Salvation for the Roaring Fork?
DENVER The Roaring Fork River is finally in a better position to survive a drought like the one that reduced it to a trickle through Aspen in summer 2002.A bill signed this month by Colo. Gov. Bill Ritter makes it easier for water rights owners to “loan” water to boost flows in rivers and streams. Under the new law, an owner won’t be penalized for abandoning water rights when a loan is made, said Linda Bassi of the stream and lake protection section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.Under the old law, loans were allowed but the water rights owners weren’t credited with using that water. And in water law, water that isn’t used is water that can be lost.”You were being a good Samaritan and you were being dinged for it,” said Albert Slap, director of the Colorado River Project for The Nature Conservancy.A broad coalition of water managers and conservation groups sought changes to the law. The Nature Conservancy helped build consensus on the desired changes and Colorado Water Conservation Board helped write the bill and testified in support of it.The new bill was sponsored by Rep. Frank McNulty in the state house and Snowmass Village Democrat Gail Schwartz in the senate.The heartbreaking saga of the Roaring Fork River in 2002 spurred the changes that ultimately made the water loans possible. Diversions and drought that summer reduced the river to a series of puddles connected by a trickle of water as it ran through Aspen.The Salvation Ditch Co. was willing to bypass diversions so that water would remain in the river for the benefit of fish and wildlife. However, there was no mechanism to make it happen under state law.A law was passed the following year to make loans possible. The legislation said loans could be made for up to 120 days if the governor declared a drought.State Rep. Kathleen Curry, who represents the Roaring Fork Valley, sponsored a bill in 2005 to amend the law to eliminate the need for the governor to declare an emergency. The bill, which passed, allowed loans in any three out of 10 years.However, the law was still flawed because it didn’t address the penalty that water donors could suffer for not technically using the water. That penalty was severe enough that it rendered the law useless. “No one was taking advantage of it,” Curry said.This year’s House Bill 1012 changes the status of loaned water when the state calculates water rights owners historic consumptive use.”[Lenders] won’t get credit for it and they won’t get a zero for it,” Bassi said.In theory, that clears the way for water rights owners like the Salvation Ditch to loan water for the benefit of the river and avoid the conditions of 2002, said Sharon Clarke, water resource specialist for the Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy, another supporter of the bill.There are water rights owners who are willing to loan water at times of drought to benefit rivers and streams, Clarke said. “They wanted to loan their water but they didn’t want to be penalized,” she said.Any loan would be handled by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which would serve as a clearinghouse or broker in the deals. Bassi said the law allows loans to restore the flow of a river up to 32 cubic feet per second, a level that would sustain fish and wildlife habitat.Now that the framework is in place to allow water loans without penalty, discussions are under way among groups interested in the Roaring Fork basin to put an agreement in place. Representatives of the Salvation Ditch Co. are involved in those “very preliminary discussions,” Bassi said. “It would great if we didn’t need it,” she said.Curry said if agreement is reached in the Roaring Fork basin, it could be a model of cooperation for the rest of the state.”That’s where we’re closest to working one of the deals,” Curry said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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