Low flows on the Crystal River lead to state action | AspenTimes.com

Low flows on the Crystal River lead to state action

Heather Sackett
Aspen Journalism

Extremely low flows on the Crystal River have led to action by state officials, including turning down a diverter's headgate and placing a call for water.

On Friday, the Colorado Water Conservation Board placed a "call" on the Crystal River, asking Division of Water Resources officials to administer an instream flow right on the river. The CWCB has an instream flow right on the Crystal for 100 cubic feet per second between Avalanche Creek and the confluence with the Roaring Fork River from June 1 through Sept. 30 each year.

The CWCB used the river gauge near the state fish hatchery in Carbondale to determine that flow conditions were too low. As of Friday morning, the Crystal at that location was running at roughly 8.8 cfs.

Instream flow rights are owned and used by the state to help preserve and protect the natural environment, ecosystems and aquatic life, especially fish.

These rights, however, are junior to most agricultural and municipal rights in Colorado, which means the call may not do much to leave more water in the Crystal. The CWCB's right on the Crystal dates to 1975.

The goal, Bassi said, is to make sure future augmentation plans take into account instream flow rights.

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"We have a duty to protect these water rights that we hold for the people of the state and we take it seriously," said Linda Bassi, stream and lake protection chief at the CWCB. "It's useful to have a record of when instream flow is not being met."

Not having enough water in the lower Crystal River has been a concern in recent years. The 2012 drought left a section of the Crystal between Thompson Creek and the state fish hatchery dry during the late summer irrigation season. Several large diversions, including Town of Carbondale ditches, are located on that section.

This year conditions are approaching a similarly dry state, despite a goal of the 2016 Crystal River Management Plan to leave an additional 10 to 25 cfs in the river during moderate drought.

"It's a sad state of affairs," Bassi said. "There's nothing we can do to make more water appear in the river."

Waste curtailed

On July 23, amid rapidly dropping flows on the Crystal, District 38 Water Commissioner Jake DeWolfe made the decision to turn down the headgate of the Lowline Ditch.

The diversion point for the Lowline is located on the Crystal River just north of the KOA campground, and has two water rights: one from 1902 for 19 cfs and one from 1936 for 21.5 cfs. The ditch irrigates land on the west side of Highway 133 roughly between River Valley Ranch Golf Club and Sustainable Settings.

At issue was a "tail ditch," which is used to return water to the stream after it is used for irrigation. The amount of water in a tail ditch can vary during the irrigation season, but if irrigators are being efficient, in theory, not much water should be returned to the stream.

"There was excess water coming out of one of the tail ditches," DeWolf said. "If there is an excess, we can go ahead and turn (the headgate) back down and leave the water in the river."

DeWolf said they first turned the Lowline's headgate down by about 5 cfs on July 23, then again the next day for a total reduction of about 8 cfs.

"There have been a couple of years when we asked the irrigator to turn it down themselves," DeWolf said. "We did not even give them the opportunity in this case. We have the option to go ahead and curtail the ditch, which is what we did this time."

The problem, Wolfe said, was not that the Lowline was diverting more than its decreed amount of 40.5 cfs; in fact it was diverting slightly less. The problem was that the Lowline Ditch was violating the newly implemented state guidelines regarding wasting water.

An internal guide to understanding waste, approved in June 2017 by the Colorado Division of Water Resources, defines "waste" as diverting water when not needed for beneficial use or running more water than is reasonably needed for application to beneficial use.

So how much is too much water in a tail ditch?

The guidelines say it is a judgement call that should be made on a case by case basis, but that "if the water commissioner can make adjustments to a diversion with no risk of depriving the irrigated land of the water necessary to accomplish the consumptive use of the plants being irrigated, then the amount of water at the tail end of the ditch is not reasonable and is waste."

These new guidelines are a departure from the age-old Colorado water law doctrine of "use it or lose it," which encourages water users to divert their full decreed amount, lest their water right be considered abandoned.

"With our new direction, (curtailment) is become more common," DeWolfe said.

Because of diminishing flows on the Crystal, Wolfe said the Lowline Ditch was diverting roughly half the volume it was running at after it was curtailed July 23, which was about 19 cfs as of Friday.

But in a dry year like 2018, the Crystal River flows, not the state, will dictate if and how much diverters can take. There is so little water, in some cases senior water rights holders are having trouble getting enough water into their headgates, DeWolf said.

"There might be some ground to go unirrigated in this second cutting," he said.

Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times on coverage of water and rivers. For more information, go to aspenjournalism.com.