Below the surface, threats loom for Roaring Fork River
December 5, 2008
BASALT ” By all accounts, the Roaring Fork River is a scenic waterway that reflects the best of the Rocky Mountains, but that beauty is somewhat skin deep.
The river and many of the streams that feed it are threatened by water diversions, according to an exhaustive study that was released Thursday after two years of work. Meanwhile, streamside development and other factors have severely degraded the habitat of the waterways and the riparian lands that line them, the study showed.
“There seems to be more bad news than good,” said Sharon Clarke, one of nine authors of the study and a researcher with the Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that was a lead consultant in the project.
The quantity of water is a significant issue in many parts of the watershed, Clarke said. Maintaining minimum flows of water in the summer provides benefits for wildlife and recreation. But with a surging population in Colorado’s Front Range and growing thirst on the West Slope by the energy industry, the 1 million acre feet of water that typically flows through the watershed is gazed upon with covetous eyes. The Roaring Fork has a big target on it.
Complicated water rights laws and demands by entities with deep pockets make it difficult for Roaring Fork Valley governments and nonprofits to maintain let alone increase streamflows.
“It’s easy to say ‘we just want to get more water in the stream,'” Clarke said. “The devil’s in the details.”
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Current diversions east of the Continental Divide ” to places such as Colorado Springs, Pueblo and the Arkansas Valley ” suck as much as 50 percent of the spring season flows from the Upper Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers, as well as Hunter and Lincoln creeks, the study found.
Aspenites were aghast during the 2002 drought when the Roaring Fork River was reduced to puddles and a ribbon of water that could be stepped across. Low flows like that could potentially harm the trout habitat that makes the river renowned nationally for the fishing.
Diversions have turned the lower Fryingpan River into a freak that reverses nature’s seasonal rhythms. The current flows are significantly altered from what they were before Ruedi dam and reservoir were built in the 1960s as part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas diversion project. Flows are significantly higher than they normally would be during the winter months, when the reservoir is drained to make room for spring runoff. Flows are significantly lower in May, June and July, when the river should be exploding at peak runoff.
Other major findings from an analysis of streamflows were:
– The upper Roaring Fork River’s flow is reduced by 38 percent during summer months while Lincoln Creek is depleted by 52 percent. October is the only month that the flows of those streams aren’t reduced by at least 10 percent.
– The Aspen Skiing Co.’s snowmaking helps reduce the flows of Maroon and Castle creeks by at least 20 percent in fall and winter.
– The lower Crystal River, which is heavily diverted to water crops, is reduced by 46 to 72 percent from August to October.
The pressure to tap “unused” water in the Roaring Fork watershed will only grow. The study said expansion of reservoirs east of the Continental Divide could, in theory, allow more diversion of water from the upper Roaring Fork River basin. More water could legally be diverted but storage capacity has provided a barrier.
It’s also conceivable that future demands for Ruedi Reservoir water could drastically affect flows in the lower Fryingpan River. There is 16,700 acre feet of water available for sale in Ruedi and an existing contract for nearly 11,000 additional feet expires in 2012.
That water is available to West Slope users and could be eyed by energy companies if oil shale development becomes feasible.
“Ruedi Reservoir’s future value as a recreational and environmental resource will be dependent on who purchases this water and how and when it gets delivered to those purchasers,” the study said. “If, for instance, water is delivered in large amounts over a short period of time, the availability of the reservoir and the Fryingpan River for recreational uses could be significantly diminished.”
The entities that funded the study hope that the assessment of current conditions will be used by governments and other decision-makers in the valley to come up with plans to preserve the quantity and quality of water.
The entities that created a new report detailing existing conditions of the Roaring Fork River hope it spurs local governments to enact policies that preserve the water quality and quantity in the watershed.
The study was unveiled Thursday after two years of work. “It’s not really a cause for celebration because there’s still a tremendous amount of work to be done,” said Mark Fuller, director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, which sponsored the study.
The Roaring Fork Conservancy was the lead consultant on the study, which had nine authors and five contributors. The report has more than 500 pages that detail existing conditions of the river and its major tributaries. It was designed to be an authoritative reference tool and also something that lay persons can read.
The report, formally called the State of the Roaring Fork Watershed, is available at http://www.roaringfork.org/watershedplan.
Fuller called the report the foundation of an effort to build policy protecting the watershed. Next, the public and elected officials will be enlisted to create goals and objectives in a watershed plan, which then will be turned over to water management entities for implementation.
Five public meetings will be held this winter with residents and officials in different areas of the watershed, with discussions tailored to their particular stretches of the river and streams. The public will be informed about the details of those meetings as plans gel, Fuller said.