Watching the mouth of the Roaring Fork River — Aspen Journalism

May 24, 2015

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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.


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

December 26, 2014

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

September 23, 2014

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

September 16, 2014

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.


@rfconservancy: Join us next Thursday Sept 4th for our annual Carbondale Bicycle Ditch Tour

August 27, 2014

The Colorado River District comes out swinging to oppose Wild and Scenic designation for the Crystal River

July 31, 2014

From Aspen Journalism via the Aspen Daily News (Brent Gardner-Smith):

The Colorado River District is the first governmental entity to throw cold water on the idea of designating 39 miles of the Crystal River as “wild and scenic.” At its July 15 meeting, three members of the river district board voiced opposition to the proposal to make the Crystal the second river in Colorado, after the Poudre River, to be designated under the Wild and Scenic River Act of 1968.

“Their main concern is that it would be an overlay of federal authority in this area that would preclude the ability to provide for water resource needs,” said Dave Merritt, who represents Garfield County on the board of the river district, a regional entity that levies taxes in 15 Western Slope counties to build water projects and influence water policy.

Chris Treese, the river district’s external affairs manager, had urged board members in a July 1 memo to “respectfully decline to support” Wild and Scenic designation on the Crystal.

“Staff believes Wild and Scenic designation would have adverse consequences for local residents,” Treese wrote. “We view proponents’ Wild and Scenic designation is (sic) a means to an end in an effort to forever foreclose water development opportunities in the Crystal River basin.”

In 2013, the river district gave up conditional water rights it held for two large dams on the Crystal after being sued in water court by Pitkin County and other groups.

Merritt made his remarks on Monday during the monthly meeting of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, where two proponents of Wild and Scenic designation on the Crystal — Bill Jochems and Dorothea Farris — had a presentation.

Over the last year-and-a-half of making such presentations, they said they had received positive feedback and direction to continue exploring Wild and Scenic designation from the towns of Carbondale and Marble, the Redstone Community Association, Gunnison County, Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams board and Pitkin County’s Crystal River Caucus.

But the Colorado River District will not be added to the list of supporters.

“That was the one audience where we had definite opposition,” Farris said on Monday.

Jochems said the three river district board members who spoke against Wild and Scenic on July 15 “expressed opposition, apparently, at the very idea of Wild and Scenic designation, without really talking about the Crystal.”

On Monday, roundtable members asked some questions concerning the potential impact on irrigators in the Crystal River, but did not take a position as a group on the proposal.

Jochems and Farris represent an informal citizen’s coalition that has come together to explore, and now actively pursue, Wild and Scenic designation for the Crystal, which would prevent a federal agency from approving, or funding, a new dam or reservoir on the river.

In late 2012, four organizations brought people together to discuss the idea: Pitkin County, the Roaring Fork Conservancy, the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA) and the nonprofit, American Rivers. The result was the naming of a three-person committee to test the regional waters and see if there was support for the idea.

Jochems serves on Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams board and is a member of CVEPA, while Farris is a former Pitkin County commissioner and a resident of the Crystal River valley. The third member on the committee is Chuck Oligby, who owns Avalanche Ranch along the Crystal and sits on the Colorado River Basin Roundtable.

“We want to move forward,” Farris told the roundtable on Monday.

Three reaches

The current proposal is to designate 39 miles of the Crystal River as Wild and Scenic, while more specifically designating three sections as either “wild,” “scenic” or “recreational.” The three designations are not literal, as all of the Crystal could be considered “scenic” by anyone who sees it, but are classifications that reflect the level of human incursion along a river.

The headwaters of both the North Fork and the South Fork of the Crystal would be designated as “wild” under the law, as they flow through primitive backcountry areas with few, if any, roads. The North Fork, for example, first rises behind the Maroon Bells in the Snowmass-Maroon Bells Wilderness. Together, about nine miles of the two upper forks would be managed as “wild” down to their confluence in Crystal City, above Marble.

The next 10 miles of the Crystal, down to Beaver Lake in Marble, would be considered “scenic,” as there is a dirt road along the river in that reach.

And the next 20 miles, between Marble and the Sweet Jessup Canal diversion structure, 10 miles above the river’s confluence with the Roaring Fork River, would be considered “recreational,” due in large part to the paved road along the river.

“What we’re seeking here is a very stripped down version of a Wild and Scenic designation,” Jochems told the roundtable on Monday. “We propose to leave land-use control entirely with Gunnison and Pitkin counties, as it is now. We don’t propose any further federal control over land use. We don’t want features that would allow any condemnation of property. All we’re concerned about is the main stem of the Crystal River and keeping it free of dams.”

Merritt of the river district, however, pointed out that national environmental groups have opposed “stripped-down” versions of Wild and Scenic in the past, as they are concerned about weakening the federal law.

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

The U.S. Forest Service first found the Crystal River as “eligible” for Wild and Scenic status in the 1980s and re-affirmed that finding in 2002. Much of the land along the Crystal, from the headwaters to the Sweet Jessup head gate, is owned by the Forest Service.

The next step in the Wild and Scenic process is for a river to be determined “suitable” by the Forest Service, which requires an extensive study under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and then congressional action.

Another option is for legislation to be submitted directly to Congress, which could then potentially approve Wild and Scenic designation after a less formal study.

Jochems said Wednesday, in an interview, that the three-member committee seeking designation has been meeting with Kay Hopkins, an outdoor recreation planner with the Forest Service, to seek guidance on draft legislation.

The draft bill, Jochems said, is then to be circulated among the towns, counties and other entities that have expressed an opinion so far, and see what details need to be worked out. If legislation can be agreed upon by local entities, a congressional sponsor would then be sought, Jochems said.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Aspen Daily News on coverage of land and water issues in Pitkin County. More at http://www.aspen
journalism.org.

Click here to view Peter McBride’s short video “Crystal Voice.” More Crystal River coverage here.


Pitkin County commissioners approve purchase of properties near Redstone for open space

November 8, 2013
Crystal River near Redstone via Wikipedia Commons

Crystal River near Redstone via Wikipedia Commons

From The Aspen Times (Michael McLaughlin):

On Wednesday, the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners unanimously approved the purchase of two Redstone River parcels that comprise approximately 21.3 acres and are contiguous to Elk Park and Redstone Park on the south as well as the Redstone Boulders Open Space on the northeast.

The two parcels up for purchase would tie all of these properties together into a seamless river corridor containing more than a mile of riverfront between Coal Creek and a well-used beach area upstream from the north Redstone Bridge…

One of the properties includes the confluence of Coal Creek with the Crystal River. The current confluence isn’t the natural area where the two waters meet but one that was put in when the state was working on Highway 133 in that area. In its natural state, Coal Creek used to run through wetlands before it met with the Crystal River downstream from the present confluence area. Coal Creek experiences frequent debris flows that feed coarse rock and wood into the creek, which in turn collect at the confluence of Coal Creek and the Crystal River. This causes pooling of water and erosion by both streams. It also causes a sediment buildup that raises the riverbed of the Crystal near Redstone, elevating flood danger…

A public hearing concerning the purchase will be held at the commissioners meeting on Nov. 20. Will said the public can rest assured that questions of access will be driven by habitat management.

More Crystal River Watershed coverage here and here.


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