Salvation Ditch may save a lot of fish … next year | AspenTimes.com

Salvation Ditch may save a lot of fish … next year

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The Salvation Ditch may yet live up to its name. If not during this record-breaking drought year, then perhaps by next summer, if new legislation spurred by the ditch is adopted.

The Salvation Ditch diverts about 20 cubic feet per second from the Roaring Fork River just east of Aspen and sends it to ranches on McLain Flats and in Woody Creek.

For more than two weeks in late August and early September, the flow of water in the Roaring Fork dropped below 20 cfs, and the ditch legally took all the water from the river, which became a series of unconnected pools in the stretch through Aspen.

After being contacted by the City of Aspen about the situation, the owners of the Salvation Ditch said they were open to leaving 5 cfs of water in the stream to keep the river wet. But complex state water laws made that move more complicated than it might seem.

The ditch company was concerned about keeping its water rights secure, making certain that the water did in fact remain in the river and doing it all quickly enough to make a difference.

After the ditch company’s attorney tried an approach that the state rebuffed, the water stayed in the ditch and not the river.

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However, the difficulty of providing water for struggling fish on an emergency basis has now come to the attention of Hal Simpson, the director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, Rod Kuharich, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and State Rep. Gregg Rippy of Glenwood Springs, a member of the Water Resources Review Committee.

On Monday, the Water Resources Committee met in Denver with Simpson and Kuharich and discussed the situation.

“Hal testified before the committee today that in regard to situations like the Salvation Ditch, he didn’t have the authority to do what was being asked,” Rippy said. “The ditch is high on the radar screen statewide right now.”

During the meeting, Rippy agreed to work on introducing new state legislation that would allow water-rights holders to donate the water for environmental purposes on a temporary basis in emergency conditions.

“I made the commitment to go ahead and work on the bill,” Rippy said Monday.

Currently, Simpson’s Division of Water Resources has the right under state law to approve an emergency loan of water if it is an issue of public health and safety, but not for environmental reasons.

The Water Conservation Board is the custodian of the state’s minimum streamflow program that seeks to protect aquatic environments, and it would be the logical recipient of any emergency water that was designed to help fish keep swimming.

“What we are working on is an amendment that would allow the Water Conservation Board to accept, after a 30-day notification period, on a temporary basis not to exceed 90 days, water for an emergency environmental purpose,” explained Kuharich, the head of the CWCB. “And it would require that a drought designation be in place, either statewide or for the specific river basin.”

Simpson, the head of the state agency that protects water rights, is also looking favorably on the concept. “If it was done correctly with protection of water rights, it might be possible,” Simpson said.

If the legislation had been in place this summer, it might have helped the Salvation Ditch Co. loan water to the CWCB and could have prevented the river from drying up for two weeks.

But Salvation Ditch attorney Tom Kinney said if the pending legislation has a 30-day notice provision, it still might not allow people to respond to a true emergency situation.

“Are you looking at month or two to get through the process?” Kinney asked. “If the process could be shortened to weeks instead of months and still provide notice to the affected water-rights holders, that would help.”

Rippy said he hoped to have a draft of legislation by early December.

Meanwhile, what of the Roaring Fork River?

Recent rains have boosted the flow in the river to about 30 cfs, which means there is still water for both the ditch and the river, albeit more for the ditch.

But if the river drops back down to 20 cfs and the ditch keeps diverting, the river could go dry again. If that happens between today and the end of irrigation season in three weeks, the Salvation Ditch Co. says it may be ready to simply stop diverting up to 5 cfs of water and let it flow downstream … if it can get agreement from other ditch operators on the Roaring Fork between the Salvation Ditch headgate and the confluence with Castle Creek not to take the water.

“If nothing else, we would look at curtailing our diversions back down,” Kinney said.