River work was legal but concerns won’t wash away | AspenTimes.com

River work was legal but concerns won’t wash away

A contruction crew works to remove debris from a offshoot from the Roaring Fork river in Basalt near the intersection of Willits Road and Hooks Lane Friday afternoon May 9, 2003. Paul Conrad photo.
The Aspen Times |

The sight of heavy equipment working in the Roaring Fork River horrified environmentalists last week, but it looked worse than it really was, said state and federal officials.

A trackhoe and front-end loader toiled in the river throughout last week just upvalley from Hooks Bridge in the midvalley. Landowner Ed Dreager had the work performed to dredge an old channel that had filled with silt. The branch off the main channel creates an island on Dreager’s land.

The work was legally performed with a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Nevertheless it has sparked some debate about whether the review process is stringent enough and whether the cumulative effect of various projects is threatening the gold-medal fishery and health of the river ecosystem.

“People have learned that black smoke and yellow machinery in the river is something to be concerned about,” noted an official with the Colorado Division of Wildlife who didn’t want to be named.

Dreager’s project became a focal point of the debate because it was so visible. The work was along Willits Lane, across from the busy Basalt Business Center, the commercial complex where Federal Express and Valley Lumber are located.

Officials with both the Army Corps of Engineers and the Roaring Fork Conservancy, an environmental education group, said they received calls from concerned residents.

“I think it’s a very visible site,” said Sue Nall, an environmental engineer with the Army Corps. “It makes me happy that people are concerned.”

She said Roaring Fork Valley residents aren’t shy about taking the initiative to report suspicious work in the river or to check to make sure it is legal.

In this case, Dreager applied to perform the work in January. A permit was issued in April. It allows construction of a temporary road across wetlands to provide access for the dredge work. Dreager can remove 400 cubic yards to restore the old river channel.

Bill Johnson, a consultant working for Dreager, said it didn’t surprise him that the work alarmed some people. Johnson is a former district ranger of the U.S. Forest Service’s Aspen office. He now runs a consulting company called Earth Resource Investigations Inc.

“Any time you go into the river, you’re going to get calls,” he said. He said people shouldn’t hesitate to call the Army Corps of Engineers or another authority to make sure river work is legal.

In addition to being legal, the Dreager project could benefit the river, according to Johnson. He said revitalizing the side channel makes the river wider, so it has more capacity to handle flooding. In addition, it will create a calm channel where fry can rest after hatching.

The danger of projects like Dreager’s is that sediment can cover the stream bottom and smother fish eggs and invertebrates that adult fish depend on for food.

Brown trout spawn in the fall while rainbow trout spawn in the spring. During spawning, females rut or create a spawning bed in the stream bottom. Females release their eggs at the same time males release sperm, according to Rick Lafaro, water quality coordinator for the Roaring Fork Conservancy. The fertilized eggs are covered with material, and the fry eventually dig their way out.

For brown trout, that process starts in November and ends in April. Rainbows are spawning now, but the non-native fish don’t have much luck on a river like the Roaring Fork because of high runoff. “They face a continual uphill battle here,” said Lofaro. Many of the rainbows on the Roaring Fork are stocked by the wildlife division.

Wildlife division spokesman Todd Malmsbury said the agency routinely provides information about trout spawning times on specific streams to the Army Corps of Engineers to help determine when river work can be performed safely.

Nall said comments had been sought from the Colorado Division of Wildlife on the Dreager application, but it didn’t appear from the case file that the state agency had responded.

Even though the Dreager work was performed after brown trout spawning time, precautions were still taken to avoid releasing fine sediments into the stream. Johnson said concrete slabs were used as barriers to stabilize the riverbank where the work was being performed. A special liner was used in conjunction with the concrete.

He said the area that was created for access for the heavy machinery will be replanted and restored to its former condition.

One concerned onlooker fears that the Roaring Fork River is getting irretrievably altered by various projects and effects of development. Royal Laybourn, who owns a business in the Basalt Business Center, was one of the people who called the Army Corps of Engineers to check on the Dreager project.

Although he learned the project is legal, he questioned whether the Army Corps actually performs thorough enough hydrology studies to see how work like Dreager’s will affect downstream properties. Too many times the broader impacts of projects aren’t considered, he lamented.

Meanwhile, there are projects along the Roaring Fork River that are changing the messy, wild riparian areas into manicured lawns and golf courses, Laybourn said. And no agency like the Army Corps of Engineers looks at the cumulative effects.

“It’s an incremental loss that occurs,” he said.

Laybourn, an avid canoer, also expressed concern that Colorado law provides ownership of land beneath river waters to the riverside property owners. That entitles the property owners to certain actions that may be detrimental to the river’s health, he said.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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