Aspen launches program to boost Roaring Fork River flow |

Aspen launches program to boost Roaring Fork River flow

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times

The city of Aspen has engaged in a one-year pilot program to boost Roaring Fork River streamflows by reducing the amount of water it diverts from the waterway at its Wheeler Ditch east of Aspen.

On Monday, the City Council signed off on a “nondiversion” agreement with the Colorado Water Trust to increase the streamflow in the river through a bypass at the Wheeler Ditch, which the city says is one of its most senior water rights in a critical 2.5-mile reach of the Roaring Fork “from just above Aspen to Castle Creek.”

The city determined that it can reduce its Wheeler Ditch diversions when the river falls below a 32 cubic-f00t-per-second (cfs) instream flow.

“This could add as much as 8 cfs to the river. This water will help maintain parts of the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s six-mile-long instream flow water right, which extends from Difficult Creek to Maroon Creek,” the city said in a statement.

The city is calling the pilot program an environmental measure, noting that during the persistent drought of 2012, streamflows likely affected the Roaring Fork ecosystem. However, it is a one-year pilot program, and the agreement stipulates that its effects will be studied “to minimize impacts of these changes on other water users,” according to a recent city staff memo.

For decades, large water diversions designed to bring water to the Front Range have reduced the amount of water flowing in the upper Roaring Fork River, the city said, with only a fraction of the native flow passing through the city.

“At times, more than 90 percent of the native flow of the Roaring Fork is diverted from the river for trans-mountain delivery to the Front Range and many local water diversions serving various beneficial uses,” the statement said.

In March, Water Department officials analyzed the city’s water rights with the help of the trust, a nonprofit organization with expertise in restoring and protecting streamflows in an effort to sustain healthy aquatic ecosystems.

“The city has long considered ways to add flow to the river but was not finding a way to make an appreciable difference. Our (Roaring Fork) water rights are small in comparison to the amount of water that would flow through the stream under natural conditions,” said Dave Hornbacher, city director of utilities and environmental initiatives. “After seeing the river suffer a hard year in 2012, a brainstorming group was formed in March to review (Aspen’s) water rights and to explore options for using those rights to benefit the Roaring Fork.”

Hornbacher said he sees the pilot program as a first step in crafting a broader, long-term solution for rewatering the Roaring Fork.

“This agreement allows Aspen to meet its water needs while providing as much water as possible to our river this year,” he said.

To accommodate the project, Aspen will lease less water to third parties than it has in the past, reduce outdoor water use and redirect other water supplies to meet the city’s needs, according to the news release.

The nondiversion agreement specifies how Aspen will adjust the amount of water it takes from the Roaring Fork at the Wheeler Ditch.

Meanwhile, the city will continue to look for long-term strategies to bolster the Roaring Fork River.

“Aspen was enthusiastic about weighing the options and pursuing the best strategy for putting its water rights in the Roaring Fork to benefit the river this year,” said Amy Beatie, executive director of the Colorado Water Trust.

“It is inspiring to see a decade of discussions put into action, and we’re eager to see how this agreement benefits flows in the stream,” Beatie said.

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