Roaring Fork River finds relief from dry conditions |

Roaring Fork River finds relief from dry conditions

The fish in the Roaring Fork River in Aspen can breathe a little easier this month thanks to farmers in the Grand Junction area.

Flows in the Roaring Fork through Aspen were slipping toward last year’s historic lows this month when water demands by farmers in western Colorado forced an end to diversions at the headwaters.

The flow of the Roaring Fork dropped below 30 cubic feet per second on Aug. 6. The next day a “call” for water was placed by the Grand Valley Canal, which supplies farmers. The call forced the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. to stop diverting water on the upper Roaring Fork River, on Tabor Creek and at Grizzly Reservoir, according Allen Ringle, manager of the company.

The flow in the Roaring Fork River through Aspen shot up from 29 cfs to 47 cfs on Aug. 7, thanks to the absence of diversions. Prior to the call, the canal company was releasing about 7 cfs down the river in August, Ringle said.

The river’s flow has remained between 45 and 50 cfs since the diversions stopped, easing concerns that last summer’s scenario would be repeated.

Even with the greater amount of water flowing down from the headwaters, the Roaring Fork is still below normal for this time. The average flow for this time of year would be 70 cfs, or about 33 percent more than it is now.

On the other hand, the river is in significantly better shape than last year. The flow dropped below 20 cfs in August 2002. Trout and other fish were isolated in pools that were cut off from what was left of the main river channel.

Temperatures can rise high enough in slow-flowing water that fish can die from stress, according to Kristine Crandall, a representative of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, a Basalt-based nonprofit that works on river issues. Macroinvertabrates that fish depend on for food can also get wiped out by low flows, she said.

Along with the ecological concerns, the low river was aesthetically troubling last summer. The owners of the Salvation Ditch, which diverts water from the river just east of Aspen, offered to help by letting more water remain in the river. However, the water engineer’s office nixed plans for that “loan,” claiming it wasn’t allowed by state water law.

That led to legislation that would clearly allow such loans during drought conditions. Rep. Gregg Rippy, who represents the entire Roaring Fork Valley, sponsored the bill.

Despite the dry conditions this summer, no drought has been declared, so Salvation Ditch still couldn’t provide salvation for the Roaring Fork River this year.

Apparently, it won’t be needed. The water that the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. must let flow down the river rather than divert could keep the river at a higher level than last year throughout the summer.

The company stopped diverting water because of demands from owners of senior water rights by June 27 last year, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources. But conditions were so dry that it provided little relief for the Roaring Fork.

This year the call by senior water rights owners came 41 days later. A bigger snowpack maintained the supply of water longer into the summer, so the demand for water wasn’t as great or as early.

And now that the downstream demand exists, the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. has more water than last year to send downstream.

Ringle said the company collects snow melt from 45 square miles of the upper Roaring Fork River basin. About 12 miles of tunnels, corrugated culverts and ditches comprise the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System, which sends water to Grizzly Reservoir, along Lincoln Creek, and then through the Continental Divide to Twin Lakes.

That system was developed in the 1930s when farmers and ranchers in Crowley and Pueblo counties sought additional water sources. Most of the water rights have been sold to municipalities, according to Ringle.

So when the water is diverted from the upper Roaring Fork River it benefits Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Aurora.

The Grand Valley agricultural interests have senior water rights which force the water to be sent west rather than east.

Allen said he anticipates the Grand Valley call will remain in effect for the remainder of the summer and into fall. He doubted his company would have the opportunity to divert water any longer this season. That means the section of the Roaring Fork River winding through Aspen should continue to benefit from the water flowing from its headwaters.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is]

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