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” on Jan. 26.

On Tuesday staff included several photos of the consultants walking in a dark local mine as part of their presentation to council.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News, and Coyote Gulch are collaborating on coverage of water and rivers. The Daily News published a shorter version of this story on Feb. 3, 2017.

@GlenwoodPI: Striving to head off water bankruptcy

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

Here’s a guest opinion (Eric Kuhn, Jim Light, Rick Lofaro, Louis Meyer) running in the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent:

In the Roaring Fork Valley, water is everyone’s business. Winter and summer, it fuels our economy and our fun.

The Roaring Fork, Crystal and Fryingpan rivers feed the Colorado River. Today, the Colorado River system supplies drinking water, irrigation, snowmaking, recreation and economic activity to 38 million Americans. It irrigates 4 million acres of rich farm and ranchlands and provides power to seven states. These rivers are everyone’s business.

And that system is in trouble. For 16 years, the Colorado River basin has seen dramatic drought. That, and overallocation of the river’s water, means that, since 2003, the demand for Colorado River water has consistently exceeded available supply. The few exceptional years, such as 2011, have saved the system – so far. Storage in lakes Powell and Mead has dropped to levels that threaten hydroelectric-power production and dramatic cuts in water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada by the end of 2017.

Simply put, if water in the West were a small business, we would be heading for bankruptcy.

And, yes, these challenges impact life here in the valley. Interstate agreements dictate Colorado can keep only a third of the water originating in our headwaters. Additionally, water rights owned by Denver Water and other Front Range water providers allow 30 diversions to send water from the Roaring Fork and other rivers through the Continental Divide to satisfy the Front Range thirst. Fill a glass of water in Denver and roughly half of the water started as snow on the Western Slope. In Colorado Springs it’s closer to 80 percent.

Our water future is challenged, a challenge we must address as a community, as a state and with our downstream neighbors. We must be water smart, and we have to do more with less.

That means being at the table where water decisions are being made. We need a Roaring Fork voice – and business is key to our voice. Why? Because when business talks, politicians and policymakers listen. Our Colorado River system supports a $26 billion recreation economy, with $3.8 million in local revenues from fishing on the Fryingpan alone. Elected officials and water managers from Aspen to Aurora to Anaheim need to know that.

That is why we sponsored the Business of Water summit here in the Roaring Fork Valley, gathering more than 50 business, nonprofit and community leaders to advance engagement on sustainable water practices and policies, and healthy rivers. We believe any plan to get the Colorado River out of the red must rely first on conservation, efficiencies and the full participation of the business community.

These facts are not lost on Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, who crafted our first state water plan highlighting the community and economic importance of our rivers and the need to invest in them. The Colorado Water Plan outlines projected shortfalls in water supply in the state by 2050 and how to address them, including a conservation goal of saving 130 billion gallons of water a year from municipal and industrial efficiencies (the equivalent of just 1 percent per year).

We can do this. Alpine Bank, with 36 West Slope locations, cut water use by 18 percent, while saving money. Denver Water customers use the same amount of water today as they did in 1973.

Finally, implementation of the Water Plan and safeguarding our water future will require money. Current state funding for critical water and stream restoration programs is limited by declining severance tax revenues. New funding mechanisms must be found.

Our Business of Water summit was the first step, and we will keep going — working with chambers of commerce and business leaders to host sessions on water education and engagement, linking businesses to share water-saving innovations and technologies, educating those who travel here on what a precious resource water is in the West.

If you own or operate a business and would like join us, please contact: louism@sgm-inc.com.

Eric Kuhn is general manager of the Colorado River District; Jim Light is chairman of Chaffin Light Management; Rick Lofaro is executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy; and Louis Meyer is co-founder of SGM.

Keeping water in the Crystal River

A section of the lower Crystal River in late summer 2012. Irrigators and other water users in the Crystal River valley are working toward ways to leave water in the river during moderate droughts.
A section of the lower Crystal River in late summer 2012. Irrigators and other water users in the Crystal River valley are working toward ways to leave water in the river during moderate droughts.

CARBONDALE — In an effort to leave more water in the lower Crystal River in dry years, a growing number of irrigators in the watershed are considering entering into non-diversion agreements and are reviewing ways to deliver water to their crops more efficiently.

The agreements would be a product of discussions surrounding the recently released Crystal River Management Plan, which sets a goal of adding 10 to 25 cubic feet per second of water into the river during moderate and severe drought years.

The additional water could come from paying irrigators to reduce their diversions by 5 to 18 percent, depending on conditions, and by helping irrigators improve irrigation ditches and installing sprinkler systems.

The plan also calls on the town of Carbondale to fix the leaky irrigation ditches it uses to move water from the Crystal River through town and for the town to find ways to get its customers to use less raw water in dry years.

And apparently there is progress quietly being made on the plan’s recommendations.

“We’re really hopeful about this approach and it has had a pretty good response from the folks that we’ve had the opportunity to speak about it with in the agricultural community,” said Seth Mason, the principal hydrologist at Lotic Hydrological in Carbondale, who was the primary consultant on the river management plan.

The plan also cites the potential benefits of a 3,000-acre-foot reservoir at the confluence of Yank Creek and North Thompson Creek, although it notes such a reservoir would cost $9.75 million and it’s not clear who would pay for it.

Today there are 25 water diversions on the main stem and tributaries of the Crystal River and together they can pull up to 433 cfs of water from the river system.

In really dry years, the diversions can leave a section of the lower Crystal disturbingly dry, even if the water is being used to keep fields near Carbondale refreshingly green.

Just how many ranchers and farmers in the Crystal River Valley are now actively weighing their water options is uncertain, as the process to develop the river management plan in concert with local irrigators has largely been conducted in private.

But the acknowledgement section of the Crystal River Management Plan released Thursday does list 12 irrigation ditches among the organizations that “informed and advised” the team that developed the new river management plan.

“A long list of individuals and organizations informed and advised the Project Team throughout the planning process,” the plan states, including “Crystal River water rights holders and agricultural producers, including representatives from the Sweet Jessup Canal, East Mesa Ditch, Lowline Ditch, Ella Ditch, Helms Ditch, Pioneer Ditch, Bowles and Holland Ditch, Rockford Ditch, Carbondale Ditch, Weaver and Leonhardy Ditch, Kaiser and Sievers Ditch, and Southard and Cavanaugh Ditch … ”

No names of any individual ranchers, farmers or ditch company shareholders are included in the plan, but the ditches that are acknowledged account for the majority of diversions from the lower Crystal.

Bill McKee, a rancher and irrigator on the Crystal, has been actively involved in talking with local ranchers about the river management plan and he voiced his support for the plan’s recommendations at Thursday’s public presentation at the Carbondale library meeting room.

“In all our discussions, it’s seen as a good time to strike while the iron is hot,” McKee said.

A slide from Lotic Hydrological as presented to the Colorado River District on May 23, 2016. The slide summarizes key points in the new Crystal River Management Plan.
A slide from Lotic Hydrological as presented to the Colorado River District on May 23, 2016. The slide summarizes key points in the new Crystal River Management Plan.

Drought sparked plan

The planning process for the Crystal River Management Plan started after the drought of 2012 left a section of the Crystal River between Thompson Creek and the state’s fish hatchery, just upvalley of Carbondale proper, with only 1 cubic foot per second of water flowing in it below several diversion structures. That year represented at least a one-in-20-year drought.

(On Saturday, May 28 at 10 a.m. the Crystal was flowing at 851 cfs near the fish hatchery).

“It is a fairly large river channel,” Mason said Thursday. “You can imagine that a channel that size is a pretty astounding sight when there is no water in it.”

During 2012 staffers at the Roaring Fork Conservancy and Colorado Water Trust began talking with ranchers about ways to leave more water in the river.

The Trust eventually reached short-term agreements with seven irrigators to leave water in the river in 2013, which was shaping up to be another drought year. Late-season rains negated the need for the agreements, but the work of the Trust helped provide a foundation for ongoing discussions that shaped the current plan.

The Conservancy then contracted with Mason to develop a technical study of the Crystal River and eventually brought in CDR Associates of Boulder to work with stakeholders. Public Counsel of the Rockies, an Aspen-based nonprofit, also joined the planning process and helped raise funds to pay for the plan.

The process has taken two-and-a-half years and cost over $300,000, said Rick Lofaro, the executive 
director of Roaring Fork Conservancy.

Before the plan was unveiled Thursday it was vetted by some irrigators, a number of whom are now in active discussions with the Colorado Water Trust about non-diversion agreements, according to Mason.

“There are ongoing conversations that I can’t say too much about,” said Mason, who was able to characterize the conversations both among irrigators and the town as “positive.”

A non-diversion agreement is a tool the Water Trust uses to give irrigators and other water users the option to leave water in rivers under certain conditions and terms, without going through a water court process to change an existing water right.

“Such agreements, which used to present risk to water users under Colorado water law,​ are now protected by ​[state] Sen. Gail Schwartz’s bill that passed in the 2013 legislative session, ​Senate Bill 19,” said Amy Beatie, executive director of the Water Trust.

(Please see a related story, “City considers 10-year agreement to 
leave more water in the Roaring Fork.”)

A slide from a recent presentation by Lotic Hydrological to the Colorado basin roundtable. The graphic illustrates the drying up of the Crystal in 2012 and four threshold questions posed by stakeholders during a recent river management planning process.
A slide from a recent presentation by Lotic Hydrological to the Colorado basin roundtable. The graphic illustrates the drying up of the Crystal in 2012 and four threshold questions posed by stakeholders during a recent river management planning process.

Private process

Mason helped clarify the situation for many local ranchers with a graphic that illustrates extremely low flows on the lower Crystal in late summer of 2012 in relation to various irrigation ditches.

He also developed a detailed scientific study of the Crystal River watershed and a model that could show what would happen in the river under various scenarios.

During the planning process, it became clear to Mason and other project team members that many local ranchers were not comfortable attending public meetings that included a bevy of professionals from various organizations.

“We did have other folks in the room at a couple points and that did not go the way we wanted it to,” Mason said. “We had some negative reactions to that and we’re very protective of the process. We wanted to make sure that the agricultural community knew that this process wasn’t a process run by folks who didn’t care about their livelihoods or their importance to the local community.”

The project team also learned that there were some threshold questions that needed to be answered.

One question was whether the periodic lack of water in the Crystal was really “the largest constraint on the ecological function,” as Mason put it.

By studying many different aspects of the river, including sediment flows, Mason concluded that yes, having enough water in the lower Crystal River is a key factor in its ecological health.

Another important question posed by stakeholders was, “How much water is enough to make a difference?”

In answering that question, Mason found that using the state’s instream flow right of 100 cfs in summer on the Crystal below Avalanche Creek as a planning goal was unacceptable to local ranchers.

“The agriculture community was not interested in talking about the state’s instream flow as the benchmark for ecosystem health,” Mason said.

He explained that the 100 cfs figure, which the state adopted in 1975 as the amount of water needed to protect the environment of the Crystal “to a reasonable degree,” was tied to average conditions, not drought conditions, and was therefore unlikely to be met in a really dry year.

What was acceptable to water users was working toward a “moderate,” but not “optimal,” level of flow between between Thompson Creek and the fish hatchery during one-in-five-year and one-in-ten-year droughts.

They also, notably, did not set a goal of reaching moderate flows in a one-in-20-year drought, such as 2012.

Mason concluded that during a severe one-in-10-year drought, an “optimal” flow level in the targeted stretch of river was 55 cfs, and a “moderate” flow level was 44 to 55 cfs.

During a one-in-five-year drought, he found the optimal flow level was 58 and moderate flow level ranged from 46 to 51 cfs.

To fill the expected gap between low river levels and the targeted moderate flow levels, the plan calls for 25 cfs to be left in the river from non-diversion agreements in a 1-in-10-year drought, and for 10 to 15 cfs to be left in the river in a one-in-five-year drought.

The plan states that stakeholders “indicated tolerance for moderate ecosystem risk under average to moderate drought conditions.”

A slide from Lotic Hydrological that illustrates the targeted flow rates for dealing with moderate and severe droughts on the lower Crystal River.
A slide from Lotic Hydrological that illustrates the targeted flow rates for dealing with moderate and severe droughts on the lower Crystal River.

Range of options

After developing a solid scientific foundation and a model to help answer “what if” questions, Mason then developed options for each major irrigator on the Crystal.

These ditch-by-ditch options are not included in the plan, but Mason has been working with willing irrigators to help them understand how a non-diversion agreement might work for them, especially if they are joined by other water users.

The plan also calls on the town of Carbondale to take steps to reduce its diversions from the river, along with the agricultural community.

“Carbondale does have a few big ditches that move quite a bit of water from the river,” Mason said. “That water supports all the lovely large trees that we see down here that wouldn’t be here normally.”

Those steps include lining more of the town’s irrigation ditches to prevent leaking of water and using market forces to curtail use of raw water in dry years.

The new Crystal River Management Plan could be a potential model that could be used to develop other stream management plans, as the state’s recently released Colorado Water Plans calls for such plans on 80 percent of the state’s rivers.

James Eklund, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which produced the state water plan, complimented the planning process in the Crystal River valley.

“Our quick read says that this plan is based on sound science, examined viable alternatives, and engaged many stakeholders,” Eklund said Friday when asked for comment. “Continued collaboration with water users is required in order to implement effective solutions, but the Crystal River is headed in the right direction.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News and Coyote Gulch are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Sunday, May 29, 2016.

East Mesa Ditch owners open to leaving water in Crystal River

A graphic from the Snapshot Assessment of the Roaring Fork Watershed , a report done by Seth Mason of Lotic Hydrological. The graphic shows how a section of the Crystal River below several major diversions can be nearly dried up.
A graphic from the Snapshot Assessment of the Roaring Fork Watershed , a report done by Seth Mason of Lotic Hydrological. The graphic shows how a section of the Crystal River below several major diversions can be nearly dried up.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – The East Mesa Water Co. has told the Colorado basin roundtable it could potentially leave in the Crystal River about a third of the water it now diverts in late summer if enough improvements are made to its 8.5-mile-long irrigation ditch.

Today about 30 to 40 percent of the water sent into the antiquated East Mesa Ditch is lost to evaporation and ditch leakage. But adding pipes and improving structures could reduce those water losses and allow more water to flow down the often de-watered lower Crystal River.

The East Mesa Ditch has a senior 1902 water right to divert 31.8 cubic feet per second from the Crystal, as well as a 1952 right to divert another 10 cfs. The diversion structure for the ditch is nine miles south of Carbondale, on river right.

“A 30 percent savings could mean, potentially, 10 (cubic) feet of water back into the Crystal River system,” said Richard McIntyre, the treasurer of East Mesa Water Co., during a grant application presentation to the Colorado roundtable on March 28.

The ditch company is currently seeking $60,000 from the roundtable to improve three sections of the ditch as part of a $114,000 project planned for this year.

McIntrye, representing the 12 owners in the East Mesa Water Co., also read a prepared statement to the roundtable as part of the grant presentation.

“The ditch company believes that there are avenues becoming available to us that may assist in easing some pressures on the Crystal River system and benefit the shareholders as well,” McIntrye said. “However, before we are able to intelligently assess and address the issues it is essential that we make our delivery system efficient.”

The biggest shareholders in the East Mesa Ditch include McIntrye, Paul and John Nieslanik, Tom Bailey of the Iron Rose Ranch, Hal Harvey, Tom Turnbull and Willa Doolan. Marty Nieslanik is the president of East Mesa Water Co.

“Although we have made concentrated efforts to rehabilitate the infrastructure on the ditch recently, it remains in poor to satisfactory condition,” McIntrye continued.

McIntrye said the ditch company was developing a five-year plan to “rehabilitate failing aspects of the ditch” and a 10-year plan to “pipe much, or even all” of the ditch.

Last year the Colorado roundtable gave East Mesa Water Co. $60,000 to help fund what turned out to be a $760,000 project to repair a 450-foot-long tunnel and install 1,200 feet of pipe in the ditch. East Mesa also received a $300,000 grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service for the work.

“With irrigation efficiencies made by managing shareholders, combined with an effective delivery system, we hope to be a contributor to resolving the pressing issues that we all face in maintaining substantial water flows in the Crystal River and beyond,” said McIntrye, concluding his prepared remarks.

The lands irrigated by the East Mesa Ditch are shown in purple, according to a technical report from Lotic Hydrological called Water Rights Allocation and Accounting Model Development for the Lower Crystal River.
The lands irrigated by the East Mesa Ditch are shown in purple, according to a technical report from Lotic Hydrological called Water Rights Allocation and Accounting Model Development for the Lower Crystal River.

‘The four questions’

A member of the roundtable then asked McIntyre if East Mesa was involved in the ongoing process to develop a stream management plan for the Crystal River.

“We’ve attended a lot of the meetings,” McIntrye said. “And over years of attending those meetings we keep asking the four questions, as they obviously want some of our water: one, when do you want the water; number two, how much water do you want; number three, what’s the water worth to you; and number four, who is going to pay us? And it’s been impossible to get any one of those questions really answered, but we still attend the meetings.”

McIntyre said East Mesa is forming an association of diverters on the Crystal River to gather information on its own and to possibly present an offer to the community.

There are 12 irrigation ditches on the lower Crystal River and collectively they divert about 171 cfs of water from the river each day during irrigation season, according to Ken Ransford, the secretary of the Colorado roundtable.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board holds an instream environmental flow right of 100 cfs on the Crystal, but the river often drops far below that level in late summer, at least in the section below the bigger irrigation ditches,

East Mesa is the second largest diverter on the Crystal, behind the Sweet Jessup Canal.

According to Ransford, the East Mesa ditch has diverted an average of 9,626 acre feet of water annually from 1952 to 2014. In 2014, it diverted 8,774 acre feet.

According to records gathered and maintained by the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, East Mesa irrigates 383 acres of hay fields, which Ransford notes in his minutes of the March 28 roundtable meeting works out to “25 acre feet for each of the 383 irrigated acres.” In a follow-up email, Ransford notes it typically only takes two acre feet of water to grow an acre of hay.

The East Mesa Water Co., in its grant application to the roundtable, says the ditch has a service area of 740 acres.

And it says the hay grown on that 740 acres is worth about $500,000 annually, assuming a yield of four tons per acre and a hay price of $170 a ton.

The ditch company, however, also says there is more value in how the hay fields look to tourists than in the hay itself, saying the economic value is “closely related to recreation and tourism.”

“The effect on overall commerce would be significant if one of the most scenic views in the valley, that approaching Mt. Sopris, were to be brown and dry rather than green and lush because this ditch failed,” East Mesa’s grant application states.

The proposed $114,000 ditch improvement project pitched to the Colorado roundtable last week includes replacing the measuring device at the headgate and replacing two failing sections of the ditch where it crosses Nettle and Thomas creeks. East Mesa says the improvements could save 150 acre feet of water a year.

The 12 shareholders in the ditch company plan to put up $19,000 of the $114,000 project and are hoping to get a $35,000 from a grant from the Colorado River District and $60,000 from the Colorado roundtable.

The roundtable gets its funds from the state’s Water Supply Reserve Account program. In turn, that account is funded with oil and gas severance taxes, which are down sharply this year.

The Colorado roundtable now has $353,327 in its account for 2016. On March 28 the roundtable was presented with four grant requests totaling $263,500, including the $60,000 request from East Mesa.

A next steps meeting has since been set for April 11. The roundtable is expected to vote on East Mesa’s application at its May meeting.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Aspen Daily News and Coyote Gulch on coverage of rivers and water in Colorado and the West. The Daily News published this article on Monday, April 4, 2016.

Public review for new floodplain maps for Aspen and Pitkin County

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

From Pitkin County via the Aspen Daily News:

Pitkin County and the city of Aspen will roll out preliminary floodplain maps to the public at an open house next week.

The new maps, also known as flood insurance rate maps, had not been updated since 1987. The latest effort was the result of an extensive, multiyear study of the Roaring Fork watershed, and surrounding creeks and drainages, according to a Pitkin County press release.

“Floodplains change over time, and with that the risk of flooding can change for people who own property in floodplains,” said Lance Clarke, the county’s assistant director of community development.

The unveiling of the maps is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 29, from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Plaza 1 meeting room, 530 East Main St. in Aspen.

At the public event, participants will be able to see their properties online using GIS technology with a floodplain map overlay. Property owners will have the opportunity to review the maps with advice and counseling by FEMA, Colorado Water Conservancy officials and flood insurance experts.

The new maps are preliminary, and FEMA has not yet adopted them. Officials want local residents and business owners to review the drafts to identify any concerns or questions.

Experts will be available to explain what should be done if properties are located in a floodplain and what property owners can do to protect their home or business from the consequences of a flood.

“This is a rare opportunity for local property owners to meet one-on-one with FEMA officials and insurance experts to find out how these new maps may affect their property,” Clarke said.

In 2009, officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommended the new study to the city and county. FEMA contributed 75 percent of the $517,220 price tag. The remainder of the cost was funded by grants from Pitkin County Healthy Rivers, the city of Aspen, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and an in-kind contribution from the Pitkin County GIS Department.

The public can access the preliminary maps on FEMA’s website: https://msc.fema.gov/portal.

Watching the mouth of the Roaring Fork River — Aspen Journalism

railroadbridgeoverroaringforkrivermay2015viaaspenjournalismjeremywallaceaspentimes

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

As my raft floated under the railroad bridge at the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers last week, I was wondering just how much water would flow out of the Fork and into the Colorado this year.

Certainly less than average, given that the snowpack peaked in March and began melting off, I mused, taking a stroke to catch the big eddy that forms just shy of the mighty Colorado, where the Fork comes in across from Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs after draining 1,543 square miles of land.

Perhaps the wet and cold weather of late April and much of May will continue to forestall a sudden flash of melting snow, so what snow we still have in the high country will come off in a nice steady fashion.

But spinning around the eddy, I knew how easy it was, as a boater, to be wrong about water and weather. It is also, as it turns out, a tricky time of year for professional hydrologists to predict run-off, as data from low-elevation snow-measuring sites tapers off and daily weather conditions can play a big role in shaping how much water flows, and when it does.

In mid-March, which felt like summer already, a trip on the Green River starting April 12 seemed like a good bet this year to enjoy some warm weather. But a big storm swept in that week and blasted the river with freezing rain.

The same storm laid down 11 inches of snow on Aspen Mountain by Friday, April 17, making for a memorable closing weekend for some.

After warming up from that trip, I ventured optimistically out again during the first full week of May, this time on the Colorado River west of Loma. And I was soon engulfed in the downpours of May 5 and 6 that lead to river levels across the region jumping up.

Between May 5 and May 7, for example, the flow in the lower Fork doubled from a 1,000 cubic feet per second to over 2,000 cfs.

So when I went out on May 13 for my first trip of the season down the Roaring Fork from Carbondale to Glenwood, I wasn’t surprised that it started raining. It’s just been that kind of season so far — in fact, through May 19, total precipitation in the Roaring Fork River watershed was 204 percent, or double the normal amount of precipitation. according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

But the Fork was flowing that day at 1,110 cubic feet per second, which was enough water to have a perfectly nice float, especially as I did see some sun (and some red-wing blackbirds).

But will the river get much bigger this year, I wondered as I rowed toward Glenwood.

redcanyonfromroaringforkmay132015apenjournalimsjeremywallaceaspentimes

Below average flows

The Colorado River Basin Forecast Center in Salt Lake City forecast on May 19 that the Roaring Fork will most likely peak this year in mid- to late June at 4,300 cfs, as measured at Veltus Park, just above the Fork’s confluence with the Colorado.

That’s 73 percent of the Fork’s average annual peak of 5,920 cfs, which typically occurs between May 29 and June 23.

While this year’s likely peak flow of 4,300 cfs is certainly better than the lowest peak flow on record — 1,870 cfs on June 3, 2012 — it’s also way below the historic peak of 11,800 cfs on July 13 in 1995.

The forecast peak flow has increased given the cool and wet weather in May. So, if April showers bring May flowers, May showers are likely to bring better boating on the Fork in June.

“I would say it is very likely (the Roaring Fork) will see a below average peak flow this year,” said Brenda Alcorn, a senior hydrologist with the Forecast Center.

However, she added that what snowpack we do have “is in better shape than it was in 2002 and 2012, so I do not expect a record low peak.”

But just how much water comes, and when, is now weather dependent.

“Spring temperatures and precipitation play a significant role in the pattern of snowmelt runoff and consequently the magnitude of peak flows,” Alcorn said. “An extended period of much above normal temperatures or heavy rainfall during the melt period can cause higher than expected peaks, while cool weather can cause lower than expected peaks.”

On Friday, May 15, Julie Malingowsky, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said the period to at least May 25 looked cooler and wetter than normal, and longer-range forecasts indicate that the next several months could be wetter than normal.

(Also, see the Intermountain West Climate Dashboard of indicators at Western Water Assessment)

But probably not wet enough make up for the skinny snowpack.

“Even though it has been a wet month, we are still drier than normal,” Malingowsky said.

confulenceroaringforkcrystalriver05132015aspenjournalismjeremywallaceaspentime

Below average supply

Another view of this year’s water picture is available from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s “Colorado Water Supply Outlook Report,” which was published on May 1.

The report shows that the “most likely” amount of water to reach the bottom of the Roaring Fork between April and the end of July is 450,000 acre-feet, according to Brian Domonkos, a data collection officer with NRCS.

That’s below the 30-year average of 690,000 acre-feet flowing down the Fork for the period from April to August. (The Roaring Fork delivers, on average, 871,100 acre-feet of water to the Colorado River over a full year, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources).

The water-supply report said that current conditions point to “a below normal streamflow forecast picture for much of the state heading into spring and summer of 2015.”

However, Gus Goodbody, a forecast hydrologist with NRCS, said the amount of water expected to flow out of the Roaring Fork is likely to increase from the May 1 forecast by five to 10 percent, given May’s weather so far.

“It’s going to go up,” he said.

Another indicator of potential run-off is the measure of the “snow water equivalent” at SNOTEL measuring sites in the Roaring Fork basin.

The average from the eight SNOTEL sites in the Roaring Fork basin was 108 percent on May 19, but that’s without complete data from four of the sites.

That number — 108 percent — has been climbing steadily since May 1, but it’s not an indicator that the snowpack has been growing. What it does show is that the cool and wet weather has slowed the run-off and moved the data closer to the historic average — which, again, bodes well for June boating. But in addition to the snowpack and the weather, there are other factors that dictate the flows in the Fork at Glenwood Springs.

lookingupthecoloradoriverconfluenceroaringforkaspenjournalismjeremywallaceaspentimes

Off the top

An average of 40,600 acre-feet of water a year is collected from the upper Roaring Fork River basin and sent through a tunnel under Independence Pass and into Twin Lakes Reservoir, destined for Aurora, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Pueblo West.

The Twin Lakes diversion takes 40 percent of the water out of the upper Roaring Fork basin above Aspen, according to the 2012 Roaring Fork Watershed Plan.

Another 61,500 acre-feet is collected on average each year from tributaries of the upper Fryingpan River and sent east through the Bousted and Busk tunnels. That accounts for 37 percent of the water in the upper Fryingpan headwaters.

As such, there are many days when there are rivers heading both east and west out of the Roaring Fork River watershed, and the ones heading east can often be bigger.

For example, on May 13, while I was floating on 1,110 cfs at the bottom of the Fork, there was 136 cfs of water running under the Continental Divide in the Twin Lakes — Independence Pass Tunnel, which can, and does, divert up to 625 cfs later in the runoff season.

And the Bousted Tunnel, which transports the water collected from the headwaters of the Fryingpan River, as well as Hunter and Midway creeks in the Roaring Fork basin, was diverting 101 cfs on May 13.

Meanwhile, the gauge on Stillwater Drive on May 14 showed the main stem of the Fork was flowing, just east of Aspen, at 111 cfs.

Then there is the water diverted out of the rivers in the basin and into one of the many irrigation ditches along the Fork, the Crystal and other streams in the basin.

Ken Ransford, a member of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, estimates that the 12 biggest irrigation ditches on the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers divert about 115,000 acre-feet of water a year.

Most of that water eventually finds its way back to the rivers, but the diversions also leave many stream reaches lower than they otherwise would be, and few tributaries are left untouched.

According to the Roaring Fork Watershed Plan, “flow-altered stream reaches include the Roaring Fork, Fryingpan, and Crystal rivers, as well as Hunter, Lincoln, Maroon, Castle, West Willow, Woody, Snowmass, Capitol, Collins, Sopris, Nettie, Thompson, Cattle, Fourmile, and Threemile creeks.”

Another factor shaping the flows in the lower Fork are decisions made by regional water managers, including irrigators near Grand Junction and municipal water providers in Denver, that can shape releases from reservoirs such as Green Mountain and Ruedi.

Who needs water, and when, can also dictate the size of that eddy at the bottom of the Fork. So for now, I’m just glad it’s big enough to float a boat.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times, the Aspen Times Weekly, and The Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of rivers and water. The Aspen Times Weekly published this story on Thursday, May 21, 2015.

More Roaring Fork River watershed coverage here.

“There are a lot of good tools out there that could create informal and formal benefits” — Amy Beatie

Screen shot from Peter McBride's video arguing that the Crystal River should be left as is
Screen shot from Peter McBride’s video arguing that the Crystal River should be left as is

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith) via The Aspen Times:

The Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board unanimously agreed Thursday to approve a $45,000 grant to help the East Mesa Water Co. repair an irrigation ditch on the Crystal River as long as the ditch company agrees to talk with the county about ways to leave more water in the river.

The grant comes with the condition “that the shareholders of the East Mesa Ditch agree to engage with the river board and consider working with Pitkin County on matters of irrigation efficiency and measures to protect instream flows and the free-flowing nature of the Crystal River.”

The condition was left broad, as there are no routine ways in Colorado to improve an irrigation system and then leave any saved water in a river despite the fact that 86 percent of the water diverted from Colorado’s rivers is for agriculture.

On Friday, Dennis Davidson, a consultant helping East Mesa secure funding for the ditch-repair project, said the 12 shareholders in the ditch company would likely accept the county’s condition.

“I don’t see why they wouldn’t,” said Davidson, who had not conferred with the shareholders yet. “There is no reason for them not to talk with them.”

After presenting to the river board Nov. 20, Marty Nieslanik, president of East Mesa Water Co., said, “I think all of us we want to see the river healthy, too. I mean, it’s not like we’re trying to hog all the water; it just takes water to do what we do.

“We need the water to maintain our lifestyle, but if there is any way that we can make that water more efficient, then maybe there is some way that we can leave some of it the river.”

The East Mesa Ditch repair project includes shoring up a collapsing tunnel and installing 1,200 feet of new pipe. The project is still being engineered, and the projected cost is now $700,000.

East Mesa has raised $410,000 for the project from state and federal sources so far. That does not include the river board’s $45,000 grant, which still must be approved by the Pitkin County commissioners, who are set to review it Jan. 6.

The repairs to the ditch are not expected to result in more water for the river, but other improvements, such as piping or lining more sections, installing high-tech control gates and using sprinklers in fields, could likely save water.

The 8.5-mile-long ditch irrigates 740 acres of land southeast of Carbondale. Of the 740 acres, 180 acres are under a conservation easement either through Pitkin County Open Space and Trails or the Aspen Valley Land Trust.

East Mesa is the second-largest diversion on the Crystal River, which in summer can run well under the environmental minimum set by the state of 100 cubic feet per second.

The ditch has two water rights that allow it divert as much as 42 cfs of water. One right is from 1904 and is for 32 cfs. The second is from 1952 and is for 10 cfs.

Pitkin County’s river board, created in 2008, is funded with a 0.1 percent sales tax, which is expected to generate $850,000 in 2015. The board has budgeted $150,000 for grants next year.

The board is charged with “improving water quality and quantity” in the Roaring Fork River watershed and “working to secure, create and augment minimum stream flows” in conjunction with nonprofits and government agencies. The board also can improve and construct “capital facilities.”

While the vote to award East Mesa the grant was unanimous, some board members questioned whether fixing an irrigation ditch was consistent with the board’s mission.

“Our job isn’t supporting ag and open space,” said Andre Wille, the chairman of the board. “Agriculture and healthy rivers are two different things.”

But board member Bill Jochems supported the grant, saying it could increase support among irrigators for federal protection of the upper Crystal River.

And board member Dave Nixa suggested that East Mesa talk to the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust, which works with water-rights owners to find ways to leave water in rivers.

“There are a lot of good tools out there that could create informal and formal benefits,” said Amy Beatie, the executive director of the water trust, who was pleased Friday with the river board’s decision.

Rick Lofaro, the executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, is working with irrigators in the Crystal River Valley as part of developing a management plan for the river.

“The goodwill and the momentum this could create could really be precedent-setting,” Lofaro told the river board Thursday.

Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

Meanwhile, he East Mesa Water Company is asking Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board for dough to pipe the ditch, according to this article from Brent Gardner-Smith writing for Aspen Journalism:

The East Mesa Water Company is asking Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board for a $45,000 grant to help cover the $550,000 cost of installing 1,450 feet of new pipe in the 8.5-mile-long East Mesa Ditch.

The irrigation ditch can divert up to 42 cubic feet per second of water out of the Crystal River 9 miles above Carbondale, but it typically diverts about 32 cfs.

The proposed East Mesa Ditch project entails installing 48-inch plastic pipe on a failing section of the irrigation ditch that includes an 80-year-old, 650-foot-long tunnel and a hillside that often sheds rock and mud down toward the ditch.

The work will keep the ditch functioning but won’t result in more water being left in the Crystal River, which is a goal of the county river board.

“As a board, with our mission, we’d like to keep as much water in the river as we can,” Andre Wille, the chair of the county river board, said Nov. 20 during the review of the East Mesa application. “If we can improve the efficiency of that ditch, and leave the rest in the river, that would be in our interest.”

Dennis Davidson, a consultant for East Mesa Water Co. with more than 40 years experience at the Natural Resource Conservation Service, said there would be “minimal” water added to the river from the repair project, as it only included adding 1,450 feet of pipe to a 8.5-mile-long ditch.

But, he noted, if the ditch were fully piped, which he said would cost $20 million, there would be water savings.

“If we lined the East Mesa Ditch from beginning to end, we would probably get by diverting 50 percent of the water that we divert,” Davidson told the river board.

The ditch “loses as much as 35 percent of the water in the ditch due to seepage through the course and rocky soil,” according to a feasibility study from East Mesa submitted to the Colorado Water Conservation Board in a funding application.

The East Mesa Ditch typically runs the first two weeks of May until about mid-October. It sends water to 740 acres of land between 1 and 5 miles south of Carbondale, most if it with big views of Mount Sopris and some of it protected with conservation easements.

The water is used for cattle ranching, and growing nursery trees, forage crops and hay.

On paper, the East Mesa Ditch is the second biggest diversion on the lower Crystal.

The largest diversion on the river is the Sweet Jessup Canal, which can divert 75 cfs. It is located about a mile-and-a-half upstream from the East Mesa diversion structure.

When the Sweet Jessup, the East Mesa and the Lowline Ditch, which is just downstream of East Mesa, are all diverting, water levels in the Crystal River often drop well below the environmental minimum of 100 cfs set by the state.

According to a study done by consultant Seth Mason in 2012, the river below the diversions dropped to 4 cfs Sept. 4 and to 1 cfs Sept. 22, 2012.

“Near complete dewatering of the stream channel was observed through much of September at Thomas Road and near the Garfield/Pitkin County line,” Mason, with Lotic Hydrological, LLC, said in his 2012 report.

Need to divert all the water?

The East Mesa Ditch has a senior water right for 32 cfs that dates back to 1894 and a second water right for 10 cfs from 1942.

Davidson told the river board that in his experience in the Roaring Fork River Valley, 20 cfs is usually enough to irrigate 800 acres of land.

As the East Mesa Ditch typically diverts 32 cfs to irrigate 740 acres, does that mean there is as much as 12 cfs of water that could potentially be left in the river and still allow for adequate irrigation?

No, according to Marty Nieslanik, president of the East Mesa Water Co.

He said the full 32 cfs of water needs to be diverted today to act as “push water” to convey water to the end of the long irrigation ditch.

“We figure we lose two feet of water from our head gate to the last person who takes it out,” Nieslanik said.

He also said that some of the diverted water also returns to the river.

“After it dumps out at our ranch, it comes down the draw and drops in right below the fish hatchery,” Nieslanik said. “So that’s why you see the big difference as you drive down the Crystal, it’s almost dry and then all of a sudden there is a lot of water there.”

Nieslanik told the river board that the company was “trying to make our water go further.”

“If we can get that whole mesa irrigated with 25 feet of water, we may let six or eight of water go by to help the river maintain its levels,” he said.

“It would be good to understand the benefits,” river board member Lisa Tasker told Nieslanik about the project. “We are very interested in the natural hydrograph and trying to mimic that as best as possible.

“Speaking for myself, I would love to leave a little bit of water coming down the river to help the river out, if we could somehow make that happen,” Neislanik said after the meeting. “We need the water to maintain our lifestyle, but if there is any way that we can make that water more efficient, then maybe there is some way that we can leave some of it the river.”

Money for water

The East Mesa Water Company is on track to raise $410,000 toward its ditch-repair project, whether or not the county’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board agrees to a grant.

The company will receive a $300,000 grant from the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service when the work is complete.

It has secured a $60,000 grant from the Colorado River Basin Roundtable and a $25,000 grant from the Colorado River District. And it has requested a $25,000 grant from the Colorado Soil Conservation Board.

The company also has obtained a $375,000 loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is to serve as a bridge loan until the project is complete and grant funds come in, Davidson said.

There are 12 shareholders in the East Mesa Water Co., and 1,003 shares have been issued to them, based on the size of their land holdings. Owners are assessed an annual fee of $15 a share, which brings in $15,000 a year. The company has no debt.

“The East Mesa Water Co. operates on assessments of the water users,” according to the feasibility study given to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “For many years, the ditch company has kept the assessments as low as possible as many of the users are just getting by.”

The largest shareholders in the company include Paul Nieslanik, who owns 200 shares, John Nieslanik, who owns 185 shares, Tom Bailey, whose Iron Rose Ranch owns 185 shares and Richard McIntrye, who owns 168 shares.

Marty Nieslanik told the county the hay grown with water from the East Mesa ditch was worth about $500,000 a year under a calculation of four tons of hay per acre, on 740 acres, at $170 per ton.

At the end of Nieslanik’s presentation, the members of the Healthy Rivers and Stream Board agreed to meet in December to continue to review East Mesa’s application.

The Healthy Rivers and Streams Board will next consider the East Mesa application Thursday at 4 p.m. in Pitkin County’s Plaza 1 meeting room.

Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

More Crystal River coverage here.

River district, county concerned over Crystal River designation — The Aspen Times

Crystal River near Redstone via Wikipedia Commons
Crystal River near Redstone via Wikipedia Commons

From The Aspen Times (John Stroud):

Colorado River District officials worry that possible Wild and Scenic designation for part of the Crystal River could sell western Colorado water interests short when it comes to the need for future storage projects, at least one River District board member advised Garfield County commissioners this week.

“We continue to see the Crystal River as an important water supply for western Colorado,” Dave Merritt, Garfield County’s representative on the 15-member River District board, said during a meeting earlier this week to discuss the proposal.

The push to give Wild and Scenic status to a 39-mile stretch of the Crystal south of Carbondale, from it headwaters in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness to the Sweet-Jessup Ditch headgate just below Avalanche Creek, “attempts to make a determination that the way the river is now is the way should be forever, and that’s a long time,” Merritt said.

“We believe that we need to be able to provide for those who come behind us the same opportunities that we’ve had, and the Crystal River is place where we can meet the needs of the future,” he said, adding there is also concern that the designation could remove local control in favor of federal protections.

County commissioners requested the meeting with River District and White River National Forest officials to get a better understanding of what Wild and Scenic designation would mean, and to offer their thoughts…

Any questions and concerns from the county, the River District or any other entity can be addressed in the eventual federal legislation that would have to go to Congress for consideration, said Redstone resident Bill Jochems.

“The Wild and Scenic Act has great flexibility to address those concerns,” Jochems said, noting that the full River District board has not voted on the proposal, nor will it or the county be asked to do so until the draft legislation is written.

“All we’re asking for is that there be no dams on the main stem of the Crystal above (Sweet-Jessup),” Jochems said. “And it’s not like we’re trying to prevent it forever.”

Small water storage projects could still be pursued downstream of the designation, or on any of the tributaries, he said…

White River National Forest staffers Rich Doak and Kay Hopkins explained that the Crystal River has been listed as eligible for Wild and Scenic status dating back to 1982, and reaffirmed in 2002.

The section of river being studied for formal designation does exhibit many of the “outstanding and remarkable” natural, cultural, historic and recreational values (ORVs) spelled out in the Wild and Scenic Act of 1968.

A key element is also that the proposed waterway be free-flowing. However, it’s possible that streams below an existing dam can be designated as Wild and Scenic, as long as the water releases are adequate to support the identified ORVs, Hopkins said.

“This is the stage of the process where all the hard questions are asked, and is the big planning part of the study,” she said.

The Garfield commissioners sought assurances that existing water rights would be maintained. Commissioner John Martin also asked that stormwater detention projects be addressed in the proposal, pointing to legal struggles in El Paso County related to the ability to build detention ponds.

“The nice thing about this process is that we can take those kinds of things into consideration,” Doak said.

The Crystal River is one of just five waterways out of 72 within the White River National Forest that meet the national Wild and Scenic standard, Hopkins added.

Others include Cross Creek on the east side of the Holy Cross Wilderness, the South Fork of the White River, and two streams nearing a formal suitability decision by Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials later this fall, Deep Creek and the portion of the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon.

Once a record of decision is made on those two waterways, a legislative “advocate” would need to be identified to carry the bill in Congress, Hopkins said.

Since the Wild and Scenic Act was adopted, only one river in Colorado, the Cache le Poudre River west of Fort Collins, has such designation.

More Crystal River coverage here.

Residents want wild, scenic designation for Crystal River — Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Some local residents think protection of the Crystal River south of Carbondale under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is the next logical step for sparing it from dams and diversions.

The effort will likely face political challenges, as was evidenced Monday by the reservations expressed about it by Dave Merritt, a board member of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. That district and the West Divide Water Conservancy District previously abandoned most water rights, including ones for large reservoirs, in the face of opposition including a legal challenge by Pitkin County.

Nevertheless, “We see the Crystal River still as an important water supply for western Colorado,” Merritt said during a Garfield County commissioners meeting.

He worries that a wild and scenic designation by Congress would permanently prevent not just further water development of the river but also other activities such as more home construction in the valley.

But Crystal Valley resident Bill Jochems said a dam would be a far more permanent action than wild and scenic designation, which occurs through an act of Congress and Congress could later undo.

“This act has great flexibility,” he said, adding that advocates have a “barebones” goal of preventing dam-building above where irrigation diversions already occur several miles south of Carbondale.

Advocates say the designation wouldn’t affect state or local land-use regulations.

In 2012, the Crystal made American Rivers’ annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers list. That was after the river district and the West Divide district had agreed to concessions that included giving up some conditional rights for two large reservoirs on the river while still envisioning smaller ones in the valley. The rights for the big reservoirs dated to 1958, and one would have required flooding the village of Redstone.

The U.S. Forest Service has found the river eligible for wild and scenic designation, based on the river’s free-flowing status, valley historical attractions such as the Redstone Castle and the former coke ovens in Redstone, the stunning beauty of the valley especially during fall-color season, and other historical, recreational and aesthetic attributes. The Forest Service now is in what Kay Hopkins of the White River National Forest said is the long process of determining whether the river is suitable for such a designation.

“It’s where all the hard questions are asked” about whether designation is best or there are some other ways to protect it, she said.

“It really is an outstanding river and what we’re doing is try to preserve it as it is today for future generations, and that’s what the act is all about,” she said.

More Crystal River coverage here and here.

@rfconservancy: Join us next Thursday Sept 4th for our annual Carbondale Bicycle Ditch Tour

The Colorado River District comes out swinging to oppose Wild and Scenic designation for the Crystal River

From Aspen Journalism via the Aspen Daily News (Brent Gardner-Smith):

The Colorado River District is the first governmental entity to throw cold water on the idea of designating 39 miles of the Crystal River as “wild and scenic.” At its July 15 meeting, three members of the river district board voiced opposition to the proposal to make the Crystal the second river in Colorado, after the Poudre River, to be designated under the Wild and Scenic River Act of 1968.

“Their main concern is that it would be an overlay of federal authority in this area that would preclude the ability to provide for water resource needs,” said Dave Merritt, who represents Garfield County on the board of the river district, a regional entity that levies taxes in 15 Western Slope counties to build water projects and influence water policy.

Chris Treese, the river district’s external affairs manager, had urged board members in a July 1 memo to “respectfully decline to support” Wild and Scenic designation on the Crystal.

“Staff believes Wild and Scenic designation would have adverse consequences for local residents,” Treese wrote. “We view proponents’ Wild and Scenic designation is (sic) a means to an end in an effort to forever foreclose water development opportunities in the Crystal River basin.”

In 2013, the river district gave up conditional water rights it held for two large dams on the Crystal after being sued in water court by Pitkin County and other groups.

Merritt made his remarks on Monday during the monthly meeting of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, where two proponents of Wild and Scenic designation on the Crystal — Bill Jochems and Dorothea Farris — had a presentation.

Over the last year-and-a-half of making such presentations, they said they had received positive feedback and direction to continue exploring Wild and Scenic designation from the towns of Carbondale and Marble, the Redstone Community Association, Gunnison County, Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams board and Pitkin County’s Crystal River Caucus.

But the Colorado River District will not be added to the list of supporters.

“That was the one audience where we had definite opposition,” Farris said on Monday.

Jochems said the three river district board members who spoke against Wild and Scenic on July 15 “expressed opposition, apparently, at the very idea of Wild and Scenic designation, without really talking about the Crystal.”

On Monday, roundtable members asked some questions concerning the potential impact on irrigators in the Crystal River, but did not take a position as a group on the proposal.

Jochems and Farris represent an informal citizen’s coalition that has come together to explore, and now actively pursue, Wild and Scenic designation for the Crystal, which would prevent a federal agency from approving, or funding, a new dam or reservoir on the river.

In late 2012, four organizations brought people together to discuss the idea: Pitkin County, the Roaring Fork Conservancy, the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA) and the nonprofit, American Rivers. The result was the naming of a three-person committee to test the regional waters and see if there was support for the idea.

Jochems serves on Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams board and is a member of CVEPA, while Farris is a former Pitkin County commissioner and a resident of the Crystal River valley. The third member on the committee is Chuck Oligby, who owns Avalanche Ranch along the Crystal and sits on the Colorado River Basin Roundtable.

“We want to move forward,” Farris told the roundtable on Monday.

Three reaches

The current proposal is to designate 39 miles of the Crystal River as Wild and Scenic, while more specifically designating three sections as either “wild,” “scenic” or “recreational.” The three designations are not literal, as all of the Crystal could be considered “scenic” by anyone who sees it, but are classifications that reflect the level of human incursion along a river.

The headwaters of both the North Fork and the South Fork of the Crystal would be designated as “wild” under the law, as they flow through primitive backcountry areas with few, if any, roads. The North Fork, for example, first rises behind the Maroon Bells in the Snowmass-Maroon Bells Wilderness. Together, about nine miles of the two upper forks would be managed as “wild” down to their confluence in Crystal City, above Marble.

The next 10 miles of the Crystal, down to Beaver Lake in Marble, would be considered “scenic,” as there is a dirt road along the river in that reach.

And the next 20 miles, between Marble and the Sweet Jessup Canal diversion structure, 10 miles above the river’s confluence with the Roaring Fork River, would be considered “recreational,” due in large part to the paved road along the river.

“What we’re seeking here is a very stripped down version of a Wild and Scenic designation,” Jochems told the roundtable on Monday. “We propose to leave land-use control entirely with Gunnison and Pitkin counties, as it is now. We don’t propose any further federal control over land use. We don’t want features that would allow any condemnation of property. All we’re concerned about is the main stem of the Crystal River and keeping it free of dams.”

Merritt of the river district, however, pointed out that national environmental groups have opposed “stripped-down” versions of Wild and Scenic in the past, as they are concerned about weakening the federal law.

Screen shot from Peter McBride's video arguing that the Crystal River should be left as is
Screen shot from Peter McBride’s video arguing that the Crystal River should be left as is

The U.S. Forest Service first found the Crystal River as “eligible” for Wild and Scenic status in the 1980s and re-affirmed that finding in 2002. Much of the land along the Crystal, from the headwaters to the Sweet Jessup head gate, is owned by the Forest Service.

The next step in the Wild and Scenic process is for a river to be determined “suitable” by the Forest Service, which requires an extensive study under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and then congressional action.

Another option is for legislation to be submitted directly to Congress, which could then potentially approve Wild and Scenic designation after a less formal study.

Jochems said Wednesday, in an interview, that the three-member committee seeking designation has been meeting with Kay Hopkins, an outdoor recreation planner with the Forest Service, to seek guidance on draft legislation.

The draft bill, Jochems said, is then to be circulated among the towns, counties and other entities that have expressed an opinion so far, and see what details need to be worked out. If legislation can be agreed upon by local entities, a congressional sponsor would then be sought, Jochems said.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Aspen Daily News on coverage of land and water issues in Pitkin County. More at http://www.aspen
journalism.org.

Click here to view Peter McBride’s short video “Crystal Voice.” More Crystal River coverage here.

Pitkin County commissioners approve purchase of properties near Redstone for open space

Crystal River near Redstone via Wikipedia Commons
Crystal River near Redstone via Wikipedia Commons

From The Aspen Times (Michael McLaughlin):

On Wednesday, the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners unanimously approved the purchase of two Redstone River parcels that comprise approximately 21.3 acres and are contiguous to Elk Park and Redstone Park on the south as well as the Redstone Boulders Open Space on the northeast.

The two parcels up for purchase would tie all of these properties together into a seamless river corridor containing more than a mile of riverfront between Coal Creek and a well-used beach area upstream from the north Redstone Bridge…

One of the properties includes the confluence of Coal Creek with the Crystal River. The current confluence isn’t the natural area where the two waters meet but one that was put in when the state was working on Highway 133 in that area. In its natural state, Coal Creek used to run through wetlands before it met with the Crystal River downstream from the present confluence area. Coal Creek experiences frequent debris flows that feed coarse rock and wood into the creek, which in turn collect at the confluence of Coal Creek and the Crystal River. This causes pooling of water and erosion by both streams. It also causes a sediment buildup that raises the riverbed of the Crystal near Redstone, elevating flood danger…

A public hearing concerning the purchase will be held at the commissioners meeting on Nov. 20. Will said the public can rest assured that questions of access will be driven by habitat management.

More Crystal River Watershed coverage here and here.

Crystal River: River District and West Divide remain committed to meeting human and environmental water needs

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Here’s a release from the Colorado River District:

The Colorado River District yesterday joined the West Divide Water Conservancy District in approving a settlement ending litigation regarding water rights in the Crystal River. Both the River District and West Divide are pleased to avoid the costs of litigation as well as the inevitable animosity with their mutual constituents over protecting water rights for present and future use in the Crystal River valley. The water rights in question were storage and direct flow rights associated with the planned West Divide Project, which is decreed for uses in Garfield, Mesa, Gunnison, and Pitkin Counties.

Under the settlement, the West Divide Project water rights will be preserved, except for the majority of project water rights within the Crystal River basin that will be abandoned. The decision to settle and abandon the conditional Crystal River rights was largely driven by cost concerns and a desire for efficient allocation of resources, as well as localized opposition to the Crystal River basin components of the project.

The need for water remains in the Crystal River valley, both for human and environmental purposes, and the River District and West Divide remain committed to meeting that demand. The River District and West Divide still believe small, strategically located water storage is the best and most effective means of addressing needs in the critically water-short Crystal River basin. Current demands in the Crystal River basin, while relatively small, have been identified by all parties. Administration of the Crystal River (i.e., curtailment of junior rights during times of shortage) likely will occur in the foreseeable future, which may leave numerous current and future Crystal River basin residents and businesses without a legal water supply.

Garfield County’s representative to the Colorado River District, Dave Merritt, commented, “This is a sad commentary on the narrow view of water development in the area. Simply put, this will result in residents being left without water.” West Divide’s President, Sam Potter, commented “This is an unfortunate conclusion in trying to accomplish an even handed settlement. It’s very shortsighted of the objectors and some of their constituents to ignore the water needs of others in the Crystal River Valley now and in the future.”

While both Districts are satisfied with the resolution, they regret that the proposed settlement forecloses an opportunity for a win-win solution to water storage needs and late-summer environmental and recreational shortages in the Crystal basin. However, the settlement preserves the opportunity for the Districts to file new, junior water rights (both storage and direct flow rights) in the future to meet the needs of their constituents.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Pitkin County commissioners on Wednesday signed off on a legal settlement bringing to an end conceptual plans for two reservoirs in the Crystal River Valley.

The Colorado River District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District also have consented to the settlement of a state water court case. At issue has been a downsized version of the West Divide Project, which was intended for possible agricultural, oil-shale-related and other uses in Garfield, Mesa, Pitkin and Gunnison counties.

Two years ago, the river district agreed to abandon conditional water rights for a 129,000-acre-foot reservoir, which would have drowned the former coal-mining village of Redstone. Under the action, it also backed off further pursuit of a 62,000-acre-foot reservoir higher upstream on the Crystal in the area of the former Placita mining settlement, and a 14,000-acre-foot reservoir up Yank Creek in the Crystal watershed.

The river district acquired conditional water rights for those projects in 1958 during the era of big-dam-building, but the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation withdrew its support for the proposals in 1982, citing the cost and lack of adequate benefit.

After the river district’s 2011 decision, it continued to seek to hold on to conditional water rights for reservoirs of 4,000 and 5,000 acre-feet, respectively, at Placita and up Yank Creek. And it continued to face opposition from Pitkin County, residents up the Crystal River Valley, and conservation groups. The county objected to the proposed reservoirs’ locations and potential environmental impacts.

Under the new deal, the river district will abandon the Placita and Yank Creek projects. In return, Pitkin County will not oppose aspects of the West Divide Project involving potential 45,000-, 15,450- and 6,500-acre-foot reservoirs in the Divide and Mamm creek drainages of Garfield County.

Those projects are still in the conceptual stages.

Pitkin County attorney John Ely said the river district and West Divide proposed the settlement.

“It was pretty straightforward and exactly what we were looking for,” he said.

“… We didn’t have any interest in what was going on in Garfield County but what we did care about was what they were doing in our county.”

In a news release, the river district and West Divide said the settlement decision was driven partly by a desire to avoid litigation costs.

The river district long has said reservoirs up the Crystal could help maintain flows later in the year when it now can almost go dry. It predicts that curtailment of junior rights will leave many Crystal Basin residents and businesses without water in times of shortages.

“The Crystal still needs to be solved. … The problems did not go away,” river district spokesman Jim Pokrandt said Wednesday.

Garfield County’s representative to the river district, Dave Merritt, said in its release, “This is a sad commentary on the narrow view of water development in the area.”

More Crystal River coverage here and here.

Crystal River: Pitkin County settles in water court case over proposed dams in the watershed

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From the Aspen Daily News (Brent Gardner-Smith):

The agreement removes the prospect of a dam being built across the Crystal River at Placita — below McClure Pass and before the road to Marble — as well as a dam on Yank Creek, a tributary of Thompson Creek, which flows into the Crystal near Carbondale.

The agreement also removes Pitkin County’s opposition to potential new dams and reservoirs on Mamm and Divide creeks in Garfield County on land south of I-70 between New Castle and Parachute.

“The agreement basically says to the West Divide District, ‘You get out of our county and we’ll get out of the rest of your jurisdiction,’” said Pitkin County Attorney John Ely…

The West Divide board is set to meet today in Rifle to discuss the agreement, according to Samuel Potter, the chairman of the West Divide Conservancy District.

Jim Pokrandt, communications and education director for the Colorado River District, said the district’s litigation committee is set to meet on June 25 and has the authority to approve the settlement without a vote by its full board.

The Pitkin County commissioners have been discussing the case with Ely in executive session and he is confident the board will approve the settlement.

Bill Jochems, the chair of the healthy rivers and streams board, said he expects his board to approve the settlement at a meeting today…

The lawsuit, in water court, stemmed from a diligence filing by West Divide and the Colorado River District in May 2011. Opposition filings came from Pitkin County, the Crystal River Caucus, CVEPA, the nonprofit organization, American Rivers, Trout Unlimited and Paul Durrett of Redstone.

More Crystal River Watershed coverage here and here.

Pitkin County is opposing the diligence claim for two dams in the Crystal River watershed as speculative

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Here’s an in-depth report from Brent Gardner-Smith writing for Aspen Journalism. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

Pitkin County wants a water court judge to rule that the planning period for a project that includes a dam on the upper Crystal River, and one on North Thompson Creek in the Thompson-Divide area, has lapsed since planning began in the late 1950s. The West Divide “conditional water rights continue to be water rights in search of a project,” the county told the court in its Feb. 22 motion. “The project is no closer to being funded and built in 2013 than it was in 1957” and the project remains “speculative,” according to the motion.

The county’s motion was filed in Division 5 water court in Glenwood Springs. Judge James Boyd is overseeing the case, which is set for trial in August. The county and other groups are opposing a diligence filing on the conditional water rights for the West Divide project held by the Colorado River District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District. The rights date to 1958.

More Crystal River Watershed coverage here and here.

Wild and Scenic designation for the Crystal River?

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Here’s an in-depth report from Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith). Click through for all the detail and some great photos, as well. Here’s an excerpt:

Wild and Scenic status, which ultimately requires an act of Congress to obtain, prevents a federal agency from approving, or funding, a new dam or reservoir on a Wild and Scenic-designated river.

And that’s one big reason why Pitkin County, the Roaring Fork Conservancy, the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA) and American Rivers are exploring Wild and Scenic status for the Crystal — because it would likely block a potential dam and reservoir from being built at Placita, an old coal town between Marble and Redstone…

The West Divide Water Conservancy District and the Colorado River District are fighting to retain conditional water rights that could allow for a dam across the Crystal and a 4,000-acre-foot reservoir.

The river district says such a reservoir could put more water in the often parched lower Crystal River in the fall and could also provide hydropower.

But the county, CVEPA and American Rivers are actively opposing the renewal of the conditional water rights tied to the dam and a 21-day trial in district water court is scheduled for August.

In the meantime those groups, plus the Conservancy, are testing local sentiment about seeking Wild and Scenic designation.

“We want to disseminate as much information as possible to the public about the Wild and Scenic program, and then ask the folks in the Crystal River Valley if they think it is a good idea to pursue,” said Pitkin County Attorney John Ely, who leads most of the county’s water-related initiatives.

To that end, the groups held two public meetings in mid-November, one in Redstone attended by 57 people and one in Carbondale with 35 people there…

What the Wild and Scenic Act does do is let the river run — by preventing federal agencies from permitting or funding “any dam, water conduit, reservoir, powerhouse, transmission line or other project,” according to its language.

It would prevent, for example, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from issuing a permit for a hydropower project on the river or along its banks.

“Some rivers need to be left alone,” said David Moryc, senior director of river protection at American Rivers, describing the underlying intent of the law, according to a summary of the meeting prepared by the Roaring Fork Conservancy…

When asked about that via email, Ely of Pitkin County said he thought Colorado had only one designated river because of the “lack of information as to the benefits and restrictions of the designation, and the time and dedication it takes to get it through Congress.”

Another reason may be that once a river is designated Wild and Scenic, the federal government becomes a stakeholder on the river and has a chance to review potential changes to it, such as any new water rights. Some may feel that Colorado water law is complicated enough already…

“I think the Crystal has the potential to be a nice clean straightforward effort because there are no out-of-basin uses yet,” Ely wrote. “If there is interest in going forward, we’re happy to be the laboring oar and do that work.”

More Crystal River Watershed coverage here and here.

Crystal River: Momentum building for Wild and Scenic designation

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Here’s an analysis of efforts to protect the Crystal River under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act from Brent Gardner-Smith writing for The Aspen Daily News. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

Thirty-nine miles of the Crystal River are already “eligible” for designation under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Now four organizations are building local support to determine if much of the river is also “suitable” for protection under the act.

Passed in 1968, the act allows local and regional communities to develop a federally backed management plan designed to preserve and protect a free-flowing river such as the Crystal River, which runs from the back of the Maroon Bells to the lower Roaring Fork River through Crystal, Marble, Redstone and Carbondale.

Wild and Scenic status, which ultimately requires an act of Congress to obtain, prevents a federal agency from approving, or funding, a new dam or reservoir on a Wild and Scenic-designated river.

And that’s one big reason why Pitkin County, the Roaring Fork Conservancy, the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA) and American Rivers are exploring Wild and Scenic status for the Crystal — because it would likely block a potential dam and reservoir from being built at Placita, an old coal town between Marble and Redstone.

The West Divide Water Conservancy District and the Colorado River District are fighting to retain conditional water rights that could allow for a dam across the Crystal and a 4,000-acre-foot reservoir.

The river district says such a reservoir could put more water in the often parched lower Crystal River in the fall and could also provide hydropower…

Chuck Wanner, a former Fort Collins city council member, said at the meetings that it took 10 years to get sections of the Cache La Poudre River on the Eastern Slope designated under Wild and Scenic.

Today, that’s the only river in the state that carries the designation and no river in the vast Colorado River basin is officially Wild and Scenic.

When asked about that via email, Ely of Pitkin County said he thought Colorado had only one designated river because of the “lack of information as to the benefits and restrictions of the designation, and the time and dedication it takes to get it through Congress.”

Another reason may be that once a river is designated Wild and Scenic, the federal government becomes a stakeholder on the river and has a chance to review potential changes to it, such as any new water rights. Some may feel that Colorado water law is complicated enough already.

And then there is the fact that designation eliminates the possibility of federal funding for future water projects, which can dampen the enthusiasm of most cities, counties and water districts.

Whatever the reasons for scarcity in Colorado, Pitkin County is ready to lead a Wild and Scenic process for the Crystal River.

“I think the Crystal has the potential to be a nice clean straightforward effort because there are no out-of-basin uses yet,” Ely wrote. “If there is interest in going forward, we’re happy to be the laboring oar and do that work.”[…]

While today only the Cache la Poudre River has stretches that are designated under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the BLM is preparing a suitability study on a number of area river stretches.

A final EIS is expected to be released in early 2013 by the BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office followed by a record of decision in 2014 for the following rivers and river sections:

• Abrams Creek

• Battlement Creek

• Colorado River — State Bridge to Dotsero

• Colorado River — Glenwood Canyon to approximately 1-mile east of No Name Creek

• Deep Creek — From the BLM/Forest Service land boundary to the Deep Creek ditch diversion

• Deep Creek — From the Deep Creek ditch diversion to the BLM/private land boundary

• Eagle River

• Egeria Creek

• Hack Creek

• Mitchell Creek

• No Name Creek

• Rock Creek

• Thompson Creek

• East Middle Fork Parachute Creek Complex

• East Fork Parachute Creek Complex

For more information on regarding Wild and Scenic suitability on these rivers, search for “Colorado River Valley Draft Resource Management Plan,” which will lead you to a BLM website that contains the draft EIS document.

The BLM is also reviewing a number of stretches on major rivers in Colorado, either for eligibility or suitability, including:

• Animas River

• Dolores River

• San Miguel River

• Gunnison River

• Colorado River

• Blue River

In all, according to Deanna Masteron, a public affairs specialist with the BLM in Lakewood, the BLM is currently analyzing more than 100 segments in Colorado through various land-use plans. The Forest Service also has the ability to analyze rivers for Wild and Scenic designation.

More Wild and Scenic coverage here and here.

Restoration: Coal Basin mitigation project seeks to lessen the sediment load transported to the Crystal River

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From the Grand Junction Free Press (Rose Ann Sullivan):

Earlier this year, Dr. Russ Walker, head of the Colorado Mesa University Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences, participated in a workshop that brought nearly 50 resource experts together to develop a strategy for carrying on critical restoration work in Coal Basin and in the downstream confluence area where Coal Creek meets the Crystal River near the town of Redstone, Colo. He presented the results of CMU’s evaluation of existing water quality data and made recommendations for future monitoring. The workshop and water quality assessment were funded by the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Fund.

Participants in the Coal Basin & Crystal River Area Restoration Workshop immediately identified a series of data gaps that needed to be addressed in order to provide a sound foundation for the continued restoration effort. The lack of adequate baseline water quality data was among the significant issues. Fortunately, funding has just been obtained from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) that allows collection and analysis of water quality data from Coal Creek and the Crystal River in order to provide the baseline data necessary to assess the effectiveness of this comprehensive, high-profile restoration effort.

Over $300,000 in Colorado Water Supply Reserve Account grant funding was recently awarded to the Roaring Fork Conservancy for “Crystal River Watershed – Assessment and Design of Restoration Projects.” Roaring Fork Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service White River National Forest are coordinating the long-term restoration effort with the assistance of CMU and other stakeholders, including the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Colorado Department of Transportation, Pitkin County, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, private landowners, and the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association.

The CWCB funding will be used to conduct a series of assessments to identify the continued sources of sediment loading and the geomorphic processes that are degrading water quality and damaging instream and riparian habitat in the Coal Basin sub-watershed and contributing to sedimentation issues in the Crystal River. This information will be supplemented with new stream flow, sediment, water quality, macroinvertebrate and meteorological data, and used to prioritize and design a series of site- and process-specific restoration projects for the Crystal River Watershed — with emphasis on Coal Basin and the Coal Creek/Crystal River confluence area.

The funding will also help cover the costs of a decommissioned mining road reclamation pilot project already underway in Coal Basin. This pilot effort will assess the cost-effectiveness and utility of using biochar, coupled with drainage improvements, to reduce the toxicity of surface runoff, improve the water and nutrient-holding capacity of soils, and enhance the growth of native vegetation.

Dr. Walker and his CMU team will continue to work with the Roaring Fork Conservancy on water quality monitoring for parameters that reveal basic aspects of water quality, and those that are of the most concern. Over the next two years the restoration effort will be guided by both water quality data analysis and an assessment of trends over time – as specific restoration projects and programs are implemented in the watershed.

Follow the Coal Basin and Coal Creek/Crystal River confluence area restoration efforts on the Roaring Fork Conservancy’s website at http://www.roaringfork.org/coalbasin.

Here’s the link to the USGS webpage about aerial inspection of the basin earlier this year.

More restoration/reclamation coverage here.

Redstone: Wild & Scenic Rivers Educational Forum for the Crystal River November 14

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Click on the thumbnail graphic to view Pete McBride’s photo essay about the river.

From the Roaring Fork Conservancy:

Roaring Fork Conservancy, Pitkin County, American Rivers, and the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association will host a public educational forum to explore the process of a Wild and Scenic River designation for the Crystal River. The forum panel will include Kay Hopkins from the White River National Forest, Chuck Wanner, former Ft. Collins city councilman who played an integral role in the designation of the Cache la Poudre as Wild & Scenic, Mike Moody from the Native Fish Society in Oregon who has participated in the Wild and Scenic process on the Molalla River in Oregon, and David Moryc, Senior Director of River Protection at American Rivers. The public is encouraged to participate to learn more about the process of designation, ask questions, and be part of the community to evaluate the effectiveness and appropriateness of this possible designation for the Crystal River.

What: Wild and Scenic River Educational Forum for the Crystal River
When: Wednesday, November 14, 2012, 6:30-8:30pm Redstone Church, Redstone
Thursday, November 15, 2012, 6:30-8:30pm Third Street Center, Carbondale
Who: All community members, stakeholders, land owners, and business owners

Partners for this Educational Forum include Pitkin County, Roaring Fork Conservancy, Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association, Town of Carbondale, White River National Forest, Avalanche Ranch, Wilderness Workshop, American Whitewater, Thompson Divide Coalition, Western Rivers Institute, Roaring Fork Audubon Society, American Rivers, Native Fish Society, and the Sierra Club.

Carbondale: Free water conservation kits available at several locations around town #CODrought

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From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent:

The Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE) and one of its board-member partners, the town of Carbondale, have partnered to help Carbondale residents save water during the 2012 drought.

Free water conservation kits containing low-flow showerheads, faucet aerators and an informative brochure are now available at CORE’s office in the Third Street Center at 520 S. Third St. Suite 2; at Carbondale Town Hall, 511 Colorado Ave.; and at the Gordon Cooper Branch Library, 76 S. Fourth St. Kits are available in both English and Spanish.

The brochures provide information on the three types of water restrictions the town may impose during periods of drought, as well as helpful indoor and outdoor water conservation tips and Do-It-Yourself tutorials for drip irrigation and mulching.

More conservation coverage here.

Crystal River: Pete McBride asks, ‘If one of those rivers could talk, I wonder what it would say?’

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Here’s a video, Crystal Voice, about the Crystal River from Pete McBride via Vimeo.

Thanks to Drew Beckwith (@DrewBeckwith) for the heads up.

More Crystal River watershed coverage here and here.

Here’s another video from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation showing irrigation, dams, wild streams, restoration and power generation facilities across the western U.S.

The Crystal River makes the top ten most endangered rivers list, Wild and Scenic designation in the future?

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From The Aspen Times (Scott Condon):

Rivers in Colorado remained off the list in 2011, but appeared again this year with the Crystal River showing up as the No. 8 most endangered river in the United States. It flows out of the mountains, through Redstone and into Carbondale where it meets with the Roaring Fork River.

The threat: dams and diversions. The same reasons the Upper Colorado was listed in 2010.

At stake in both scenarios are fish and wildlife habitat, beautiful vistas and visitor recreation. On top of that, the Crystal River is one of the few remaining free-flowing streams in Colorado. “But new hydropower dams, reservoirs and water diversions threaten to destroy the river’s unique values,” the report states.

The Colorado River District and West Divide Conservancy District hold conditional water rights that could be used to build the 4,000-acre-foot Placita Reservoir; a similar-size reservoir on Yank Creek, a tributary of the Crystal River; and a water diversion on Avalanche Creek, the largest tributary of the river. The Placita Reservoir would be about four miles upstream from Redstone.

The designation is just the beginning of action, American Rivers’ Colorado conservation director Matt Rice said. “We hope this will begin a renewed effort to protect the Crystal River with a ‘Wild and Scenic’ designation,” he said. That designation would bring federal protection and prevent dam building.

More Crystal River coverage here and here.

American Rivers names the Crystal River to its 10 most endangered rivers list

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From the Aspen Business Journal (Bob Berwyn):

At issue is a proposed dam that would impound 4,000 acre feet of water between Redstone and Marble, diversions from Avalanche Creek, the largest tributary to the Crystal and potential hydropower development on Yank Creek.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District holds the conditional water rights for the potential Crystal River dam and is pursuing the state-mandated diligence process for maintaining those water rights.

Spokesman Jim Pokrandt said the water in the reservoir could be used to enhance late-season flows to help sustain aquatic habitat.

“The whole purpose of that reservoir is for augmentation and environmental flows. It’s already endangered as it exists today … in leaner years because of all the irrigation that goes on in the valleys … it does create a stretch in the river that’s almost dry,” Pokrandt said, likening the proposed reservoir to others in the state that have water reserved for instream environmental purposes, including Elkhead and Wolford Mountain reservoirs.

There’s also a school of thought that says it’s important for headwaters counties to capture and store water high in the drainages as a hedge against climate change and increased demand far downstream, from the Lower Colorado River Basin states.

But local and national conservation groups say the projects would degrade the river and the surrounding area by destroying valuable riparian habitat and associated recreation and economic values.

We’re in an era when more dams are being dismantled than being built,” said John Emerick, a retired Colorado School of Mines ecologist who helped conduct an in-depth survey of Crystal Creek’s aquatic and riparian resources. “it’s important for us here in the arid West to think about better ways and more efficient ways to use our water,” Emerick said, explaining that the proposed reservoir could end up standing as an empty mud flat much of the year.

More coverage of the 10 most endangered rivers for 2012 from Troy Hooper writing for the Colorado Independent. From the article:

The report, compiled by the nonprofit advocacy group American Rivers, cites Fort Collins businessman Aaron Million’s proposed Flaming Gorge pipeline, as well as a competing diversion proposal by Parker Water & Sanitation District manager Frank Jaeger, as major threats to the world-class recreation, rural economies, critical fish habitats, and the water supply for the lower Colorado River Basin.

“Aaron Million and Frank Jaeger remain committed to build that pipeline,” Matt Rice, Colorado conservation director for American Rivers, said Monday. “There are a hundred reasons why it doesn’t make sense, why it’s a bad idea and why it’s not a responsible use of taxpayer money. We’re calling on Utah Governor Gary Herbert and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper to publicly oppose it.”[…]

The threats facing the Crystal River include a dam and a 4,000-acre reservoir between Redstone and Marble; a water diversion from its largest tributary, Avalanche Creek; and a hydropower dam and 5,000 acre-foot reservoir on another tributary, Yank Creek.

“Our rivers and streams continue to be under assault from competing interests that too often do not consider the value intrinsic in the ecosystems that rivers and streams create, nurture, and sustain,” said Pitkin County attorney John Ely. “If we are to preserve our rivers, public awareness of the threats and impending changes facing these ecosystems is essential.”

More Crystal River watershed coverage here and here.

Restoration: Crystal River tributary, Coal Creek, is on the Roaring Fork Conservancy’s radar

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From The Aspen Times (Janet Urquhart):

The Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy hopes to launch a multi-agency effort to clean up Coal Creek, a tributary of the Crystal River, with a grant from the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Fund to get things started.

The board that oversees the fund has recommended spending $48,269 from county tax revenues devoted to water quantity and quality in the Roaring Fork River watershed; the expenditure is on the county commissioners’ agenda today.

In part, the funds will go toward analysis of existing water-quality data for Coal Creek, which tumbles out of Coal Basin west of Redstone, and a technical workshop in the spring that draws together experts to review the data and discuss options to clean up a creek that regularly dumps large quantities of sediment into the Crystal River. The Crystal in turn flows north to Carbondale, where it joins the Roaring Fork.

“Basically, nine times out of 10, if the Crystal is that ashy color, it’s Coal Creek that’s putting it in there,” said Rick Lofaro, executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy. Coal Creek flows through a basin still healing from years of mining for high-grade coal.

More Crystal River watershed coverage here and here.

Crystal River: Diligence case for reservoir at Placita now has six objectors

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From AspenJournalism.org (Brent Gardner-Smith):

The two water districts [Colorado River District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District] are asking a judge to grant a conditional water right to dam the Crystal River at Placita, an old town site along Highway 133 just below McClure Pass. The dam would create a 4,000 acre-foot reservoir and allow for the installation of a hydropower plant fueled by 150 cubic-feet-per-second of flowing water.

Pitkin County, the Crystal River Caucus, the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association, American Rivers and Trout Unlimited are all opposing the districts’ efforts.

Also in opposition is Paul Durrett of Glenwood Springs, who goes by his middle name of Gregory. He served on the board of the West Divide Water Conservancy District for 16 years, starting in the 1970s. “The Placita Power Plant and Placita Reservoir fills no need in the Crystal River drainage by any credible water user,” Durrett told the court in a hand-written legal filing. “This application is a ploy to retain some interest in the Crystal River and continue the falsehood that the taxpayers in the Crystal and Roaring Fork River drainages have anything to gain from the continued taxation by the WDWCD.”

The conditional water rights tied to the West Divide Project date back to 1958.

More Crystal River watershed coverage here and here.

Pitkin County commissioners line up with others to oppose the conditional rights for dam on the Crystal River

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From the Aspen Daily News (Andrew Travers):

The rights are held by the Colorado River Water Conservation District and West Divide Water Conservancy District. They have been renewed every six years since 1958, when the rights were issued by the U.S. Congress. Over the decades, the plan has included reservoir rights that would have flooded Redstone and covered it with a reservoir larger than Ruedi at nearly 200,000 acre feet. In the most recent iteration of the plan, the reservoir to drown Redstone has been dropped but another, smaller reservoir upstream toward Marble remains.

County attorney John Ely described the project as “wholly inappropriate” and said it “would do great harm and is probably located in the worst geological location possible.” The probability that the water groups would act on the plan is low, Ely added. But getting the concepts off the state books should be a county priority, he added. The plan currently headed for renewal aims to use the Crystal dam for hydroelectric power. The commissioners voted 5-0 to oppose the plan in state water court.

More Crystal River coverage here and here.

Crystal River: The Colorado River District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District both approve abandonment of some storage rights

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From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

The decision takes away the long-simmering prospect, however thin, that two Ruedi-sized dams would be built on the Crystal River, including the 129,000-acre-foot Osgood Reservoir, which would have put Redstone underwater. “It was not economical, it wasn’t politically feasible, and there certainly was not institutional or local support for such a project,” Chris Treese, the external affairs director for the Colorado River District, said about the Osgood Reservoir. “There is no support for, or frankly, desire by the staff or the River District board to flood the town of Redstone.”

The decision to walk away from most of the conditional water rights tied to what’s called the West Divide Project was good news to Bill Jochems, a Redstone resident who has called for the rights to be abandoned as a member of the Crystal River Caucus, the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Agency and the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board. “The Osgood Reservoir seemed so outlandish that I don’t think it was a real palpable fear, yet there was always this possibility that future conditions might change enough so that someday it might be economic and might actually happen, so there was that haunting prospect,” Jochems said.

The decision by the two districts, however, may increase the likelihood that a more feasible — and less threatening — small reservoir gets built someday on the upper Crystal River at Placita, the site of an old coal mine at the bottom of McClure Pass. The districts voted to reduce the size of a potential Placita reservoir from 62,000 acre-feet to a 4,000-acre-foot reservoir, which is about a quarter of the size of the 16,000-acre-foot Paonia Reservoir on the other side of McClure Pass…

But members of the West Divide Water Conservancy District board said the day may come when residents of the Crystal River Valley see a small reservoir at Placita as a benefit, as it could store water in the spring and release it in the fall when the lower Crystal is nearly dried up from heavy irrigation diversions above Carbondale…

And another West Divide board member, Dan Harrison, pointed out that the districts do plan on maintaining the water rights for a hydropower facility at the smaller Placita Reservoir. The plant would be powered by 150 cubic feet of water per second, which is nearly three times the amount of water proposed for a new hydropower facility in Aspen. “The uses there could include supplementing the flows in the river, depending on what the future brings, and also help with the electric power generation up there,” Harrison said. “All those things would be dependent on how the area grows and the character of the area.”[…]

The decision by the water districts would also allow for another potential small dam in the Crystal River watershed, as the districts plan to retain the right to build a 5,000-acre-foot reservoir on Yank Creek, which is off of Thompson Creek, which in turn flows into the Crystal above Carbondale. The original Yank Creek Reservoir was planned to hold 13,700 acre-feet of water.

Another significant result of the boards’ decisions is that water from the Crystal River likely will never be diverted and transported to the dry mesas south of Silt and Rifle, a scheme that was first registered with the state water engineer in 1909.

More Crystal River watershed coverage here and here.

Crystal River: The Colorado River District approves abandonment of most of their undeveloped storage rights on the river

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From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent:

The package of rights known as the West Divide Project were tied to a plan devised in the 1960s to build two large reservoirs in the Crystal River valley at Redstone and divert the stored water to the Divide Creek basin south of Silt. There, the water could have been used in Divide Creek and the Colorado River valley for irrigation or oil shale industry. The Osgood Reservoir would have flooded the village of Redstone, while the smaller Placita Reservoir upstream would have flooded the canyon just below the Marble turn and McClure’s Pass.

Although the River District will abandon the rights associated with building large reservoirs, it will retain other rights and shift their use to help the Crystal River basin with late season flows and create the potential for hydropower development.

The West Divide Project also included rights in the West Divide Creek basin. These water rights will be maintained to benefit the original West Divide service area, but use water supplies only from within the basin. The River District’s actions were made in concurrence with the West Divide Water Conservancy District board…

The original West Divide Project was approved by Congress in 1966 as part of the historic Colorado River Storage Project Act, which led to the construction of the Animas-LaPlata Project and Ridgway Reservoir. But the Bureau of Reclamation subsequently judged the West Divide project unfeasible on a cost-benefit basis, and it was never granted federal funds.

More Crystal River coverage here and here.

The Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association is organizing opposition to Crystal River conditional storage rights

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Here’s an in-depth analysis of the potential reservoirs and the conditional water rights associated with them, from Brent Gardner-Smith writing for the Aspen Daily News. Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:

[Osgood Reservoir is] one of two conceptual dams on the books for the upper Crystal, the conditional water rights for which were created by congressional decree in 1958. While it is not clear if anybody actually plans to build these dams, or a smaller version of them, officials are keeping the plans alive in state water court, sustaining the prospect of some sort of water storage project in the area. That’s raising alarm among Crystal Valley residents, many of whom would like to see the conditional water rights abandoned and the Crystal protected for its wild and scenic qualities…

The other potential dam would create what would be known as the Placita Reservoir, to be located upstream near Marble. That is seen as potentially more feasible, as it would not put an entire town underwater…

[Redstone resident Bill Jochems] is a member of the Crystal River Caucus and a veteran of the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA), which fought against the reservoirs in the 1970s, and won. Or so it seemed, until a fresh set of color maps showed conceptual plans for the Osgood and Placita reservoirs are still alive. After reviewing these maps, the caucus voted 34-0 in January approving a motion to ask Pitkin County to fight the conditional water rights associated with them. And then the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association sent a letter to Pitkin County, warning the specter of dams is hindering a federal Wild and Scenic River designation. The group is also concerned the potential reservoirs will push back the boundaries of the proposed Hidden Gems wilderness areas, as the maps show and the districts have requested.

The fresh opposition in the Crystal River Valley comes as the two organizations that hold the conditional water rights, the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Water Conservation District, are expected to file their diligence reports in state water court in Glenwood Springs by a May deadline for Judge James Boyd to review and rule on…

Today, the River District still holds a conditional right to store 128,728 acre-feet of water behind a 280-foot dam just downstream from Redstone’s historic main street. The Osgood Reservoir, named for Redstone founder John C. Osgood, would be larger than Ruedi Reservoir, which holds 119,000 acre feet. The district also holds a conditional right to store 62,009 acre-feet behind a 285-foot-tall Placita dam, just downstream from the turnoff to Marble, at the site of what was once the largest coal mine along the Crystal.

More Crystal River watershed coverage here and here.

The Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association is organizing opposition to Crystal River conditional storage rights

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From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Janet Urquhart):

The Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA) has asked both [Pitkin] county commissioners and the county’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board to oppose the conditional water rights. The Crystal River Caucus has joined in that call, according to Redstone resident Bill Jochems, a member of both the CVEPA board and the county rivers and streams board…

The Glenwood-based Colorado River Water Conservation District holds the conditional water rights on behalf of the West Divide Water Conservancy District. The rights, decreed in the 1950s, are the basis for two proposed water storage projects on the Crystal that were authorized by Congress in the mid-1960s but never built. The West Divide Project water rights must be reauthorized in Colorado Water Court every six years. In May, the holders of the water rights must show diligence, or continued progress on the project, in order to keep the water rights alive. The Crystal River groups have asked the county to challenge the validity of the rights. “Nothing has been done on the ground for 54 years,” said Jochems. Progress has been limited to studying the options, he added…

The conditional water rights allow for the proposed Osgood Reservoir, which would impound nearly 129,000 acre feet of water, flooding the town of Redstone, Redstone Castle and several subdivisions, CVEPA said. Also envisioned is the Placita Reservoir south of Redstone, which would impound about 62,000 acre feet of water. For the sake of comparison, Ruedi Reservoir on the Fryingpan River, east of Basalt, holds 140,000 acre feet of water, CVEPA noted in its letter to county officials. “We do not think anyone takes these proposed reservoirs seriously, yet they threaten to deny designation of the Crystal River as a Wild and Scenic River and cost the taxpayers money as they continue to be defended,” the letter states.

With no dams or significant diversions on the Crystal currently, advocates would like to see it further protected by the federal Wild and Scenic River designation. The upper Crystal River Valley is nestled between the Raggeds and Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness areas to the east of Marble. The Crystal River flows into the Roaring Fork River at Carbondale.

More Crystal River watershed coverage here and here.

The Colorado River District is kicking off a grant program for water resources projects

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From email from the Colorado River Water Conservation District (Martha Moore):

The Colorado River District is accepting grant applications for projects that protect, enhance or develop water resources within the 15-county area covered by the District. This includes all watersheds in north- and central- western Colorado, except the San Juan River basin.

Eligible projects must achieve one or more of the following:

– develop a new water supply

– improve an existing system

– improve instream water quality

– increase water use efficiency

– reduce sediment loading

– implement watershed management actions

– control tamarisk

– protect pre-1922 Colorado River Compact water rights

Past projects have included the construction of new water storage, the enlargement of existing water storage or diversion facilities, rehabilitation of non-functioning or restricted water resource structures and implementation of water efficiency measures and other watershed improvements. Such projects that utilize pre-1922 water rights will be given additional ranking priority over similar projects that do not. Each project will be ranked based upon its own merits in accordance with published ranking criteria.

Eligible applicants can receive up to a maximum of $150,000 ((or approximately 25% of the total project cost whichever is less, in the case of smaller projects this percentage may be slightly higher) for their project. The total grant pool for 2011 is $250,000. Application deadline is Jan. 31, 2011.

More Colorado River basin coverage here.