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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
FromAspen 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.
The Eagle River roils with spring runoff in June 2011 near Edwards, Colo. Photo/Allen Best
Roaring Fork River, Grottos, on Monday morning June 13, 2016, looking downstream, with diversions into the Twin Lakes Tunnel at over 600 cfs. While impressive at this level, the whitewater frenzy that resulted after the tunnels were closed was far more intense. Photo Brent Gardner-Smith <a href="http://aspenjournalism.org".Aspen Journalism.
Crystal River near Redstone via Wikipedia Commons
The upper Colorado River, above State Bridge. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.