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Aspen Journalism: Studies tackle water-replacement options for shortages on Crystal River

Drought conditions stress water supplies for Marble, Crystal valley residents 

Heather Sackett
Aspen Journalism
An aerial view of the Crystal River at low flow amid agricultural lands near Carbondale Colorado.
Aspen Journalism

A study of a water replacement plan on the Crystal River is looking at nature-based solutions, but experts say some type of storage will also probably need to be built to solve shortages in dry years. 

Wendy Ryan, an engineer with Colorado River Engineering who is heading up an analysis of a basin-wide backup water-supply plan, gave a progress update at the Colorado Basin Roundtable meeting last week. The study was funded largely by a state grant and undertaken by the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Conservancy District.

“We have a couple landowners near Marble we are working with to see if we can put storage supplies on their properties,” Ryan said in response to a question asking her what solutions she had found. “We don’t have any shovel-ready projects. We did a lot of work upfront, and now it’s simply trying to find what we can build.” 



During the hot, dry summer of 2018, the Ella Ditch, which pulls water from the Crystal River and irrigates hayfields south of Carbondale, placed a call for the first time. That means the Ella Ditch wasn’t getting the full amount to which it is entitled and upstream junior water users had to stop taking water so that the Ella could get its full amount. 

The Ella Ditch has water rights that date to 1902, and any water rights younger than that — including those held by the town of Carbondale, the Marble Water Company and several residential subdivisions along the Crystal River — were technically supposed to be shut off under a strict administration of the river by the state Division of Water Resources. Under Colorado’s system of water law known as prior appropriation, those with the oldest water rights have first use of the river. 




Most junior water rights holders have what’s known as an augmentation plan, which allows them to continue using water during a call by releasing water from a backup source, such as a nearby reservoir. The problem on the Crystal is that several of these residential subdivisions don’t have an augmentation plan. 

Engineers from Division 5 of the Colorado Division of Water Resources have said that if water users work together to find solutions and come up with an augmentation plan, they won’t shut off indoor residential water use if the call happens again. Outdoor watering could still be shut off.

The first phase of the study, which River District representatives presented to Pitkin County commissioners in June 2021, was a demand quantification, which put numbers on the amount of water needed at different times of year. 

Engineers found 90 structures — many of them wells for in-house water use — that take water from the river system and would need to be included in the augmentation plan. These structures deliver water to 197 homes, 80 service connections in Marble, about 23 irrigated acres, Beaver Lake and Orlosky Reservoir in Marble, 16,925 square-feet of commercial space, and livestock. 

For these water users to keep taking water during a downstream call by an irrigator, they would have to replace about 113 acre-feet in the Crystal River per year. (An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of 1 foot and can typically meet the annual needs of one or two families.) The amount of extra flow that would need to be added to the river is small — just .58 cubic feet per second during July, the peak replacement month.

Wild & Scenic jeopardized?

Ryan and staff from the River District have said they are not considering storage on the main stem of the Crystal River, which could jeopardize a federal Wild and Scenic designation, a long-sought-after goal of Pitkin County, local environmental groups and some residents. A Wild and Scenic standing would mean no dams or out-of-basin diversions.

“We were never going to consider any main-stem storage on the Crystal River,” Ryan said. “We don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that potential designation on the Crystal, and what we are looking at shouldn’t.”

But Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said it’s hard to see how upstream storage and a Wild and Scenic designation won’t conflict. 

“It troubles me to hear the engineers say it’s hard to envision a solution that doesn’t involve storage,” she said. “So that’s just a red flag. It’s always been a red flag for Pitkin County.”

McNicholas Kury and two other roundtable members voted in 2019 against funding the study unless storage was off the table.

Nature-based solutions

A parallel study, undertaken by the River District and environmental-and-recreation advocacy group American Rivers, is looking at nature-based solutions. The idea is that by keeping water on the landscape higher in the basin, it could recharge aquifers and boost river flows in late summer. 

“We have been analyzing whether the reconnection of floodplains can assist with aquifer recharge and natural water storage while also improving the resilience of watersheds and potentially contributing to later-season flows,” said Fay Hartman, American Rivers conservation director for the Southwest. 

Ella Ditch cuts through Turnbull’s land.
Aspen Journalism

According to Zane Kessler, the River District’s director of government relations, there are four potential areas for nature-based projects: the Coal Basin area; Avalanche Creek upstream of its confluence with the Crystal; the Janeway area, downstream of the confluence of Avalanche Creek and the Crystal; and the confluence of Thompson Creek and the Crystal. But none of the sites are perfect, Kessler said. 

“The River District and American Rivers are partners in this effort investigating whether turning back the clock on past alterations that have degraded the Crystal River can help recapture some of the climate resilience we have lost,” he said. “Improving the storage in floodplains and wetlands I think we see as an innovative and lower-impact approach to meeting late-season water needs than dams or storage in the headwaters.”

Findings and recommendations from the nature-based solutions analysis are expected by the end of the month. But Ryan said some kind of storage is still needed because nature-based solutions will still not be enough to meet the supply-demand gap in dry years, according to her analysis. 

“It might meet a portion of our demands, but it’s not going to meet all our demands,” she said.

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. For more, go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org

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