Roaring Fork gets clean bill of health |

Roaring Fork gets clean bill of health

Janet Urquhart
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times

While the overall quality of the Roaring Fork River remains high, several of its tributaries don’t meet state standards for drinking water and aquatic habitat, according to the Roaring Fork Conservancy’s 2006 report on the health of the rivershed.The report, released this week, offers the latest data from an ongoing sampling program initiated in 1997 by the conservancy, in partnership with the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s River Watch program, the state Department of Public Health and Environment and other agencies.”Overall, it’s good news,” said Tim O’Keefe, education director for the conservancy. “Overall, the water quality in the valley is pretty healthy.”The conservancy last assessed the health of the watershed with its 2000 State of the River report, released in November 2001. The data collected since then is the focus of the latest report.Water samples are collected at 24 points along 70-plus-mile Roaring Fork, from its headwaters on Independence Pass to its confluence with the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs, as well as on its tributaries. Water samples, collected with the help of valley middle and high school students, are tested for various pollutants, including heavy metals and nutrients.

The 2006 report identifies four “impacted streams” in the Roaring Fork watershed that will be the focus of closer scrutiny – Brush Creek, the Crystal River, Cattle Creek and Fourmile Creek. The impacted designation means certain stretches of the streams have pollution levels that exceed state standards; the streams also garnered only “good” or “fair” ratings for biological health.Brush Creek, which flows through Snowmass Village and the Brush Creek Valley before joining the Fork, has been placed on the impacted list as a result of consistently high pH and phosphorous levels and only a “good” biotic ranking, which signifies “fairly substantial organic pollution” is likely, according to the conservancy’s report. Two new sampling sites have been added to the stream – just below the Snowmass golf course and near the divide of Snowmass and Brush creeks. Snowmass Creek, just to the west, does not have the large-scale development that exists along Brush Creek in Snowmass Village, and it has an “excellent” rating for biological health, the report notes.The pH spike – pH is a measure of alkalinity – occurs each October in Brush Creek, so the conservancy is at work this month trying to pinpoint the source, O’Keefe said.The Crystal River, which flows into the Roaring Fork near Carbondale, is classified as an impacted stream for high readings of iron, occasional high readings for sulfates and spikes in aluminum. Sulfate and aluminum, highest in the spring of 2003, are often associated with poor water-treatment practices, according to the report. The river garners a “good” rating, with some organic pollution likely.All of the high readings came at the Carbondale Fish Hatchery or below; the biological health of the upper reaches of the Crystal is classified as excellent.

Low late-summer stream flows are also a concern in the Crystal, which the conservancy is addressing by working with the state to install a new stream flow gauge at the fish hatchery bridge above Carbondale.Currently, there’s a gauge at Redstone, where adequate flows are recorded, and at the CRMS bridge in Carbondale, where enough water has been returned to the river to show sufficient stream flows on the gauge.”Look in between the two, and there’s not enough water in the river,” O’Keefe said. The low flows mean there’s not enough water to dilute pollution, he said.Cattle Creek and Fourmile Creek, which flow into the Fork above Glenwood Springs, are the most impacted streams in the watershed, according to the conservancy. Both get a “fair” rating, meaning fairly substantial organic pollution is likely, according to the report.”Only Cattle Creek and Fourmile share this low rank; in fact, these streams are alike and face similar pressures,” the report notes.Cattle Creek produced high readings of selenium and manganese, and high levels of suspended solids. Low flows from April to October are also a concern. New sampling sites have been identified for both tributaries to help pinpoint the problems and help identify solutions, the conservancy said.

The selenium isn’t surprising, O’Keefe added. It’s a factor of the Mancos shale in the area in combination with agricultural irrigation, he said.The new sampling sites on Fourmile include one above most of the development and one that will isolate water-quality effects from Sunlight Mountain Resort and future development there, and residential development along the creek.”The hope is that this more in-depth monitoring will increase awareness of pollution-causing activities and lead to water quality improvement efforts on Fourmile Creek,” the report says.Copies of the report are available at the conservancy’s office in Basalt; it is also available online at Urquhart’s e-mail address is

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