Keeping water in the Crystal River

A section of the lower Crystal River in late summer 2012. Irrigators and other water users in the Crystal River valley are working toward ways to leave water in the river during moderate droughts.
A section of the lower Crystal River in late summer 2012. Irrigators and other water users in the Crystal River valley are working toward ways to leave water in the river during moderate droughts.

CARBONDALE — In an effort to leave more water in the lower Crystal River in dry years, a growing number of irrigators in the watershed are considering entering into non-diversion agreements and are reviewing ways to deliver water to their crops more efficiently.

The agreements would be a product of discussions surrounding the recently released Crystal River Management Plan, which sets a goal of adding 10 to 25 cubic feet per second of water into the river during moderate and severe drought years.

The additional water could come from paying irrigators to reduce their diversions by 5 to 18 percent, depending on conditions, and by helping irrigators improve irrigation ditches and installing sprinkler systems.

The plan also calls on the town of Carbondale to fix the leaky irrigation ditches it uses to move water from the Crystal River through town and for the town to find ways to get its customers to use less raw water in dry years.

And apparently there is progress quietly being made on the plan’s recommendations.

“We’re really hopeful about this approach and it has had a pretty good response from the folks that we’ve had the opportunity to speak about it with in the agricultural community,” said Seth Mason, the principal hydrologist at Lotic Hydrological in Carbondale, who was the primary consultant on the river management plan.

The plan also cites the potential benefits of a 3,000-acre-foot reservoir at the confluence of Yank Creek and North Thompson Creek, although it notes such a reservoir would cost $9.75 million and it’s not clear who would pay for it.

Today there are 25 water diversions on the main stem and tributaries of the Crystal River and together they can pull up to 433 cfs of water from the river system.

In really dry years, the diversions can leave a section of the lower Crystal disturbingly dry, even if the water is being used to keep fields near Carbondale refreshingly green.

Just how many ranchers and farmers in the Crystal River Valley are now actively weighing their water options is uncertain, as the process to develop the river management plan in concert with local irrigators has largely been conducted in private.

But the acknowledgement section of the Crystal River Management Plan released Thursday does list 12 irrigation ditches among the organizations that “informed and advised” the team that developed the new river management plan.

“A long list of individuals and organizations informed and advised the Project Team throughout the planning process,” the plan states, including “Crystal River water rights holders and agricultural producers, including representatives from the Sweet Jessup Canal, East Mesa Ditch, Lowline Ditch, Ella Ditch, Helms Ditch, Pioneer Ditch, Bowles and Holland Ditch, Rockford Ditch, Carbondale Ditch, Weaver and Leonhardy Ditch, Kaiser and Sievers Ditch, and Southard and Cavanaugh Ditch … ”

No names of any individual ranchers, farmers or ditch company shareholders are included in the plan, but the ditches that are acknowledged account for the majority of diversions from the lower Crystal.

Bill McKee, a rancher and irrigator on the Crystal, has been actively involved in talking with local ranchers about the river management plan and he voiced his support for the plan’s recommendations at Thursday’s public presentation at the Carbondale library meeting room.

“In all our discussions, it’s seen as a good time to strike while the iron is hot,” McKee said.

A slide from Lotic Hydrological as presented to the Colorado River District on May 23, 2016. The slide summarizes key points in the new Crystal River Management Plan.
A slide from Lotic Hydrological as presented to the Colorado River District on May 23, 2016. The slide summarizes key points in the new Crystal River Management Plan.

Drought sparked plan

The planning process for the Crystal River Management Plan started after the drought of 2012 left a section of the Crystal River between Thompson Creek and the state’s fish hatchery, just upvalley of Carbondale proper, with only 1 cubic foot per second of water flowing in it below several diversion structures. That year represented at least a one-in-20-year drought.

(On Saturday, May 28 at 10 a.m. the Crystal was flowing at 851 cfs near the fish hatchery).

“It is a fairly large river channel,” Mason said Thursday. “You can imagine that a channel that size is a pretty astounding sight when there is no water in it.”

During 2012 staffers at the Roaring Fork Conservancy and Colorado Water Trust began talking with ranchers about ways to leave more water in the river.

The Trust eventually reached short-term agreements with seven irrigators to leave water in the river in 2013, which was shaping up to be another drought year. Late-season rains negated the need for the agreements, but the work of the Trust helped provide a foundation for ongoing discussions that shaped the current plan.

The Conservancy then contracted with Mason to develop a technical study of the Crystal River and eventually brought in CDR Associates of Boulder to work with stakeholders. Public Counsel of the Rockies, an Aspen-based nonprofit, also joined the planning process and helped raise funds to pay for the plan.

The process has taken two-and-a-half years and cost over $300,000, said Rick Lofaro, the executive 
director of Roaring Fork Conservancy.

Before the plan was unveiled Thursday it was vetted by some irrigators, a number of whom are now in active discussions with the Colorado Water Trust about non-diversion agreements, according to Mason.

“There are ongoing conversations that I can’t say too much about,” said Mason, who was able to characterize the conversations both among irrigators and the town as “positive.”

A non-diversion agreement is a tool the Water Trust uses to give irrigators and other water users the option to leave water in rivers under certain conditions and terms, without going through a water court process to change an existing water right.

“Such agreements, which used to present risk to water users under Colorado water law,​ are now protected by ​[state] Sen. Gail Schwartz’s bill that passed in the 2013 legislative session, ​Senate Bill 19,” said Amy Beatie, executive director of the Water Trust.

(Please see a related story, “City considers 10-year agreement to 
leave more water in the Roaring Fork.”)

A slide from a recent presentation by Lotic Hydrological to the Colorado basin roundtable. The graphic illustrates the drying up of the Crystal in 2012 and four threshold questions posed by stakeholders during a recent river management planning process.
A slide from a recent presentation by Lotic Hydrological to the Colorado basin roundtable. The graphic illustrates the drying up of the Crystal in 2012 and four threshold questions posed by stakeholders during a recent river management planning process.

Private process

Mason helped clarify the situation for many local ranchers with a graphic that illustrates extremely low flows on the lower Crystal in late summer of 2012 in relation to various irrigation ditches.

He also developed a detailed scientific study of the Crystal River watershed and a model that could show what would happen in the river under various scenarios.

During the planning process, it became clear to Mason and other project team members that many local ranchers were not comfortable attending public meetings that included a bevy of professionals from various organizations.

“We did have other folks in the room at a couple points and that did not go the way we wanted it to,” Mason said. “We had some negative reactions to that and we’re very protective of the process. We wanted to make sure that the agricultural community knew that this process wasn’t a process run by folks who didn’t care about their livelihoods or their importance to the local community.”

The project team also learned that there were some threshold questions that needed to be answered.

One question was whether the periodic lack of water in the Crystal was really “the largest constraint on the ecological function,” as Mason put it.

By studying many different aspects of the river, including sediment flows, Mason concluded that yes, having enough water in the lower Crystal River is a key factor in its ecological health.

Another important question posed by stakeholders was, “How much water is enough to make a difference?”

In answering that question, Mason found that using the state’s instream flow right of 100 cfs in summer on the Crystal below Avalanche Creek as a planning goal was unacceptable to local ranchers.

“The agriculture community was not interested in talking about the state’s instream flow as the benchmark for ecosystem health,” Mason said.

He explained that the 100 cfs figure, which the state adopted in 1975 as the amount of water needed to protect the environment of the Crystal “to a reasonable degree,” was tied to average conditions, not drought conditions, and was therefore unlikely to be met in a really dry year.

What was acceptable to water users was working toward a “moderate,” but not “optimal,” level of flow between between Thompson Creek and the fish hatchery during one-in-five-year and one-in-ten-year droughts.

They also, notably, did not set a goal of reaching moderate flows in a one-in-20-year drought, such as 2012.

Mason concluded that during a severe one-in-10-year drought, an “optimal” flow level in the targeted stretch of river was 55 cfs, and a “moderate” flow level was 44 to 55 cfs.

During a one-in-five-year drought, he found the optimal flow level was 58 and moderate flow level ranged from 46 to 51 cfs.

To fill the expected gap between low river levels and the targeted moderate flow levels, the plan calls for 25 cfs to be left in the river from non-diversion agreements in a 1-in-10-year drought, and for 10 to 15 cfs to be left in the river in a one-in-five-year drought.

The plan states that stakeholders “indicated tolerance for moderate ecosystem risk under average to moderate drought conditions.”

A slide from Lotic Hydrological that illustrates the targeted flow rates for dealing with moderate and severe droughts on the lower Crystal River.
A slide from Lotic Hydrological that illustrates the targeted flow rates for dealing with moderate and severe droughts on the lower Crystal River.

Range of options

After developing a solid scientific foundation and a model to help answer “what if” questions, Mason then developed options for each major irrigator on the Crystal.

These ditch-by-ditch options are not included in the plan, but Mason has been working with willing irrigators to help them understand how a non-diversion agreement might work for them, especially if they are joined by other water users.

The plan also calls on the town of Carbondale to take steps to reduce its diversions from the river, along with the agricultural community.

“Carbondale does have a few big ditches that move quite a bit of water from the river,” Mason said. “That water supports all the lovely large trees that we see down here that wouldn’t be here normally.”

Those steps include lining more of the town’s irrigation ditches to prevent leaking of water and using market forces to curtail use of raw water in dry years.

The new Crystal River Management Plan could be a potential model that could be used to develop other stream management plans, as the state’s recently released Colorado Water Plans calls for such plans on 80 percent of the state’s rivers.

James Eklund, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which produced the state water plan, complimented the planning process in the Crystal River valley.

“Our quick read says that this plan is based on sound science, examined viable alternatives, and engaged many stakeholders,” Eklund said Friday when asked for comment. “Continued collaboration with water users is required in order to implement effective solutions, but the Crystal River is headed in the right direction.”

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 Sunday, May 29, 2016.

East Mesa Ditch owners open to leaving water in Crystal River

A graphic from the Snapshot Assessment of the Roaring Fork Watershed , a report done by Seth Mason of Lotic Hydrological. The graphic shows how a section of the Crystal River below several major diversions can be nearly dried up.
A graphic from the Snapshot Assessment of the Roaring Fork Watershed , a report done by Seth Mason of Lotic Hydrological. The graphic shows how a section of the Crystal River below several major diversions can be nearly dried up.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – The East Mesa Water Co. has told the Colorado basin roundtable it could potentially leave in the Crystal River about a third of the water it now diverts in late summer if enough improvements are made to its 8.5-mile-long irrigation ditch.

Today about 30 to 40 percent of the water sent into the antiquated East Mesa Ditch is lost to evaporation and ditch leakage. But adding pipes and improving structures could reduce those water losses and allow more water to flow down the often de-watered lower Crystal River.

The East Mesa Ditch has a senior 1902 water right to divert 31.8 cubic feet per second from the Crystal, as well as a 1952 right to divert another 10 cfs. The diversion structure for the ditch is nine miles south of Carbondale, on river right.

“A 30 percent savings could mean, potentially, 10 (cubic) feet of water back into the Crystal River system,” said Richard McIntyre, the treasurer of East Mesa Water Co., during a grant application presentation to the Colorado roundtable on March 28.

The ditch company is currently seeking $60,000 from the roundtable to improve three sections of the ditch as part of a $114,000 project planned for this year.

McIntrye, representing the 12 owners in the East Mesa Water Co., also read a prepared statement to the roundtable as part of the grant presentation.

“The ditch company believes that there are avenues becoming available to us that may assist in easing some pressures on the Crystal River system and benefit the shareholders as well,” McIntrye said. “However, before we are able to intelligently assess and address the issues it is essential that we make our delivery system efficient.”

The biggest shareholders in the East Mesa Ditch include McIntrye, Paul and John Nieslanik, Tom Bailey of the Iron Rose Ranch, Hal Harvey, Tom Turnbull and Willa Doolan. Marty Nieslanik is the president of East Mesa Water Co.

“Although we have made concentrated efforts to rehabilitate the infrastructure on the ditch recently, it remains in poor to satisfactory condition,” McIntrye continued.

McIntrye said the ditch company was developing a five-year plan to “rehabilitate failing aspects of the ditch” and a 10-year plan to “pipe much, or even all” of the ditch.

Last year the Colorado roundtable gave East Mesa Water Co. $60,000 to help fund what turned out to be a $760,000 project to repair a 450-foot-long tunnel and install 1,200 feet of pipe in the ditch. East Mesa also received a $300,000 grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service for the work.

“With irrigation efficiencies made by managing shareholders, combined with an effective delivery system, we hope to be a contributor to resolving the pressing issues that we all face in maintaining substantial water flows in the Crystal River and beyond,” said McIntrye, concluding his prepared remarks.

The lands irrigated by the East Mesa Ditch are shown in purple, according to a technical report from Lotic Hydrological called Water Rights Allocation and Accounting Model Development for the Lower Crystal River.
The lands irrigated by the East Mesa Ditch are shown in purple, according to a technical report from Lotic Hydrological called Water Rights Allocation and Accounting Model Development for the Lower Crystal River.

‘The four questions’

A member of the roundtable then asked McIntyre if East Mesa was involved in the ongoing process to develop a stream management plan for the Crystal River.

“We’ve attended a lot of the meetings,” McIntrye said. “And over years of attending those meetings we keep asking the four questions, as they obviously want some of our water: one, when do you want the water; number two, how much water do you want; number three, what’s the water worth to you; and number four, who is going to pay us? And it’s been impossible to get any one of those questions really answered, but we still attend the meetings.”

McIntyre said East Mesa is forming an association of diverters on the Crystal River to gather information on its own and to possibly present an offer to the community.

There are 12 irrigation ditches on the lower Crystal River and collectively they divert about 171 cfs of water from the river each day during irrigation season, according to Ken Ransford, the secretary of the Colorado roundtable.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board holds an instream environmental flow right of 100 cfs on the Crystal, but the river often drops far below that level in late summer, at least in the section below the bigger irrigation ditches,

East Mesa is the second largest diverter on the Crystal, behind the Sweet Jessup Canal.

According to Ransford, the East Mesa ditch has diverted an average of 9,626 acre feet of water annually from 1952 to 2014. In 2014, it diverted 8,774 acre feet.

According to records gathered and maintained by the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, East Mesa irrigates 383 acres of hay fields, which Ransford notes in his minutes of the March 28 roundtable meeting works out to “25 acre feet for each of the 383 irrigated acres.” In a follow-up email, Ransford notes it typically only takes two acre feet of water to grow an acre of hay.

The East Mesa Water Co., in its grant application to the roundtable, says the ditch has a service area of 740 acres.

And it says the hay grown on that 740 acres is worth about $500,000 annually, assuming a yield of four tons per acre and a hay price of $170 a ton.

The ditch company, however, also says there is more value in how the hay fields look to tourists than in the hay itself, saying the economic value is “closely related to recreation and tourism.”

“The effect on overall commerce would be significant if one of the most scenic views in the valley, that approaching Mt. Sopris, were to be brown and dry rather than green and lush because this ditch failed,” East Mesa’s grant application states.

The proposed $114,000 ditch improvement project pitched to the Colorado roundtable last week includes replacing the measuring device at the headgate and replacing two failing sections of the ditch where it crosses Nettle and Thomas creeks. East Mesa says the improvements could save 150 acre feet of water a year.

The 12 shareholders in the ditch company plan to put up $19,000 of the $114,000 project and are hoping to get a $35,000 from a grant from the Colorado River District and $60,000 from the Colorado roundtable.

The roundtable gets its funds from the state’s Water Supply Reserve Account program. In turn, that account is funded with oil and gas severance taxes, which are down sharply this year.

The Colorado roundtable now has $353,327 in its account for 2016. On March 28 the roundtable was presented with four grant requests totaling $263,500, including the $60,000 request from East Mesa.

A next steps meeting has since been set for April 11. The roundtable is expected to vote on East Mesa’s application at its May meeting.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Aspen Daily News and Coyote Gulch on coverage of rivers and water in Colorado and the West. The Daily News published this article on Monday, April 4, 2016.

Public review for new floodplain maps for Aspen and Pitkin County

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

From Pitkin County via the Aspen Daily News:

Pitkin County and the city of Aspen will roll out preliminary floodplain maps to the public at an open house next week.

The new maps, also known as flood insurance rate maps, had not been updated since 1987. The latest effort was the result of an extensive, multiyear study of the Roaring Fork watershed, and surrounding creeks and drainages, according to a Pitkin County press release.

“Floodplains change over time, and with that the risk of flooding can change for people who own property in floodplains,” said Lance Clarke, the county’s assistant director of community development.

The unveiling of the maps is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 29, from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Plaza 1 meeting room, 530 East Main St. in Aspen.

At the public event, participants will be able to see their properties online using GIS technology with a floodplain map overlay. Property owners will have the opportunity to review the maps with advice and counseling by FEMA, Colorado Water Conservancy officials and flood insurance experts.

The new maps are preliminary, and FEMA has not yet adopted them. Officials want local residents and business owners to review the drafts to identify any concerns or questions.

Experts will be available to explain what should be done if properties are located in a floodplain and what property owners can do to protect their home or business from the consequences of a flood.

“This is a rare opportunity for local property owners to meet one-on-one with FEMA officials and insurance experts to find out how these new maps may affect their property,” Clarke said.

In 2009, officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommended the new study to the city and county. FEMA contributed 75 percent of the $517,220 price tag. The remainder of the cost was funded by grants from Pitkin County Healthy Rivers, the city of Aspen, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and an in-kind contribution from the Pitkin County GIS Department.

The public can access the preliminary maps on FEMA’s website: https://msc.fema.gov/portal.

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.

redcanyonfromroaringforkmay132015apenjournalimsjeremywallaceaspentimes

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.

confulenceroaringforkcrystalriver05132015aspenjournalismjeremywallaceaspentime

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.

lookingupthecoloradoriverconfluenceroaringforkaspenjournalismjeremywallaceaspentimes

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.

“There are a lot of good tools out there that could create informal and formal benefits” — Amy Beatie

Screen shot from Peter McBride's video arguing that the Crystal River should be left as is
Screen shot from Peter McBride’s video arguing that the Crystal River should be left as is

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith) via The Aspen Times:

The Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board unanimously agreed Thursday to approve a $45,000 grant to help the East Mesa Water Co. repair an irrigation ditch on the Crystal River as long as the ditch company agrees to talk with the county about ways to leave more water in the river.

The grant comes with the condition “that the shareholders of the East Mesa Ditch agree to engage with the river board and consider working with Pitkin County on matters of irrigation efficiency and measures to protect instream flows and the free-flowing nature of the Crystal River.”

The condition was left broad, as there are no routine ways in Colorado to improve an irrigation system and then leave any saved water in a river despite the fact that 86 percent of the water diverted from Colorado’s rivers is for agriculture.

On Friday, Dennis Davidson, a consultant helping East Mesa secure funding for the ditch-repair project, said the 12 shareholders in the ditch company would likely accept the county’s condition.

“I don’t see why they wouldn’t,” said Davidson, who had not conferred with the shareholders yet. “There is no reason for them not to talk with them.”

After presenting to the river board Nov. 20, Marty Nieslanik, president of East Mesa Water Co., said, “I think all of us we want to see the river healthy, too. I mean, it’s not like we’re trying to hog all the water; it just takes water to do what we do.

“We need the water to maintain our lifestyle, but if there is any way that we can make that water more efficient, then maybe there is some way that we can leave some of it the river.”

The East Mesa Ditch repair project includes shoring up a collapsing tunnel and installing 1,200 feet of new pipe. The project is still being engineered, and the projected cost is now $700,000.

East Mesa has raised $410,000 for the project from state and federal sources so far. That does not include the river board’s $45,000 grant, which still must be approved by the Pitkin County commissioners, who are set to review it Jan. 6.

The repairs to the ditch are not expected to result in more water for the river, but other improvements, such as piping or lining more sections, installing high-tech control gates and using sprinklers in fields, could likely save water.

The 8.5-mile-long ditch irrigates 740 acres of land southeast of Carbondale. Of the 740 acres, 180 acres are under a conservation easement either through Pitkin County Open Space and Trails or the Aspen Valley Land Trust.

East Mesa is the second-largest diversion on the Crystal River, which in summer can run well under the environmental minimum set by the state of 100 cubic feet per second.

The ditch has two water rights that allow it divert as much as 42 cfs of water. One right is from 1904 and is for 32 cfs. The second is from 1952 and is for 10 cfs.

Pitkin County’s river board, created in 2008, is funded with a 0.1 percent sales tax, which is expected to generate $850,000 in 2015. The board has budgeted $150,000 for grants next year.

The board is charged with “improving water quality and quantity” in the Roaring Fork River watershed and “working to secure, create and augment minimum stream flows” in conjunction with nonprofits and government agencies. The board also can improve and construct “capital facilities.”

While the vote to award East Mesa the grant was unanimous, some board members questioned whether fixing an irrigation ditch was consistent with the board’s mission.

“Our job isn’t supporting ag and open space,” said Andre Wille, the chairman of the board. “Agriculture and healthy rivers are two different things.”

But board member Bill Jochems supported the grant, saying it could increase support among irrigators for federal protection of the upper Crystal River.

And board member Dave Nixa suggested that East Mesa talk to the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust, which works with water-rights owners to find ways to leave water in rivers.

“There are a lot of good tools out there that could create informal and formal benefits,” said Amy Beatie, the executive director of the water trust, who was pleased Friday with the river board’s decision.

Rick Lofaro, the executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, is working with irrigators in the Crystal River Valley as part of developing a management plan for the river.

“The goodwill and the momentum this could create could really be precedent-setting,” Lofaro told the river board Thursday.

Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

Meanwhile, he East Mesa Water Company is asking Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board for dough to pipe the ditch, according to this article from Brent Gardner-Smith writing for Aspen Journalism:

The East Mesa Water Company is asking Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board for a $45,000 grant to help cover the $550,000 cost of installing 1,450 feet of new pipe in the 8.5-mile-long East Mesa Ditch.

The irrigation ditch can divert up to 42 cubic feet per second of water out of the Crystal River 9 miles above Carbondale, but it typically diverts about 32 cfs.

The proposed East Mesa Ditch project entails installing 48-inch plastic pipe on a failing section of the irrigation ditch that includes an 80-year-old, 650-foot-long tunnel and a hillside that often sheds rock and mud down toward the ditch.

The work will keep the ditch functioning but won’t result in more water being left in the Crystal River, which is a goal of the county river board.

“As a board, with our mission, we’d like to keep as much water in the river as we can,” Andre Wille, the chair of the county river board, said Nov. 20 during the review of the East Mesa application. “If we can improve the efficiency of that ditch, and leave the rest in the river, that would be in our interest.”

Dennis Davidson, a consultant for East Mesa Water Co. with more than 40 years experience at the Natural Resource Conservation Service, said there would be “minimal” water added to the river from the repair project, as it only included adding 1,450 feet of pipe to a 8.5-mile-long ditch.

But, he noted, if the ditch were fully piped, which he said would cost $20 million, there would be water savings.

“If we lined the East Mesa Ditch from beginning to end, we would probably get by diverting 50 percent of the water that we divert,” Davidson told the river board.

The ditch “loses as much as 35 percent of the water in the ditch due to seepage through the course and rocky soil,” according to a feasibility study from East Mesa submitted to the Colorado Water Conservation Board in a funding application.

The East Mesa Ditch typically runs the first two weeks of May until about mid-October. It sends water to 740 acres of land between 1 and 5 miles south of Carbondale, most if it with big views of Mount Sopris and some of it protected with conservation easements.

The water is used for cattle ranching, and growing nursery trees, forage crops and hay.

On paper, the East Mesa Ditch is the second biggest diversion on the lower Crystal.

The largest diversion on the river is the Sweet Jessup Canal, which can divert 75 cfs. It is located about a mile-and-a-half upstream from the East Mesa diversion structure.

When the Sweet Jessup, the East Mesa and the Lowline Ditch, which is just downstream of East Mesa, are all diverting, water levels in the Crystal River often drop well below the environmental minimum of 100 cfs set by the state.

According to a study done by consultant Seth Mason in 2012, the river below the diversions dropped to 4 cfs Sept. 4 and to 1 cfs Sept. 22, 2012.

“Near complete dewatering of the stream channel was observed through much of September at Thomas Road and near the Garfield/Pitkin County line,” Mason, with Lotic Hydrological, LLC, said in his 2012 report.

Need to divert all the water?

The East Mesa Ditch has a senior water right for 32 cfs that dates back to 1894 and a second water right for 10 cfs from 1942.

Davidson told the river board that in his experience in the Roaring Fork River Valley, 20 cfs is usually enough to irrigate 800 acres of land.

As the East Mesa Ditch typically diverts 32 cfs to irrigate 740 acres, does that mean there is as much as 12 cfs of water that could potentially be left in the river and still allow for adequate irrigation?

No, according to Marty Nieslanik, president of the East Mesa Water Co.

He said the full 32 cfs of water needs to be diverted today to act as “push water” to convey water to the end of the long irrigation ditch.

“We figure we lose two feet of water from our head gate to the last person who takes it out,” Nieslanik said.

He also said that some of the diverted water also returns to the river.

“After it dumps out at our ranch, it comes down the draw and drops in right below the fish hatchery,” Nieslanik said. “So that’s why you see the big difference as you drive down the Crystal, it’s almost dry and then all of a sudden there is a lot of water there.”

Nieslanik told the river board that the company was “trying to make our water go further.”

“If we can get that whole mesa irrigated with 25 feet of water, we may let six or eight of water go by to help the river maintain its levels,” he said.

“It would be good to understand the benefits,” river board member Lisa Tasker told Nieslanik about the project. “We are very interested in the natural hydrograph and trying to mimic that as best as possible.

“Speaking for myself, I would love to leave a little bit of water coming down the river to help the river out, if we could somehow make that happen,” Neislanik said after the meeting. “We need the water to maintain our lifestyle, but if there is any way that we can make that water more efficient, then maybe there is some way that we can leave some of it the river.”

Money for water

The East Mesa Water Company is on track to raise $410,000 toward its ditch-repair project, whether or not the county’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board agrees to a grant.

The company will receive a $300,000 grant from the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service when the work is complete.

It has secured a $60,000 grant from the Colorado River Basin Roundtable and a $25,000 grant from the Colorado River District. And it has requested a $25,000 grant from the Colorado Soil Conservation Board.

The company also has obtained a $375,000 loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is to serve as a bridge loan until the project is complete and grant funds come in, Davidson said.

There are 12 shareholders in the East Mesa Water Co., and 1,003 shares have been issued to them, based on the size of their land holdings. Owners are assessed an annual fee of $15 a share, which brings in $15,000 a year. The company has no debt.

“The East Mesa Water Co. operates on assessments of the water users,” according to the feasibility study given to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “For many years, the ditch company has kept the assessments as low as possible as many of the users are just getting by.”

The largest shareholders in the company include Paul Nieslanik, who owns 200 shares, John Nieslanik, who owns 185 shares, Tom Bailey, whose Iron Rose Ranch owns 185 shares and Richard McIntrye, who owns 168 shares.

Marty Nieslanik told the county the hay grown with water from the East Mesa ditch was worth about $500,000 a year under a calculation of four tons of hay per acre, on 740 acres, at $170 per ton.

At the end of Nieslanik’s presentation, the members of the Healthy Rivers and Stream Board agreed to meet in December to continue to review East Mesa’s application.

The Healthy Rivers and Streams Board will next consider the East Mesa application Thursday at 4 p.m. in Pitkin County’s Plaza 1 meeting room.

Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

More Crystal River coverage here.

River district, county concerned over Crystal River designation — The Aspen Times

Crystal River near Redstone via Wikipedia Commons
Crystal River near Redstone via Wikipedia Commons

From The Aspen Times (John Stroud):

Colorado River District officials worry that possible Wild and Scenic designation for part of the Crystal River could sell western Colorado water interests short when it comes to the need for future storage projects, at least one River District board member advised Garfield County commissioners this week.

“We continue to see the Crystal River as an important water supply for western Colorado,” Dave Merritt, Garfield County’s representative on the 15-member River District board, said during a meeting earlier this week to discuss the proposal.

The push to give Wild and Scenic status to a 39-mile stretch of the Crystal south of Carbondale, from it headwaters in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness to the Sweet-Jessup Ditch headgate just below Avalanche Creek, “attempts to make a determination that the way the river is now is the way should be forever, and that’s a long time,” Merritt said.

“We believe that we need to be able to provide for those who come behind us the same opportunities that we’ve had, and the Crystal River is place where we can meet the needs of the future,” he said, adding there is also concern that the designation could remove local control in favor of federal protections.

County commissioners requested the meeting with River District and White River National Forest officials to get a better understanding of what Wild and Scenic designation would mean, and to offer their thoughts…

Any questions and concerns from the county, the River District or any other entity can be addressed in the eventual federal legislation that would have to go to Congress for consideration, said Redstone resident Bill Jochems.

“The Wild and Scenic Act has great flexibility to address those concerns,” Jochems said, noting that the full River District board has not voted on the proposal, nor will it or the county be asked to do so until the draft legislation is written.

“All we’re asking for is that there be no dams on the main stem of the Crystal above (Sweet-Jessup),” Jochems said. “And it’s not like we’re trying to prevent it forever.”

Small water storage projects could still be pursued downstream of the designation, or on any of the tributaries, he said…

White River National Forest staffers Rich Doak and Kay Hopkins explained that the Crystal River has been listed as eligible for Wild and Scenic status dating back to 1982, and reaffirmed in 2002.

The section of river being studied for formal designation does exhibit many of the “outstanding and remarkable” natural, cultural, historic and recreational values (ORVs) spelled out in the Wild and Scenic Act of 1968.

A key element is also that the proposed waterway be free-flowing. However, it’s possible that streams below an existing dam can be designated as Wild and Scenic, as long as the water releases are adequate to support the identified ORVs, Hopkins said.

“This is the stage of the process where all the hard questions are asked, and is the big planning part of the study,” she said.

The Garfield commissioners sought assurances that existing water rights would be maintained. Commissioner John Martin also asked that stormwater detention projects be addressed in the proposal, pointing to legal struggles in El Paso County related to the ability to build detention ponds.

“The nice thing about this process is that we can take those kinds of things into consideration,” Doak said.

The Crystal River is one of just five waterways out of 72 within the White River National Forest that meet the national Wild and Scenic standard, Hopkins added.

Others include Cross Creek on the east side of the Holy Cross Wilderness, the South Fork of the White River, and two streams nearing a formal suitability decision by Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials later this fall, Deep Creek and the portion of the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon.

Once a record of decision is made on those two waterways, a legislative “advocate” would need to be identified to carry the bill in Congress, Hopkins said.

Since the Wild and Scenic Act was adopted, only one river in Colorado, the Cache le Poudre River west of Fort Collins, has such designation.

More Crystal River coverage here.

Residents want wild, scenic designation for Crystal River — Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Some local residents think protection of the Crystal River south of Carbondale under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is the next logical step for sparing it from dams and diversions.

The effort will likely face political challenges, as was evidenced Monday by the reservations expressed about it by Dave Merritt, a board member of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. That district and the West Divide Water Conservancy District previously abandoned most water rights, including ones for large reservoirs, in the face of opposition including a legal challenge by Pitkin County.

Nevertheless, “We see the Crystal River still as an important water supply for western Colorado,” Merritt said during a Garfield County commissioners meeting.

He worries that a wild and scenic designation by Congress would permanently prevent not just further water development of the river but also other activities such as more home construction in the valley.

But Crystal Valley resident Bill Jochems said a dam would be a far more permanent action than wild and scenic designation, which occurs through an act of Congress and Congress could later undo.

“This act has great flexibility,” he said, adding that advocates have a “barebones” goal of preventing dam-building above where irrigation diversions already occur several miles south of Carbondale.

Advocates say the designation wouldn’t affect state or local land-use regulations.

In 2012, the Crystal made American Rivers’ annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers list. That was after the river district and the West Divide district had agreed to concessions that included giving up some conditional rights for two large reservoirs on the river while still envisioning smaller ones in the valley. The rights for the big reservoirs dated to 1958, and one would have required flooding the village of Redstone.

The U.S. Forest Service has found the river eligible for wild and scenic designation, based on the river’s free-flowing status, valley historical attractions such as the Redstone Castle and the former coke ovens in Redstone, the stunning beauty of the valley especially during fall-color season, and other historical, recreational and aesthetic attributes. The Forest Service now is in what Kay Hopkins of the White River National Forest said is the long process of determining whether the river is suitable for such a designation.

“It’s where all the hard questions are asked” about whether designation is best or there are some other ways to protect it, she said.

“It really is an outstanding river and what we’re doing is try to preserve it as it is today for future generations, and that’s what the act is all about,” she said.

More Crystal River coverage here and here.