Southeastern Colorado Water inks agreement with Fountain and Fort Carson for hydro project

The new north outlet works at Pueblo Dam — Photo/MWH Global

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Conrad Swanson):

The Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns and operates the Pueblo Dam, signed an agreement last week allowing for the soon-to-be-built plant to connect to the dam, Chris Woodka, the district’s issues management program coordinator, said in a release.

The agreement was signed after the Colorado Springs City Council unanimously approved the creation of a military sales tariff on Tuesday. The tariff will cover costs for Colorado Springs Utilities to act as an intermediary, buying power from the district and selling it to Fort Carson.

With all the necessary agreements in place, the district hired Mountain States Hydro, LLC, to build the $19 million plant, Woodka said. Construction will begin in September and the plant should be operational by the spring.

Half of the electricity from the plant, estimated to be up to 7.5 megawatts, will be sold to Fort Carson and the other half will be sold to Fountain Utilities.

The plant is expected to generate about $1.4 million in revenue each year, Woodka said.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Jon Pompia):

“This is a monumental moment in the history of the district,” said Jim Broderick, the district’s executive director. “We have been working to put all of the pieces in place since 2011. Now that this project is coming to fruition, it represents not only a sustainable income stream for our stakeholders, but develops a clean source of power for the future.”

Added Chris Woodka, the district’s issues management program coordinator, “The Lease of Power Privilege clears the way for the hydropower plant to connect to Pueblo Dam, a federally owned structure. Mike Ryan, director of the Great Plains Region for Reclamation, signed the lease Friday.”

In order to satisfy all federal requirements related to the project, members of the district have been working for the past 18 months to put a series of other agreements in place.

“The district has contracted with Mountain States Hydro, LLC, to build the plant,” Woodka said, “with construction to begin in September. It is scheduled to be completed during the fall and winter months when releases from Pueblo Dam generally decrease.”

It’s anticipated that the plant will be online by spring 2018.

The plant will cost about $19 million to build. Last year, the district secured a $17.2 million loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, with the district’s business enterprise providing matching funds.

Over time, those funds will be paid off by revenues from the sale of power.

For a decade, power from the plant will be purchased by the city of Fountain and by Colorado Springs Utilities for use at Fort Carson.

“After that, Fountain intends to purchase all of the power for at least 20 more years,” Woodka said.

The plant will generate up to 7.5 megawatts of power by using three turbines capable of producing power from 35 to 800 cubic feet per second of flow in the Arkansas River. Water will pass through a connection that was built into the service line for the Southern Delivery System, then into the Arkansas River.

Projections by district staff show that an average of 28 million kilowatt hours will be produced annually, with about $1.4 million in average revenue per year.

This money will be used to pay off the CWCB loan and to satisfy contractual agreements with the Bureau of Reclamation, as well as a carriage agreement with Black Hills Energy. All remaining funds will go to enterprise activities, including the Arkansas Valley Conduit.

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.

#Runoff news: Twin Lakes should fill next week — more water for the Roaring Fork River

Twin Lakes collection system

From Aspen Public Radio (Elizabeth Stewart-Severy):

Water levels on the Roaring Fork River are expected to rise next week as Twin Lakes Reservoir reaches capacity.

Officials at the Twin Lakes Canal Company expect the reservoir to fill between Tuesday and Thursday next week. That means that the 625 cubic feet per second of water that is typically diverted to the Front Range through a tunnel on Independence Pass will instead flow down the Roaring Fork River.

That, in addition to peaking snowmelt, means flows on the river could nearly triple next week. It is expected that the North Star Nature Preserve will flood. This is healthy for the wetlands.

Officials at the Bureau of Reclamation said releases from Ruedi Reservoir into the Fryingpan River will decrease over the weekend. This reduces the risk of flooding at the confluence of the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork in Basalt. Ruedi Reservoir is about 80 percent full.

From TheDenverChannel.com (Oscar Contreras):

Medano Creek is now approaching what’s called “surge flow,” a phenomenon where creek water flows in waves across the sand.

The combination of a sufficiently steep channel, a sandy creek bottom and plenty of flowing water only exists in a few places on Earth, according to the spokesperson, “and Medano Creek is considered the best place in the world to experience surge flow!”

Because of the unusually cold and wet conditions in May, peak flow is occurring a little later than average this year, the spokesperson said.

You can follow detailed creek conditions and forecast flow on the National Park Service website.

The video below, courtesy of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, shows you exactly what happens during surge flow:

#Runoff news: Coordinated releases for #ColoradoRiver endangered fish #COriver

From the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via The Los Alamos Daily Post:

Coordinated releases from a series of Upper Colorado River Basin reservoirs began Saturday, June 3, and are anticipated to continue through this week as part of the Coordinated Reservoirs Operations Program.

The US Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado River District, Denver Water and Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District as owners and operators of upper Colorado River reservoirs have mutually agreed to modify their operations to benefit the endangered fish of the Upper Colorado River Basin.

The Coordinated Reservoir Operations (CROS) program was established in 1995 as part of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. The purpose of the Coordinated Operations is to enhance spring peak flows in a section of the Colorado River upstream of Grand Junction, Colo. Determined to be critical to the survival of four endangered fish species: the Humpback Chub, Razorback Sucker, Bonytail and the Colorado Pikeminnow. The higher peak flows remove more fine sediment from cobble bars that serve as spawning habitat for the endangered fish. In years with sufficient snowpack, surplus inflows to the reservoirs can be passed downstream to benefit these fish without impacting reservoir yields or future beneficial water uses.

Coordinated Reservoir Operations were most recently conducted in 2016, 2015 and 2010. In 2011 and 2014, wet conditions caused streamflows in certain areas of the basin to approach or exceed levels associated with minor flooding, so CROS was not performed. In 2012 and 2013, reservoirs did not have surplus inflow to contribute due to extremely dry conditions.

Managers of the reservoirs completed a conference call June 2, agreeing to voluntarily run the program this year. Planned reservoir operations as of June 2 are described below. Release and flow amounts are approximate. Most reservoirs will step up releases over the next several days, hold at a constant rate for 3-7 days, and then wind down releases.

Green Mountain Reservoir, operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, will increase releases from 418 cubic feet per second (cfs) to powerplant capacity of around 1400 cfs. Releases from Green Mountain include inflows bypassed by Dillon Reservoir, operated by Denver Water, that will be increased by approximately 100 cfs during CROS.

Denver Water also operates Williams Fork Reservoir, which is releasing 200 cfs. Releases will likely increase to approximately 600 cfs over the coming week to bypass increasing inflows.

Willow Creek Reservoir, operated by the Bureau of Reclamation and Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, is releasing 90 cfs. Releases will increase this week to roughly 600 cfs by curtailing pumping operations to Granby Reservoir and bypassing those inflows instead.

Wolford Mountain Reservoir, operated by the Colorado River District, is passing inflows of 350 cfs. Outflows will be increased to around 600 cfs for approximately five days.

Ruedi Reservoir, operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, is releasing 182 cfs and will increase releases to approximately 600 cfs over the next few days.

The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center (CBRFC) will incorporate these planned reservoir operations into their streamflow forecasts. Based on weather forecasts and planned reservoir operations, flows in the Colorado River near Cameo (upriver of Palisade, Colo.) are anticipated to be approximately 14,000 – 17,500 cfs, June 7 through June 12, with the highest flows Thursday or Friday June 8 or 9. Flows in the forecasted range are still below defined “bankfull” and flood stages for the area.

More detailed information about forecasted streamflows in the Colorado River basin are available from the CBRFC website at http://www.cbrfc.noaa.gov. A map-based interface allows viewing of hydrographs detailing recent, current and anticipated flows.

For more information, contact Don Anderson, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, at 303.236.9883, donald_anderson@usfws.gov, Michelle Garrison, Colorado Water Conservation Board, at 303.866.3441, ext. 3213, michelle.garrison@state.co.us or James Bishop, Bureau of Reclamation, at 970.962.4326, jbishop@usbr.gov.

The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program is a cooperative partnership of local, state and federal agencies, water developers, power customers and environmental groups established in 1988 to recover the endangered fishes while water development proceeds in accordance with federal and state laws and interstate compacts.

From The Summit Daily News (Kevin Fixler):

Through both natural and man-made activities, the area’s waterbodies will ramp back up to seasonal heights this week. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration anticipates the Colorado River and its primary Summit County tributaries will reach their highest 2017 levels this Wednesday, June 7.

The volume-based flow rates, measured as cubic feet per second, on North Tenmile Creek, for example, will rise from about 600 to 900 cfs and the Blue River north of Dillon should grow in the next two days by another couple hundred cfs from its present 600. To offset forthcoming supply, Denver Water, which owns and oversees Dillon Reservoir, stated that it plans to up flows from Dillon Dam into the Lower Blue River from its Monday total of 380 cfs to 600 no later than Tuesday morning, and between 1,400 and 1,800 cfs by the end of the week.

“The snowpack up on the mountain, it’s now warmed up and is starting to come off,” said Jim Pokrandt, spokesman for the Colorado River District, a public policy agency that closely monitors the region’s major waterway. “It’s fast water, but shouldn’t flood anybody out. All streams will be quicker-paced than people are used to, but the flooding is not the danger.”

[…]

North of Silverthorne, additional releases at Green Mountain Reservoir also allow the Bureau of Reclamation to increase power plant capacity and generate more electricity. Those levels could reach approaching 1,400 cfs from the current 418.

Estimating that 40 percent of the winter’s snowpack still remains above Dillon, Denver Water is comfortable increasing the flows from Dillon Reservoir into the Lower Blue River that ultimately head to northern Arizona’s Lake Powell. That result is threefold, preventing wasteful overflow of the reservoir, maintaining ideal recreational heights on the lake, as well as fulfilling the demands of Lower Basin states based on senior water rights.

“Our experts are monitoring conditions carefully with the goal of ending runoff season with a full reservoir,” Matt Wittern, Denver Water Summit County liaison, wrote by email. “That way, we’re able to meet our customers’ needs while providing locals and tourists alike with valued summer recreation activities that have a positive impact on the local economy.”

A standup surfer in the Arkansas River at Salida during Fibark, the river celebration held in late June. Photo/Allen Best

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Where spring runoff has been something like average—and where it hasn’t

Spring runoff of the Yampa River likely peaked on May 14 this year as it flowed through northwestern Colorado. That makes it an anomaly in the precipitation-dripping mountains of the West.

In most other locations, the peak runoff—the time when the largest volume of water in rivers occurs as winter’s snow melts—more normally occurs in early June after temperatures finally warmed. This year looks to be more or less normal, despite a trend to earlier runoff in many locations during the last several decades.

“The Yampa did have an early runoff, and that was the result of the warm temperatures and below-average snowpack,” said Ashley Nielson, senior hydrologist with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center in Salt Lake City, when interviewed last week by Mountain Town News. The Yampa, she noted, will probably rise again in the next week or so, if not to the same high mark.

But elsewhere, the show is now, not a month ago. Peak runoff of the Green River was expected this week or next. It originates in the Wind River Range of west-central Wyoming. Unlike the Yampa, that basin still has a significant snowpack. That was also reported to be the case in Jackson Hole, at the headwaters of the Snake River. The snowpack there was 181 percent of average in late May, not a record but “up there,” in the words of one water official cited by the Jackson Hole News&Guide.

Peak runoff in the upper Colorado River at its headwaters along the Continental Divide in Colorado was also expected to occur in early June.

Winter had wild swings: barren until late fall, then torrents of snow in December and January. Temperatures were unseasonably warm in February and almost hot in March. It looked like an early runoff everywhere. Then May turned cold and snowy.

What explains the Yampa’s aberrant behavior? Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Denver, said the peak snowpack in northwestern Colorado arrived about a month earlier than usual. That snowpack around Steamboat Springs occurred on March 12, compared a more typical April 10.

Instead of mid-May for the Yampa, he says that rafters floating through Dinosaur National Monument more often experience the highest water flows of the year in early June.

The Dolores River in southwestern Colorado on Memorial Day in 2009. Photo/Allen Best

Flows in the Animas River through Silverton and Durango have had some “pretty wild swings,” Wetlaufer says. The Arkansas River has been slow to get started with runoff.

The Snake River of Wyoming and Idaho has a very different story than the Yampa, with around 200 percent of snowpack this year. The Snake originates in Jackson Hole and picks up water from the Big Wood River, which originates in the Sawtooth Mountains above Ketchum and Sun Valley, before joining the Columbia at the Idaho-Washington border.

“My takeaway is that this year is pretty normal” in terms of timing, says Bruce Anderson, the senior hydrologist at the Northwest River Forecast Center, in Portland, Ore. It was cooler and wetter in spring, but the big story was the amount of precipitation that fell during winter. “We are hugely above normal for precipitation.”

In the Tahoe-Truckee area of California’s Sierra Nevada, the snowpack was among the deeper ones on record after three bad drought years and then a so-so winter in 2015-16. Snowfall this winter was not a record, but it was a record for total precipitation. Being somewhat lower and closer to the coast than Colorado, the Sierra Nevada gets more rain during winter. This year it got a lot of rain.

Colorado, too, had rain on snow, which is not unprecedented. But it happened frequently this winter. The result was telling for travelers on I-70 who crossing Vail Pass.

“In general, there was less snow than you would expect,” says Klaus Wolter, a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder.

Were those rain on snow storms of this past winter a result of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions? Wolter told Mountain Town News that thinks this is “probably partially climate change.”

Wolter, whose focus is empirical climate research, using statistical methods to solve climate problems, is reluctant to pin climate change on much of what we have seen this year. True, he says, one storm during May left 42 inches of fresh snow in the foothills above Boulder, a storm unprecedented since the 1920s. As extreme as that storm was, proving causality is difficult, he says.

A scientist in Oregon also shared the difficulty of proving causality. John Stevenson of Oregon State University told the Idaho Mountain Express in Ketchum that it’s “really difficult to judge any one year” to be a result of rising global temperatures.

“That’s one of the challenges we run into in the science world where people say, ‘Oh, it’s climate change.’ We’re not at the point where we can take any one random event and say it’s climate change.”

That said, his 2015 study concluded that the point each spring when half of the water year’s streamflow had run off was occurring an average 1.9 days earlier per decade.

But more extreme events are happening with greater frequency, said Mark Davidson, director of conservation initiatives with The Nature Conservancy. He pointed out that the Big Wood River has had two 100-year floods in the last 15 years.

Warm temperatures in the Ketchum and Sun Valley area were 6 to 13 degrees warmer than normal for early May, producing a flood in the Big Wood River that peaked on May 8. It was regarded as the largest in 101 years of recorded history, reports the Idaho Mountain Express.

But more warm weather was producing another surge in early June that threatened to surpass that peak of a month before, the newspaper reported last week.

Water from Ruedi to again flow down Fryingpan for endangered fish — @AspenJournalism

The Fryingpan River flowing at 298 cfs on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016. Photo credit Brent Gardner-Smith Aspen Journalism.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

BASALT – Anglers on the Fryingpan River can expect again this year to see as much as 300 cubic feet per second of water released from Ruedi Reservoir in late summer and early fall to bolster flows in 15 miles of the Colorado River near Grand Junction to benefit endangered fish populations.

Water released from Ruedi flows down the Fryingpan to the Roaring Fork River and then into the Colorado River.

The directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board at a regular meeting March 23 approved a third annual lease with the Ute Water Conservancy District that allows for CWCB to release 12,000 acre-feet of water from Ruedi at a cost of $86,400, or $7.20 per acre-foot.

Ute Water, which provides water to 80,000 people in the Grand Junction area, paid $15.6 million in 2013 to store 12,000 acre-feet of water in Ruedi each year. Ute Water considers its Ruedi water to be a backup supply, but since the water can also be used for environmental and instream flow purposes, it’s willing to lease it on a year-to-year basis to the CWCB.

In turn, the CWCB works with officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the release of the water as part of the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program, which is working to maintain populations of four species of large native fish: the Colorado pikeminnow, the razorback sucker, the bonytail, and the humpback chub.

A graph showing the flow in the Fryingpan River in 2016 and the periods and amount of water leased by the CWCB from Ute Water and then released to benefit the 15-mile reach.
A sign along the lower Fryingpan, describing the trout in the river.

Flow regime

For the third year in a row, state and federal water managers have pledged to release no more than 300 cfs of water from the Ute Water pool in Ruedi, and work to keep all flows in the Fryingpan under 350 cfs in order to preserve the “wadability” of the popular fly-fishing stream.

Flows of about 220 cfs are considered ideal for fly-fishing clients by two local commercial guide services working on the Fryingpan, and flows of about 300 cfs in late 2015 brought complaints of high water to the CWCB from guides and their clients.

But last year, anglers seem to have gone with the steady flow on the Fryingpan of just less than 300 cfs from mid-August to late September, as no formal complaints were lodged with the CWCB, according to Linda Bassi, chief of the agency’s stream and lake protection section.

Rick Lofaro, executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, said last year appeared to have gone OK on the river for wading clients.

“The flow stayed where they said it would and I did not hear any complaints,” Lofaro said via email. “However, I think people do mind, especially if the level exceeds 300. The two fly shops in town would be quick to register concern. So far, it seems to be working.”

Last year, a special meeting was held in the spring to discuss the pending releases of fish water from Ruedi. This year, after having contacted local stakeholders, the CWCB decided the issue could simply be discussed at the regular annual meeting on Ruedi operations held by the Bureau of Reclamation.

The black line is the flow target. The green line is flow after diversions. The blue line is flow after releases from upstream reservoirs.
Danielle Tremblay of Colorado Parks and Wildlife holding a Colorado pikeminnow collected on the Colorado River in Grand Junction. An apex predator in the Colorado, pikeminnows used to be found up to six feet long and weighing 100 pounds.

Large diversions

As the endangered fish do better with more water in the river, a key part of the recovery effort is keeping flows in the 15-mile reach at least as high as 1,240 cfs in an average year and 810 cfs in a dry year, although the target flow levels are often not met.

The 15-mile reach is depleted by two large irrigation diversions — the Grand Valley Project in DeBeque Canyon and the Grand Valley Irrigation Canal in Palisade. Last year during the critical months of August and September, they diverted at a steady rate of about 1,600 cfs, primarily to irrigate alfalfa, according to state records.

That level of diversion leaves about 400 cfs in the Colorado River, but the fish water sent downstream brings the river back toward the 1,000 cfs level.

In 2015, the first year of the lease with Ute Water, the CWCB and Fish and Wildlife released 9,000 acre-feet from the total pool of 12,000 acre-feet owned by Ute Water in Ruedi.

In 2016, after approving a second one-year lease, the two agencies released all of the 12,000 acre-feet, with half of it flowing down the river between Aug. 27 and Sept. 11 and half released between Sept. 25 and Oct. 14.

Fish and Wildlife also has access to other pools of fish water in Ruedi, and all told in 2016 there was 27,413 acre-feet of water released from Ruedi to the benefit of the endangered fish. But Ruedi is not the only source of water for the 15-mile reach.

Green Mountain Reservoir, located in the northern end of Summit County on the Blue River, released 55,390 acre-feet in 2016 for the 15-mile reach, according to Don Anderson, a hydrologist with the recovery program. Wolford Reservoir, north of Kremmling, released 5,766 acre-feet for reach, while Granby Reservoir in Grand County released 5,413 acre-feet and Williams Fork Reservoir, east of Kremmling, released 234 acre-feet.

In all, that’s 94,216 acre feet of water sent down the Colorado River to the 15-mile reach. By comparison, Ruedi holds 102,373 acre feet of water.

Large diversions

The 94,000 acre feet of water sent to bolster flows in the 15-mile reach is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount taken out by the two largest diverters above the reach.

In 2016, state diversion records show that about 1 million acre-feet of water was diverted by the Grand Valley Project and the Grand Valley Irrigation Canal, although a portion of that was diverted to make electricity and was immediately returned to the river.

The big diverters on the river, which include the Grand Valley Irrigation Company, the Grand Valley Water Users Association, and the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, are, however, paying increasing attention to the 15-mile reach and do work cooperatively on a weekly conference call with officials at Fish and Wildlife and CWCB to manage flows.

The irrigators also have been working to improve the efficiency of their irrigation systems and are more willing than in past years to approve late-season releases of surplus water held in Green Mountain Reservoir, according to Michelle Garrison, a water resources specialist at the CWCB.

“So there is progress being made,” Garrison said.

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 coverage of rivers and water in the upper Colorado River basin.

@CWCB_DNR board approves lease with @UteWater for #ColoradoRiver endangered fish program — @AspenJournalism

Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program

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

Anglers on the Fryingpan River can expect again this year to see as much as 300 cubic feet per second of water released from Ruedi Reservoir in late summer and early fall to bolster flows in 15 miles of the Colorado River near Grand Junction to benefit endangered fish populations.

Water released from Ruedi flows down the Fryingpan to the Roaring Fork River and then into the Colorado River.

The directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board at a regular meeting on March 23 approved a third annual lease with the Ute Water Conservancy District that allows for CWCB to release 12,000 acre-feet of water from Ruedi at a cost of $86,400, or $7.20 per acre-foot.

Ute Water, which provides water to 80,000 people in the Grand Junction area, paid $15.6 million in 2013 to store 12,000 acre-feet of water in Ruedi each year. Ute Water considers its Ruedi water to be a backup supply, but since the water can also be used for environmental and “instream flow” purposes, it’s willing to lease it on a year-to-year basis to the CWCB.

In turn, the CWCB works with officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the release of water as part of the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program, which is working to maintain populations of four species of large native fish: the Colorado pikeminnow, the razorback sucker, the bonytail and the humpback chub.

For the third year in a row, state and federal water managers have pledged to release no more than 300 cfs of water from the Ute Water pool in Ruedi, and work to keep all flows in the Fryingpan under 350 cfs in order to preserve the wade-ability of the popular fly-fishing stream.

Flows of about 220 cfs are considered ideal for fly-fishing clients by two local commercial guide services working on the Fryingpan, and flows of about 300 cfs in late 2015 brought complaints of high water to the CWCB from guides and their clients.

But last year, anglers seem to have gone with the steady flow on the Fryingpan of just less than 300 cfs from mid-August to late September, as no formal complaints were lodged with the CWCB, according to Linda Bassi, chief of the agency’s stream and lake protection section.

Rick Lofaro, executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, said last year appeared to have gone OK on the river for wading clients.

“The flow stayed where they said it would and I did not hear any complaints,” Lofaro said via email. “However, I think people do mind, especially if the level exceeds 300. The two fly shops in town would be quick to register concern. So far, it seems to be working.”

Last year, a special meeting was held in the spring to discuss the pending releases of fish water from Ruedi. This year, after having contacted local stakeholders, the CWCB decided the issue could simply be discussed at the regular annual meeting on Ruedi operations held by the Bureau of Reclamation.

As the endangered fish do better with more water in the river, a key part of the recovery effort is keeping flows in the 15-mile reach at least as high as 1,240 cfs in an average year and 810 cfs in a dry year, although the target flow levels are often not met.

The 15-mile reach is depleted by two large irrigation diversions — the Grand Valley Project in DeBeque Canyon and the Grand Valley Irrigation Canal in Palisade. Last year during the critical months of August and September, they diverted at a steady rate of about 1,600 cfs, primarily to irrigate alfalfa, according to state records.

That level of diversion leaves about 400 cfs in the Colorado River, but the “fish water” sent downstream brings the river back toward the 1,000 cfs level.

In 2015, the first year of the lease with Ute Water, the CWCB and Fish and Wildlife released 9,000 acre feet from the total pool of 12,000 acre feet owned by Ute Water in Ruedi.

In 2016, after approving a second one-year lease, the two agencies released all of the 12,000 acre feet, with half of it flowing down the river between Aug. 27 and Sept. 11 and half released between Sept. 25 and Oct. 14.

Fish and Wildlife also has access to other pools of “fish water” in Ruedi, and all told in 2016 there were 27,413 acre feet of water released from Ruedi to the benefit of the endangered fish. But Ruedi is not the only source of water for the 15-mile reach.

Green Mountain Reservoir, located in the northern end of Summit County on the Blue River, released 55,390 acre feet in 2016 for the 15-mile reach, according to Don Anderson, a hydrologist with the recovery program. Wolford Reservoir, north of Kremmling, released 5,766 acre feet for reach, while Granby Reservoir in Grand County released 5,413 acre feet and Williams Fork Reservoir, east of Kremmling, released 234 acre feet.

In all, that’s 94,216 acre feet of water sent down the Colorado River to the 15-mile reach. By comparison, Ruedi holds 102,373 acre feet of water.

The 94,000 acre feet of water sent to bolster flows in the 15-mile reach is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount taken out by the two largest diverters above the reach.

In 2016, state diversion records show that about 1 million acre-feet of water were diverted by the Grand Valley Project and the Grand Valley Irrigation Canal, although a portion of that was diverted to make electricity and was immediately returned to the river.

The big diverters on the river, which include the Grand Valley Irrigation Company, the Grand Valley Water Users Association and the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, are, however, paying increasing attention to the 15-mile reach and do work cooperatively on a weekly conference call with officials at Fish and Wildlife and CWCB to manage flows.

The irrigators also have been working to improve the efficiency of their irrigation systems and are more willing than in past years to approve late-season releases of “surplus” water held in Green Mountain Reservoir, according to Michelle Garrison, a water resources specialist at the CWCB.

“So there is progress being made,” Garrison said.

Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Vail Daily and the Summit Daily News on coverage of rivers and water in the upper Colorado River basin. More at AspenJournalism.org.

Aspen claims Fry-Ark Project creates ‘obligation’ for Castle Creek Reservoir

Freddie Fisher in his 1954 Winterskol float. Fisher was a professional musician who ran a ramshackle fix-it shop and yard in Aspen and sent in a regular stream of witty letters to The Aspen Times. In the mid-1950s, the proposed Fryingpan-Arkansas project was being reviewed at the local, state and federal level, and Aspenites were concerned about the amount of water that would be diverted from the Roaring Fork River watershed, on top of the amount already being diverted by the Twin Lakes-Independence Pass project.
Freddie Fisher in his 1954 Winterskol float. Fisher was a professional musician who ran a ramshackle fix-it shop and yard in Aspen and sent in a regular stream of witty letters to The Aspen Times. In the mid-1950s, the proposed Fryingpan-Arkansas project was being reviewed at the local, state, and federal level, and Aspenites were concerned about the amount of water that would be diverted from the Roaring Fork River watershed, on top of the amount already being diverted by the Twin Lakes-Independence Pass project.

Editor’s note: The following is the fourth and final part in a series exploring the city of Aspen’s historic intent in filing for and maintaining conditional water rights for storage reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks.

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

ASPEN – The city of Aspen has said for decades that legislation approving the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project gives a certain status to the potential Castle Creek and Maroon Creek reservoirs.

However, it’s hard to discern just what that status is, and federal and regional water officials are dismissive of the city’s claims.

Built in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Fry-Ark Project is one of the larger transmountain diversion systems in Colorado. It diverts water from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, including Hunter, Midway, and No Name creeks, along with large amounts of water from the many tributaries in the headwaters of the Fryingpan River.

In all, the project includes 16 diversion structures that direct an average of 57,000 acre-feet of water a year to the Boustead Tunnel, which runs under the Continental Divide. The gathered water then flows to Turquoise Reservoir near Leadville and into the Arkansas River basin, serving both Front Range cities and agriculture on the eastern plains.

A key component of the Fry-Ark Project is Ruedi Reservoir above Basalt, which was built in the early 1960s as “compensatory storage” for Western Slope water users. Water collected in Ruedi does not flow to the East Slope.

Plans to divert water from the Fryingpan River date back to the 1930s, but the Fry-Ark Project as largely configured today was the result of intensive planning efforts and discussions that took place throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.

Aspenites in the 1950s were well aware of the looming Fry-Ark Project, especially as the Twin Lakes-Independence Pass project, built in the 1930s, was already diverting large amounts of water off the top of the Roaring Fork River.

For example, in the 1954 Winterskol parade, local musician, letter-to-the-editor writer and junkyard operator Freddie Fisher created a witty float about the looming “rape of the Roaring Fork” that featured himself sitting in a bathtub-boat on skis while pondering the question, “Who pulled the plug?”

A detail of the cover of a 1975 EIS on the Fry-Ark Project that was prepared the Bureau of Reclamation.
A detail of the cover of a 1975 EIS on the Fry-Ark Project that was prepared by the Bureau of Reclamation.

In the legislation

As the city is often quick to point out, the federal Fry-Ark legislation does in fact state that a feasibility report on a reservoir on a “tributary of the Roaring Fork River” should be prepared by the Department of the Interior; and if such a reservoir made economic sense, then the feasibility report should be submitted to Congress for review.

“The secretary [of Interior] shall investigate and prepare a report on the feasibility of a replacement reservoir at or near the Ashcroft site on Castle Creek, a tributary of the Roaring Fork River above its confluence with the Fryingpan River with a capacity of approximately 5,000 acre-feet,” the authorizing legislation states, “but construction thereof shall not be commenced unless said report, which shall be submitted to the president and the Congress, demonstrates the feasibility of said reservoir and is approved by Congress.”

The city maintains that the language, “at or near the Ashcroft site on Castle Creek,” still pertains to the potential Castle Creek Reservoir two miles below Ashcroft.

The operating principles for the Fry-Ark Project, which were hashed out by both entities on both sides of the Continental Divide, also address Ashcroft Reservoir.

“The Ruedi Reservoir shall be constructed and maintained on the Fryingpan River above the town of Basalt with an active capacity of not less than 100,00 acre-feet,” the principles state. “In addition thereto and in order to offset adverse streamflow conditions on the Roaring Fork River above the town of Aspen which might occur as a result of the project enlargement of the Twin Lakes Reservoir, the Ashcroft Reservoir on Castle Creek, or some reservoir in lieu thereof, shall be constructed on the Roaring Fork drainage above Aspen to a capacity of approximately 5,000 acre-feet: Providing, however, That the Ashcroft Reservoir shall be constructed only if the Secretary of the Interior after appropriate study shall determine that its benefits exceed the costs … ”

It also further defines Ashcroft Reservoir by stating that “‘Ashcroft Reservoir’ means not only the reservoir contemplated for construction on Castle Creek, a tributary of the Roaring Fork River, but also, unless the context requires otherwise, any other reservoir that may be constructed in the Roaring Fork Basin above the town of Aspen in lieu of that reservoir.”

To better understand the city’s claim, it’s instructive to view the potential Castle Creek Reservoir as “son-of” Ashcroft Reservoir, which in turn is “son-of” Aspen Reservoir.

For much of the long planning stage of the Fry-Ark Project, it included an “Aspen Reservoir,” which would have stored 28,000 acre-feet of water behind a tall dam at the bottom of the North Star-Stillwater section of the Roaring Fork River, just east of Aspen.

However, opposition to the Aspen Reservoir, primarily from James H. Smith Jr., owner of the North Star Ranch in Aspen, eventually caused Ruedi Reservoir above Basalt to be built instead of Aspen Reservoir.

One of the reasons Aspen Reservoir was attractive to water planners at the time was that it could be used to fill in low flows in the Roaring Fork River below the Salvation Ditch, a large irrigation ditch that diverts water at Stillwater Drive, near the entrance to Mountain Valley.

The combination of the Salvation Ditch, the Independence Pass diversions from the 1930s, and the coming Fry-Ark diversions meant the Fork through Aspen would be often dropped to exceedingly low levels, which is often the case today. And so it was felt that a compensatory reservoir east of Aspen, above the Salvation Ditch, would help keep more water, and fish, in the river.

But opposition by Smith, who was well connected in Washington, D.C., having served as assistant secretary of the Navy for aviation, helped kill the idea of Aspen Reservoir.

In the wake of the decision to abandon Aspen Reservoir, local, state, and federal water officials agreed to include a mention of another potential reservoir, Ashcroft Reservoir, or an alternate nearby reservoir, in the authorizing legislation for the Fry-Ark Project, as something of a consolation prize for Aspen.

Ashcroft Reservoir was once envisioned to be formed by a 140-foot-tall dam near the Elk Mountain Lodge property that would back up 9,056.7 acre-feet of water behind it.

The water right tied to Ashcroft Reservoir was eventually cancelled for lack of adequate due diligence in the 1970s, but today the city of Aspen still considers Castle Creek Reservoir, which is designed to hold 9,062 acre feet, to be the legitimate offspring, at least in the context of the Fry-Ark Project, of Ashcroft Reservoir.

But officials at the Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, and the Southeastern Water Conservancy District all say that the language in the Fry-Ark approvals has no direct bearing today on either of the two potential reservoirs that Aspen says it still intends to build someday when necessary.

A large portion of the meadow in the North Star nature preserve east of Aspen was flooded in June 2015. The expanse of water offers a glimpse of what the long-planned Aspen Reservoir might have looked like.
A large portion of the meadow in the North Star nature preserve east of Aspen was flooded in June 2015. The expanse of water offers a glimpse of what the long-planned Aspen Reservoir might have looked like.

An ‘unmet obligation’

Officials at the city of Aspen, speaking on background, have characterized the tie to Fry-Ark Project as an “unmet obligation” to the city. The obligation, as the city sees it, is to at least prepare a feasibility study of a reservoir on a tributary of the Roaring Fork River.

That “obligation” has been referenced a number of different ways over the years by the city, including most recently on Oct. 10, 2016, when Aspen City Council unanimously approved a resolution declaring their intent to file a diligence application this year for the conditional water rights it holds tied to potential reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks.

“Whereas, when these water rights were appropriated, this reservoir storage was an important component of Aspen’s long term water supply plan, particularly since the Fryingpan-Arkansas project was proceeding without the originally planned compensatory storage reservoir on the upper Roaring Fork River,” the council’s 2016 resolution stated.

The city filed two diligence applications on Oct. 31, one for Castle Creek Reservoir and one for Maroon Creek Reservoir. As of Wednesday afternoon, three environmental groups and three private landowners had filed statements of opposition in the cases, and Pitkin County, the U.S. Forest Service, and Trout Unlimited are expected to file statements by the end of the week.

American Rivers, Wilderness Workshop, and Western Resource Advocates have filed statements in both cases. In the Maroon Creek case, Roaring Fork Land and Cattle Co., which is controlled by billionaires Tom and Margot Pritzker, filed a statement. And in the Castle Creek case, Double R Creek Ltd and Asp Properties LLC filed statements. Double R Creek is controlled by Robert Y.C. Ho of Hong Kong and Asp Properties is controlled by Charles Somers, the CEO of SBM, a building services company located in McClellan, Calif.

Here’s how the city described the Fry-Ark relationship to the Division 5 Water Court in 2010, during the most recent diligence review of the water rights for the potential Castle Creek and Maroon Creek reservoirs:

“The Frying Pan-Arkansas Project, authorized by legislation dated August 16, 1962, authorized construction, operation and maintenance of a replacement reservoir on Castle Creek to furnish water required for protection of western Colorado water users,” states a proposed decree from the city’s water attorneys. “This reservoir was contemplated to have a capacity of 5,000 acre-feet, but this reservoir was never built.”

But not everyone agrees that the Fry-Ark legislation “authorized construction, operation and maintenance” of a reservoir on Castle Creek.

The city in 2010 also told the state there was a direct link between the Fry-Ark Project and its potential Castle Creek and Maroon Creek reservoirs.

“In 1965, taking precautions to ensure that its water rights were protected in the event the Frying Pan-Arkansas Project reservoir was in fact never built on Castle Creek, the city of Aspen filed applications seeking its own conditional water rights for storage on Castle Creek and Maroon Creek, i.e., the Castle Creek Reservoir and Maroon Creek Reservoir water rights for which diligence is sought herein,” the city’s 2010 diligence filing stated.

And in a 1990 water management plan, the city stated that “the authorizing act and operating principles of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project require the Bureau of Reclamation to prepare a feasibility study on a reservoir of up to 5,000 acre feet, in order to offset adverse streamflow conditions in the Roaring Fork River above Aspen.”

But while a feasibility study may be called for in the Fry-Ark legislation, it is difficult to find anyone outside of the city of Aspen who thinks the call is still relevant.

The end of the tunnel that delivers water diverted from Hunter, Midway and No Name creeks as part of the Fry-Ark Project. The City of Aspen says their is a lingering unmet obligation in the Fry-Ark Project to study the potential Castle Creek Reservoir.
The end of the tunnel that delivers water diverted from Hunter, Midway, and No Name creeks as part of the Fry-Ark Project. The city of Aspen says there is a lingering unmet obligation in the Fry-Ark Project to study the potential Castle Creek Reservoir.

Ancient history?

Sterling Rech, a public affairs manager with the Bureau of Reclamation, recently said, in response to questions about the city’s claim, that the Fry-Ark legislation “requested an investigation but explicitly did not authorize Ashcroft Reservoir unless the report demonstrated feasibility and subsequently, Congress approved it. There is no record of that approval in Reclamation law.”

Rech was asked to double-check with senior Reclamation officials on the point, and after doing so, stood by his statement that the Fry-Ark Project “did not authorize” a reservoir in the Castle Creek valley.

Given that officials at Reclamation would be the ones within the Interior Department to prepare a feasibility study on Castle Creek Reservoir, this would seem to be relevant to the city’s position.

Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the Colorado River District, said the mention of the Ashcroft Reservoir in the Fry-Ark legislation, or a nearby reservoir in lieu of it, “is ancient history versus current events.”

The River District played a key role in developing the operating principles that still guide the Fry-Ark Project. And it’s the entity that originally filed for the conditional water rights on Ashcroft Reservoir in 1959.

“Being mentioned and studied in the context of the Fry-Ark does not bestow anything special at this point in time,” Pokrandt said of the city’s claim.

Chris Woodka, the issues manager for the Southeastern Water Conservancy District, had a similar take. Southeastern was created explicitly to manage the water diverted by the Fry-Ark Project and was instrumental in shaping its authorizing documents.

But Woodka also dismissed any link between the potential Castle Creek Reservoir and the Fry-Ark Project.

“It really doesn’t have a direct connection anymore to the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project,” Woodka said.

However, city officials still beg to differ.

The outfall of the Bousted Tunnel, which delivers water from the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers to the East Slope.
The outfall of the Boustead Tunnel, which delivers water from the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers to the East Slope.

Feds still obligated?

Officials at the city say, on background, that it is clear that a reservoir on a tributary of the Roaring Fork — somewhere above Aspen — was included in the Fry-Ark authorizing legislation, and it was done so by none other than legendary West Slope Congressman Wayne Aspinall, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1949-1973.

And the city says that the obligation still remains for the Department of the Interior to conduct a feasibility study on such a reservoir.

City officials also point to a 2007 letter in regard to potential federal approval of new reservoirs in the Arkansas River basin to hold water diverted from the Fry-Ark project.

In that letter, the city and Pitkin County told the federal government that if it was going to study new reservoirs on the East Slope, it should also study reservoirs on the Western Slope, and by implication, the Ashcroft Reservoir or its successor, Castle Creek Reservoir.

“It is important that the Western Slope’s present and future water supply and storage requirements (for both consumptive and non-consumptive uses) be placed on a par with those of the Eastern Slope and included in all discussions on H.R. 1833,” the city and Pitkin County wrote in a letter to Congressman John Salazar in 2007 regarding pending legislation for the PSOP project, or Preferred Storage Options Plan. “Any feasibility study resulting from H.R. 1833 must address Western Colorado’s present and future regional water needs, not just investigate ways to mitigate impacts from an increase in trans-mountain diversions.”

According to city officials, the city felt it had leverage to ask for such a study because of the language regarding Ashcroft Reservoir in the Fry-Ark legislation. And that a study of Western Slope storage would have had to look at reservoirs such as Castle Creek Reservoir.

Be that as it may, the city’s claim of a lingering obligation in the Fry-Ark project is still out there, but with no clear resolution of how much standing it gives, or might someday give, the Castle and Maroon creek reservoirs.

One reason it is uncertain is that the city has never directly asked the Department of the Interior to produce a feasibility study on the Ashcroft Reservoir, or a successor, based on the obligation claimed by the city in the Fry-Ark legislation.

As such, the “unmet obligation,” if it exists, is still outstanding. And city officials say they’ll see what value it has at some point in the future.

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