and the Middle Colorado Watershed Council. Both groups received funding for their respective stream management plans, which emphasize collaboration among water users. Eagle received approval for $75,000 and the Middle Colorado for $103,800.

A rafter on the Colorado River looking upstream toward Glenwood Springs. The Middle Colorado Watershed Council has recently received a $104,000 state grant for its $415,000 integrated water management plan for the Colorado River between Dotsero and DeBeque. It will look at recreational and environmental flows, as well as consumptive use of water by ag and cities. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

The Middle reach

The Middle Colorado stream management plan will cover the main stem of the Colorado River from Dotsero to DeBeque. It will identify water needs for non-consumptive uses, like the environment and recreation, which depend on sufficient water left in a river or stream.

The state funding will be used to evaluate ecosystem health and water quality, and to develop hydrologic flow models.

“The question is if we see any issues that are flow-related and what additional flows do we need to attain a healthier ecosystem,” said Laurie Rink, executive director of the Middle Colorado Watershed Council.

Rink will soon be moving into a project management position so she can devote more time to developing the stream management plan, and the watershed council will hire a new executive director.

In addition to $103,800 from the state, the council is seeking funding from Garfield County, Rifle, Glenwood Springs, the Colorado River District, and the Tamarisk Coalition for a project total of about $415,000.

An irrigation ditch south of Silt, and the Colorado River, moves water toward a field. The state of irrigated agriculture in Garfield County is expected to get a closer look as part of an integrated water management plan being prepared by the Middle Colorado Watershed Council. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

Ag water

A key to understanding the Middle Colorado River and its tributaries is also understanding agriculture’s use of water from the river system. But the ag community has historically been hesitant to participate in studies that focus on recreation and environmental concerns. This study aims to bring them into the fold of stream management planning.

To help get consumptive users involved, three regional conservation districts, the Bookcliff, South Side and Mount Sopris districts, have teamed up to do their own study of ag’s use of water.

“We really want to understand for our watershed both the consumptive and non-consumptive uses we have and what gaps exist,” Rink said.

At its March meeting the Colorado basin roundtable approved a $100,000 grant request for the three conservation districts to create an “agriculture water plan” for Garfield County that will inform the stream management plan being done by the Middle Colorado council.

That grant request now goes to the CWCB in May.

“The dry year is the immediate impetus, and the future of our water rights,” said Liz Chandler, program coordinator of the ag-water study. “With the looming prospect of a compact call, the agriculture community needed to get much more involved with a planning process to make sure agriculture’s voice is heard loudly and clearly.”

The ag-water study would focus on ag lands between Glenwood Springs and DeBeque, and aims to determine the current irrigated acreage and to conduct an inventory of irrigation ditches.

The study also would determine water needs for the crops and develop a plan to protect agriculture water.

A sprinkler irrigating a pasture north of New Castle. Three conservation districts have secured a $100,000 grant from the Colorado River basin roundtable to study consumptive use of water by ag, and cities, between Glenwood and DeBeque. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

“100 percent public”

In 2016, the Eagle County Conservation District completed a similar irrigation asset inventory, the results of which officials said should remain private, although the study was paid for with public funds.

But unlike that study, Chandler said the results of the Garfield County study will be “100 percent public information.”

“The end goal of our project is very different from Eagle,” Chandler said. “They wanted to get shovel-ready projects for their diverters. We want to create an integrated water plan. And we have so much more agriculture down here than Eagle does.”

The dam in the Eagle River headwaters that forms Homestake Reservoir, which diverts water to the Front Range. The Eagle River Watershed Council was granted $75,000 from the CWCB last month toward an integrated water management plan for the Eagle River basin, which faces more transmountain diversions. Photo credit Brent Gardner-Smith

Eagle River Watershed

A few miles upstream, the Eagle River Watershed Council is developing its own stream-management plan.

Its plan aims to develop water management recommendations based on three factors the watershed will face in the coming years: increased municipal demand for water that comes from population growth, climate change, and still-to-be-developed projects related to the “Eagle River MOU” project, which could include new or expanded reservoirs and transmountain diversions to the Front Range.

“Collaboration is absolutely critical to this plan,” said Holly Loff, executive director of the Eagle River Watershed Council. “In creating the scope of work, we reached out to all the people we thought should be participating as a stakeholder and clumped them together in six different groups: local government, agriculture, recreation, conservation, federal and state agencies, East Slope water interests and West Slope water interests.”

Loff said she expects the entire stream-management planning process will take three years to complete.

In addition to the $75,000 from the state, the Eagle River Watershed Council also expects to receive money and in-kind donations from Vail Resorts, Homestake Water Project Partners (Aurora and Colorado Springs), the towns of Avon, Gypsum, Vail and Minturn, Eagle Park Reservoir Company, Climax Mine, Eagle County, and the Colorado River District for a combined total project cost of nearly $390,000.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating on coverage of rivers and water with the Vail Daily, the Summit Daily, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, and The Aspen Times. The Times and the Post Independent published this story on Monday, April 9, 2018.

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

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

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

Crystal River Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Aspen Journalism (Sarah Tory):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We need to be flexible,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wary of bureaucracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confusing signs from county

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The whole ordeal has left Fales feeling frustrated and confused.

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

In search of a new arrangement

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

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

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

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

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

The Colorado River District’s take on Aspen’s conditional storage rights — @AspenJournalism

This map from 1984 is one of the few ever published that puts the Maroon and Castle creek reservoirs into the context of the city’s overall water system.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

Given the ongoing discussion in Aspen about the city’s conditional water storage rights tied to two reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks, we thought it would be informative to interview Chris Treese, the external affairs manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which works to protect Western Slope water supplies.

Treese oversees the River District’s legislative and regulatory governmental relations in Denver and Washington, D.C. Treese, who has a master’s degree in economics, describes his current job responsibilities “as everything you don’t want lawyers and engineers doing,” but he still spends much of his time discussing the finer points of existing and proposed water law.

The city of Aspen filed two due diligence applications on Oct. 31 in Division 5 Water Court in Glenwood Springs, seeking to extend the conditional storage rights for Castle and Maroon creek reservoirs until 2022. The city originally filed for the rights in 1965. Ten opposers have filed statements of opposition in the two resulting diligence cases, and the next status conference among the parties is set for August 10, 2017.

We spoke with Treese on April 25 in the River District’s conference room in Glenwood Springs.

The resulting transcript has been edited for clarity.

BGS: Chris, thanks for doing this. It seems like the River District is well-positioned to shed some light on conditional water storage rights. The River District both holds conditional water rights and it also has walked away from conditional water rights, including on the Crystal River in 2013 which were part of the West Divide Project. And the River District is not involved in either of the two water court cases now underway in response to Aspen’s due diligence filings for the two reservoirs.

CT: Correct.

BGS: People have drawn parallels with the Crystal River rights that the River District abandoned, which were tied in part to two large dams, and the option, if you will, for Aspen to do the same. What’s similar and what’s different about the River District’s former rights on the Crystal and Aspen’s conditional storage rights on Castle and Maroon creeks?

CT: One of the similarities is they are both conditional water rights and simply by virtue of being conditional, they are what a conditional water right is, a placeholder in the priority system. But frankly, the differences leap to mind.

One difference is the ownership, as Aspen is a municipality, and municipalities have a different standard for diligence. The West Divide Project did not have a municipal purpose. It was originally, and remains, part of a federal project. And it was an out-of-basin diversion with its own impacts and concerns. I think those differences are significant.

The advantage, if you will, of having a municipal right, is you benefit from what’s known as the great and growing cities doctrine. In contrast to an agricultural or an industrial right with some fixed parameters around acreage or location and purpose of use, the courts have recognized that municipalities grow. And the responsibility of a municipal water provider is to provide water for present as well as the future.

As such municipalities have enjoyed almost unfettered ability to hold on to water rights and to perfect their conditional rights as part of their portfolio, either because they are growing or because they may grow. So the great and growing cities doctrine has provided an essentially unconstrained ability for municipalities to hold large quantities of water rights.

BGS: Wasn’t that latitude more closely defined by the two recent Supreme Court decisions known as the Pagosa decisions?

CT: Yes. So now you can’t say you will need the water in 100 years, but you can project need out 50 years. The Supreme Court found that 50 years is a reasonable planning horizon, and it recognizes that water projects take a long time to develop and water rights can be evermore critical during a period like 50 years. It also said that there has to be some common sense, some historical reality, to the projections over that 50-year period.

BGS: You mean you can’t just say Aspen’s population is going to from 7,000 to, say, 100,000 people, because, maybe it could.

CT: The applicant in the Pagosa cases – Pagosa Water and Sanitation District – were projecting 8% annual compounded growth for 100 years, and that was seen as overly aggressive by the court.

BGS: So there is a great and growing cities doctrine, which Aspen presumably can benefit from, but there’s also now some limitations placed on it from the Pagosa cases, primarily concerning reasonable growth projections.

CT: Right.

BGS: It strikes me that one of the similarities is the absurdist factor in both the Crystal River and the Maroon Creek situations. The dam forming Osgood Reservoir on the Crystal River would have flooded the town of Redstone, and Maroon Creek Reservoir requires a 155-foot-tall dam within view of the Maroon Bells. How should someone consider the relative impossibility of building such projects?

CT: One of the challenges to conditional water rights is that you have to prove diligence on the conditional right as filed. In the case of the Crystal it was a conditional water right for a reservoir that would have flooded a large part of the town of Redstone, if built exactly where and to the size as filed.

But the fact is that a water right, conditional or otherwise, can be changed, can be modified. It still would need to meet some of its basic purposes, but you could go into the water court and say, “There’s now a town of Redstone there and before there wasn’t a town of Redstone. And now the highway is there” and seek changes.

In fact, when the River District and its West Divide District partners looked at the Crystal conditional rights, we looked at how those conditional rights could be useful to the Crystal River valley, in contrast to their originally decreed purpose of transferring water out of the Crystal basin. But we knew we would still have to file diligence on the project as originally decreed.

BGS: So how flexible, how portable, are conditional water rights and their priority dates? There’s been ideas floated with the Castle and Maroon rights – that a smaller reservoir could be built, that they could be transferred to an underground storage facility on the city golf course, etc.

CT: What you can’t do is come in to a diligence filing and say, “We’ve talked about this.” That’s not diligence. You would have had to do more than talk about it, you would have had to at least study it.

BGS: Have studied moving it, for example?

CT: Yes, having studied moving it or using it for a different purpose at a different location. But it’s always up to the water court to find what’s adequate diligence, and they can look back at the original project and say, ” I think you’re talking about a new and different project. You need to file for a new water right.” That’s a risk.

BGS: Is there a threshold for what constitutes a new project?

CT: No.

BGS: Can we explore the standards of diligence? It seems there is a difference in what the water court might consider as diligence and what the average person might understand as diligence.

CT: There is a definition of diligence. It’s broad, and fairly non-specific in the legislation.

BGS: Is the diligence standard excused because you’re a municipality? Or does it still apply?

CT: It absolutely still applies. You must demonstrate to the satisfaction of the court that you are moving diligently toward development of the conditional water rights.

BGS: In the last clause of the city’s diligence application for the Maroon Creek Reservoir, it says, “applicant city of Aspen having demonstrated that it has steadily applied effort to complete the appropriation of the Maroon Creek reservoir conditional water right in a reasonably expedient and efficient matter under all the facts and circumstances … ” should be allowed to hang on to the rights for another six years.

So if someone has “steadily applied effort” to complete the appropriation of a conditional storage water right, does that means they’ve steadily applied effort towards storing the water in question?

CT: Yes.

BGS: Which also means they’re steadily applying effort toward building the structures, or dams, that would actually store the water in question?

CT: Well, the courts recognize that developing a reservoir is not as simple as getting a bunch of spray-painted shovels and having a ground-breaking ceremony. There are a lot of studies, and permits, and financing, and there’s a lot that goes into the early conditional period when planning for a reservoir.

BGS: But “steadily” applying effort means you’re moving towards actually storing the water some day, right?

CT: Yes.

BGS: It’s doesn’t mean you’re just hanging on to the water right for the sake of hanging on to the water right?

CT: Colorado water law prohibits speculation.

BGS: To be clear, if you’ve steadily applied effort to “complete the appropriation” of the conditional water right, then you’re moving towards storing the water. And if you are moving toward storing water, you need to be moving toward building a structure, a dam.

CT: Yes, right.

BGS: That’s what “complete the appropriation” ultimately means, right?

CT: Yes it does. Storage is clearly the end game, but diligence doesn’t specifically mean you’ve applied for a permit, or that you’ve hired bond counsel. There are a lot of early steps that may qualify as diligence.

BGS: Aspen, for example, does not claim it has been studying the reservoirs themselves, but instead it says that work on any part of integrated water management system counts as work on the whole system. So something like repairing pipes in downtown Aspen can count as steadily applying effort toward building the dams and reservoirs?

CT: Every water system is an integrated system in one form or another.

BGS: So what’s a citizen to make of that? In Aspen’s case, there appears to be little, if any, actual diligence on aspects of the projects that commonly comprise a feasibility study, such as water supply and demand studies, geological studies, construction analysis, permitting review, etc.

CT: I don’t know that.

BGS: Well, I’ve asked for such studies, and none have been forthcoming. What the city has told the court is that the reservoirs are part of their integrated water management system, they’ve been working on other parts of the system first, and work on one part of the system is work on all parts of the system.

That strikes me as a bit of a loophole, or at least a low bar. But how bulletproof of a legal argument is the integrated water management argument? Is that all the state requires? If you develop a reuse system at a wastewater plant, say, you can legitimately say you’ve also made progress on building two reservoirs?

CT: Nothing’s bulletproof, it’s up to the water court. And I’ll keep saying that. It’s to the satisfaction of the judge in water court. Or, actually, to the water referee and then, if necessary, the water court judge.

I can tell you the history of the integrated water system provision. The oil shale sector was the primary proponent for the amendment to that section of the law. And they said if they were working on other aspects of a system, such as a pump station and a pipeline, then those were physical manifestations of diligence toward developing their overall system.

If say, a pump station was for 20 cubic feet per second, but their conditional right allowed for 100 cfs, they didn’t wish to see the larger amount challenged, as they were simply working in a steady and progressive manner toward eventual development of the entire system and perfection of the conditional right.

BGS: So does a judge have to decide, in a claim of being in an integrated water management system, whether there’s actual progress being made in that claim?

CT: Yes. I think the court would ask, is there a reasonable nexus to the diligence application for the water right in question? Is one action leading to another? The other part of steady progress is that it cannot just be in the last week before you filed. You do have to show you were engaged in steady application of diligence efforts.

BGS: So even though it’s within the confines of an integrated water management system, there still has to be a nexus to the ultimate development of completing the appropriation.

CT: Yes.

BGS: So can Aspen claim it worked on one part of our system, even though it bares little relationship to the actual potential reservoirs, and still claim that as steady effort?

CT: That’s up to the water judge.

BGS: There is no clear standard?

CT: Well, in the diligence applications that I’m familiar with, you include all of the efforts that you feel are relevant. For example, when the River District files for diligence on conditional water rights, we often include details of our work on the recovery program for endangered fish, because it’s critical to the way the river system works today. It may not have a geographic nexus to the conditional filing in question, but it has a hydrologic nexus. And so we hope the water court recognizes our work is a necessary element to be able to ultimately develop the water right.

For example, if a city was going to build a reservoir someday they could look forward to having to go through a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) review. As such, they will need to study a range of alternative measures they could take, such as making sure they don’t have leaks, water conservation efforts, pricing, all of that.

You have to accept that water development is an enormous challenge, and you’re going to have to show that you’re using your existing supply to its maximum benefit and efficiency before seeking permits. So a water provider might include in an application for diligence the work done today on those types of activities, even though they don’t appear to be physically linked to the reservoirs. And they can count it as work toward a future reservoir, because it’s related.

BGS: Do you think the city should have been more actively studying its two potential reservoirs?

CT: You have to allow any conditional water right owner to decide what their own timing is that leads to development.

BGS: Okay, but is there any requirement for work to be done on a specific site or project basis? Even if you’re doing other stuff, do you still have to study the project at some basic level?

Because, in this case, it doesn’t appear Aspen has done much, or is doing much, investigating of the feasibility of the reservoirs themselves. And if the city thinks it might actually need the reservoirs, shouldn’t city officials be studying them?

CT: Not necessarily. You have to allow that Aspen has accepted from 1965 that these reservoirs may be necessary. And what they have asserted is that what they’re doing is working on the other elements of their integrated system that require immediate work, and in the succession of development and maintenance of their system, those are their priorities.

The fact that I filed for a reservoir, say, on Three Mile Creek, doesn’t mean that I have to keep drilling every six years to see what the soils look like on Three Mile Creek.

BGS: Yes, but should you have drilled once? No drilling, for example, has ever been done on the location of the Maroon Creek Reservoir, that I can find or that the city can produce.

CT: Eventually you will, but there are many other things required before eventual storage construction. Personally, I don’t know what the order is of when drilling or soils testing is required.

BGS: Wouldn’t you want to know what a drill test says about a key factor in a reservoir, which is where the bedrock is?

CT: Yes. You will.

BGS: Not now?

CT: Maybe not yet. This is probably not the first thing I need to know. Not everything is a study for fatal flaws, especially if you accept that they have a premise around their original filing that this is necessary and appropriate someday. That’s exactly what a conditional water right is.

BGS: It just strikes me as a profound lack of curiosity.

CT: I understand. I think you have a legitimate question as long as you’ll acknowledge that there is a whole series of studies, and hard and soft science steps, that have to be followed before you can get to application, let alone development. Then I think it’s a legitimate question.

BGS: So what’s the average person to make of the larger situation? The city can, in effect, say they are making progress but really, at least in terms of how most people might see the question, they are really not?

CT: Yes.

BGS: I understand then that someone can technically say in water court they are making progress, given the integrated system provision, but it seems to lack a certain integrity from a street corner or real-world perspective.

CT: Well, for example, for the Osgood Reservoir on the Crystal River, the River District didn’t feel we could tell the court “Rest assured, we’re not going to flood the town of Redstone” when the water right as decreed would have done so.

We were, in fact, looking at alternatives, but then it would no longer have been the West Divide project as conditionally decreed. And we would have admitted that to most anybody, except the court. Because if we weren’t going to flood the town of Redstone, by moving the storage right to a more acceptable location, it might be considered a different right by the court.

BGS: So that suggests there is an integrity gap in Aspen’s approach, because they are saying, in effect, “We don’t want to build the dam near Maroon Bells” and yet they are still pursuing the same rights that are tied to the dam.

CT: When you are filing for diligence, you’re filing to maintain the water right’s priority date. And it’s not a secret, and it’s not a lie, that the water right may in fact be developed someday in another fashion for another purpose in another location.

BGS: Well, then, how low are the state’s standards for diligence? If you simply say you’re making progress, and want to keep all your options open, does the court just say, “Okay, carry on.”

CT: Let me acknowledge that conditional water rights are typically not contested. You usually don’t have objectors in a diligence case. And until relatively recently, if a filing didn’t have an objector, including the state of Colorado or anyone else, water courts tended to say, “Nobody’s upset, so no harm, no foul. Continue. Your diligence application is approved.”

Now the bigger filings have had objectors. We’ve had objectors on the Western Slope from eastern Colorado for large filings that were senior to some of the junior aspects of their transmountain diversions. They have had a clear self-interest in attacking these conditional rights, because they would improve the seniority of their junior rights by removing the threat, if you will, of a senior conditional.

But most filings aren’t contested, and uncontested filings are generally approved by the court without much analysis. Admittedly, the court might take exception to that.

BGS: Switching gears, what is the harm in walking away from a water right?

CT: It depends. We maintained the rights on the Crystal because we thought storage in that basin could have been a significant benefit to western Colorado. And our choice to abandon those rights was not as simple as concluding we didn’t need storage there.

We were being challenged in court, and the challenge was to the entire West Divide project. And our partners in that project, the West Divide Water Conservancy District, still intended to pursue aspects of that project that are outside of the Crystal River drainage.

We didn’t want the tail – the potential dams on the Crystal – to wag the dog – the other parts of the project. So we looked at number one, the opposition and the risk to the other water rights outside of the Crystal River basin. And, two, we recognized that if, in the future we still wanted to pursue storage on the Crystal then a new junior storage right would accomplish largely the same goals as those senior rights associated with the conditional filing would have.

BGS: Okay, so the River District made a call to walk away from two large dams. But the city of Aspen seems to always pour cold water on that option by suggesting if they abandon them someone else is going to come in and claim them, and their decreed date of 1971, apparently.

CT: Impossible.

BGS: So if someone else comes in and claims a storage right on Castle and Maroon creeks, it’s going to have a new junior priority date? They can’t come in and claim a 1971 right?

CT: Correct.

BGS: And someone could always still come in and file for a new junior right, whether or not the city abandoned its rights?

CT: Yes, but it’s a very different water right if you’re behind a senior conditional right. And there is the “can and will” test. You may not be able to develop the new junior right if it’s in line behind a senior conditional right. It depends upon the hydrology and how much water is available to store during runoff.

BGS: So if by retaining a conditional senior storage right, you make it less likely that someone’s going to come in and file for a junior right, isn’t that an advantage for a senior rights holder, like Aspen, in this case? If so, that suggests there is value in just sitting, if you will, on a senior conditional right as a preemptive move against future interlopers.

CT: Aspen, or anyone else, may see a strategic value in that approach. But that’s not sufficient diligence. There were a number of people in the Crystal basin who were in favor of water development. Not in favor of flooding Redstone, but who were in favor of water development. And they saw our conditional water rights as a strategic card and said if we didn’t hang onto that water right, then someone like Denver Water could come in and file. But we never said that; we never saw that. It’s not a legitimate or feasible threat. Nor did we see it as a sufficient to present as diligence.

BGS: You mean you can’t protect your water rights unless you’re actually making progress towards completing the appropriation? You can’t just be doing it for strategic purposes?

CT: Correct. You have to be diligently moving toward development. Remember, though, that oil shale has largely maintained its water rights from the 1940s by researching oil shale development. Some would argue there’s no way that they’re moving toward development or perfection of those rights. But the courts so far largely have found that they are.

BGS: Ah, yes, it’s always the court’s call. But how unusual is it to have ten opposers, as Aspen does, in a diligence case? Doesn’t that change things?

CT: It’s certainly uncommon to have opposers in diligence cases. And it’s worth noting that while a city cannot hold onto water rights solely to suit their strategic priorities, opposers can challenge the city’s rights based on their own strategic priorities

BGS: In other words, as an opposer you don’t need to prove standing, you don’t have to show injury.

CT: Essentially right.

BGS: Another outstanding question I have is about storage. The Castle Creek Reservoir would hold 9,000 acre feet of water and the Maroon Creek Reservoir would hold about 4,500 acre feet.

And recently, Aspen City Manager Steve Barwick told the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board, and I quote, “All of this, this whole notion of how much water do we need and how much water do we need to store, and all of that, has been based upon very preliminary analysis. And now it’s time to tighten up the whole analysis and do a rational set of studies so we can have a rational discussion with the entire valley about what are we going to do here. How much storage do we need, and where do we want to put it?”

Given that, why is the city telling the state it needs 14,000 acre-feet of storage if they aren’t sure how much storage they need? How hard is it to determine how much storage a city needs? A recent raw water supply analysis from Wilson Water found the city could meet future needs without storage, even after aggressive climate change projections.

CT: I would suggest that it’s not particularly easy to look 50 years down the road and try to figure out exactly what your needs are going to be.

BGS: So, again, what should a citizen make about the duality in the situation, where the city is telling the state it’s making progress while telling citizen’s it’s the last thing they want to do?

CT: I will say I feel the city’s pain, because while they may not have any actual intent to build that size reservoir in that location, they apparently see a need and a purpose for additional storage. As we did on the Crystal. Were we going to flood the town of Redstone? Not in this day and age. We knew that. Could we admit that anywhere but the water court? Sure. But in the water court, that’s not what you’re able to do.

BGS: So does that speak to the failing of the water court? Or to an issue of integrity?

CT: You keep suggesting that this is an issue of integrity.

BGS: Well, I keep asking.

CT: I think the city recognizes the value, the purpose, and the benefit of storage at large. Storage of some size. Storage in their water supply planning.

BGS: Storage of some size, somewhere, at some point, in some location.

CT: Yes, and that’s what a conditional water right may provide. But it’s not a failing of the court, because it doesn’t, in fact, allow for unfettered flexibility. The court would likely reject a suggestion, say, that a conditional storage right on Castle Creek might be used on Hunter Creek.

BGS: But the city is studying and positioning various potential alternatives, suggesting the rights are quite portable and flexible.

CT: The conditional water right system does allow for movement. But it would likely have to have a junior right if moved too far.

BGS: But no one knows for sure until they go through the process? There’s no standard?

CT: Well there is a standard for that. If you go too far, say if you try to exchange that right to Hunter Creek, it’s going to end up being a new junior right.

BGS: So there’s generally limited flexibility?

CT: Yes. But you never know until you go through water court.

BGS: Can we discuss why the River District has not taken a position, or really, said anything, one way or the other, about Aspen’s conditional water rights? The district is not an opposer, so it apparently doesn’t oppose them, but it hasn’t said, for example, that they think those reservoirs might be valuable for any reason.

CT: Well, we’ve never been asked.

BGS: The city has not come to you? They’ve never consulted with you?

CT: No. Aspen has not asked for help.

BGS: Or sat down and asked you about your experiences on the Crystal?

CT: No. Nor do I find that odd that they didn’t. Montrose hasn’t, and Grand Junction hasn’t. Ute Water is working on developing and permitting storage on the Grand Mesa. They haven’t asked for our help. Others have. Eagle River and Water Sanitation asked for our help in putting together multi-party agreements that years ago resulted in the Eagle River memorandum of understanding, or MOU. Now we’re working on fulfillment of the MOU to develop joint-use, mutually beneficial East Slope-West Slope water.

BGS: Do you feel there’s any harm done if the city’s water rights are abandoned, from a Western Slope water rights perspective?

CT: We have not looked at them.

BGS: With respect, why not? It seems like something the River District would do.

CT: Well, this is what individual utilities do within our 15 county district. They develop their water rights.

BGS: But Aspen suggests there are threats from a Front Range bogeyman, and I wonder if you think a bogeyman is lurking, waiting for the city to give up its rights?

CT: We don’t see this as the bargaining chip that we need to, or have been asked to, help preserve. It’s a tool in the toolbox, perhaps, but we haven’t analyzed exactly how these water rights might be used in the ongoing poker game.

BGS: I’m trying to discern the significance of the River District’s neutrality and silence about the Castle and Maroon creek reservoirs.

CT: I find our position unremarkable. There are many entities that are pursuing diligence or perfection of their water rights. We have no interest in jumping into a situation that has already divided our shared constituents. And Aspen has not asked for our help in their diligence filing, or their studies. So we have no direct dog in this fight.

BGS: So, again, is there a downside to Aspen giving up the rights, as the River District did on the Crystal?

CT: I think it may be important to ask what the opposers are seeking. Are they concerned about a dam in that particular location? If the dam were somewhere else, would they have the same concerns? Are their concerns really about growth? Is the concern that Aspen has, or may have, a vision of its future, that is more crowded than some may accept? I don’t know the answer. Is it that Aspen has said that they want to maintain the instream flow rights? Is it the idea that storage can be used for meeting an instream flow, or enhancing an environmental benefit? What are their motivations? And perhaps most importantly, what happens if they succeed?

BGS: Well, fair enough. I’ll follow-up with the opposers, and they have articulated many of their concerns for the water court referee. But that’s why I asked you what harm the River District sees if the rights are abandoned. Apparently you don’t see any, which says something about the size of the bogeyman.

CT: What does Aspen see? Are there any competing conditional rights in between that if Aspen drops out, somebody moves up the line? If there’s an intervening conditional water right on the Roaring Fork, that would be pertinent.

These water rights may be a bar, or a deterrent, to another conditional rights that couldn’t be developed if these rights were senior. So I think it’s a legitimate inquiry as to whether, say, Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams, has considered what the full implications are to not having these water rights. I don’t know the answer. I’m just saying it’s a reasonable question.

BGS: I agree it is a reasonable question. And a reasonable question to ask the River District, too.

CT: We haven’t looked at it.

BGS: Again, with respect, why not?

CT: Nobody’s asked us, nobody’s suggested it. It’s not a problem.

BGS: But isn’t that in your mission? I have to think that if the River District thought that if these rights were to go away it would harm the Western Slope, you would have said something.

CT: If we thought so yes, if we had looked at it and come to that conclusion. But you’re giving us too much credit.

BGS: I guess so.

CT: We haven’t looked at it. I think if they were pre-compact, or pre-1922, rights I guess it would be more interesting to us.

BGS: Do you think there’s a bogeyman out there as it relates to Castle and Maroon?

CT: I think there’s a much bigger bogeyman in the upper Roaring Fork. Castle and Maroon, hard to picture, but the upper Roaring Fork, easy to see. The evidence is all there.

City of Aspen to fund ‘community-based’ study of water demands and storage options

A view of the Maroon Bells from near potential damsite of the Maroon Creek Reservoir.
A view of the Maroon Bells from near potential damsite of the Maroon Creek Reservoir.

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

ASPEN – The city of Aspen is embarking on a new “community-based” planning effort to find out how much water the city may need in the future and how best to meet that demand.

The process is also to include a review of water storage options in lieu of moving forward with the potential Maroon and Castle reservoirs, for which the city holds conditional water rights.

“We know there is a lot of expertise in the community,” Margaret Medellin, the city’s utilities portfolio manager told the Aspen City Council on Tuesday during a work session. “We want Aspen to know we are listening. We want to engage.”

Local water stakeholders are expected to be interviewed in the coming weeks by consultants hired by the city from Consensus Building Institute in Cambridge, Mass.

Aspen City Manager Steve Barwick advised council members that the overall water-planning effort could cost “several hundred thousand dollars.”

While the city has already signed a number of contracts with various firms for its new planning efforts, it has not yet hired a consultant to specifically determine future water storage needs and to find out whether it might ever really need to build large dams on Castle and Maroon creeks, as it has recently again told the state it intends to do if necessary.

It’s also not clear why officials feel the need to go beyond a “water supply availability” study completed for the city in June 2016 by Wilson Water Group. That study did not identify a clear need for additional storage facilities.

That study found that “the results of this analysis indicate the City can always provide sufficient potable and raw water supplies under these modeled demand and hydrology scenarios. Existing water supply infrastructure and water rights portfolio developed and managed by the City do not appear to be limiting factors in this evaluation.”

It also said “the results of this study indicate that under historical hydrology conditions, water demands through the next 50 years can be met. However, under specific dry climate change scenarios, the City would be required to implement several tools to curtail water demands in order to fulfill the objectives of providing a reliable water supply for potable, raw, and ISF (insteam flow) purposes. All of the water supply alternatives … are either in place currently or the City is actively working towards bringing them online.”

Those “water supply alternatives” in the report include a new water reuse facility and a deep well, but not either of the two large potential reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks.

The study concludes by noting that “for the 50-year planning window, under the largest growth and driest climate scenario an average monthly ISF deficit of 3.5 cfs is possible, and could be satisfied by increased well pumping.”

After this week’s work session both David Hornbacher, the city’s director of utilities, and council member Art Daily, said that the new water planning effort would seek to find out how much water storage Aspen might actually need in the future.

“We’re going for a community-based approach and that approach includes looking at the future demands and looking at supply alternatives,” Hornbacher 
said. “What is different from the previous report is that we’re engaging a lot of the members in the community and other interested parties to have a lot of input into some of the ideas.”

Daily, who is also a senior partner at the Holland and Hart law firm in Aspen, said the question of “What do we need?” is “the first thing we’re looking at. Definitely.”

“We don’t know what the future is going to require of us, but let’s make some reasonable assumptions about what we might realistically need in the way of storage,” Daily said. “And what alternatives are there to those two reservoirs?”

“That’s just smart planning and thinking,” Daily also said. “We know that the reservoir options are there. But are there better alternatives that have less impact on critical valleys, critical landscapes, private lands and county lands? I don’t know that we’ve in the past ever really closely analyzed what those options are.”

The city has filed two applications in Division 5 water court to extend its conditional water rights tied to the potential Castle and Maroon creek reservoirs, and 10 parties have filed statements of opposition in the two cases, including Pitkin County.

The water rights date to 1965 and the city has yet to undertake a comprehensive and detailed feasibility study of either potential reservoir.

A view from where a dam would stand to form the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir.
A view from where a dam would stand to form the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir.

‘Not a very desirable location’

“That was pretty creative thinking 40 years ago,” Daily said, referring to the city’s filing for water rights on Castle and Maroon creeks, during an on-the-record interview in council chambers after Tuesday’s work session.

“We know today it is not a very desirable location to flood – Maroon Creek and that whole drainage,” Daily said. “And the lake and the mountains around it. We would hate to touch any of that. There is no question. And I don’t think anybody in the community feels differently about that.

“But I’m glad we still have those conditional rights,” Daily continued. “Let’s not give those up until we develop an alternative strategy.

“This is hard stuff. I don’t know exactly how you go about it. I’m no engineer. But I’m glad we’re embarked on the evaluation, the study. We are going to develop a lot of knowledge we don’t have today. And I’m not saying this is easy or inexpensive or anything but it’s critical to the long-term future of our community.”

One of many wetland areas that would be inundated by the potential Castle Creek Reservoir, for which the city holds conditional water rights. A new water planning effort by the city involves studying aspects of the potential reservoir.
One of many wetland areas that would be inundated by the potential Castle Creek Reservoir, for which the city holds conditional water rights. A new water planning effort by the city involves studying aspects of the potential reservoir.

Considering climate

During Tuesday’s work session, the council members were told by Ashley Perl, the director of the city’s climate-change program, that “Our lack of [water] storage makes us extremely vulnerable to a changing climate.”

After the meeting, Daily said the city still needs more information to determine how vulnerable it may actually be.

“Part of the study is, what are the realistic climate considerations for us?” Daily said. “None of us have the answers. And none of us want to be excitable or over-reactive. I just want to learn all we can.

“The information we have developed to date, it’s thin. It’s not persuasive yet. I think some of our assumptions are becoming more and more supported by what we’re learning.

“If climate change continues, as it seems to be moving, and I don’t buy Trump’s argument that there is no such thing, then we need to prepare a future where we may have less water. It’s that simple. And I think it is our job to prepare for that as best we can.

“The first thing we’re looking at is how much may we need. And making certain assumptions about the climate and what are our water resources going to look like 30, 40 years from now.

“If we don’t plan for it now, as best we can, with whatever how many years it is going to be, we won’t get it done. And we may not get it done in time. So let’s get on it.

“I think that’s what, really, the whole community is supportive of. It’s a question of exactly how you do it and what are we trying to accomplish and what do we need to know? Those are all good questions.”

A map of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir, based on the city's conditional decree.
A map of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir, based on the city’s conditional decree.

Listening to opposers

Daily also said he expected the city to listen to the parties who’ve filed statements of opposition in the Castle and Maroon creek water rights cases.

“If they’ve got anything to offer us, I want to hear that too,” Daily said. “And collaboration is critically important in something like this that has such a community impact. You know, we need all the input we can get. We need all the expertise that’s out there. And then we need to develop new expertise.

“It’s a tough process. [But] what I like is, the city – the proponents, and the opponents – they are going to collaborate because they all know that the best possible solution is if everybody’s intellect gets involved at the same time. And ultimately they may continue to oppose and never settle, but let’s find out.

“We’re going to have to work together. And these guys all want a realistic solution and they all want to know, what’s the real assessment of the potential problem?”

A map of the Castle Creek Reservoir, as currently decreed.
A map of the Castle Creek Reservoir, as currently decreed.

Hiring consultants

According to a Jan. 27 staff memo from Medellin, the city has recently entered into a contract with Sopris Engineering of Carbondale to “update surveying for Castle Creek Reservoir.”

It also notes that city staff “met with dam and reservoir expert, Terry Arnold, to review existing geological data.”

The memo does not discuss further study of or surveying the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir, which would be built in view of the Maroon Bells.

The city has also entered into a contract with Headwaters Inc. of Utah “to perform a preliminary review of risks in Aspen’s demand and supply through 2065.”

The city has also hired Deere and Ault Consultants to study the feasibility of storing water in old mines in the Aspen area.

The city staff memo said, “consultants Don Deere and Victor DeWolf met with staff and performed [an] on site investigative tour of local mines”