Streamside development takes toll on Roaring Fork River
ASPEN ” The headwaters areas of the Roaring Fork River east of Aspen are nature at its best.
The river runs fast and clear through massive granite boulders in some areas and lollygags through meadows thick with willows and native grasses. A series of beaver dams traps the river and creates marshy areas around the ghost town of Independence.
Other than a few abandoned miner’s cabins, there isn’t any residential development along the headwaters. Human encroachment is limited to Highway 82, a few trails and campgrounds. Water diversions have a detrimental effect on stream flows, but the quality of the streambed and riparian areas for wildlife is among the best that remains in the valley.
That picture of ecological health deteriorates the closer the river gets to Aspen.
“In general, wildlife potential in riparian areas is high in the headwater reaches and decreases in the downstream direction with increased habitat alteration and human activity,” said a new report, State of the Roaring Fork Watershed, that was released Thursday.
The riparian areas ” the ground alongside streams that is thick with trees, brush and grasses ” is considered high quality for roughly 60 percent of the area between Independence Pass and Aspen, the study concluded. But the stream’s ability to sustain aquatic wildlife has diminished over most of that area. Only 36 percent of the instream habitat is considered high quality while another 13 percent is only slightly modified.
The picture gets bleaker farther down the river. Between Aspen and Basalt, nearly one-third of the riparian and instream habitat is impacted by development.
“That’s where people want to live,” said Sharon Clarke, one of nine authors of the study. That creates conflicts between the humans and wildlife ” and wildlife usually loses. The first thing that many homeowners do is thin the trees and clear the vegetation on their riverside lots and create a manicured, bluegrass lawn right down to water’s edge. Their actions help degrade many of the qualities that attracted them.
“On the Roaring Fork segment, less than 10 percent of the riparian habitat is high quality due to impacts from highway construction, recreational trails, and residential, commercial, and agricultural development,” the study found.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the trend. As the river flows downvalley, environmental degradation increases along with the intensity of development. No high quality or even slightly modified instream habitat exists any longer between the Roaring Fork River’s confluence with the Crystal River and its confluence with the Colorado River, essentially between Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, the study found. Two-thirds of the habitat is heavily modified and 21 percent is “severely degraded.”
“All riparian habitat on the right bank and 78 percent on the left bank is severely graded,” the study found.
The valley is choking its namesake river to death. The entities behind the study hope to stop the damage by influencing policies of local governments and water managers. The key findings of the State of the Roaring Fork Watershed will be used to determine goals and objectives, according to Mark Fuller, director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, sponsor of the study. The Roaring Fork Conservancy, a nonprofit focused on water quality and quantity issues in the Roaring Fork watershed, was lead consultant in the study and will play a key role in drafting the watershed management plan.
Fuller said the residents throughout the valley will be invited to participate in forming that plan. But a process like that take time ” probably years ” and threats to the river aren’t easing.
Fuller acknowledged that some of the problems are “acute,” but the power authority and conservancy are reluctant to impose an action plan on their own without a process that starts from the ground up, meaning participation from the public.
Rick Lofaro, executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, defended his group’s approach. When it sees violations of river setback regulations and encroachment into riparian areas at new developments, it reports them to local governments to force compliance, he said. But it cannot do anything about all the past land uses that have degraded a good share of the riparian habitat below Aspen, he said.
“I don’t want to put out a message that the sky is falling,” Lofaro said.
The public meetings designed to help create a watershed management plan will be scheduled later this winter, although no details are available yet. The study of existing conditions is available at http://www.roaringfork.org/watershedplan.
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In the six weeks since Independence Pass has been open this season, the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office already has received 15 reports of semi-trucks trying to or actually driving over the pass.