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A Fluid Adventure

Kristine Crandall

Water is supposed to flow downhill, following the path of least resistance. But it’s not always so simple. For example, water in upper Hunter Creek northeast of Aspen often ends up flowing toward the mighty Mississippi, thanks to the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project (nicknamed the “Fry-Ark”). In 1962, after more than a decade of debate between Western Slope and Front Range interests, federal legislation gave the Fry-Ark life. The Fry-Ark moves water across basins and through mountains, defying the Continental Divide, to serve farmers, cities and industry on Colorado’s eastern plains.It’s a strange and improbable journey for water to travel from Hunter Creek, high on the forested Western Slope, to Pueblo Reservoir on the Arkansas River. Imagine a drop of water, snowmelt from the Williams Mountains in the upper Hunter Creek Valley, that comes cascading downstream between late May and early July, the time of Fry-Ark diversions. This droplet’s alternative adventure begins when, after gently gliding through the wetlands and ponds in upper Hunter Creek, it bumps into the Hunter Diversion Dam. While some water remains in the creek, our Fry-Ark droplet plunges into the darkness of the Hunter Tunnel, where it meets water already collected from No Name and Midway creeks. After nearly five miles of jostling in the 8.5-foot-wide tunnel (large enough for maintenance vehicles), our water drop emerges in Chapman Gulch in the Fryingpan Valley. In a brief stretch of open water, it glimpses thick spruce-fir forest, a well-traveled dirt road and a trailhead. Next it enters the shaft at the Chapman Diversion Dam and dives into the Chapman Tunnel, merging with water from upper Chapman Gulch. After another moment of daylight, our droplet enters the South Fork Tunnel, a tributary to the Charles Boustead Tunnel, the big one that breaches the Continental Divide. The Boustead Tunnel is a monster – 10.5 feet in diameter – that can run like a river at up to 945 cubic feet per second. After traveling for about six hours through 16 tunnel miles, joining water from more than a dozen Fryingpan River tributaries, our water drop enters Turquoise Lake near Leadville, on Colorado’s eastern slope. The engineering calculations for this journey are perfect: By dropping 300 vertical feet from the Hunter Diversion Dam, the water has responded to gravity the entire time. The next leg is a busy one through 11 miles of pipe, a forebay, and then the Mt. Elbert Pumping Station, which generates hydropower with the water falling into Twin Lakes Reservoir.Upon exiting Twin Lakes, it’s all downhill in the Arkansas River, to the end point of Pueblo Reservoir. During these 140 open-air river miles, 10 percent of the water in the river is lost to evaporation.The water’s end users range from producers of vegetables, melons, milo and hay to residents of Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Fountain and other cities. Along the way, the imported water helps support summer flows and the resulting multimillion-dollar boating industry on the Arkansas.Physically, the Fry-Ark Project brackets an area from Ruedi Reservoir and the upper Roaring Fork basin all the way along the Arkansas Valley to the Kansas border. It diverts an average of 8,800 acre-feet, or more than a billion 2.75-gallon buckets, from the Hunter Creek basin annually. The entire Fry-Ark is capable of diverting 69,200 acre-feet annually from the upper Roaring Fork and Fryingpan basins.Today, standing on the Hunter Creek Bridge along the Rio Grande Trail, you watch the blurred spring runoff rushing over rocks into pockets of white bubbles, alive with the beauty of the mountains. But what don’t you see or hear? It can be difficult to imagine something that’s not there – like the water that takes a different path during late spring and early summer, that carries rafts on the Arkansas, spins power turbines at Twin Lakes, and passes through Pueblo Reservoir before quenching Arkansas Valley farms or Front Range cities.


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