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May 16, 2012
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Water loans might aid some Colorado rivers

ASPEN - The Colorado Water Trust has received 16 formal offers from water-rights holders to participate in a pilot program aimed at boosting streamflows in rivers across the state this summer.

The upper Roaring Fork River, which was reduced to a trickle in Aspen during the drought summer of 2002, inspired changes in Colorado water law that make the Request for Water 2012 program possible, but it appears that a key player in water diversions from the Fork will not participate.

The program allows the short-term allocation of water rights to keep more water in a river without jeopardizing loss of water rights for participants, according to the Water Trust, which coordinates the water "loans" and pays for the leases.

The Water Trust, its website notes, is attempting to put the never-before-used 2003 short-term water-leasing statute to work - "moving water into streams on short notice to protect aquatic habitat and riparian ecosystems during dry conditions."

The offers to leave water in the rivers came from four of Colorado's seven river basins, the Colorado Water Trust said Tuesday. Friday was the deadline to submit offers, which are now being analyzed.

The offers are confidential, according to Christine Hartman, operations and communications coordinator for Colorado Water Trust. Only those that result in a formal agreement between the trust, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the water-rights holder will be made public, she said.

The program was announced in late April, and about 25 potential participants attended an informational meeting earlier this month in Carbondale to hear about the particulars of the program, said a Roaring Fork Conservancy spokesman.

The upper reaches of the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers are reaches that would benefit from participation in the program, according to Sharon Clarke, a land and water conservationist with the Basalt-based conservancy. The lower Crystal and upper Roaring Fork are among the local river stretches that desperately need extra water during dry times. Irrigation draws the rivers down to extremely low levels in dry years.

Some water from the upper Roaring Fork is diverted to Twin Lakes Reservoir on the far side of Independence Pass instead of flowing down the Roaring Fork Valley. Among other diversions is the Salvation Ditch, which draws water from the river at a head gate just east of Aspen for irrigation uses along its 25-mile route. A spokesperson for the ditch company said Tuesday that the company did not file an offer with the Water Trust to participate in the Request for Water program, but declined to elaborate.

In 2002, diversions and drought reduced the Roaring Fork River to a series of puddles connected by a trickle of water as it ran through Aspen. A person could step across stones and easily avoid water in the streambed.

The Salvation Ditch Co. was willing to bypass diversions so water would remain in the river for the benefit of fish and wildlife, but there was no mechanism to make it happen under state law. At the head gate, water flowed into the Salvation Ditch while the riverbed right next to the ditch was nearly devoid of water.

The situation led a coalition of water managers and conservation groups to change state law. Several pieces of legislation were passed in the Colorado Statehouse, starting in 2003 and culminating in 2007. The bills cleared the way for water-rights owners to loan water for the benefit of a river without penalty under the state's use-it-or-lose-it water laws.

The program to loan water allows water-rights holders to loan water in three of 10 years, and for as long as 120 days in a year to boost instream flows for the benefit of the environment.

The water loans will be approved administratively, a short-term process that bypasses water court, but it will still take a number of weeks to process the offers, according to the Water Trust.

Though Friday was the deadline for submissions, the Water Trust's website indicates it may consider late-season submissions.

Go to www.coloradowatertrust.org/request-for-water for more on the program.

janet@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated May 16, 2012 06:35AM Published May 16, 2012 01:47AM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.