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River District looks for natural solutions to Crystal River water shortage

Officials say backup water-supply plan won’t impact Wild & Scenic

Heather Sackett
Aspen Journalism

Sprinklers irrigate land on the east side of the Crystal River (in foreground) in August 2018, one of its driest years in recent history. A call by a downstream senior water rights holder during the drought of 2018 illustrated a long-simmering problem: several subdivisions in the Crystal River Valley don't have back-up water plans.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Representatives from the Colorado River Water Conservation District say that their efforts to develop a solution to a water shortage on the Crystal River will probably include natural fixes before a dam and reservoir and that the plan should not impact a future Wild & Scenic designation.

Staff from the Glenwood Springs-based River District presented some preliminary findings of a study of a backup water-supply plan, known as an augmentation plan, to Pitkin County commissioners Tuesday. They said their preference is to find and develop natural infrastructure such as aquifer recharge or wetlands restoration before proposing a dam and reservoir.

Water could be diverted and stored in an underground aquifer during peak flows and then be allowed to slowly seep back into the river when it’s needed. Restoring wetlands can raise the water table throughout the valley floor, creating a sponge that holds water.



River District staff said they would absolutely not consider storage on the main stem of the Crystal — any potential small reservoir would be on a tributary — and that whatever solutions they come up with shouldn’t impact the long-held goal of some residents to get a federal Wild & Scenic designation to protect the free-flowing nature of the river.

Zane Kessler, the River District’s director of government relations, said the agency is working with environmental groups such as American Rivers to find a solution to the shortage.



“We see a real opportunity to do something cool here and think outside the box,” he said. “I don’t know that natural infrastructure could take care of all of it, but we want to prioritize that first and look at opportunities.”

Water shortage

The River District and Rifle-based West Divide Water Conservancy District undertook the study, paid for by a state grant, to examine a problem that became evident during the summer of 2018: that in dry years there may not be enough water for both irrigators and residential subdivisions.

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“2018 was a wake-up call for water users on the Crystal,” Kessler said.

That August, Ella Ditch, which irrigates land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the river for the first time ever. That meant that junior water-rights holders upstream were supposed to stop taking water so that Ella Ditch, which has water rights dating to 1902, could receive its full amount. Under Colorado’s prior appropriation system, those with the oldest water rights have first use of the river.

The lower Crystal River was running at 8 cfs near the state fish hatchery in August 2018.Colorado River Water Conservation District staff said a study of a back-up water supply will look at natural infrastructure before dams and reservoirs to address a water shortage.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

The Colorado Division of Water Resources did not enforce the call by turning off water to homes, but instead told water users they must work together to create a basinwide augmentation plan.

Most junior water-rights holders have augmentation plans, which allows them to continue using water during a call by replacing it with water from another source, such as releasing it from a reservoir. The problem on the Crystal is that several residential subdivisions don’t have augmentation plans.

Until water users come up with a permanent solution, the state Division of Water Resources has said it may not allow outdoor water use when a senior call is on as a temporary fix. Water managers expect once-rare calls by irrigators to become more frequent as rising temperatures result in less water in streams.

Demand quantification

River District staff presented the first step in the study: a demand quantification, or putting numbers on the amount of water needed for different uses throughout the year.

Engineers found 90 structures — many of them wells for in-house water use — that take water from the river system and which would need to be included in the augmentation plan. These 90 structures deliver water to 197 homes; 80 service connections in Marble; nearly 23 irrigated acres; Beaver Lake and Orlosky Reservoir in Marble; 16,925 square-feet of commercial space; and livestock.

In order for these water users to keep taking water during a downstream call by an irrigator, they would have to replace about 113 acre-feet of water in the Crystal River per year. The amount of extra flow that would need to be added to the river is small — just .58 cubic feet per second during July, the peak replacement month.

Some county commissioners asked if simply using less water — instead of creating a new supply of water — especially by irrigators on the lower Crystal, could solve the problem.

“I’d love to see an analysis of the conservation opportunities,” said Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury. “What can we do that’s not taking the water out, but preserving it in the stream?”

River District General Manager Andy Mueller acknowledged that there may be more “aggressive” irrigators on the Crystal, but that, in addition, climate change is decreasing the amount of water available. He said he wants the River District to work more closely with Pitkin County to find conservation opportunities.

“I think those types of opportunities require identifying the potential for them, but then developing relationships with the water users,” Mueller said.

Tuesday’s meeting was a chance for board members from both organizations, which have not historically seen eye to eye on water issues, to work together and ask questions. Next steps include public outreach and education; coordination with water managers; and eventually development of a basinwide augmentation strategy.

“We are going to continue to evaluate alternatives and try to get some additional expertise in the realm of natural infrastructure or aquifer recharge,” Kessler said. “We are going to do our best to make sure that this effort aligns with the Wild & Scenic values that the community supports.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. For more, go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

 


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