Law could be salvation for Roaring Fork

Brent Gardner-Smith

Colorado State Rep. Greg Rippy of Glenwood Springs plans to file legislation Monday that would make it easier for water rights holders to divert water on a temporary basis for environmental reasons.

The bill is in response to last summer’s drought conditions that left sections of the Roaring Fork River through Aspen dry after the Salvation Ditch diverted its share of water from the river.

The Salvation Ditch diverts about 20 cubic feet per second from the Roaring Fork just east of Aspen and sends it to ranches and estates on McLain Flats and in Woody Creek.

For over two weeks in late August and early September, the Roaring Fork dropped below 20 cubic feet per second (cfs), creating a situation where all the water from the river was being diverted into the ditch. The Roaring Fork literally ran dry, becoming a series of unconnected pools in the stretch through Aspen.

After being contacted by the city of Aspen about the situation, the owners of the Salvation Ditch said they were open to leaving 5 cfs of water in the stream to keep the river wet, but were concerned that their water rights might be weakened by leaving the water in the river for environmental reasons.

Current state water law does not allow a water owner to lease or loan out his water unless it is related to saving crops or using water more efficiently.

Last summer, Hal Simpson, the director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources refused to OK the proposal by the Salvation Ditch Co. because he saw it was for environmental reasons, and didn’t feel he had the ability to endorse the deal under current state law.

Rippy’s bill would add a provision to the law that would allow the state’s water engineer to approve the lending or leasing of water for streamflow purposes if there has been an emergency drought declared in the basin, if it would not injure either senior or junior water right holders, and if the loan is for a maximum of 90 days.

Today, the state’s law say that if two parties approach the state engineer with an agreement for one to loan water to the other, the state engineer “shall” approve the deal, but it must be relevant to crops or efficiency.

“I am trying to add in one more use,” Rippy said. “And that he shall approve such a deal for the purpose of protecting in-stream flows. It is a very targeted solution to a specific problem. And it is targeted to issues exactly like the Salvation Ditch issue that we had last year.”

Rippy said the state water engineer supports what his bill in trying to do.

“I think he welcomes clarification of what his role is,” he said. “This is an attempt to give them a tool so it fits with the other statutory language. We are not trying to overturn 100-plus years of water law.”

Rippy expects the bill to get close scrutiny, but he’s also confident that it will pass. He is a member of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee where the bill will first be heard. And, he said, he has the conceptual support of the governor’s office.

“That’s always nice to have,” said Rippy, a Republican serving in a state government that is controlled by his party.

And Rippy plans to tell his fellow lawmakers what happened in the Roaring Fork River last summer and how the Salvation Ditch tried to rectify the situation, but was blocked by a lack of specificity in the state law.

“It is an example for why it is needed,” Rippy said. “You don’t want to go out there with hypotheticals.”

And he’s hopeful that his bill is never needed.

“I hope this is a provision that is never implemented, but the forecasts for this summer are not all that optimistic,” he said.