Conservationists look to boost water in local rivers
CARBONDALE – Water-conservation groups and Pitkin County hope to boost flows in rivers and streams in what appears destined to be a drought-plagued summer, but it’s unclear how much can be accomplished this year.
About 60 people in water-conservation groups as well as local, state and federal government agencies gathered in Carbondale on Thursday as part of a loose-knit effort called the Roaring Fork Watershed Collaborative. They discussed a variety of topics, but garnering the most attention were the short- and long-term prospects for drought and what can be done to protect rivers.
“Last spring I was talking to you about flooding and flood risk,” Sharon Clarke, of the Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy, told the crowd. “What a difference a year makes. We’re in a short-term drought right now.”
The lower reaches of the Crystal River could go dry this summer if dry conditions persist, she said, as could the Roaring Fork River through Aspen. Hunter Creek, Woody Creek and East Snowmass Creek also are facing critically low streamflows, she said.
The effects of the drought and diversions will hit home for many valley residents this summer, she said, just as in 2002. A person could step across the Roaring Fork River in Aspen that year.
“They’re going to care a lot this summer when they see how low it is,” Clarke said of the public at large.
The conservancy, a nonprofit that examines water-quality and -quantity issues in the Roaring Fork River basin, has been concerned for years about low flows in streams and rivers, caused in large part by diversions to the East Slope as well as in the Roaring Fork Valley. The conservancy picked the meeting to release a report called “Opportunities for Water Conservation.” It explores how a water-conservation campaign could improve streamflows. A leading tool is to launch a public campaign to solicit agricultural water users to voluntarily cease irrigation for a limited time and loan the water to the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Instream Flow Program.
Tapping that program requires time for the conservation board to properly assess any proposal – such as how it affects other water users – so the Roaring Fork Conservancy cannot piece together a proposal to help with streamflows this year.
Tim McFlynn, a founder of a new conservation group called Friends of Rivers and Renewables, said water conservation is already important for the valley and will only grow in need. One-half of the streamflow of the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork rivers is already diverted, he said. That could jump to 75 percent or higher if water districts and users on the Front Range receive conditional water rights.
Pitkin County Attorney John Ely said transmountain diversions “are the boogeyman that we can point our fingers at.” However, the imperiled conditions of the basin’s rivers and streams are as much a “homegrown” problem as one caused by the Front Range, he said. Finding ways to preserve and create adequate levels of instream flows is vital, he said. It’s a top goal of Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Fund, a program supported by taxpayers.
Pitkin County has already applied to work within Colorado’s water-rights laws to provide water to troubled reaches of the Roaring Fork River. The goal is to allow some landowners to forgo irrigating temporarily and essentially parking their water rights for a beneficial use.
“There are quite a few folks that are willing and even anxious to talk to us about that prospect,” Ely said.
If a legal path can be cleared, a section of the Roaring Fork River above the confluence with the Fryingpan River would be targeted for aid. Ely stressed Colorado water law is designed to remove surface water for beneficial uses. To reverse that is “bucking a trend,” he said.
It’s a top goal for members of the Roaring Fork Watershed Collaborative.
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