Opposition growing to 
Aspen’s conditional water rights for dams on Maroon and Castle creeks

A view of the Maroon Bells from just below the confluence of East Maroon and West Maroon creeks, where the City of Aspen has told the state of Colorado it intends - at some point - to build a 155-foot-tall dam. The resulting reservoir would back up 4,567 acre-feet of water and cover 80 acres of USFS land, including a portion of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
A view of the Maroon Bells from just below the confluence of East Maroon and West Maroon creeks, where the city of Aspen has told the state of Colorado it intends – at some point – to build a 155-foot-tall dam. The resulting reservoir would back up 4,567 acre-feet of water and cover 80 acres of USFS land, including a portion of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

ASPEN – A representative of the U.S. Forest Service told Aspen City Council Tuesday that the federal agency is likely to oppose the city if it files to extend conditional water rights it holds for dams on upper Maroon and Castle creeks.

The city has until Oct. 31 to submit a due diligence filing in Division 5 water court in Glenwood Springs to keep its conditional water rights alive for another six years, and the council held a work session Tuesday where it took public comment on the issue.

Kevin Warner, who is serving as the acting district ranger in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, said legal counsel for the Forest Service at the regional level had advised him that the federal agency would likely submit a statement of opposition if the city filed to extend its conditional water rights.

He said that given the city’s ongoing exploration of whether or not it should seek to renew its conditional water rights, the Forest Service also took an “in-depth” look at the rights.

“In this instance, we’ve taken a little more time, looked into it,” Warner told the council. “And based on advice from our counsel, we are considering filing a statement of opposition to this diligence filing.”

If built as currently described by the conditional water rights, the Maroon Creek Reservoir would store 4,567 acre-feet of water behind a 155-foot-tall dam, just below the confluence of East Maroon and West Maroon creeks.

The Maroon Creek Reservoir would cover 85 acres of Forest Service land about a mile and a half below Maroon Lake. The reservoir would also inundate portions of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

The potential Castle Creek Reservoir would hold 9,062 acre-feet of water behind a 170-foot-tall dam located about two miles below the ghost town of Ashcroft.

The reservoir, inundating 120 acres, would affect mostly private land but would also flood some Forest Service land within the wilderness.

The city originally filed for the water rights in 1965, citing an expectation that it would need to build at least one of the reservoirs by 1970 to meet demands for water.

In its last diligence filing in 2009, the city told the water court “it has steadily applied effort to complete the appropriation of this water right in a reasonably expedient and efficient manner.”

On Tuesday, the city’s director of utilities and environmental initiatives, David Hornbacher, told the city council there could be a gap in the future between the city’s water supply and demand, especially given 
climate change, but he did not cite the specific size of the perceived gap, or how the potential reservoirs would be used to meet it.

He did, however, recommend that the city file an application in water court to maintain its conditional water rights and then look at alternatives.

A draft resolution put forward by city staff says “the city should also continue to further investigate alternative locations and sizing requirements of the Maroon Creek Reservoir and/or Castle Creek Reservoir, and, if appropriate, seek water court approval for modification of one or both conditional decrees, with their existing appropriation dates.”

A view of one of the many wetlands in the Castle Creek valley that would be flooded by a potential Castle Creek Reservoir. The U.S. Forest Service has advised the city of Aspen that its potential reservoirs would conflict with management plans for the White River National Forest.
A view of one of the many wetlands in the Castle Creek valley that would be flooded by a potential Castle Creek Reservoir. The U.S. Forest Service has advised the city of Aspen that its potential reservoirs would conflict with management plans for the White River National Forest.

Not compatible with USFS 
management plan

Art Daily, a member of the Aspen City Council and a veteran attorney with Holland and Hart in Aspen, asked Warner during Tuesday’s work session whether the Forest Service viewed filing a statement of opposition in water court as an “opportunity” or a “responsibility.”

Statements of opposition in water court cases do not always reflect a party’s intent in the case. A statement could be simply a way to monitor court proceedings, or it could signal intent to litigate against a proposed water right.

In response to Daily’s question, Warner said the agency saw it as a responsibility to oppose the city, rather than an opportunity.

Warner said the Forest Service’s opposition to the city’s water rights was based on the fact that the reservoirs would inundate portions of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

“Based on our understanding of the Wilderness Act, and the fact that there was no exception built into the designation for the Maroon-Bells Wilderness Area … it would need to go to the president” in order for the reservoirs to be approved, Warner said.

Without such an authorization, the Forest Service could not support the city’s conditional water rights.

“It is nothing against this particular one, it’s just a legal thing,” Warner told the council. “It is kind of our opportunity in the court system to say, ‘You guys would have to get this done,’ and therefore it is kind out of our control.”

Will Roush, conservation director at Wilderness Workshop in Carbondale, told the city council in an Aug. 19 letter that no president has granted such an exemption to the Wilderness Act since it was approved 52 years ago.

Roush wrote, “the city would have to convince the president of the Unites States that the ability of Aspen residents and second homeowners to water their lawns in late summer was of a greater national interest than the internationally recognized ecological and scenic values of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.”

He also urged the city, on behalf of Wilderness Workshop, to abandon its conditional water rights.

This is not the first time the Forest Service has warned the city of Aspen that its proposed dams and reservoirs conflict with federal policy.

In 2009, the last time the city filed to extend its conditional water rights, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams sent the city a letter about its conditional water rights, but did not file a statement of opposition.

“As currently decreed, the locations of the Castle Creek and Maroon Creek reservoirs would not comply with the goals and objectives of the White River National Forest’s land and resource management plans for these areas,” Fitzwilliams wrote. “For example, the Maroon Creek Reservoir, as currently sited, would not be compatible with the specific management of the highly visited area for the protection of its high scenic value. Both proposed structures would conflict with our management objective to maintain or improve long-term riparian ecosystem conditions on the forest.”

A map showing the location of the potential Castle Creek Reservoir. The extend of the reservoir has been slightly modified to flood a smaller portion of private property owned by adjacent neighbors.
A map showing the location of the potential Castle Creek Reservoir. The extent of the reservoir has been slightly modified to flood a smaller portion of private property owned by adjacent neighbors.

County in question

In addition to the likely pushback from the Forest Service, American Rivers has also stated it will oppose the city in water court.

“American Rivers strongly encourages the city of Aspen to not file to maintain its conditional water rights for new dams on Castle and Maroon creeks,” wrote Matt Rice, the director of the Colorado River basin program for American Rivers on Aug. 17. “Aspen does not need these dams for municipal water supply, climate resiliency, or for stream protection now or at any time in the foreseeable future.”

Last month, Rice also said in an interview that American Rivers would oppose the city in water court if it filed to extend the conditional water rights.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy also weighed in with an Aug. 25 letter to the council, arguing that based on relevant studies, the city “appears to have sufficient water supply to meet its forecasted demand” without the reservoirs, which would “result in needless, drastic alteration of the natural landscape of two of our state’s most scenic places.”

“Rather than prolonging this debate for another six-year diligence cycle, Roaring Fork Conservancy believes now is the appropriate time to cancel these conditional water rights and tfor the city to pursue any other water demand and supply initiatives,” says the letter signed by director Rick Lofaro.

The city council also heard Tuesday from Lisa Tasker, the chair of Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board, which recently sent a letter to the city saying the board “does not support new construction of impoundments on Maroon and Castle creeks.”

Tasker also suggested that Pitkin County might oppose the city’s diligence filing.

But Laura Makar, an attorney with the county who specializes in water issues, said Wednesday that the board of county commissioners “has not taken any position on any possible permutation of a diligence application the city of Aspen might file and I expect the [commissioners] will not have any position until any application is filed.”

A map produced by Pitkin County from a map on file with the state of the city of Aspen's proposed Maroon Creek Reservoir, located just below Maroon Creek Lake, shown to the left as the smaller of the two bodies of water. The map was commissioned by Aspen Journalism and confirmed in 2012 as accurate by city officials.
A map produced by Pitkin County, from a map on file with the state, of the city of Aspen’s proposed Maroon Creek Reservoir, located just below Maroon Creek Lake, shown to the left as the smaller of the two bodies of water. The map was commissioned by Aspen Journalism and confirmed in 2012 as accurate by city officials.

Opposition in Maroon Creek Valley

The city also received a letter from an attorney representing the Larsen Family Limited Partnership, which owns water rights on Maroon Creek.

Craig Corona, a water attorney in Aspen who represents the Larsen family, wrote a letter on Aug. 17 to the city saying, “The city has not demonstrated that it will have a water supply shortfall in the future raising questions as to the need for these water rights. Even if such a supply issue arises, the city has other far less damaging options to meet its needs, including improving conservation and efficiency, developing additional groundwater sources (which the city is currently doing), and developing multiple smaller storage structures in more appropriate locations.”

Corona also told the city that it “should not file for diligence on its Castle Creek and Maroon Creek Reservoir water rights and should allow them to be canceled.”

Marcella Larsen of Aspen is co-manager of the Larsen Family Limited Partnership. She’s also a member of the Maroon Creek Caucus, which advises Pitkin County on land use in the Maroon Creek Valley.

Larsen recently sent a comment letter to the city from the Maroon Creek Caucus, opposing the Maroon Creek Reservoir, noting, “The city has made several statements to the public that it has no plans to build the reservoir and merely seeks to keep its options open by maintain the water rights. But when it files in court, the city will have to prove that it ‘can and will’ build the reservoir. Put differently, the city must prove that the project is essentially a foregone conclusion, not just a potential pursuit.”

The caucus concluded, “We think the only reasonable decision is for the city of Aspen to choose to not maintain its Maroon Creek Reservoir water right.”

The city council next plans to meet in a closed-door executive session with its water attorney on Monday about its conditional water rights, and then hold another public work session on Tuesday.

It also plans to vote on Oct. 10 whether or not to file to maintain the conditional water rights.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016.

Pitkin County closes Roaring Fork River in Basalt

Looking down at th Roaring Fork River from Two Rivers Road at the location of the whitewater park that Pitkin County is building in the river. The river is now closed to boaters from Fisherman's Park in Basalt to below the construction site, according to the county.
Looking down at the Roaring Fork River from Two Rivers Road at the location of the whitewater park that Pitkin County is building in the river. The river is now closed to boaters from Fisherman’s Park in Basalt to below the construction site, according to the county.

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

BASALT — Pitkin County Attorney John Ely said Monday that the county had “closed” the Roaring Fork River at Fisherman’s Park in Basalt so that boaters don’t run into temporary dams the county is building as part of installing a whitewater park.

Ely said the temporary rock dams would be “a significant hazard.” There will initially be two cobble dams pushed up in the river, one just below the other, but eventually they will function as one diversion structure.

The river is to be closed for boating and other uses from Fisherman’s Park, on upper Two Rivers Road, through the construction site, where two wave-producing concrete forms are to be installed.

On Monday, crews with Diggin’ It Riverworks Inc. out of Durango, were using an excavator in a dry river channel, on river left, to shape a bypass channel.

The temporary dams will direct the flow of the river into the bypass channel and, for a short stretch, through a 60-inch pipe.

The Fork was flowing past the job site at about 215 cubic feet per second on Monday.

“First order of business, move the water out of the channel,” Ely said, while showing local reporters the site. “And then come into the channel and construct the two waves.”

The work is being staged from the cul-de-sac on upper Emma Road, just upriver from Stubbies Sports Bar.

By Monday afternoon crews had built an access road from the cul-de-sac to the edge of the riverbank. The excavator will next get in the main channel and build up the diversion dams.

An excavator working on the bypass channel for the whitewater park in the Roaring Fork River in Basalt, on Sept. 12, 2016. Work in the channel itself is expected to begin soon.
An excavator working on the bypass channel for the whitewater park in the Roaring Fork River in Basalt, on Sept. 12, 2016. Work in the channel itself is expected to begin soon.

Warning signs

Boating traffic is light on this section of the Fork this time of year, as boaters — be they rafters or anglers — are more likely to put in below the Fryingpan River, which adds another 300 cfs to the Fork’s flow.

But there’s still perhaps enough flow in the Fork above Basalt for an enthusiast in a kayak or ducky to bounce down the river from the put-in at Wingo Junction.

Ely was asked if he was “concerned about the clueless floating down.”

“Totally,” Ely said. “You’ve got to plan for the lowest common denominator. So we’re just going to advertise the heck out of it and sign it all over the place.”

On Monday morning, a message from the county on Aspen Public Radio announced that the river was closed. And the county intends to put up warning signs directing any boaters to take out at Fisherman’s Park, which is river-right just below the low Highway 82 bridge.

It’s about four blocks along Two Rivers Road from the take-out at Fisherman’s to the end of the in-channel work. The next obvious river access is farther downstream, at the bridge on Basalt Avenue by the 7-Eleven store. And the next boat ramp suitable for a small raft is on Willits Lane by the Fed Ex facility.

The project also includes work on the eddy and the ramp at Fisherman’s Park, so at some point taking out there will also be ill-advised.

Ely said he expected that the river would be put into the bypass channel by Oct. 1 and that the river might be returned to the main channel by Dec. 1.

The overall project, at a cost of $770,000, is to be completed by Feb. 1. As of now, the closure is scheduled through Feb. 1.

Pitkin County Attorney John Ely on Sept. 12, 2016, pointing out aspects of the county's whitewateer park project. The project is being managed by the county attorney's office as the project is primarily about securing a recreational in-channel diversion, or RICD, water right.
Pitkin County Attorney John Ely on Sept. 12, 2016, pointing out aspects of the county’s whitewateer park project. The project is being managed by the county attorney’s office as the project is primarily about securing a recreational in-channel diversion, or RICD, water right.

Power to close

When asked if the county had the legal right to “close” the river to boaters — and other river users, including anglers — Ely said the county owned the land under the project site and had all the permits in place to do the earthwork. And state water law allows for the diversion of water.

Boaters may still have the legal right to float to the construction site, but they will be met with a hazardous dam and an impassable bypass channel if they do.

Ultimately, boaters may appreciate that the temporary in-channel work is expected to yield two play waves, more flow in the river and a recreational water right.

Ely said that the state law around water rights for recreational in-channel diversions, or RICDs, required that two structures be installed in the river.

And Ely said securing the water right “was the primary motivation for building this thing – to call water to this spot in the river.”

“So we have to have two different wave structures,” Ely said. “The upper one will be a little bit more radical and should present a decent wave for people to play in with kayaks – with play boats – and the lower wave will be a little bit gentler, and really ideal for anybody who is learning, or for kids, to come in and to utilize it.”

Ely said he expects that kayakers will surf the play waves, and then get out on river left and walk back up to do it again.

The public land on river left along the whitewater park is owned by either the town of Basalt or Pitkin County.

Ely said he expects people to get to the surf by driving up Emma Road, parking in the cul-de-sac, and walking the short distance to the play waves.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on the coverage of rivers and water. A version of this story was published in the Daily News on Sept. 13, 2016. The printed version contained a reporting error regarding the timing of the project, as it said the river would be restored to its main channel in October. However, the river is to be moved to the bypass channel by Oct. 1 and returned to the main channel – perhaps – by Dec. 1.

Also see a recent story on the project by The Aspen Times.

A hazy legal question lingers over water rights for Basalt marijuana facility

The High Valley Farms marijuana cultivation facility near Basalt. The court has yet to rule on the question in posed: can a water right be issued specifically to grow pot when it is still illegal to grow weed under federal law?
The High Valley Farms marijuana cultivation facility near Basalt. The court has yet to rule on the question posed: Can a water right be issued specifically to grow pot when it is still illegal to grow weed under federal law?

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

BASALT – It’s been two years since High Valley Farms, LLC applied for a water right to grow marijuana near Basalt, but it’s still not known if officials in the Division 5 water court will issue a decree to water pot plants when it is still a federal crime to do so.

And while the hazy legal question posed by court officials has been lingering in the air since 2014, High Valley Farms has amended its application twice and both times has increased the size of its proposed water right.

Instead of seeking a right to use 2.89 acre-feet annually from an on-site well and the Roaring Fork River, High Valley Farms is now seeking to use 9.24 acre-feet a year.

Put in terms of gallons instead of acre-feet, High Valley Farms has gone from asking for the right to use 941,711 gallons of water a year, or 2,580 gallons a day, to asking for 3,010,867 gallons a year, or 8,249 gallons a day.

Further, High Valley Farms has recently picked up two opposers in the case, both oil-company executives from Texas who own property near the 25,000-square-foot pot-growing facility along Highway 82.

The opposition is WCAT Properties, LLC controlled by Earl Michie of Midland, Texas, and the Spencer D. Armour III 2012 Trust, controlled by the namesake, also of Midland.

Both men, according to their attorney, Scott Miller of Basalt, are concerned that the use of water at the High Valley Farms facility is drying up wells on their property, and are less concerned about the issues of federal law raised in the case.

Miller also represents the Roaring Fork Club, which filed the first statement of opposition in the case. That, too, concerns its water rights, not federal legal questions about growing pot.

A graphic from High Valley Farms showing the location of the facility and water sources.
A graphic from High Valley Farms showing the location of the facility and water sources.

More water

High Valley Farms, which is controlled by Jordan Lewis, the owner of the Silverpeak marijuana store in Aspen, wants to use the water covered by the proposed water right to fill and refill large underground storage tanks. The water will be used for plants in the indoor greenhouse, and to power the mist and evaporative cooling systems in the greenhouse.

Those systems now include an expensive odor-suppression system that uses water and carbon filters to stop the smell of potent buds from wafting through the neighborhood.

The water would also be used in sinks and bathrooms in both the greenhouse and a nearby single-family home, and for landscaping purposes on the 4.7-acre lot, which is near the Roaring Fork Club, just upvalley from Basalt.

Rhonda Bazil, the attorney for High Valley Farms, declined on Tuesday to discuss the application.

The map submitted with the original High Valley Farms water right application in August 2014.
The map submitted with the original High Valley Farms water right application in August 2014.

Legal questions

Both the original application from High Valley Farms in August 2014 and the amended version in May 2015 prompted the same question from the water referee in Division 5 water court: Can a water right to grow marijuana be granted in Colorado when growing pot is still a federal crime?

“The application must explain how the claim for these conditional water rights can be granted in light of the definition of beneficial use as defined [under state law],” the water referee said in a summary of consultation in August 2015. “Specifically, beneficial use means the ‘use of that amount of water that is reasonable and appropriate under reasonably efficient practices to accomplish without waste the purpose for which the appropriation is lawfully made.’”

The document put an emphasis on the word “lawfully,” as in, can it be done lawfully if it is still a federal crime?

It was the first time a water court official in Colorado had posed the question, and the case is likely to set a precedent, at least in Division 5, which encompasses the Colorado River basin above the Gunnison River.

The answer to the question remains outstanding, although Bazil, the attorney for High Valley Farms, filed a response to the court in November 2015 making three main points.

She argued that the state water engineer has already said it’s OK to use water to grow pot plants; that the federal Bureau of Reclamation has also said it’s fine to water pot plants in Colorado (as long as you don’t use water taken directly from a federal facility); and that the federal government has long ceded general management of water rights to the states.

Bazil also told the court at the time, “If this court were to determine that, contrary to the findings of the state engineer, the use of water for marijuana facilities is not a beneficial use, the entire industry, which reportedly employs almost 160,000 resident, would be shut down.”

An underground water tank, yet to be buried, next to the High Valley Farms grow facility in Basalt in February 2016.
An underground water tank, yet to be buried, next to the High Valley Farms grow facility in Basalt in February 2016.

Next steps

After receiving the second amended application from High Valley Farms in May, the water court referee set Oct. 4 as the next date for a status conference.

But on Aug. 31, in response to a motion to extend from High Valley Farms, the referee vacated the scheduled October status conference while all the parties await the third “summary of consultation” in the case from the division engineer’s office.

Once the consultation, or review of the application, is submitted to the court, High Valley Farms will have 30 days to respond and “circulate a proposed ruling.” There is no deadline set for the consultation to be submitted by the division engineer.

Opposers in the case will then have another 30 days to respond to the proposed ruling from High Valley Farms, and a status conference will be scheduled after that.

When ready to act, the water court referee doesn’t necessarily have to address the larger legal question posed by the High Valley Farms application in order to recommend approval by the water court judge.

If satisfied by answers to the lingering federal question, the referee could simply recommend approval of a proposed decree, without comment.

If the referee denies the decree, for any reason, the decision could then be appealed to the water court judge. And an eventual decision by the judge could be appealed directly to the Colorado Supreme Court.

In the meantime, High Valley Farms can continue to water its pot plants; it just doesn’t have a decreed water right to do so.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016.

Pitkin County to dam the Roaring Fork River in order to save it

Looking down the Roaring Fork River where Pitkin County intends to build a temporary dam as part of the construction of a new whitewater park. Flows to the park are meant to protect the long-term health of the river, but one of the first steps was to cut streamside vegetation and lay it down along the river.
Looking down the Roaring Fork River where Pitkin County intends to build a temporary dam as part of the construction of a new whitewater park. Flows to the park are meant to protect the long-term health of the river, but one of the first steps was to cut streamside vegetation and lay it down along the river.

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

BASALT – Pitkin County has started building a temporary cofferdam across the Roaring Fork River in Basalt to bypass the waterway, install wave-producing structures in the riverbed, and ultimately secure recreational flow rights.

As of Friday afternoon, vegetation along the riverbank at the emerging whitewater park had been cut and cottonwood trees flagged. And heavy equipment, trailers, and fencing were set up at the end of Emma Road, which is not in Emma but off of the Basalt Avenue roundabout.

This upper Emma Road curves past The Basalt Store, Subway, and Stubbies Sports Bar and Eatery and then ends in a cul-de-sac, a stone’s throw from the river and the project site. From the staging area, heavy equipment will trundle down a construction road and into a soon-to-be exposed riverbed.

“During the six-month-long project this section of river will be temporarily diverted around the construction site through man-made channels and pipes,” states a press release sent Friday afternoon from the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board. “Heavy equipment will be visible in the dry river channel from Two Rivers Road.”

The construction work in the river will take place across from the entrance to the Elk Run subdivision, at a scenic curve on the river that’s hard to ignore from Two Rivers Road.

Looking across the Roaring Fork River toward Two Rivers Road, which borders the river. A ramp slanting down the steep bank is to provide access to a new whitewater park.
Looking across the Roaring Fork River toward Two Rivers Road, which borders the river. A ramp slanting down the steep bank is to provide access to a new whitewater park.

Work in the river

The county awarded the $770,000 construction contract for the project in June to Diggin’ It River Works of Durango. The Army Corps of Engineers has issued a permit for the project, as have the state and the town of Basalt.

In-channel construction is expected to last until mid-February on a 400-foot section of the river from Fisherman’s Park to just below the entrance to Elk Run.

Work is also to be done in the river to reshape the eddy below the small boat ramp across from Fisherman’s Park, at a spot river-right just below the low Basalt highway bridge.

After the main stem of the Roaring Fork has been dammed and diverted into a bypass pipe, concrete forms will be affixed into the riverbed to create two waves for kayakers and others to play on.

Once the structures are installed, the cofferdam will be removed.

“The temporary diversion is being created by placing a temporary dam in the Roaring Fork,” the county’s press release says. “The dam will divert water out of the main channel [river right facing down the river] down a secondary channel on river left and through a system of large pipes.”

“We will use pumps and a series of settling ponds to keep the main channel dry and to minimize downstream turbidity during construction,” said Jason Carey of River Restoration, the project engineer, according to the county’s release.

Carey, based in Carbondale, also designed the popular surf wave in the Colorado River in West Glenwood Springs.

When the work is done and water flows over the newly installed wave-producing structures, and someone goes out and plays on the waves, Pitkin County’s conditional water right for a “recreational in-channel diversion” will be all but made absolute.

“The whitewater features will be fully functional for the spring runoff of 2017,” the county’s press release stated.

The resulting water right with a decreed date of 2010 may be relatively junior today, but it’s a sizable right designed by the county to protect the upper Roaring Fork from future diversions.

The recreational water right was obtained to draw between 240 and 1,350 cubic feet per second of water down the upper Roaring Fork to a spot slightly above the Fork’s confluence with the Fryingpan River.

As of Aug. 3, construction staging had begun and riverside vegetation had been cut as the first steps toward building a cofferdam across the Roaring Fork River. The river will be directed into a pipe during the duration of the in-channel work.
As of Aug. 3, construction staging had begun and riverside vegetation had been cut as the first steps toward building a cofferdam across the Roaring Fork River. The river will be directed into a pipe during the duration of the in-channel work.

The site

The location is a couple of blocks upriver of the 7-Eleven store and Basalt Elementary School. And it’s well above the emerging “river park” off of Midland Avenue in downtown Basalt, which is below the confluence of the Fork and Pan.

The stretch of river to be reworked is hard against a steep bank below Two Rivers Road that has been eroded by the river once before and repaired. Now an access ramp is to take boaters and others down the bank from Two Rivers Road.

The in-channel construction phase of the project does not include “streamside amenities,” as the Pitkin County release says those are still being designed. The county will present updated plans sometime this fall.

And the county’s press release alludes to the challenges of the site.

“For public safety reasons, pedestrians are asked not to approach or view construction from the top of the riverbank along Two Rivers Road,” the release says. “There is very little room along the road for pedestrians, and the river bank is steep with construction activities occurring immediately below.”

As part of the eventual streamside improvements, the town of Basalt is requiring the county to install three crosswalks across upper Two Rivers Road near the whitewater park, each with flashing cautionary signs to warn and stop motorists.

The county also says that during construction “users navigating the river are asked to take out at Fisherman’s Park (or above), or to put on the river below the project site.”

Boating traffic on this section of the Fork in September is usually light. On Friday morning, the Fork above the Pan was flowing at about 250 cfs, too low for most boaters.

“We deliberately chose late September to do this work since it’s low-water season, and we can minimize ecological and recreational impacts,” Carey said, according to the county’s press release.

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 Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016.

Frying pan flows to stay at 300 cfs for next two to four weeks

The Fryingpan River just above Basalt, flowing at about 300 cfs. While many anglers prefer flows at 240 cfs, the river looks lively and pretty thanks to flows from Ruedi Reservoir meant to help endangered fish in the Colorado River.
The Fryingpan River just above Basalt, flowing at about 300 cfs. While many anglers prefer flows at 240 cfs, the river looks lively and pretty thanks to flows from Ruedi Reservoir meant to help endangered fish in the Colorado River.

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

BASALT – The lower Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir has been flowing steadily at about 300 cubic feet per second since Aug. 12, when flows were increased by 50 cfs for the benefit of the endangered fish recovery program on the Colorado River below Palisade.

Flows in the Fryingpan are now expected to remain at about 300 cfs – 298 to 302 – at least until mid-September, according to Jana Mohrman, a hydrologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the fish recovery program.

Fly-fishing guides on the Fryingpan River say many of their clients prefer when the river is flowing at 240 cfs rather than 300 cfs, because higher water makes it harder to wade.

But flows may also stay at the 300 cfs level throughout September, Mohrman said. They could be lowered back to 250 cfs, however, if conditions – temperature, precipitation, irrigation return flows, plant growth rates – allow at some point in September.

“We look forward to it and we hope it happens,” Mohrman said of returning to flows of 250 cfs in the ‘Pan.

If favorable conditions do arrive, it could make it easier for Mohrman to reach the targeted flows of 1,240 cfs in the Colorado River near Palisade without the additional 50 cfs from Ruedi that she called for on Aug. 11.

Mohrman manages a pool of “fish water” stored in Ruedi Reservoir that can be released to flow down the Fryingpan, Roaring Fork, and Colorado rivers.

The water from Ruedi contributes to the flows in critical fish habitat in a 15-mile reach of the Colorado River between Palisade and the confluence of the Colorado and Gunnison rivers in central Grand Junction.

But not all of the water coming out of Ruedi Reservoir is fish water.

Of the 298 cfs flowing out of Ruedi Reservoir on Aug. 31, for example, 186 cfs was fish water, 107 cfs was to offset inflow to the reservoir, and about 5 cfs was coming in below the dam from Rocky Fork.

This year, the Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to ask for the release of between 21,412 acre-feet and 24,912 acre-feet of fish water from Ruedi, which can store 102,373 acre-feet of water.

As of Aug. 31, 12,184 acre-feet of fish water had been released from Ruedi Reservoir, leaving between 9,228 and 12,728 acre-feet of fish water yet to be released, according to a “state of the river flow sheet” prepared by the Colorado Division of Water Resources as part of a weekly conference call held by regional water managers about the 15-mile reach.

(The range of how much fish water is left depends on whether the Fish and Wildlife Service decides to use 6,000 or 9,500 acre-feet of water available to it through a contract between the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Ute Water, a water provider in Grand Junction that owns the storage right to 12,000 acre-feet of water in Ruedi.)

At a release rate of 186 cfs a day, there would be enough fish water left in Ruedi for 25 to 34 days of releases, depending on how much water from the Ute Water contract is used.

But Tim Miller, a hydrologist at the Bureau of Reclamation who manages the flows from Ruedi, said the rate of incoming water to Ruedi can vary quite a bit, and when it drops, more fish water is released to hit the proscribed release flows.

As such, nature has another card to play in how many days of fish water are remaining in Ruedi. For example, fish water flows could be higher than 186 cfs and that would reduce the number of potential days of flow.

But the water meant for endangered fish near Grand Junction is also causing some grumbling in another 15-mile reach, the one on the Fryingpan River between Ruedi Reservoir and Basalt.

The Fryingpan River flowing at 298 cfs on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016. The river is likely to stay at 300 cfs for two weeks, and possibly four.
The Fryingpan River flowing at 298 cfs on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016. The river is likely to stay at 300 cfs for two weeks, and possibly four.

Higher flows

Since the flows out of Ruedi were increased by 50 cfs on Aug. 12 from about 250 cfs to about 300 cfs, the manager of Frying Pan Anglers in Basalt said he has been hearing unprompted complaints about the river being up.

“I even heard it twice today,” said Marty Joseph of Frying Pan Anglers, on Wednesday.

While Joseph said he and other local guides on the river would rather see the river at 240 cfs throughout September for their fly-fishing clients, he also said the “hatches are still good and the fishing is great at 298” cfs.

But there could also be other water released from Ruedi beside fish water and base release flows, especially if it gets hot and dry. More water could potentially be released to meet demands for “contract water” held in Ruedi or if a call comes up the river from Grand Valley irrigators with senior water rights.

In any event, local anglers frustrated by the higher flows in the Fryingpan might appreciate knowing that in addition to water stored in Ruedi, the Fish and Wildlife Service also uses water stored in Granby, Williams Fork, Green Mountain, and Wolford reservoirs to help keep the Colorado River flowing at various targeted flows, depending on the season. And that the fish water is needed because of both upstream transmountain diversions and irrigation diversions just above the 15-mile reach.

For example on Aug. 31, at least 550 cfs of water from the Colorado River headwaters was flowing east through tunnels to the Front Range.

And 2,045 cfs was being diverted from the Colorado River above Palisade by various Grand Valley irrigators.

Meanwhile, flows in the 15-mile reach were left at 1,130 cfs on Aug. 31, below the target flow of 1,240 cfs, but still boosted by the fish water from Ruedi.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News, and Coyote Gulch are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Friday, Sept. 2, 2016.

CFWE: Collaborative Water Management Tour, Roaring Fork Watershed September 12, 2016

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

Click here for the inside skinny and to register. Draft agenda. From the website:

Join the Colorado Foundation for Water Education for a one-day tour of the Roaring Fork Watershed that will showcase exemplary collaborative water management projects. Gain an understanding of how multiple public and private entities are working together on water quality, water quantity, and riparian habitat improvement projects. The itinerary will showcase collaborative stream management plans and water management projects with municipalities, landowners, state and federal agencies, recreationists, watershed groups, and the local community. Tour attendees will get an in-depth look at how water managers and leaders are putting the Roaring Fork Watershed Plan into action.

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High Fryingpan water flows are vexing anglers

An angler on the Fryingpan River, in the flat section not far below the reservoir, with a flow of 250 cfs. Releases from Ruedi for the benefit of endangered fish in the Colorado RIver near Palisade have brought the river up to 300 cfs.
An angler on the Fryingpan River, in the flat section not far below the reservoir, with a flow of 250 cfs. Releases from Ruedi for the benefit of endangered fish in the Colorado RIver near Palisade have brought the river up to 300 cfs.
A USGS graphic showing the increase in flows in the Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir from Aug. 11 to Aug. 13, 2016. The flows were increased 50 cfs from 250 to 300 cfs.
A USGS graphic showing the increase in flows in the Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir from Aug. 11 to Aug. 13, 2016. The flows were increased 50 cfs from 250 to 300 cfs.


By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

BASALT – Flows in the lower Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir were increased on Friday afternoon to about 300 cubic feet per second, much to the dismay of professional and private anglers who prefer a flow of no more than 250 cfs.

“We get cancellations at 250 and up,” said Warwick Mowbray, owner of Frying Pan Anglers in Basalt, during a meeting Thursday night in Basalt’s town hall on flows in the Fryingpan. “People say ‘We can’t wade.’”

Releases from Ruedi were increased Friday in order to send more water to the “15-mile reach” of the Colorado River between Palisade and Grand Junction for the benefit of endangered fish species struggling to survive in the river below several big irrigation diversions.

But the water released from Ruedi and sent down the Fryingpan, Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers to the 15-mile reach at the direction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erodes the quality of the trout-fishing experience on the lower Fryingpan, according to Will Sands, manager of Taylor Creek Fly Shops in Basalt and Aspen.

“Over 250 cfs changes the dynamic of the environment of the river for hatches and the abilities of the visiting angler,” Sands said. “It hits 300 and we start getting cancellations.”

Rick Lofaro, director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, seconded the concerns of the professional anglers.

“When you have additional water coming down, it challenges wading and changes the character of the river,” he said, likening higher flows in the Fryingpan to paying for a backcountry powder tour only to find no fresh snow. “I think there is a big difference between 250 and 300 from an accessibility and wade-ability level.”

The conservancy commissioned a study in 2014 that showed fly-fishing contributes $3.8 million to Basalt’s economy.

Thursday’s meeting in Basalt was called by officials from the Bureau of Reclamation and the Fish and Wildlife Service, and about a dozen citizens showed up to discuss likely releases from Ruedi for the balance of the summer.

Tim Miller, a hydrologist with the Bureau of Reclamation who manages Ruedi Reservoir, said releases below the reservoir would likely be around 300 cfs into September, but could be as high as 350 cfs if there is a call for more water from irrigators in the Grand Junction area.

Since July 18, flows in the lower Fryingpan have been running steadily at around 245 cfs, a sweet spot for anglers.

Jana Mohrman, a hydrologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, manages a pool of water in Ruedi that can be released to keep enough water in the 15-mile reach.

She works toward meeting seasonal flow levels — now 1,240 cfs — in the Colorado River near Palisade by directing “fish water” to that point on the river from a variety of upstream reservoirs, including Ruedi, Wolford and Green Mountain.

This week, flows in the Colorado River near Palisade had dropped to the point where several fish passages designed to allow native endangered fish to swim upstream toward Rifle were not functioning due to low water levels.

“I’m using Ruedi to get my fish passages open,” Mohrman said.

As such, she directed the Bureau of Reclamation to release another 50 cfs from Ruedi starting Friday. That was on top of the 140 cfs of “fish water” that was already being released, which was in addition to about 110 cfs of routine releases from the reservoir.

The crest of the dam across the Fryingpan River that forms Ruedi Reservoir, which can hold 102,373 acre-feet of water.
The crest of the dam across the Fryingpan River that forms Ruedi Reservoir, which can hold 102,373 acre-feet of water.

Fish water

Mohrman’s pool of “fish water” in Ruedi equals about 15,000 acre-feet of water. But she can also use, for the second year in a row, about 9,000 acre-feet of water owned by the Ute Water Conservancy District in Grand Junction and leased to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for use in the fish-recovery program.

On Wednesday, during a weekly conference call of regional reservoir managers and irrigators, Mohrman was pressured by irrigators in the Grand Valley to release more water from Ruedi along with water they were releasing for the fish from Green Mountain Reservoir, which serves as a back-up supply water for the Grand Valley.

Last year, 24,412 acre-feet of water was released from Ruedi to the benefit of the fish recovery program and a similar amount is likely to be released this year. In all, Ruedi can store 102,373 acre-feet of water.

Of that, about 41,000 acre-feet is owned by various entities, and can also be released upon demand in a dry year. Should that occur, flows in the Fryingpan could rise still higher, and not just because of the fish-recovery program.

“These demands on the reservoir are only going to grow,” said Miller of the Bureau of Reclamation. “This isn’t going away.”

The lower Fryingpan River on Thursday, Aug. 11, flowing at about 250 cfs.
The lower Fryingpan River on Thursday, Aug. 11, flowing at about 250 cfs.

Conflicting priorities

Dan Turley, a homeowner in the Fryingpan River Valley and an avid angler, asked Mohrman if the endangered fish program was a higher priority than the recreational economy of Basalt.

“This is not a trivial inconvenience,” Turley said of flows in the Fryingpan going up to 300 cfs. “It makes the river not viable to fish for a great majority of people.”

And Turley said it’s not just about Basalt’s economy.

“A lot of people from Aspen come down here and fish,” he said. “They are staying at The Little Nell. This is a big deal.”

“It’s always been considered,” Mohrman said, referring to the local fly-fishing economy and a targeted flow of 250 cfs in the Fryingpan. “And we have always said we would try to maintain 250. But we also have to recover these fish, and we’ve built all these structures to try and get them up to Rifle to get back into their natural habitat. And that is a higher priority than the 250 target.”

The goal of what’s called the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Program is to maintain populations of four species of large fish native to the Colorado River, the Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, bonytail, and humpback chub.

If the program fails to maintain viable populations of native fish, diverters in the Colorado River basin could be faced with extensive environmental reviews of their diversion’s effects on the endangered fish — something regional water managers want to avoid.

As long as the fish populations are stable or growing, the recovery program provides blanket environmental protection. Trouble is, Mohrman said the fish are not doing all that great as they are being preyed upon by non-native fish in addition to struggling with low river levels.

A USFWS employee holding a smallmouth bass, caught via electrofishing, that just swallowed a native bluehead sucker. Non-native fish eating  young native fish is a big obstacle to developing healthy populations of native fish.
A USFWS employee holding a smallmouth bass, caught via electrofishing, that just swallowed a native bluehead sucker. Non-native fish eating young native fish is a big obstacle to developing healthy populations of native fish.

Bypass pipeline?

Rachel Richards, a Pitkin County commissioner who has focused during her tenure on water issues, attended Thursday’s night meeting.

She raised the idea of a pipeline or flume that would allow water to be released from Ruedi without flowing down the river itself.

“We’ve always talked a little bit about should there be a separate flume or waterway for the Ruedi releases so they are not destroying the Fryingpan,” Richards said.

She also said that Pitkin County and Basalt had voiced concerns in the past about releasing “fish water” from Ruedi and making Basalt a “sacrificial lamb for water needs elsewhere in the state.”

At the conclusion of Thursday’s meeting, Mohrman said she would work with irrigators and reservoir managers to see if more water can’t be released from reservoirs other than Ruedi.

“I’ll try and cut it back as the Green Mountain Reservoir ups its releases and our fish passages stay open,” she said. “I understand your very serious concerns.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News, and Coyote Gulch are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water.The Daily News published this story on Saturday, August 13, 2016.