Future of water diversion murky for Roaring Fork | AspenTimes.com

Future of water diversion murky for Roaring Fork

Even when Colorado voters decide the fate of a controversial ballot issue on funding water projects Tuesday, the future of water diversion from the Roaring Fork River basin is likely to remain murky.

The ballot issue, Referendum A, would make $2 billion available for financing new water projects like dams and reservoirs. The measure was placed on the ballot by the Colorado Legislature in response to the 2002 drought.

But Referendum A is getting almost universally criticized on the West Slope as a way to let Front Range cities siphon off water from the mountains and rural areas. The proposal wouldn’t require Front Range cities to “compensate” the West Slope for diversion.

For the past six decades, federal funding of water projects has required users to compensate areas that provide water, noted Aspen water attorney Kevin Patrick. Compensation often resulted in construction of reservoirs that would benefit areas that also supplied water for diversion.

But Referendum A guarantees no such protections for areas that provide water.

If approved, Referendum A would require the Colorado Water Conservation Board to propose at least two water projects in different basins of the state starting in 2005. Those recommendations would be forwarded to the governor. The governor would be required to approve at least one annually with a cost of at least $5 million.

The lack of legislative oversight also has critics spitting mad. They don’t want to hand the governor a blank check.

Patrick said the proposal isn’t necessary. Other funding sources already exist for water projects.

“There’s never been a water project that hasn’t been developed because of lack of money,” he said.

Roaring Fork diversions

Recent media polls show Colorado residents haven’t bought into Referendum A. The proposal is failing badly among likely voters.

Locally the proposal has been rejected by the Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy, a nonprofit that fights to protect the Roaring Fork watershed, and the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which protects the water interests of 15 West Slope counties, including Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield.

But even if Referendum A loses, there’s no guarantee that the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers ” which already supply water to Front Range cities like Colorado Springs and Aurora ” won’t eventually be tapped for additional supplies, according to Peter Roessmann, education specialist for the water conservation district.

“It may not be a nail in the coffin or a savior for the Roaring Fork,” said Roessmann.

A substantial amount of water is already diverted east from the Roaring Fork River. The Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. collects snowmelt from 45 square miles of the upper Roaring Fork River basin. It uses 12 miles of tunnels, culverts and ditches to create the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System, which sends water to Grizzly Reservoir, then through the Continental Divide to Twin Lakes.

The system was created in the 1930s to provide water for farmers and ranchers in Crowley and Pueblo counties. Most of the agricultural water rights have been sold to Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Aurora.

In dry years, such as the last two, senior water rights in the Grand Valley toward Grand Junction have forced the reservoir and canal company to stop diversions east and let more water flow down the Roaring Fork into the Colorado River.

In “wet” years, where demand doesn’t exceed supply of water, the Roaring Fork River has more water that could be collected, according to Roessmann.

However, that development could occur without the additional financing laid out by Referendum A, he said. And the interests most likely to seek more water from the upper Roaring Fork River have said they aren’t interested in using financing provided by Referendum A to fund another water project, according to Roessmann.

Patrick said it would “behoove” Pitkin County and the entire Western Slope to build their own water diversion project, or more fully utilize existing systems, to store water on the upper Roaring Fork for when it’s needed.

Such storage could be particularly beneficial along the stretch of the Roaring Fork through Aspen ” between Salvation Ditch to the east and the confluence with Maroon Creek to the west, Patrick said. That stretch nearly dried up in summer 2002 because of the drought. Trout were trapped in pools, and the appearance of the river was alarming to many residents.

Ruedi pump back on back burner

In theory, Referendum A could also spur projects that tap into the upper Fryingpan River. Water is diverted from the upper part of the drainage as part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, also known as Fry-Ark. Water is sucked from Mormon, Carter, Ivanhoe, Granite, Lily Pad, North Cunningham, Middle Cunningham and South Cunningham creeks before it reaches the Fryingpan River.

The water is used to irrigate 200,000 acres of crops in the Arkansas basin, and it supplies domestic water for 376,000 people in cities like Pueblo, according to information supplied by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Federal law allows an average of 69,280 acre-feet to be diverted from the headwaters annually, although the amount can vary from year to year.

Ruedi Reservoir was built in the 1960s to compensate the West Slope for water being diverted east from the upper Fryingpan drainage. While federal law limits what can be diverted from the upper Fryingpan, additional water is available from Ruedi.

About 51,500 acre-feet, or half the reservoir’s capacity, is available for sale, according to Bureau of Reclamation data. There haven’t been contracts for the water because of its price, about $70 per acre-foot, according to water experts.

Despite the lofty price, the Ruedi water is getting at least a cursory look from Front Range cities. In studies designed to identify West Slope water sources, Aurora has looked at the option of contracting for 20,000 acre-feet of water from Ruedi and pumping it back uphill and diverting it east.

While the plan would be expensive, it still makes organizations like the Roaring Fork Conservancy nervous.

Alternative plan

The Colorado River Water Conservancy District has its own proposal on the ballot to raise funds to keep water from the West Slope on the West Slope. Ballot question 4A is a “de-Brucing” measure. No new taxes would be levied. However, if approved, the district could keep more revenues and not be under the tight constraints of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, or TABOR, amendment to the state constitution.

TABOR typically forces mill levies down because it limits annual revenue growth for Colorado governments. Question 4A would allow the conservation district to freeze the property tax mill levy at its current level of 0.250 mills.

Any additional revenues could be used to purchase water stored in federal reservoirs on the West Slope like Ruedi and Blue Mesa, according to the conservation district’s campaign material.

That’s a way the West Slope could ensure Ruedi water would be reserved and not available for Front Range cities, said Roessmann.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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