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Feds say Ruedi water use flexible

Scott Condon

Local environmental groups and governments have assumed for years that they couldn’t buy water from Ruedi Reservoir to guarantee good boating, maintain habitat for trout or make sure the Fryingpan Valley looks pretty.They might be wrong.Representatives of the federal agency that operates the reservoir said this week that they would consider applications to buy Ruedi water for recreation and environmental causes.Kara Lamb, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said the congressional authorization for the Fryingpan-Arkansas water diversion project, which includes Ruedi, clearly allows the sale of water for recreation.The purchase of water for environmental causes – such as making sure the water level in the Fryingpan River is high enough during winters to benefit the trout fishery – is more uncertain, Lamb said. An application for that type of use would certainly be welcomed, but the review might be more difficult because that use isn’t specifically spelled out in the authorization, Lamb said.”Our door is open to requests,” Lamb said.The agency’s position could be significant as water sources dwindle and demands increase in Colorado.”If they’re feeling more flexible than we assumed they are, that’s good news,” said Mark Fuller, director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, which monitors water issues for a consortium of governments in the Roaring Fork Valley.Ruedi has 18,600 acre-feet of water for sale, an amount equal to about 18 percent of the reservoir’s capacity. Local governments, environmental groups and recreationists would like to see that water purchased and preserved for uses in the valley.But there has been a presumption for years that those types of uses wouldn’t be acceptable to the Bureau of Reclamation, Fuller said.Perhaps with good reason. No water purchased from Ruedi is used for recreation and no applications to use water for recreation have been submitted in the 40 years since completion of the dam, said Terry Gomoll, a contract specialist with the Bureau of Reclamation.Municipal and industrial uses are “preferred” but not required when water is purchased, Gomoll said.While recreational uses are unprecedented, use of water for environmental causes is not. Up to 20,800 acre-feet of water from Ruedi Reservoir is available for release to benefit endangered fish species on the Colorado River near Grand Junction. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contracts for that water.Lamb said the Bureau of Reclamation doesn’t discriminate among fish. In other words, there is no law that water from the reservoir can be used for endangered species on the Colorado River, but not thriving trout on the Fryingpan River.If bureaucratic hurdles can be overcome, the price of the water might make a purchase by local entities impractical. Fuller said it would cost about $15.5 million to purchase the 18,600 acre-feet of water uncontracted in Ruedi. The bureau didn’t confirm or reject that figure.Fuller said it’s not necessarily an “all or nothing” proposition. Local entities might be able to join together to buy a smaller amount of that available water at a more attainable dollar amount.An application for a smaller purchase could also test to see if purchases for recreation and environment would be accepted by the Bureau of Reclamation, Fuller said.He also raised the possibility of testing the bureau’s willingness to sell for those purposes by routing a request through the offices of Colorado Congressmen Mark Udall and John Salazar.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com