River barrier has rafters crying foul | AspenTimes.com

River barrier has rafters crying foul

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A line of boulders that appeared overnight across the Roaring Fork River upstream from Basalt has caused a stir in the local rafting community.

But the situation appears to be business as usual, according to a commissioner with the state Division of Water Resources, and the rafters are going to have to live with it.

According to a guide at Ajax Whitewater, a rafting company that operates out of Aspen and Basalt, a large, diesel-powered backhoe “dead center in the middle of the stream” was building a wall of rock early Monday morning that made passage impossible for the mid- and large-sized rafts used by tour groups.

Tom Anderson, one of three owners of Ajax, said the rocks are diverting a significant portion of the stream flow into a ditch that heads south from the river.

At first, the backhoe operator appeared to be creating a barrier that would have made the river impassable even for a kayak until he was confronted by a crew from Ajax, Anderson said. The backhoe operator stopped work after the rafters discussed the situation with him.

“The water’s low and everybody’s fighting for it,” Anderson said.

Anderson added that his company is really the only one running tours along that stretch of the Roaring Fork this late in the summer, so he and his partners, Sean Wood and Seth Berley, are unlikely to find much support from other river guides.

Not that such support would really matter, because if push comes to shove, the ranchers and farmers always win.

Kristine Crandall, a research and writing specialist with the Roaring Fork Conservancy, said she began investigating the situation after being contacted by Ajax Whitewater yesterday morning.

So far, her investigation indicates that the creation of a dam to divert water into one of the ditches that draw in that area appears to be on the up and up.

The real question at this point is whether a permit was needed to put a backhoe in the middle of the gold-medal waters of the Roaring Fork River. Crandall plans to contact the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tomorrow. She wants to know if ditch companies, which are created by the water users along a given ditch to perform maintenance and other tasks, actually have the right to drive heavy machinery into the river in order to build a dam.

But Crandall said she’s not surprised that the companies are beginning to shore up their diversion systems along that stretch of the Roaring Fork. There are a few very large ditches, including the Home Supply Ditch and the Arbaney-Cerise Ditch, and several smaller ones that draw water from the Roaring Fork between Wingo Junction and the east boundary of Basalt.

Crandall said the peak flows this spring, which were higher than normal, likely caused damage to the rock and earth diversions that were in place at the time. Now that the river is flowing at an unusually low level, ditch owners are being forced to repair and in some cases extend their diversion systems.

The state water commissioner in charge of the Roaring Fork River said everything looked normal after viewing the line of boulders.

“Once they get their second crop of alfalfa, they’ll start laying off,” said the water commissioner, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But as long as they’re trying to get a second crop, they’ll try to divert as much as they can – within their rights.”

The commissioner said such diversions are normal this time of year. Farmers and ranchers from Aspen to the Utah border are diverting water off the Colorado and its tributaries, including the Roaring Fork, and into their pastures and orchards.

He added the division of water resources is now managing all ditches off the Colorado and its tributaries to ensure that everyone gets their share, which is determined on a first-come, first-served basis that dates back to the late 19th century, when settlers first staked claim to scarce water supplies.

Rafters, the commissioner added, actually have no legal claim to the water. Most years, that wouldn’t matter, but the commissioner pointed out that this year isn’t normal.

“People have to remember that we’re still in a drought situation,” he said. “We’re a long way from being healed up from the drought. Situations like this are to be expected.”

[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is aharvey@aspentimes.com]

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