Fry-Ark water diversion for season flirted with record level
The heavy and long-lasting snowpack last winter allowed the diversion of one of the greatest volumes of water ever from the Upper Fryingpan River basin, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said this week.
A total of 98,800 acre feet of water was diverted east via the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project from spring to late August, according to Kara Lamb, spokeswoman for the reclamation bureau.
“It’s the second largest diversion in the operating history of the project,” Lamb said. “The guys went up and closed the diversion sites about three weeks ago.”
Construction of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project began in 1964 with Ruedi Dam and Reservoir. Water was first diverted for agricultural irrigation, municipal and industrial purposes in September 1975, according to the reclamation bureau’s website, so this was the second largest volume of water diverted in 36 years.
The record diversion was 110,000 acre feet in 1984, Lamb said. The average diversion over the last decade has been 54,000 acre feet per year. This year’s volume was 83 percent above the average.
To put the 98,800 acre feet into perspective – that’s just slightly below the amount of water that Ruedi Reservoir holds when it is full.
The Fryingpan-Arkansas Project uses 17 dams and diversion structures to capture water from streams. The system also taps Hunter Creek in the Roaring Fork River basin. Nine tunnels with a combined length of 27 miles funnel it into the collection system. The water is forced through the Charles H. Boustead Tunnel under the Continental Divide to Turquoise Lake near Leadville.
A plumbing system on the east side of the Divide ultimately takes the water to Aurora, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and farms in the Arkansas River Valley.
The Fryingpan-Arkansas Project wasn’t intended for flood control, but it essentially takes on that function during years with high runoff, said Don Meyer, senior water resource engineer with the Colorado River District in Glenwood Springs. The organization monitors water quantity and quality issues along the Colorado River and its major tributaries.
“In a year like this, yes, there’s no doubt” it helps with flood control, Meyer said. “Just having Ruedi this year was big.”
The irony is that water diversion from the West Slope to the East Slope is usually a controversial topic. “In a dry year, you’re going to be cursing this system,” Meyer said.
Not so in a year when transmountain diversions and reservoirs in the headwaters helped prevent flooding on the West Slope.
Lamb said the peak inflow to the reservoir this year was about 1,800 cubic feet per second. If Ruedi Reservoir wasn’t there and that entire amount was flowing down the lower Fryingpan River, Basalt would have seen a flow more than twice as high as it was this year. And without the diversion to the East Slope, the peak flow would have been even higher than 1,800 cubic feet per second.
In the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River basin, the volume of water diverted this year was about 63,000 acre feet, according to the river district. Water has been diverted since 1935 in what’s now known as the Independence Pass Transmountain Division System.
That would make it one of the larger, but not the largest, diversion years, according to a previous interview with an official in the company that manages the system. The Independence Pass diversion system usually diverts about 39,000 acre feet annually.
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