Aurora: “We have more water in our system than we’ve ever had since we’ve been recording” — Joe Stibrich


From The Aurora Sentinel (Rachel Sapin):

“We have more water in our system than we’ve ever had since we’ve been recording,” Aurora Water Resources Management Advisor Joe Stibrich told congressional aides, city council members, city staff and Aurora residents on a tour of the city’s vast water distribution system last week. “We hit 99 percent of our storage capacity about a week ago.”

In total, Aurora Water has more than 156,000 acre-feet of water storage, which could supply the city with years of emergency supply in case of a drought.

The city gets water from three river basins. Half of the city’s water comes from the South Platte River Basin, a quarter comes from the snow melt flows from Colorado River Basin, and a quarter from the Arkansas River Basin.

But Aurora was not always a municipal water powerhouse.

In 2003, Aurora’s water supply level was at 26 percent capacity, the lowest in the city’s history. The idea for the at-the-time innovative Prairie Waters Project came about in the wake of that severe drought.

The $653-million Prairie Waters Project increased Aurora’s water supply by 20 percent when it was completed, and today provides the city with an additional 3.3 billion gallons of water per year.

The entire system pumps water from wells near Brighton, where it’s then piped into a man-made basin and filtered through sand and gravel. From there, the water is then piped 34 miles through three pumping stations to the Binney Water Purification Facility near Aurora Reservoir, where it’s softened and exposed to high-intensity ultraviolet light. The water is then filtered through coal to remove remaining impurities.

“It’s the crown jewel of our system,” said Stibrich during the tour. “Prairie Waters almost creates a fourth basin for us.”

But even before Prairie Waters, the first “crown jewel” project that allowed Aurora to grow and become the state’s third-largest city, was the one that allowed Aurora to cut most of its water ties with Denver.

Throughout the 1900s and into the 1960s, Aurora relied on the Denver Water Board for its supply. But the partnership between the neighboring cities grew contentious when, in the 1950s, Denver Water imposed lawn watering restrictions on a booming metropolitan area. Part of those restrictions included a “blue line” that prevented some Aurora suburbs from getting permits for new tap water fees.

In 1958, Aurora partnered with Colorado Springs to construct the Homestake Project, located in southern Eagle County in the Colorado River basin. The project was designed to use water rights purchased on the Western Slope that could supply the two cities.

For nearly a decade after the project was conceived, it was mired in legal battles with Denver and Western Slope entities. The first phase of the dam wasn’t even completed until 1967. In the 1980s, Aurora and Colorado Springs unsuccessfully attempted to expand the water collection system within the Holy Cross Wilderness area as part of a phase two plan.

The issue to this day is divisive, said Diane Johnson, a spokeswoman with the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District during the city’s tour of the reservoir.

“For people to think we might be having some other dam up here and impacting their access to wilderness is an emotional issue,” she said.

It was a memorandum of understanding created in 1998 between Eagle County and the two Front Range cities that identifies 30,000 acre-feet of water in the Eagle River basin to be divided into thirds between the three entities that helped alleviate tensions and put the project back on track.

Today Homestake Reservoir provides Aurora with 25 percent of its water, and Aurora Water officials are looking at various ways to expand their storage to satisfy the Eagle River MOU.

One idea is a small reservoir in the Homestake Valley near the Blodgett Campground. Aurora Water officials said the issue with that plan is having to relocate the winding Homestake Road to a portion of the Holy Cross wilderness to accommodate it. Another alternative, which Aurora Water officials said they prefer, is to create a holding facility called a forebay, in the same valley, along Whitney Creek, that would hold water pumped back from a former World War II military site known as Camp Hale. From the holding facility, water could be further pumped up the valley to Homestake Reservoir.

Aurora Water officials are still working through the various politics of the alternatives, and repeatedly emphasized during the tour that there is no “silver bullet’ when it comes to water storage.

From Homestake, water travels east through the Continental Divide and tunnel where it’s sent to Turquoise Lake, then to Twin Lakes Reservoir near Leadville.

Aurora only owns the rights to a limited amount of storage in Twin Lakes, and that water has to be continuously lifted 750 feet via the Otero Pump Station to enter a 66-inch pipeline that leads to the Front Range.

The Otero Pump station — located on the Arkansas River about eight miles northwest of Buena Vista — is another impressive facet of Aurora’s vast water system, and the last stop on Aurora’s water journey before it is delivered to the Spinney Mountain Reservoir in South Park. With the ability to pump 118 million gallons per day, Otero provides half of Aurora’s and 70 percent of Colorado Springs’ drinking water, delivered from both the Colorado and Arkansas basins to the South Platte River Basin.

Tom Vidmar, who has served as the caretaker at Homestake for nearly 30 years and lives right next to the pump station, said the biggest issue facing Aurora’s water system is storage.

“We actually spilled water out of Homestake this year and didn’t collect (the) full amount we were eligible to take, simply because the reservoirs are at capacity,” Vidmar said during a tour of the massive pump facility. He said the electricity costs alone for Aurora to pump the water add up to around $450,000 a month.

A project Aurora Water officials hope to see come to fruition in 15 years is turning land the city purchased at Box Creek north of Twin Lakes in Lake County into additional storage space so water can be pumped more efficiently through Otero.

“Box Creek is an important project. It gives us more breathing room,” said Rich Vidmar, who is Tom Vidmar’s son and an engineer with Aurora Water, during the tour. “As we look at storage and where to develop storage, right now we’re looking at spots where we have chokepoints in our system where we’re not able to operate perfectly to get as much water as possible.”

Just as the state anticipates that its population of 5 million will double by 2050, so does Aurora — and storage will be key to providing water for a city that could potentially grow to more than 600,000 residents in the coming decades.

But the mountains aren’t the only place where Aurora hopes to expand its reservoirs. The city also is looking to expand Aurora Reservoir even further east.

At a July study session, Aurora Water Officials described a feasibility study being conducted to determine just how much water Aurora could store at a future reservoir, which would sit on the former Lowry Bombing and Gunnery Range.

More Aurora coverage here.

“The Western Slope in Colorado has no more water to give” –WestSlopeWater.com #COWaterPlan #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer's office
Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

From The Aspen Daily News (Collin Szewczyk):

That theme of cooperation, including striking a balance between consumption and conservation, quickly rose to the surface Friday, as members of the whitewater, conservation and political communities met at Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs to discuss the future of state water policy.

“To the best of our ability, we don’t want it to be West Slope against East Slope, “ said Heather Lewin, watershed action director for the Roaring Fork Conservancy. “We want to be working together to understand where water comes from, and how to use it most efficiently … so that we can do the best we can for the people who live here and for the environment.”

Members of the environmental group Conservation Colorado hosted the confab, which was set to coincide with Colorado River Day. The discussion largely revolved around local water issues and the recent release of the draft Colorado Water Plan. As water levels dwindle throughout the West, Colorado is formulating its first state water plan…

A benefit of the state effort is that many interest groups have gotten together to discuss the issue, creating new partnerships that before may never have been possible, said Kristin Green, Front Range field manager for Conservation Colorado.

“I think it’s important to recognize the diversity of holders we do have in this state, particularly in this area, that feel very direct effects from how we are managing our rivers,” she said. “Now more than ever we need to make sure all those different voices are being heard.”

More than 24,000 comments have been made concerning the draft water plan, and the public comment period doesn’t end until Sept. 17, Green said.

She noted that the second draft of the water plan begins to delve into potential solutions, and suggests a conservation goal of saving 400,000 acre feet by 2050. It’s the start of establishing the criteria officials may want to discuss, she said.

“There definitely was more meat on the bones,” Green said of the second draft…

Roaring Fork watershed increases 
quality of the Colorado

Lewin said that while the Roaring Fork River may be a small component of the overall Colorado River Basin, it still contributes around 1 million acre feet of water to the larger river each year.

She said the quality and quantity of that water can be very significant farther downstream in both an ecological sense and for its value to industries, municipalities and agriculture. But diversions strain that resource.

“Having high-quality water in the Roaring Fork makes a big difference of the water quality overall in the Colorado,” Lewin said.

She added that the river’s gold medal fishing designation is a huge economic boost to the valley. That lofty standard is met when there are at least 60 pounds of trout per acre of water, including at least 12 fish that are 14 inches or longer.

“That’s a lot of fat fish,” Lewin said. “But [keeping] those fish growing fat, healthy and swimming doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”

These conditions occur when a river or stream consists of clean water, and is home to an abundant insect population and a healthy riparian area. Lewin said surrounding riparian areas provide shade to cool river temperatures; food for aquatic creatures; erosion control; and help to filter pollutants.

“As you increase development, and as we diminish stream flows, riparian vegetation becomes one of the first things to really suffer,” she said. “So it’s hard to regenerate cottonwoods without overbanking flows. Cottonwoods are a key part to that riparian vegetation piece.”

Lewin said the recent wet spring led to the term “miracle May,” a month with a huge amount of precipitation that helped make up for a dry and warm winter. The heavy flows also helped to clear out sediment that built up in areas of the Roaring Fork.

“One of the biggest transmountain diversions out of the basin, the Independence Pass Tunnel, was shut down for nearly two months,” she said (that was because the East Slope had ample water supplies). “It just started operations about a week ago or so. By closing down that tunnel we were able to really see the full effects of the spring flushing flow and the benefits to the river.”

Lewin added that old oxbows in the North Star Nature Preserve east of Aspen were again filled with water this spring, putting the wetland area in a more natural state.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy has also engaged residents in the Crystal River Valley to work on addressing low stream flows. That effort has focused on looking at best practices to manage diversions and return flows, and studying the area’s physical features.

“We’re trying to see if we can use all of those pieces together in cooperation with the people who live on and around the river, and use that water to do the best we can for the Crystal,” Lewin said.

Dean Moffatt, a local architect, inquired about efforts to bestow the federal “Wild and Scenic” designation and its protections on the Crystal River.

“As an organization, we’re certainly supportive of the process,” Lewin replied. “We think that it’s really important and has the potential to be really beneficial.”[…]

‘No more water to give’

Aron Diaz, a Silt town trustee, said there’s a lot of interest among local leaders in the Colorado Water Plan.

“We’re really in a unique position and have the opportunity to craft Colorado’s water policy at the larger state level,” he said. “But we need to keep in mind how that affects the Western Slope.”

Diaz said the biggest point of concern is that Front Range basins are still adding placeholders, indicating that they may need more West Slope water to meet demands.

“We’re pretty tapped out for the amount of water that we have available to us,” he said. “Both with our obligations to stakeholders along the Colorado and those environmental, recreational, agricultural, industrial, municipal needs … as well as our downstream obligations with the compact, we’re really at the limit.”

There’s a need to set “achievable, but very aggressive conservation goals” to assure every avenue is studied before looking at new diversions, Diaz said. He urged the public to visit westslopewater.com to sign a petition that will be delivered to Gov. Hickenlooper and Colorado Water Conservation Board director James Eklund. It requests that no new diversions of water be made to the Front Range…

“The Western Slope in Colorado has no more water to give. We, the undersigned western Colorado residents, strongly urge you to oppose any new trans-mountain diversion that will take more water from the Western Slope of Colorado, as you develop Colorado’s Water Plan,” the petition states. “We cannot solve our state’s future water needs by simply sending more water east.”

No flouride dosing for Snowmass

Calcium fluoride
Calcium fluoride

From The Aspen Times (Jill Beathard):

With no members of the public present other than two dental professionals and a journalist, the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District board of directors voted Friday to stop fluoridating its drinking water.

The board began reconsidering its practice in May after the federal government revised its recommendations regarding public-water fluoridation. Snowmass already followed the new standards, but the announcement sparked a debate that continued for three board meetings.

Friday’s meeting began with public comment from Ward Johnson, a Snowmass Village resident who practices dentistry in Aspen.

“Being a dentist in Aspen since 1992, of course I am in favor of continuing the fluoridation in the water,” Johnson said, citing a reduction in the rate of cavities in areas of the valley that have fluoridated drinking water. “In my opinion, the only thing that has changed is we have toothpaste with fluoride now. Without systemically ingesting that fluoride, … you do not get the lifetime of benefit that you get when fluoride is in your enamel.”

A report prepared by Glenwood Springs-based engineering company SGM agreed with Johnson’s statement on the dental-health benefits of fluoridation but noted that ingesting too much has proven to have negative health consequences and that research is limited on other potential impacts.

“Only recently have the studies been done on the effects of fluoride beyond your teeth,” board member Dave Dawson said Friday. “People can fluoridate if they wish. I don’t see it as our business to medicate the public.”

Board members Michael Shore and Willard Humphrey said they agreed with Dawson’s position, but board President Joe Farrell, who said he has many dentists in his family, did not.

More water treatment coverage here.

“On a stream, one cubic foot a second can make a big difference” — Amy Beatie #ColoradoRiver

earlyseasonstremflowicebobberwyn
From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

For 139 years, state enforcers have said farmers, cities and ranchers who don’t use all the water they are entitled to could have their rights curtailed. Critics have said that discourages conservation.

A first deal in the works, made possible by a 2013 law, lets a ranch owner near Granby leave water in Willow Creek, a tributary of the overtapped Colorado River, without facing penalties.

A second deal would leave more water in the Roaring Fork River, another Colorado River tributary, in Aspen.

Colorado Farm Bureau leaders said they’re watching to make sure water left in rivers by those who don’t exercise their senior rights stays available to next-in-priority irrigators.

“We’re definitely taking a wait-and-see approach,” CFB president Don Shawcroft said. “We had a certain understanding when the law was passed, but it’s certainly up to the interpretation of the court and lawyers.”

The Colorado law says not using water won’t diminish or cancel a water right if the owner is enrolled in a conservation program with local approval.

Colorado River District officials last week approved the Willow Creek deal. Water saved initially will be small, flows of a few cubic feet per second into stream channels.

But the emerging alternative to Use It Or Lose It — developed by the Colorado Water Trust — marks a milestone in modernizing the state’s first-come, first-serve system for allocating water.

“We can look at the local water rights and determine if leaving water in a particular section of a river would create environmental benefits,” said Amy Beatie, director of the trust, devoted to saving rivers.

“The benefits could be significant,” Beatie said. “On a stream, one cubic foot a second can make a big difference.”[…]

Given the water pressures in the West, Louisiana-based ranch owner Witt Caruthers this year decided to try the new approach at his head-gates along Willow Creek.

“Colorado’s water system created an incentive to use our water even in times when it’s not absolutely necessary. When you’re under that pressure to use it or lose it, you’re almost forced to abuse it. That’s to the detriment of all,” Caruthers said.

He and his partners turned to the Colorado Water Trust to take advantage of the new law. Without it, he said, “You’re caught between taking what you need and taking what you are entitled to.”

When drought nearly dried up the Roaring Fork River a few years ago in Aspen, city officials began thinking about how to ensure a minimal flow by leaving water they divert from their Wheeler Ditch to irrigate parks and feed fountains.

Yet their efforts to leave water in the river led to legal challenges by competing users, who claimed the city’s senior rights must be reduced if it stops diverting its full allotment, said Phil Overeynder, utilities engineer for special projects.

“Aspen is interested in doing this. Leaving a little water in that stream is what we are trying to accomplish,” Overeynder said.

Agricultural irrigators are wary of changing Colorado water law, said John McKenzie, director of the Ditch and Reservoir Company Alliance. Yet the system causes many to flood fields with more water than they need for fear that government will list their water as abandoned, McKenzie said.

“We want to protect ditch company water rights,” he said. “But if there’s a mechanism where a ditch company that doesn’t need the water could allow it to flow down a river, and there was no ‘abandonment’ of that water, it could help a ditch company. There are costs to diverting water.”

More SB13-019 coverage here.

Southern Delivery System: Springs, Walker settle for $7.1M — The Pueblo Chieftain

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Colorado Springs Utilities and Gary Walker have reached a $7.1 million settlement for the damage to Walker Ranches from the Southern Delivery System pipeline.

The pipeline crosses 5.5 miles of the 63,000-acre property on its route from Pueblo Dam to Colorado Springs. The $841 million SDS project is scheduled to go online next year and will supply water to Colorado Springs, Fountain, Security and Pueblo West.

On May 6, a jury awarded Walker $4.75 million, which included a $4.665 million judgment beyond the $82,900 stipulated value of the easement across Walker Ranches. Damages plus interest would have brought the total payment to $5.78 million, according to a joint press release.

Utilities disputed the amount, and filed an appeal on May 7. Walker Ranches appealed the decision on May 14. Those appeals were dismissed as part of the settlement reached June 16, but announced on Thursday.

The final agreement resolves all claims for $7.1 million, the press release said.

Utilities will also install fencing on Walker Ranches to prevent cattle from entering the area of the SDS pipeline scar that is being revegetated, and will work with Walker to erect berms on the property to reduce erosion.

The agreement also commits both parties to work together in the future to protect the right of way.

Utilities said the settlement provides more certainty about the ultimate cost of the project, reducing the possibility of an expensive appeals process.

“It has always been our intent when working with property owners to use the court process as a last resort,” John Fredell, SDS program director, said in the news release. “By successfully resolving these issues with Mr. Walker, we can focus on completing the required revegetation on his property and finishing the SDS project on time and under budget.”

Walker, when contacted by The Pueblo Chieftain , declined to comment because of the conditions of the settlement.

During the trial, Walker claimed the SDS project had compromised a $25 million conservation easement on 15,000 acres he was negotiating with the Nature Conservancy. He has used about $13 million from past easements to expand the ranches, which is part of a long-term plan to prevent further urban sprawl in northern Pueblo County.

Ray Petros, Pueblo County’s special counsel, said he has not seen the settlement agreement, so he is uncertain about how the county’s 1041 permit for SDS would be affected. The county is teeing up compliance hearings later this year on revegetation and Fountain Creek flood control, which are referenced in conditions that are part of the 1041 permit.

More Southern Delivery System coverage here and here.

Colorado Supreme Court rules against private streams — Aspen Journalism

Spring Creek (RFC Ditch) Roaring Fork River via Aspen Journalism
Spring Creek (RFC Ditch) Roaring Fork River via Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled on June 29 that the Roaring Fork Club in Basalt is not entitled to new “aesthetic, recreation and piscatorial (fishing)” water rights for a private fly-fishing stream the club created in an existing irrigation ditch.

“The club failed to demonstrate an intent to apply the amount of water for
which it sought a decree to any ‘beneficial use,’ as contemplated by either the constitution or statutes of the jurisdiction,” the court’s decision stated.

The court also found that “the club’s proposed ‘uses’ of the water in question, as expressed in its application, cannot be beneficial within the meaning of the Act because the only purpose they are offered to serve is the subjective enjoyment of the Club’s private guests,” the decision states.

“The flow of water necessary to efficiently produce beauty, excitement, or fun cannot even conceptually be quantified, and therefore where these kinds of subjective experiences are recognized by the legislature to be valuable, it has specifically provided for their public enjoyment, scientific administration, and careful measurement,” the court found.

The court, however, did side with the Roaring Fork Club in a related dispute with its downstream neighbor Reno Cerise, who is a partner in St. Jude’s Co. In its decision, the court rejected claims from St. Jude’s over access to and management of the irrigation ditch in question, and the court awarded the club attorney’s fees in that aspect of the case.

But a majority of the justices on the court said a prior water rights decree issued to the club in 2013 by the water court in Glenwood Springs was now invalid because the water was not being put to a lawfully recognized beneficial use, which is a keystone of Colorado water law.

In a brief against the club’s arguments, attorneys for the Colorado Dept. of Natural Resources told the court it had concerns that using irrigation ditches for private aesthetic purposes could dewater long stretches of streams and rivers.

“Without established limits, such uses can result in complete depletions of stream reaches for unlimited distances to the detriment of the stream reach and its public aesthetic and piscatorial benefits, maximum utilization, and compact development,” the brief from the Dept. of Natural Resources stated.

As it stands now, the decision “effectively prohibits any future direct flow rights to divert water from the stream for aesthetic, recreation or piscatorial (fishery) purposes,” according to Peter Fleming, the general counsel for the Colorado River District, which filed a brief supportive of the club’s case.

Fleming, in an interview, said that while the court’s decision did strip the club of its decree for such uses, it did not apply to other existing water right decrees.

springcreekrfcditchroaringforkaspenjournalism

Origins of the case

In 2007 the club applied to divisional water court in Glenwood Springs for formal recognition of a right to divert 21 cubic feet per second from the Roaring Fork River into an existing irrigation ditch for “aesthetic, recreation and piscatorial uses.”

The application for new water rights were in addition to the club’s existing water rights on the ditch, which include an irrigation right.

In its application, the club told the water court that in 1997 it had improved an irrigation ditch – the RFC Ditch – which is 14-to-25 feet wide and can move up to 45 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water.

And it said it was now using the ditch, which it dubbed “Spring Creek,” as an “aesthetic and recreational amenity to a golf-course development, as well as for fish habitat and as a private fly-fishing stream.”

On its website, the Roaring Fork Club states that “fishing around the Club property includes private access to eight stocked ponds, a one-mile stretch along the acclaimed Roaring Fork River and the one-mile long ‘Spring Creek’, an offshoot of the Fork that flows through the golf course.”

The club straddles 383 acres on either side of the Roaring Fork River just upvalley of downtown Basalt. It has about 550 members and includes 40 privately owned cabins.

“The club’s fishing, non-fishing, golfing and other members and visitors enjoy the scenic beauty that is Spring Creek, as the visual backdrop of the water feature and the sound of higher flowing water combine to create a unique experience for members, cabin owners and guests alike,” wrote an attorney for the club, Scott Miller, of the Basalt law firm of Patrick, Miller and Noto, in a recent supplemental brief to the court.

Miller’s brief also notes that the irrigation ditch, now a private fly-fishing stream, includes “pools, riffles, drop structures, and spawning beds, all of which enhance the overall aquatic habitat and cold water trout fishery in Spring Creek, and which require flowing water.”

Miller could not be reached for comment on the court’s decision.

But in 2013 St. Jude’s, which also uses the RFC Ditch to receive water downstream of the club, appealed the water court’s issuance of a decree to the club for aesthetic uses to the Colorado Supreme Court, which directly hears appeals from divisional water courts around the state.

“Recognition of aesthetics as a beneficial use would effectively function as a policy decision that the visual enhancement of private property is more important than any uses of junior upstream appropriators, and also more important than maintaining streamflow in the natural stream,” St. Jude Co.’s attorney, Gregory Cucarola of Sterling, argued in a recent brief to the Supreme Court.

After review, seven of the justices on the Supreme Court sided with St. Jude’s, at least as far as its water rights arguments went.

“The water court’s judgment decreeing the club’s new appropriative rights must therefore be reversed, and the decree for aesthetic, recreation and piscatorial uses vacated,” the court ruled.

Aerial view of the Roaring Fork Club (exhibit at trial) via Aspen Journalism
Aerial view of the Roaring Fork Club (exhibit at trial) via Aspen Journalism

A variety of views

Two justices issued a dissenting opinion in the case.

“The value that Spring Creek creates, as well as the ability to determine the amount of water needed to achieve its purposes, suggests that aesthetic, recreational, and piscatorial uses satisfy the ‘beneficial use’ requirement,” the dissenting opinion stated. “So, is such a flow-through feature “tantamount to a ‘forbidden riparian right,’” as the majority asserts? I think not.”

The dissenting opinion was written by Justice Monica M. Marquez, who was joined by Justice William W. Hood, III.

The Colorado River District released a statement about the court’s decision, after an inquiry from Aspen Journalism, from Peter Fleming, the district’s general counsel.

“The River District is disappointed in the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision in the St. Jude’s Co. v. Roaring Fork Club case that effectively prohibits any future direct flow rights to divert water from the stream for aesthetic, recreation or piscatorial (fishery) purposes,” Fleming said in an email.

“The majority opinion mistakenly characterizes recreational and fishery uses as purely ‘passive’ uses of water. Perhaps more importantly, the opinion creates an entirely new requirement that a water right is valid only if the intended use is achieved through an ‘objectively-active’ means of production.

“As noted in the Court’s dissenting opinion, the majority opinion ‘abolishes a well-established practice of the water courts in granting applications for [aesthetic, recreational, and piscatorial flow-through water rights].’

“Many existing West Slope landowners have invested in such features – a practice that has little or no impact on Colorado’s consumptive use of its Colorado River Compact entitlement,” Fleming said. “The decision will adversely impact the future ability of private land-owners to increase the value of their property through the construction of water features.”

The “ranch owners”

Also filing a joint amicus brief in the St. Jude’s case – in support of the private club – were Roaring Fork Homeowners Association, Inc., Thomas Bailey, Galloway, Inc., Jackson-Shaw/Taylor River Ranch, LLC, Crystal Creek Homeowners Association, Inc., Charles E. Nearburg and Catamount Development, Inc., and the Flyfisher Group, LLC.

The self-described “ranch owners” told the court that together they own 27,000 acres of land in Colorado.

They argued in their brief that “private use of water” actually benefits the public.

“Private use of water for piscatorial and aesthetic purposes benefits the public and the appropriator,” the “ranch owners” brief states. “As noted above, the economy of western Colorado is changing. More and more ranches are being purchased not just for traditional ranching uses, but also for their aesthetics and fish and wildlife values.

“The resulting increase in land values significantly increases the tax base of local governments and the overall health of local economies. Moreover, it is well established in the scientific literature that ditches and man-made streams operated for fishery purposes benefit not just these off channel structures, but the fishery as whole,” the brief said.

The brief also said that “the ranch owners, and many others, have also constructed water features on their properties, such as artificial waterfalls, cascades and waterways that greatly enhance the aesthetics and value of a property. The design of these improvements often requires the services of landscape architects and engineers.”

The ranchers also argue that if private streams are valuable to a landowner, then they are “beneficial” under state water law.

“Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, beneficial use is principally in the eye of the (water) appropriator,” the brief states.

County and state don’t support

On the other side of the issue were Pitkin County and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, both of which filed amicus briefs (Pitkin County, DNR) with the Supreme Court against the Roaring Fork Club’s arguments.

“A diversion into a ditch for private piscatorial, recreational, or aesthetic uses is not a statutorily or Supreme Court-approved beneficial use, but has been recognized by various water courts in unappealed decrees,” a brief filed by attorneys for the department states.

The department’s brief also noted that when it comes to the enjoyment of water, a “more is better” factor raises questions about the potential wasting of water.

“With a ‘more is better’ duty of water unsupported by scientific evidence, subjective private piscatorial and aesthetic uses can result in complete depletions of stream reaches for unlimited distances to the detriment of the stream and its public piscatorial and aesthetic uses, resulting in waste and inefficiency, impairment of existing undecreed exchanges of water, and future exchanges,” the department’s brief states.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published a version of this story online on Tuesday, June 30, 2015.

More water law coverage here.

Watching the mouth of the Roaring Fork River — Aspen Journalism

railroadbridgeoverroaringforkrivermay2015viaaspenjournalismjeremywallaceaspentimes

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Below average flows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Below average supply

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s going to go up,” he said.

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

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

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

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Off the top

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Roaring Fork River watershed coverage here.