Roaring Fork’s health gets mixed review |

Roaring Fork’s health gets mixed review

Naomi Havlen

A partial report presented to the Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday gives a mixed review on the status of the Roaring Fork River.According to Delia Malone and John Emrick, who are doing the field research for a study on the valley’s major tributaries, even areas surrounded by development in the valley have some pristine riparian habitats that warrant protection. But water diversions and sedimentation are harming the aquatic ecosystem, the researchers said.The Roaring Fork Stream Initiative is categorizing the condition of the Roaring Fork River and its major tributaries like Castle and Maroon creeks, and the Frying Pan and Crystal rivers. The study – funded in part by Pitkin County, the city of Aspen and the Nature Conservancy – looks into both water quality and quantity, and physical habitat for wildlife in the river and along its banks.Malone said ultimately the survey will offer “prescriptions” for all situations, like restoring riparian vegetation along riverbanks. Local nonprofit Aspen Field Biology is overseeing the study, and groups like the Nature Conservancy may use the work to raise public awareness on the importance of the watershed.Eventually, the researchers hope to work with landowners, local governments and developers to preserve critical areas and repair others that have been damaged.They’re hoping to get the rest of their field research done this summer, but they gave a preliminary update to county commissioners on Tuesday. The assessment isn’t entirely surprising – the quality of riparian areas at the headwaters of the river up Independence Pass is high, except for where water is funneled into a diversion tunnel toward Grizzly Reservoir.At times, Malone said, the riverbed is virtually dry for four miles because of the diversion. For the last 10 years, she said, there has been significant reduction of stream flow in this portion of the upper Roaring Fork, so insects that serve as the base of the food chain cannot survive in that area.As a result, she said, neither can fish.Areas in Aspen have varying quality levels as the river passes through town – like the well-maintained habitat along the banks of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies versus an area on the opposite bank, where riparian vegetation was removed. Sediment in that area easily washes into the stream, once again smothering aquatic insects, she said.Malone and Emrick studied the stretch of river in Snowmass Canyon last summer, in the thick of the canyon’s road construction project, and have labeled the area’s riparian habitat as heavily modified. Sediment barriers to keep dirt and grime out of the water are ineffective, Malone said, as a direct result of the construction project.Farther down the valley, development in Carbondale and Glenwood Springs continues to impact the river’s habitat, although there are plenty of pockets of good quality habitat. Behind a sewage plant in Glenwood Springs, for example, enough nutrients are present for cattails to flourish, and a large heron rookery has about 30 to 40 nests along the river.”This data will be used to help counties, cities and towns to prioritize areas of streams in their boundaries,” Emrick said. “With the database, it’s easy to see what area stands out that needs conservation, protection or rehabilitation.”Solutions for troubled areas can be found, Malone said, even in areas like Snowmass Canyon where money spent on rehabilitation and revegetation could help. That’s what makes the study valuable, she said.”If we didn’t think this could help, we wouldn’t be doing it,” she said.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is

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