Nature gets chance to heal Fryingpan River wounds |

Nature gets chance to heal Fryingpan River wounds

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, Co Colorado
A cloudburst last August released a torrent of red mud in Seven Castles Creek and into the Gold Medal trout fish­ery of the Fryingpan River, about 4 1/2 miles east of Basalt. (Draper White/Special to The Aspen Times)

BASALT ” Nature will be allowed to fix its own problems this spring at the confluence of Seven Castles Creek and the Fryingpan River.

A coalition of governments and organizations headed by the nonprofit Roaring Fork Conservancy recently decided that no action is the best action in dealing with a mudslide that pumped a large amount of sediment into the streams last fall.

The high snowpack in the Fryingpan Valley is expected to produce runoff high enough to flush the sediment downstream and disperse it, said Rick Lofaro, executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy.

A cloudburst in early August sent a torrent of red mud down Seven Castles Creek and into the Gold Medal trout fishery of the Fryingpan River about 41/2 miles east of Basalt. So much debris flowed into the river that it shifted and braided the Fryingpan’s channel. The red sediment coated everything in the river bed from the confluence and even flowed into the Roaring Fork River. It remains in eddies and slow moving areas.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife initially lobbied for a special water release from Ruedi Reservoir to create a large flow that would flush the sediment downstream and disperse it. Aquatic biologists were concerned about the detrimental effects of all the red muck on fish and the insects they feed on.

But a coalition that included the conservancy, wildlife division, Basalt, Eagle County, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Colorado River Water Conservation District decided to wait to harness a higher flow when it would occur naturally this late spring and early summer. Meanwhile, they hired an environmental consultant to study the problem and make recommendations.

Miller Ecological Consultants Inc. will discuss its study and findings in detail at an annual State of the River meeting in El Jebel on May 13.

Lofaro said the study found a reduced number of aquatic insects at the confluence. The bug count was not drastically decreased on the lower Fryingpan River, especially as the distance from the confluence increased.

“It wasn’t as damaging as many people thought it was,” Lofaro said of the mudslide. “It wasn’t like a chemical spill where everything gets killed right away.”

Some fish likely died, Lofaro said, but there is no evidence of a massive die-off.

The appearance of the confluence and area immediately downstream probably was the biggest impact, Lofaro said. The confluence has a disheveled look common after flash floods. Rock and sand is heaped in a way more reminiscent of dry streambeds in the desert than pastoral mountain streams. The new channel swamped cottonwood tree trunks with water. Huge boulders litter the confluence.

The consulting team confirmed it is best to avoid a flushing flow outside the normal runoff period. Even though the Fryingpan is a dammed river, the water releases from Ruedi Reservoir are expected, at this point, to be high enough to create an effective flushing. Lofaro said the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Ruedi, will have a better idea of its management plan by May.

While everyone is expecting an “epic” runoff this year, warm and dry weather throughout the spring could deplete the peak period and affect water releases on the Fryingpan River, Lofaro noted.

The consultant determined that a flushing flow probably won’t remove the boulders that helped alter the river channel. The boulders can either be mechanically removed, the study said, or humans could sit tight and let natural stabilization occur. The new delta area is ideal for planting cottonwoods and willow trees, the study said.

The parties that funded the study want to let nature take its course.

“We’re pleased that with this natural event, Mother Nature has responded so well,” Lofaro said.


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