Red tape blocks Ruedi water | AspenTimes.com
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Red tape blocks Ruedi water

Scott Condon

Longtime Fryingpan Valley resident Bruce Gabow wants enough water kept in Ruedi Reservoir to accommodate sailing and windsurfing throughout the summer in future years.Jeanne Beaudry, director of the Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy, wants the amount of water released from Ruedi to remain high enough to support a healthy ecosystem and prime trout habitat in the Fryingpan River.The Colorado River Water Conservation District wants any available water source, like Ruedi, secured to help irrigate crops and quench the thirst of growing cities on the Western Slope.All of those goals, which sometimes conflict, could be met if governments of the Roaring Fork Valley banded together and purchased the last remaining water in Ruedi that isn’t spoken for, according to Mark Fuller, director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority.At a recent meeting between local water experts and newly elected state Rep. Kathleen Curry, Fuller said it is critical to secure that remaining water as quickly as possible because of threats from Colorado’s Front Range. Cities like Pueblo and Colorado Springs already tap the headwaters of the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork rivers and are studying if they can divert more from the basin.Red tape complicates water purchaseRuedi, the reservoir 14 miles east of Basalt, holds 102,000 acre-feet of water. Various city and county governments, water districts and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have signed contracts with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to buy some of that water. But 18,600 acre-feet remain uncontracted.”There’s all sorts of mischief that can be done with that,” said Fuller, who monitors water issues for a consortium of local governments.But buying that water and securing it to benefit interests in the Roaring Fork Valley isn’t as easy as it sounds. High prices, stiff regulations and competition from the thirsty Front Range cities present challenges.Fuller said the Bureau of Reclamation is asking $15.5 million for the 18,600 acre-feet of water still available from Ruedi. Even if the governments could raise that amount, federal red tape might prevent them from using the water as they see fit.When Ruedi Reservoir was authorized by U.S. Congress, the decree prohibited use of water for recreation and environmental causes. It was built to fuel the growth of Colorado.Smoother sailing, fishery protection soughtTo sailing enthusiasts like Gabow, buying water for recreation should be just as legitimate as other uses. Gabow, a member of the Aspen Yacht Club at Ruedi, said heavy water demands during the summer drain the reservoir at a time when it is being used most for boating, windsurfing and fishing. When the water level drops below 50,000 acre-feet, or about half the capacity of the reservoir, it is “unusable” for recreation, Gabow said.Buying the 18,600 acre-feet of uncontracted water could assure a usable water level was maintained throughout the summer. An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot. There are 325,851 gallons in one acre-foot, roughly enough to serve two typical American families of four people for one year.The demands of boaters dovetail with those of the Roaring Fork Conservancy. Beaudry is concerned that if Front Range interests divert more water from the upper Fryingpan through the existing Fryingpan-Arkansas Project or tap into the uncontracted water at Ruedi Reservoir, winter flows on the Fryingpan River could suffer.The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Ruedi, is required to release enough water from the dam to maintain winter flows of 39 cubic feet per second on the Fryingpan River. The bureau typically keeps flows well above that threshold, but the drought in recent years forced a reduction.Beaudry is concerned that the 39 cfs threshold is too low for a healthy trout habitat. Preliminary data from a study for the conservancy show that a lot of the bug population can be wiped out during cold winter months when the flow drops below 60 cfs.Because trout fishing is so important to the economy of Basalt, the conservancy believes buying water from Ruedi to protect the fishery should be a legitimate use. The same water that could guarantee good boating conditions during summers could be released during winters to keep the fishery healthy.Pop the question to the fedsFuller said there would likely be conflicts with different users in the Roaring Fork Valley over how best to use water purchased from Ruedi and when to release it. But he said he would rather see that debate taking place by users within the valley rather than between the valley and the Front Range.Fuller said that if valley governments tried to purchase the available Ruedi water, the Bureau of Reclamation would want to know how it would be used. Because recreation and environmental benefits weren’t on the list of uses when Congress authorized the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, the offer would likely be turned down.Curry, who takes office next month to represent a district that includes the Roaring Fork Valley, said the use of water from Ruedi is a federal issue and not a state one, so the Colorado Legislature cannot help.However, Curry, whose expertise is in water issues, said the governments of the Roaring Fork Valley shouldn’t take it for granted that Ruedi water cannot be used to benefit the environment or recreation. She said they should challenge that interpretation.”If you want to get the answer, you have to ask the question,” she said. “I’d have my attorney write a letter seeking an opinion from the Bureau of Reclamation’s attorney.”If that didn’t work, she said, she would advise the local governments to carefully examine the authorizing bill. There may be “legal avenues” available that make the desired uses possible, Curry said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com