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Major project under way for managing Ruedi, Fryingpan

Jeremy Heiman

Next time you’re fishing on the Fryingpan, someone may hand you a questionnaire.

The survey will most likely be part of an economic study, one of a pair of projects undertaken by a Basalt-based conservation group to help determine how the Fryingpan River and Ruedi Reservoir will be managed.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy is working with the Ruedi Water and Power Authority and the Colorado River Water Conservation District to produce data on the economic benefits derived from the river and the river’s biological assets. The information can be used to evaluate proposals that would change Fryingpan flows, possibly during the impact assessment process that must precede the construction of any such project.

“It’s hard to know exactly what will come up,” said Kristine Crandall, a resource economist and researcher for the conservancy. “But there certainly will be demands on Ruedi’s water in the future. We’ve designed this to collect as broad a range of information as possible.”

“Ruedi Futures” is the informal name given to the overall information-gathering project. It includes an economic survey now under way and a biological study expected to start next year.

“Ultimately, what we want to do is open up a dialog on the future of the rivers and the reservoir,” said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

Kuhn said it’s important to get communities in the Roaring Fork Valley involved in the future operation of the reservoir and the management of the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork rivers.

The year-long economic study began in November, Crandall said. A survey devised by Crandall will be the main means of gathering economic information. Anglers and other recreational users of the river valley and the reservoir will be surveyed.

The survey will attempt to gather information about visitors’ spending for gasoline, food, lodging and other retail purchases and services. It also will ask how often they visit and whether fishing on the Fryingpan is the main purpose of their visit.

However, anglers will not be queried about how many fish they’ve caught.

“We’re trying to go to a broader satisfaction question – whether they enjoy being out on the river,” Crandall said.

Anglers who are more familiar with the Fryingpan will also be questioned about how the river’s different water levels affect the quality of their fishing experience.

The conservancy’s biological study will investigate how increased diversion of water from the Fryingpan drainage would affect the fishery, fish habitat, fish in various stages of life, the aquatic insects and other aspects of the river’s ecosystem.

Biologists will undertake a detailed examination of the microscopic life, plant life and insects in the streambed at points along the river.

The entire study will require two field seasons, Crandall said.

Computer modeling techniques will project the effects of different water levels on the ecosystem, to estimate the effects of a new diversion project or greater releases from the dam.

“I think we want to know how changes in flows might translate into changes in those resources,” Crandall said.

One project that could significantly change flows, the so-called “Ruedi pumpback” plan, has been proposed by the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs. The two Front Range cities are studying the possibility of pumping 20,000 acre-feet of Ruedi water over the Continental Divide each winter.

The pumpback proposal is the cheapest of several possible schemes that would bring water needed to fuel growth in the two cities. The river below the dam now runs at rates between 120 and 150 cubic feet per second (cfs) in winter, and projections indicate that the pumpback system would reduce the wintertime flow to 70 to 90 cfs.

Another factor already affecting Ruedi and the Fryingpan is the release of water to aid the recovery of four endangered fish species in the Colorado River near Grand Junction. Such releases are required in a recovery plan, written in accordance with the Endangered Species Act.

Water for this purpose is released primarily in the fall, prime fishing time on the Fryingpan. Fishermen and outfitters have complained that high water levels are disruptive and even dangerous to fishermen wading in the river.

Kuhn said the studies undertaken by the conservancy may also have longer-range usefulness.

“I think we also want to have a common understanding of the resources when we need to figure out how we’re going to pay for Ruedi,” he said.

Ruedi was built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to impound water for seasonal needs, such as agriculture on the Western Slope. The impounded water compensated for Fryingpan water diverted to the Front Range. The bureau expected the reservoir to be paid for by the fledgling oil shale industry and by municipal development on the Western Slope.

But the oil shale industry went belly up, and the demand for domestic water hasn’t filled the funding gap. The costs remain unpaid, and the issue will go to Congress in 2019, the 50th anniversary of the dam’s commissioning, unless communities in the region come up with a solution.

“You never know what Congress is going to do,” Kuhn said. “That’s why we want to be proactive.”

Western Slope communities have the option of suggesting a solution rather than waiting to see what Congress might do.

“This study is the first phase,” Kuhn said. “We want to know how the reservoir and the river are contributing to the local economy.”

The river district has contracted to provide $30,000 in funding for the conservancy’s economic study and expects to kick in some money for the biological study as well, Kuhn said.


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