Pitkin County considers tax to secure future water rights and supply | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County considers tax to secure future water rights and supply

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Pitkin County officials are contemplating a special tax that would ensure a water supply, regardless of future water-right conflicts.

At least a partial answer on whether they should impose such a tax is expected on June 3, when the Board of County Commissioners will be briefed on the results of a survey of county residents regarding water and other issues.

The county has been toying with the idea of establishing a 0.1 percent sales tax increase to raise roughly $1 million annually for a “water fund,” and included questions on the subject in a recently conducted telephone survey.

County commissioners told officials in the town of Basalt recently that the county needs at least $150,000 annually for technical and legal advice to verify and enforce water rights and to negotiate water rights purchases, not to mention the money needed to actually buy the rights.

One reason for the county’s interest is that unappropriated or underused water rights in the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers are coveted by water authorities in Colorado Springs and Pueblo, county officials maintained this week.

And one local water expert noted that drastic measures might be required to ensure future water supplies for the Roaring Fork Valley, such as damming creeks and rivers and creating new reservoirs, if there is any truth to warnings about future “water wars” in the West.

Front Range municipalities have for decades been negotiating transmountain diversions, such as those included in the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, to carry Western Slope water under the Continental Divide. The water is stored in reservoirs and used for the vast and growing suburbs between Denver and Colorado Springs.

Concerned that the future might involve stepped up water-grabbing efforts, the county has been working with state legislators and area water officials in an effort to determine what actions will be needed in order to safeguard local water supplies.

At a work session on May 27, during a chat with representatives of the Salvation Ditch Company, the commissioners learned that the 103-year-old ditch has been pulling less than its alloted volume of water from the Roaring Fork River for some time.

According to ditch manager Gary Beach, the ditch has been diverting between 30 cubic feet per second (cfs) and 38 cfs in recent years, though it has rights to up to 58 cfs.

Part of the problem has been restrictions in some of the culverts that carry the water at certain points along its 20.4 miles from the headgate near Stillwater Road, east of Aspen, to its terminus in Woody Creek.

But, Beach said, the ditch company is working on programs to bring its diversion of Roaring Fork River water back up to the 58 cfs level in order to maintain its water rights and prevent the water from being siphoned over to the Front Range counties.

For instance, Beach said, it is fairly common for the ditch company, which has only 56 formal owners, to sell a one-year water-use license to a nonowner, as long as the owner does not use the water for purposes other than the agricultural uses it is originally was meant for.

Beach told the commissioners that the Salvation Ditch was excavated by local ranch families, working with hand tools, from 1903 to 1905 and predates the Colorado River Compact of 1922. The Compact apportions the Colorado River’s water between upper-basin states ” Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico ” and the lower-basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.

According to Beach, the Compact was based on measurements that showed the river carried 15 million acre-feet of water per year (an acre-foot is the amount of water it would take to cover one acre with water a foot deep). But those measurements were taken in unusually wet years, he said, and the river currently is carrying somewhere around 12 million acre feet per year.

Plus, he said, there are federal laws that guarantee water rights to tribes of Native Americans which have never been quantified, but which are likely to further strain the river’s ability to meet the needs of all its potential users.

Add to that the fact that 2002 was the driest year in the West since the 1800s, when rainfall and snowfall records were begun, Beach continued, and the prospects for conflicts over water appear increasingly grim.

He recommended that the county come up with more innovative ways of dealing with those prospects than simply buying more water rights, which might not be worth much against other, senior rights.

“There’s been lots of talk of a reservoir farther up Independence Pass, for instance,” he told commissioners.

The commissioners agreed that local water authorities need to work together in the future to face what might be a troubled time.

“It’ll all be cooperative,” promised BOCC Chairman Jack Hatfield.


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