Ditch owner works to give river a boost | AspenTimes.com

Ditch owner works to give river a boost

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The Salvation Ditch Co. is looking to put a water deal together that would mean more water flowing in the Roaring Fork River through Aspen.

The ditch company?s board of directors met Wednesday after city officials asked the company to forego some of its water rights or lease them to the city to aid the drought-stricken Roaring Fork in town. The river had been reduced to a mere trickle during a recent spate of hot, dry weather, as virtually all of the water in the river was being diverted into the Salvation Ditch east of Aspen.

Under Colorado?s complex water rights laws, simply leaving water in the river or leasing it to the city to benefit the fishery is not feasible, according to Tom Kinney, the ditch company?s water attorney.

The company is, however, willing to help replenish the river, if it can, he said.

Already, two days of rain this week have done wonders to bring up the level of the river in Aspen.

On Monday, the river was flowing at 21 cubic feet per second at the monitoring station off Stillwater Road, just upstream from the Salvation Ditch head gate. All of that flow was being diverted into the ditch. By Wednesday morning, rain had boosted the flow to 27 cfs, meaning about 6 cfs were flowing over the dam at the head gate, said Phil Overeynder, Aspen?s utility director.

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The rains make a ?huge difference,? but the relief is temporary, he said.

A few days of dry weather will again result in a boulder-strewn riverbed with imperceptible flows and standing pools of water, Overeynder predicted.

By then, with any luck, the ditch company will have arranged to lease some of its water right to a downstream user, he said.

The ditch company holds a century-old water right to divert more than 50 cfs from the Roaring Fork for agricultural purposes. The 26-mile ditch carries water to McLain Flats and beyond. The decree doesn?t allow the company to devote any of its water rights to ecological purposes, but there may be something the ditch users can do to aid the river, Kinney said.

The most promising option is to find a downstream holder of water rights on the Roaring Fork who needs additional water for their crop and who isn?t currently able to divert the amount of water they?re allowed to collect.

A provision in state water law dating back to the late 19th century allows the short-term lease of water rights to a user who needs it to bring in their crops, Kinney said.

?We?ve made some inquiries. We?re still looking for someone who needs the water,? he said. ?We need to find someone who needs the water for irrigation purposes and has a shortage.?

The ditch company is looking at tightening up its own water use so it can leave 5 cfs of water in the river to lease to the downstream taker. The terms of the temporary lease, which would run through Oct. 31, have not been set, but the company is willing to sell the water at ?not an exorbitant price at all,? Kinney said.

The temporary lease between two water rights holders carries the force of law. The state engineer?s office will enforce it, he said, making sure the water the ditch company leaves in the river gets to the downstream user. Although the water would be left in the river in order to deliver it for agricultural purposes, the ancillary benefit would be more water in the river to help the trout population survive.

If the company simply passed up its right to the water and left it in the Roaring Fork without leasing it to someone else, another entity that?s not getting its full allotment from the river would take it.

?It?s more complicated than just turning the gate and letting water go,? Overeynder agreed. ?That could be a useless gesture because somebody else could just suck that water right back out.?

In fact, if the water isn?t leased to someone else, the city could take it from the river, though it wouldn?t, he said.

Because there isn?t sufficient water in the river, the city has been unable to exercise its own right to divert water from the Roaring Fork to feed ponds like the one at Glory Hole Park and the small streams in the downtown pedestrian malls. Lately, the mall streams have been fed only by the groundwater coming from the Durant mine tunnel, Overeynder said.

The city is anxious to see additional water left in the river from the ditch head gate through Aspen to the point where Castle Creek and then Maroon Creek flow into the Roaring Fork, augmenting the river. Hunter Creek also flows into the Roaring Fork in Aspen, but that creek boasted little water before the recent rains.

The ditch company?s second option to leave water in the river is through a short-term lease or donation to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which has the ability to acquire water rights in order to protect river ecosystems. The board holds water rights around the state to maintain in-stream flows, including flows on the Roaring Fork, but its decree is far junior to that of the Salvation Ditch Co.

New legislation allows the board to be party to a temporary lease to enhance in-stream flows, but no one is sure quite how the arrangement would work and by the time it?s approved in court, the growing season will probably be over, Kinney said.

Leasing the water to the city will do no good because Aspen has no legal authority to maintain instream flows in the way that the Water Conservation Board does, he explained. Another water-rights holder could take the water if the city left it in the river.

?A lease to the city just wouldn?t accomplish the purpose,? Kinney said.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com]

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