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.
Projects to clean up Fountain Creek will resume this fall, after danger of flooding has subsided.
At least two projects are anticipated. One would remove debris from the channel between Eighth Street and Colorado 47, while the other would reconstruct the access road and embankment on a side detention pond behind the North Side Walmart.
“Getting debris out of the channel is the first priority,” said Jeff Bailey, Pueblo stormwater manager. “The debris that gets in there can cause havoc, and it’s the reason we lost the embankment.”
Work will have to wait until water goes down and there’s less danger of flooding.
“We’re in the flood season, and you don’t want to have equipment sitting in the creek if something happens,” Bailey said. “Also, in the summer, the vegetation is thick and your equipment can overheat. We’ll wait until the flows go down.”
The city has started cleaning up debris north of the Colorado 47 bridge, in order to reduce the chances that the detention pond could be further damaged. Some of the trees obstructing the Eighth Street bridge also were removed, although sediment still is clogging portals under the bridge.
The dredging will get a boost from a $279,000 project funded by Pueblo County, the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Pueblo County and the Lower Ark are chipping in $100,000 each; Fountain, $74,000; and the state $5,000.
The project is the brainchild of Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Ark district, and is similar to a project at North La Junta on the Arkansas River. The idea is to temporarily clear the channel at relatively little cost.
“It shouldn’t cost millions of dollars for routine maintenance,” Winner said. “What we will find, if we can get rid of the debris, is that we will pass the water through more quickly without flooding and get the water downstream to farmers.”
Long-term projects can be more costly, such as the Army Corps of Engineers’ $750,000 project to fortify Fountain Creek at the railroad tracks near 13th Street. That project rebuilt an earlier $500,000 project that began to wash out during last year’s floods. The detention pond and a sediment collector that were installed in 2011 as demonstration projects cost $1.5 million and are not working well.
Bailey is not sure how $3 million in payments over three years from Colorado Springs Utilities would be used. Under the April stormwater agreement between Colorado Springs and Pueblo County, the money is available if it is matched by the city of Pueblo. Pueblo can use $1.8 million previously paid to the county by Utilities for its share of the match.
“I have a pretty good idea of the types of projects: to recertify the levee, and for removal of debris, vegetation and silt,” Bailey said. “I want to make darned sure we’re using it for the purposes it was intended for in the right way.”
Click here to go to the website. Here’s an excerpt:
The Grand County Learning By Doing Cooperative Effort (LBD) is a unique partnership of East and West Slope water stakeholders in Colorado.
LBD emerged from the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, a five-year negotiation that became effective in 2013 and will be fully implemented with the successful construction of the Moffat Collection System and Windy Gap Firming Project. The agreement establishes a long-term partnership between Denver Water and Colorado’s West Slope, including several water utilities, nonprofit organizations and government agencies.
A Governance Committee oversees the LBD activities, with one voting member from each of these organizations:
Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Colorado River District
Middle Park Water Conservancy District
Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District
A Technical Committee, made up of representatives from the Governance organizations, as well as government agencies, regional water utilities and other partners, advises on LBD efforts and activities.
State legislators in Colorado rarely vote unanimously, and when they do it’s usually in support of a pom-pom proclamation such as espousing eternal support for the Denver Broncos or some other feel-good cause.
The Colorado Water Rights Protection Act was approved unanimously this spring before being signed into law April 21 by Gov. John Hickenlooper. The unanimity, however, glosses over strong disagreements.
The Boulder-based law firm that drove the proposal needed three years to get it approved. Then, once it was passed, an environmental group that helped craft the law’s language declined to be interviewed, because it was, in the words of a spokeswoman for Conservation Colorado, “neutral” about what the law says.
Welcome to the wonky, sometimes wacky, world of Colorado water.
This new law is frequently described as a “message.” It tells the federal government that Colorado has sovereignty over all matters involving water appropriations.
The rub lies in water on federal lands. A majority of Colorado’s 14 million acre-feet of water originates on federal lands, which cover near 36 percent of the state’s land mass. Should the federal land agencies have just a little say say-so in how diversions affect ecosystem functions?
Bypass flows have caused the quiet argument. In some cases, the Forest Service requires small amounts of water remain in creeks and rivers when issuing special-use permits or rights of way for diversion infrastructure such as dams, ditches, and pipes. The Forest Service cites the need for resource protection. Bugs need water, and fish needs bugs. They also need water, too. Most creatures do.
Near Winter Park, bypass requirements govern diversions from Vasquez and St. Louis creeks by Denver Water. Another requirement mandates bypass flows from Strontia Springs Dam, on the South Platte River southwest of Denver. Still another involves a hydroelectric facility near Georgetown.
The authority, however, lies in contested territory. In 2004, a district court judge agreed with Trout Unlimited that the Forest Service not only has bypass flow authority but also responsibility in some cases to use that authority. A higher federal court took on the case, but ruled on procedural issues, not the substance of the case.
But environmental groups stood by quietly when the Forest Service in 2011 said that ski areas, as a condition of their permits to operate on federal land, had to transfer their water rights to the agency. The reasoning was that water is a critical component of ski area operations, such as for snowmaking. The agency wanted the water rights to be attached to the special-use permit.
That’s really no different than Colorado’s requirement of state school trust lands leased for agriculture. These are the lands—a section in each township—given by the federal government to Colorado at statehood, in 1876, to be managed for income to benefit public schools. There are now about three million acres. Water rights used in agriculture must be transferred to the state when the land is leased.
The ski industry loudly opposed the Forest Service requirement. If a ski area figures out how to make snow with less water, for example, why shouldn’t it be able to move the water elsewhere? Too, some water used at ski areas comes from elsewhere. Both Aspen and Vail, for example, use water that originates in rivers at their bases. Finally, late last year, the Forest Service threw in the towel.
The Forest Service also retreated from a directive declaring that the agency has control over groundwater underlying its lands.
The dividing line
Glenn Porzak, a Boulder-based water attorney who was behind the new law, is adamant that the federal government has no role in determining water allocations in Colorado. “The only way you own that water is if you go through (state) water court,” says Porzak, who has for decades represented many ski areas and other water agencies in the Vail-Summit County area.
Western Resource Advocates, a leading environmental organization, was unwilling to stand by the Forest Service in the tiff with ski areas. Rob Harris, the group’s senior staff attorney, says the Forest Service over-reached, likening it to “poking them in the eye a little bit.”
But the group stood firm that it would oppose any state water rights law that rejected bypass flow authority. “We view the legal question as being well settled,” says Harris, pointing to the 2004 decision by the federal district court. “Most people would be depressed if they went to their favorite tract of national forest and found that the creek was dry,” he adds.
Rep. KC Becker oversaw the compromise. A Democrat from Boulder, her district has key parties on both side of the issue as well as the Eldora, Loveland and Winter Park ski areas. It also includes Grand County. Along with Summit and Eagle counties, it bears the brunt of transmountain diversions from the Western Slope. The three counties said in March that they were ready to oppose the bill if it constricted their ability to impose conditions on diversions. Language favored by the state attorney general’s office would have potentially allowed water diverters to sue Grand County for “takings” of property, said the county’s water attorney, David Taussig.
Leaving water in creeks at certain times and situations was integral to Grand County’s support of Denver’s stepped-up diversions through the Moffat Tunnel to Gross Reservoir. The concept, supported by Denver, is that when water is diverted is equally important to how much. In hot, dry weather, added diversions could leave the Fraser River too shallow and warm for fish.
What does it accomplish?
Even in headwaters counties, some heralded the new law. Rick Sackbauer, who chairs the board of the Vail-based Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, called it a “great victory for water right holders in the Eagle River valley and throughout Colorado.”
Greg Walcher, former director of the state’s Department of Natural Resources under Gov. Bill Owens, said the law “signals the state attorney general, and state agencies, that they are not only cleared, but encouraged, to take legal action when Colorado water rights are threatened by federal overreach.”
The law’s one shortcoming, said Walcher in his op/ed in the Grand Junction Sentinel, was that it was “watered down” by the neutral language about bypass flows.
That neutrality is why Becker, the bill’s primary sponsor, thinks environmental groups should be happy with the law, too. Not all of them are, though.
“My guess is that no one on the D(emocrat) side wanted any daylight between them and the citizens of the state on this, no matter how they feel about it deep down,” said one knowledgeable individual, concerned about job security. “The feds are everyone’s favorite whipping boy on just about everything, and especially water.”
“All true,” said Chris Treese, legislative affairs director for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, when he was read these words.
Treese doubts Colorado’s message law will resolve anything. Tension between the state and the federal government over water will remain. “This will continue to be an issue and a question of perspective.”
The bigger issue is the sufficiency of flows for environmental purposes. Laws adopted in the early 1970s have resulted in water rights called instream flows for environmental protection. They serve the same purpose as the federal government’s bypass flows, argues Porzak, the attorney who works on behalf of ski area interests.
Others think far more must be done. In the dry summer of 2012, for example, the South Platte River was reduced to small puddles downstream from diversions for electrical production and farm ditches. The Yampa River through Steamboat Springs looked no better until an agreement was struck that July to return flows.
But linking arms with federal agencies to secure water is always going to be looked upon with suspicion in Colorado. If the Broncos are the state’s de facto religion, state administration under the doctrine of prior appropriation ranks close behind. Even the water that flows out of the Eisenhower Tunnel has an owner and a priority date adjudicated by a state court.
It’s why legislators took so many years to pass the law making it legal to put a coffee can under your back porch to collect dripping rain. The rain barrels were a matter of principle.
If climate change renders the Western Slope warmer and drier, and if historic growth rates keep up, then Aspen’s water utility could have trouble meeting consumer demand without depleting minimum in-stream flows in Castle and Maroon creeks over the next 50 years.
Aspen City Council on Monday heard a presentation from consultants hired to evaluate the adequacy of the municipal water supply. Wilson Water Group put together a report forecasting demand and available supply over a 50-year outlook, and found that in the worst-case climate change scenario, the city could miss in-stream flow targets on Castle and Maroon creeks by between 4 and 9 cubic feet per second during the “irrigation months” of June through September.
The city has committed to a 13 cfs minimum flow in Castle Creek, and 14 cfs in Maroon. Both creeks are tapped to feed municipal needs through diversion structures that send water to Thomas Reservoir, a holding bay for the city’s treatment plant.
Even if the worst-case scenario projections come to pass in terms of climate change and population growth — demands on the city’s water system historically have risen by about 1.2 percent a year, according to special projects utilities engineer Phil Overeynder — the city has other ways to shore up its water supply.
One project that has been on the drawing board for years would pump treated wastewater uphill from the sanitation plant to irrigate the city’s golf course.
The city also controls three wells in town drawing from the local aquifer. If irrigation for city parks increasingly relied on those wells, then more water could be left in Castle and Maroon creeks.
Combined with more water conservation, or restrictions in drought years, depletion of in-stream flows could be avoided, consultants report.
City council agreed to adopt the 2016 Water Supply Availability Study, and continue monitoring hydrologic conditions.
Council also heard a presentation on Monday from another consultant that analyzed threats to the water supply and water quality. Given that Aspen’s water originates in high mountain valleys, wildfire poses perhaps the most imminent and hazardous threat. A bad fire in the Castle or Maroon watersheds could be detrimental to water quality in those streams, and subsequent mudslides could also cause problems.
There is also the abandoned Pitkin Iron Mine above Ashcroft that drains into Copper Creek, a Castle Creek tributary.
The Colorado Rural Water Association conducted a study for the city assessing the best ways to mitigate these threats.
Creating a buffer zone against wildfire near the diversion structures on Castle and Maroon creeks, while continuing to develop plans to limit wildfire debris flow into Thomas Reservoir, were among the study’s top recommendations.
More work to control erosion at the Pitkin Iron Mine site was also recommended. However, the consultant noted that the Pitkin Iron Mine did not make the list of the state’s 200 most pressing mine cleanup needs.
A documentary screening about the Dolores River was followed by a lively forum about the issue of low flows below McPhee Dam.
“River of Sorrows” was commissioned by the Dolores River Boating Advocates to highlight the plight of the Lower Dolores River.
The new film, which is for sale on the DRBA website for $10, had several showings April 30 at the Sunflower Theatre.
A panel answered questions from a moderator and from the audience. The panel included Josh Munson of the DRBA; Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District; Eric White of the Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch; Mike Japhet, a retired aquatic biologist with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife; and Amber Clark, of the Dolores River Dialogue.
What are the major challenges facing the Dolores River and what are the solutions for addressing those challenges?
Munson said the challenge is for people to see there are beneficial uses to Dolores River water other than just farming, such as for fishery health and boating. Changing the water rights system to allow individuals to sell or lease their water allocation so it stays in the river is one solution.
“Other uses helps to diversify the economy,” he said.
Preston said a major challenge is managing the reservoir in drought conditions. He said the goal is maximizing efficiencies in order to improve carryover in the reservoir year to year.
“High storage lifts all boats, including for recreation,” he said.
White said the film missed the compromises the Ute Mountain Ute tribe has made regarding water rights.
“Our allocation has dropped,” he said. “The tribe has fought for our water rights for a long time.”
Japhet said low flows below the dam are threatening three native fish: the flannelhead sucker, bluehead sucker, and roundtail chub.
“They have been declining precipitously,” he said.
Japhet called for more flexibility in how water reserved for fish and wildlife is managed out of McPhee. For example, 850 acre-feet diverted to the Simon Draw wetlands could be used to augment low flows on the Lower Dolores to help fish.
Clark said the big picture solution need to be collaborative and local, “or somebody from outside will find a solution for us.”
The group revealed the difficulty in finding a compromise that improves the downstream fishery and recreation boating but does not threaten the local agricultural economy.
“Use if or lose it water doctrine is a waste of water resources for farmers and conservationists,” Munson said. “The system does not allow for an individual to lease their water” for instream purposes.
Preston pointed out that in the last eight years, there has been four years where there was a release from the dam. The last one was in 2011, and this year a spill is uncertain.
“We are four for four. When we have excess water we release for boating and the fishery,” he said.
Japhet said the “elephant in the room” is if one of the three native fish species is petitioned for listing on the endangered species list.
“It would cause the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to take a very close look at what is going on with the water and fish resource,” he said. “The best solution is to be proactive and work something out locally to avoid a federal mandate telling us what to do.”
An audience member asked if the river itself has a right to water. Preston said the state instream flow program designates minimum flows for the river, including a 900 cfs below the confluence with the San Miguel. Below the dam the instream flow designation is 78 cfs.
“The river has a right to water, the fact that it was once wild should stay in people’s minds,” Munson replied. “The place itself has a beneficial use for fish, birds, otters. It’s recreation provides a way to make a living.”
Betty Ann Kohlner expressed concerns about McPhee water being used for hydraulic fracturing used for drilling natural gas.
Preston said about 4,000 acre-feet is available in McPhee for municipal and industrial purposes, including for fracking. But, he said, There has been limited use of the water for that purpose.
“If you can lease water to frack, why can’t water be leased for recreation and fish needs downstream from willing owners?” responded one man. “There is a contradiction in how we apply our understanding of how we should use water.”
Don Schwindt, of the DWCD board, pointed out that the Dolores River is part of the Colorado River compact that divides the state’s river water with several downstream states.
“Two thirds of the state’s water is required to leave by compact, and as it leaves it is available in the streams,” he said. “That two-thirds is more dominate than agricultural use.”