A year after huge mud flow, Fryingpan River prevails
BASALT ” Nature proved once again this summer that humans should be wary of intervening to “repair” an ecosystem after a cataclysmic event, according to the Roaring Fork Conservancy.
The latest lesson was provided on the Fryingpan River below its confluence with Seven Castles Creek. A cloudburst one year ago this month sent tons of thick red mud down the creek and into the river. The mud coated rocks and settled in the eddies of the lower 5 miles of the Fryingpan. Deposits of red silt could be found in the middle and lower Roaring Fork and even in the Colorado River, said Rick Lofaro, executive director of Roaring Fork Conservancy.
So much material was deposited at the confluence that the Fryingpan River shifted its main channel.
The initial reaction was to plan a flushing flow from a release of water last September from Ruedi Reservoir. The Colorado Division of Wildlife was concerned about the potential effect of the mud on trout and the insects they feed on. Other entities, the Conservancy among them, lobbied the wildlife division to hold off and see if nature could solve the problem.
“We were concerned about picking up the problem and moving it somewhere else,” Lofaro said. Without a sustained release of water to disperse the red silt, it might have just settled elsewhere downstream, he said.
The Roaring Fork Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to water quality and quantity issues in the Roaring Fork watershed. It and other parties reasoned that the release should occur in the spring, when water is naturally high. The Conservancy and state Wildlife Division teamed with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, town of Basalt, Eagle County and the Colorado River Water Conservation District to hire a fish biologist to study the effects the mud flow had on trout and insects. That study concluded there was no major loss of fish or insects and reinforced the decision to delay the water release until spring.
The gamble that nature would provide the required flushing flow paid off in spades. The upper Fryingpan drainage received near-record snowfall last winter so the spring runoff was extraordinary. Releases from the Ruedi dam started earlier than usual and remained high into July. Lofaro said a flow of about 600 cubic feet per second rushing down the main channel of the river is what was needed ” and exactly what nature provided. Conditions, he said, were ideal.
Looking at the confluence and the lower Fryingpan a year later, an observer sees “nature at work,” Lofaro said. “The river is doing what it should.”
The river has established its new channel. The sediment deposited at the confluence provides a chance for cottonwood and willow trees to grow in the rich riparian habitat. The area has lost the war-torn look after a year of settling and erosion.
Lofaro credited the various entities involved for the collective decision to hold off on the water release. “We were just smart enough to wait and see and not get in there and muck around,” he said.
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