Pitkin County commissioners praise new Fork water deal
A recently-inked deal to allow 1,000 more acre feet of water to flow in perpetuity down the upper Roaring Fork River beginning next year prompted a rain of accolades from Pitkin County commissioners earlier this week.
“This is an amazing opportunity for many reasons,” Board Chairwoman Patti Clapper said at the commissioner’s regular meeting Wednesday. “To be able to keep any drop of water … in the upper Roaring Fork is critical.”
In this case, officials are talking about a lot more than a drop. Water is going for about $50,000 an acre foot, meaning the 1,000 acre foot deal is worth about $50 million, said Pitkin County Attorney John Ely.
The deal came as the result of Pitkin County and other Western Slope water interests taking the city of Aurora to water court in 2013. Aurora had filed an application in 2009 to alter the use of 2,416 acre feet of water it receives from the Busk-Ivanhoe transmountain diversion system in the Fryingpan River headwaters from irrigation use to municipal use.
The problem was that the city conceded it had already been using the water for municipal uses for 22 years.
In 2014, a District Court judge ruled in Aurora’s favor, though the decision was appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court. In 2016, the Supreme Court reversed the District Court, forcing Aurora to negotiate a settlement for the undecreed water use penalty.
In the end, the negotiations focused on water Aurora owns in the Independence Pass-Twin Lakes system rather than the Busk-Ivanhoe system. The 1,000 acre feet will come from that system, which is five percent owned by Aurora, Ely said.
The result means 700 acre feet will be released down the Roaring Fork after being captured briefly further up Independence Pass. Two-hundred acre feet will be reserved to bolster late summer and early fall flows, while another 100 acre feet will be left in the Roaring Fork under a complicated exchange.
“You guys saw an opportunity and you seized it,” Commissioner Rachel Richards said to Ely and Assistant County Attorney Laura Makar. “We were out there alone (at first). We fought as Pitkin County.”
Commissioner George Newman also praised the county attorneys, calling their efforts “shuttle diplomacy” that should be used as a case study in water negotiations.
Newman also suggested looking into building a Pitkin County water storage facility for the extra water, perhaps next to Grizzly Reservoir.
Richards also praised Pitkin County voters for authorizing the Healthy Rivers and Streams Fund in 2009, which provided money for the county to be able to pursue the lawsuit.
“If the citizens had not (provided) us with these dollars, we wouldn’t have been able to pursue this,” she said. “I couldn’t be more proud. This is a really good thing for Pitkin County.”
Clapper recalled a “frightening” sight a few years ago when residents were able to walk across the Roaring Fork in the late season “and not even get your ankle bones wet.” The new deal should keep that from happening again, she said.
Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the water settlement July 11. If approved by all entities involved, the water won’t begin flowing until next year, Ely said. However, it will make a noticeable difference once it hits the Roaring Fork, he said.
“The flow should be visibly improved,” Ely said. “You should be able to perceive it simply by walking up and down the trail system (next to the river).”