Fryingpan River’s fate was set 50 years ago
BASALT – A controversial decision that authorized diversion of water from the Upper Fryingpan River and Hunter Creek drainages to southeastern Colorado was made 50 years ago last week.The decision led to the creation of Ruedi Reservoir – which flooded a small settlement but also created a popular flat-water recreation destination.It enhanced gold-medal trout fishing on the lower Fryingpan River but also drastically altered the natural flow of the stream.It provided an important source of water for residents of Colorado Springs and Pueblo, but it leaves less water running through creeks that are the lifeline of wild country in the Upper Fryinpan River basin.In short, the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project created a lot of benefits and a lot of gripes.”I don’t think there’s a big water diversion project anywhere that you can’t say that about,” said Mark Fuller, executive director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, a consortium of local governments that works on water issues.
The Fry-Ark water diversion plan was hatched shortly after World War II ended, when the cities and counties of Colorado’s Arkansas River Valley started looking for water to fuel growth aspirations. The initial plan was to divert 357,000 acre-feet of water annually from the Gunnison River and other tributaries of the Colorado River to the Arkansas Valley, according to the website of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District.The proposal sparked a political battle in the 1950s between Western Slope residents who didn’t want “their” water taken and Arkansas Valley resident who saw the water as the key to their future.Fuller said residents of the West Slope of Colorado had an ingrained “mistrust” of the Front Range, which had more people, more money and more power.Gold-colored frying pans were sold in the Arkansas Valley in the 1950s to raise funds for a Congressional lobbying effort, according to a history of the project posted on the web site of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. The district was created in the 1950s to develop and administer the project. The Bureau of Reclamation built the system and manages the water.”Burros were used to carry the frying pans to towns up and down the Arkansas Valley,” according to the wen page. “During Water Week in January of 1955 groups were able to buy small frying pans for $5 and large ones for $100 or more. More than $30,000 was raised by the end of the week. The money was used to send backers of the project to Washington D.C.”Promoters prevailed, though opponents were able to trim the project back to an average diversion of 69,100 acre feet annually.The U.S. House approved authorization of the water project on June 13, 1962 and the Senate followed suit on Aug. 6. President Kennedy signed the project into law on Aug. 16, 1962. Construction started two years later on Ruedi Reservoir and dam.
A U.S. Bureau of Reclamation publication called “Technical Record of Design and Construction” shows that two employees worked on the project in Aug. 1964. The average number of workers swelled to 42 the next month, then grew to between 145 to 165 per month through the winter, when the Charles H. Boustead Tunnel was bore.Construction surged in spring 1965 and stayed frantic for the next two years. Employment on the project peaked at 347 workers in August 1967. The reclamation bureau’s records show backhoe operators were paid $4.35 per hour in 1967 on the federal project. A powderman for the tunnel boring got paid $3.43 per hour.Ruedi Reservoir started filling in May 1968. Boustead Tunnel was “holed through” in June 1969, according to the Southeastern Conservancy District’s records.In 1972, the first of the small dams or diversion structures were built on the creeks feeding the upper Fryingpan River. Eventually, streams were tapped with 16 diversions.The north collection system taps Mormon, Carter, Ivanhoe, Granite, Lily Pad and Cunningham creeks while the south system plumbs the No Name, Midway, Hunter, Sawyer and Chapman Gulch creeks along with the south and main branches of the Fryingpan River. (Some creeks have multiple branches.) Granite Creek was the last stream diverted, in 1981.After diversion under the Continental Divide, the water goes through a series of reservoirs and conduits for delivery.The Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy estimates that 41 percent of the Fryingpan’s headwaters gets diverted east in the typical year.A separate diversion system, built by the Twin Lakes Reservoir & Canal Co. taps creeks east of Aspen at the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River.
The Roaring Fork River basin’s loss is the Arkansas Valley’s gain. Reclamation bureau spokeswoman Kara Lamb said Fry-Ark water irrigates 265,000 acres of some of the most productive farm land in Colorado.”This is Rocky Ford cantaloupes and the onions that the Arkansas Valley is so famous for,” she said.In addition, 720,000 residents of the southeastern part of the state receive supplementary water from the project. They live from Salida in the west to Lamar in the east, and from Colorado Springs down to Pueblo.The Southeastern Water Conservancy District was billed for 54.17 percent of the cost of building the Fry-Ark system. Its initial repayment obligation was set at $132.24 million.The Fry-Ark system diverts an annual average of 54,000 acre feet. To put that amount in perspective, it’s a little more than half the total held by Ruedi Reservoir when full. Last year, when the snow kept piling up late into the spring, the system diverted its second highest amount of water ever at about 98,000 acre feet. This year, during the drought, it diverted only 14,000 acre feet.The potential to divert more water is always a concern of conservationists who West Slope promoters. The Southeastern Water Conservancy District holds the water right and has the potential to expand the collection system to divert water from Last Chance and Lime Creeks though the right has been “deferred,” according to its web page. Critics contend more diversions would draw down streams and rivers to an unhealthy level, even if legal minimum flows are kept.”We can only divert so much at each little diversion,” Lamb said. Specific flows of water must be maintained at the creeks in the Fryingpan basin and on the Fryingpan River itself at Thomasville as well as on Hunter Creek, Lamb said.Fuller, who has immersed himself in Fryingpan water issues over the last two decades, said lack of storage and the threat of political and legal “push back” makes greater diversion to the Front Range unlikely. For better or worse, it’s more cost effective for the cities served by the Fry-Ark to buy agricultural water rights than to look west for more water, he said. That takes crop land in the Eastern Plains out of production.
Ruedi Reservoir – which now dominates the Fryingpan Valley’s identity – wasn’t in the initial plans for the diversion system. “It was a political solution,” Lamb said.The reservoir was created for compensatory water storage for the Western Slope. To a layman, the legal purpose of Ruedi is essentially a way for water attorneys to make the books balance. In a practical sense, the reservoir has created one of the biggest recreational draws in the Aspen area.”There are a lot of folks over here that are fans of flat-water recreation and the gold-medal fishing of the lower Roaring Fork River,” Fuller said.A study by Roaring Fork Conservancy in the early 2000s indicated fishing and recreation on the lower Fryingpan River alone pumped $4 million into the Basalt area’s economy, according to Tim O’Keefe, education director fo the nonprofit. The reservoir has also tamed the river, preventing spring runoff from devastating Basalt and keeping summer flows at a level that supports a top-notch fishery. “This time of year, (the river flow) would probably be a quarter of what it is,” Fuller said.Aspen residents get a direct benefit from the Ruedi dam. The hydro-electric plant owned and operated by the city of Aspen produces 20 to 25 million kilowatt hours of power per year. That is the equivalent of 35 to 40 percent of Aspen’s annual demand, according to Fuller.email@example.com
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