Frustration flows over ditch mess

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The annual clearing of a historic ditch through Aspen has frustrations rising faster than the water.

The Salvation Ditch Co. left the usual mess in its wake when it recently cleared debris and deposits out of the 26-mile ditch that carries water from east Aspen to McLain Flats. The stretch getting all the attention, though, is a short but very visible length of the canal, where it runs along Highway 82 west of McSkimming Road, on the east side of town.

For perhaps 150 to 200 feet, debris has been cleared from the ditch and piled on the bank. Aspen trees along the bank have been snapped in half and left there.

“Every morning I go out and I look at it, and it’s just nauseating,” said Mayor Helen Klanderud, an east-side resident.

She is among a number of residents in the vicinity who have logged complaints with City Hall about the mess.

“Is it just us or is it just ridiculously irresponsible to leave something like that?” said John McHugh, a McSkimming Road resident. “It’s an eyesore at the entrance.”

The ditch right of way actually abuts the Colorado Department of Transportation’s right of way for the highway, but city crews will be cleaning up the mess this week, according to Steve Hunter, city engineering technician.

“We are having our streets department clean it up ASAP. Otherwise, the mess is going to sit there while we hash it out,” he said.

Hunter said a CDOT official charged with right of way enforcement is expected in town this week to weigh in on the dispute.

“As far as we’re concerned, CDOT is encroaching on our right of way,” said John Julius, ditch manager for the Salvation Ditch Co.

Julius cleaned out the ditch with a small backhoe, pulling out material that hampers the flow of water and snapping trees that can eventually clog the waterway. “If I had my way, there wouldn’t be a tree on the ditch,” he said.

“We straighten it up as a ditch company would straighten it up,” Julius added. “We’re not landscapers.”

The annual ditch cleanup always results in complaints to the city, according to Jeff Woods, parks director.

“Our department has had to take dirt out of there at least twice since I’ve been here,” he said.

The broken trees weren’t big enough to trigger the city’s tree-mitigation requirements, and the ditch company has the right to clear them anyway, Woods added.

“It’s like a gas right of way or a utility right of way. They have a right to take trees down in the right of way,” he said. “I think, legally, we have very little recourse to stop him from doing what he does. Those ditch companies are all-powerful.”

The Salvation Ditch Co. owns both the ditch and the water rights, which date back to 1906. The ditch diverts water from the Roaring Fork River and carries it across the base of Smuggler Mountain, across Hunter Creek, across the face of Red Mountain and, finally, onto the parched land of McLain Flats, where it is used for irrigation.

“The ditch was there first. We don’t want to clean it up for you,” said Woody Creek resident George Stranahan, the former longtime president of the ditch company. These days, Mary Jane Garth of Woody Creek is company president; she referred questions to Julius.

The company has always allowed the city to go in and clean up the embankment as it sees fit, Stranahan noted. The public is also welcome to the free fill that was taken from the ditch, Julius added.

Another mound of material will be cleared from the ditch next year, Julius predicted.

That’s what bothers the city.

“We don’t want to go around cleaning up after the ditch company for the next 10 years,” Hunter said.

Klanderud said she understands the company has the right to do what it does. She just wants it to go the extra mile to leave this particular stretch in acceptable condition.

“C’mon you guys, you’re part of the community,” she said. “Why can’t you have some sensitivity to the rest of the community?”