Aspen and Pitkin in IGA to study Roaring Fork river health

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 The Aspen Times (Collin Szewczyk):

Pitkin County agreed to an intergovernmental agreement last week with the city of Aspen to expedite a study that aims to assess the health of the Roaring Fork River from its origin high atop Independence Pass down to where it meets Maroon Creek.

The $200,000 Upper Roaring Fork River management plan will be funded evenly by the two entities, and address feasible changes to improve the river ecosystem’s health including return flows to keep water levels up. The project will last roughly 15 months, ending in July 2017.

The project will focus on the river’s health; assess the community’s values and expectations; and look into river management objectives during periods of critical flow, a county memo noted. The goal of the study is to improve water quality, recreational opportunities, riparian habitat, and the overall health of the river and surrounding ecosystem.

John Ely, county attorney, said the study will look at water rights and development potential to “assess the ability to coordinate the competing interests to improve or enhance the health of the upper Roaring Fork.”

The study will cover river health from Independence Lake to just below Maroon Creek.

Ely said the county’s $100,000 will be contributed from both the Open Space and Trails and Healthy Rivers and Streams funds. Both of those entities’ boards are supportive of the project and related costs.

April Long, stormwater manager for the city and project manager for the endeavor, told the 
commissioners that a goal is to determine “realistic view of river health” for the community.

“The health of this section of the Roaring Fork has been on the city’s mind for quite a while now,” she said. “We’ve developed a pretty substantial stormwater management program to improve the runoff from the city areas and from private development before it gets into the river.”

Long added that other issues the river faces include degraded riparian areas and the lack of water during critical times of the year.

“In drought years, like we saw in 2002 and 2012, this section of the river can almost run dry,” she said. “It runs dry enough for you to walk across it without getting your feet wet. That has significant impacts for our aquatic life.”

Long added that the project will have benefits to the entire area, and not just within the city of Aspen. She said stakeholder opinions will be sought to determine what constitutes a healthy river.

Carbondale-based Lotic Hydrological, which recently completed a management plan on the Crystal River, has been hired as consultant for the project.

Long added that all prior river data will be utilized in the study.

“This isn’t a restudy of what is a healthy river, this is using all of the information that comes from different consultants [and county studies],” she said. “Given that everybody thinks there’s these different pieces that make a healthy river, what is actually realistic? What can we make change on? … We want the community to understand that these are the opportunities for a healthy river.”

Commissioner George Newman noted that the county doesn’t want to simply match the current state minimum standards for a healthy river.

“They’re probably woefully [inept] and not going to really address our vision in terms of what makes up or determines a healthy river or stream,” he said.

Long said that while the state’s minimum standards are not viewed as being too low, the community may have higher standards.

“It may be that our community believes we should be striving for more,” she said. “This would actually look at not just striving for more, but what can we actually get done. We may not even be able to meet the minimum in-stream flow at times, therefore what should we be striving for if we can’t get even to that? What is realistic that we can get to?”

The commissioners unanimously approved the emergency ordinance, 3-0.

“For a variety of different events beyond anybody’s control, we were kind of behind the eight ball in getting the project up and running,” Ely said of the ordinance. “If we were to wait and put this on a normal schedule, we’d be further behind.”

He added that even though the terms of the IGA haven’t yet been finalized, it was best to act now.

“At least we have immediate expression of commitment to the project,” Ely said.

The IGA will return before the BOCC for a public hearing on June 22.

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