Study: Water diversions threaten economies of mountain towns |

Study: Water diversions threaten economies of mountain towns

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

ASPEN – Pitkin County is losing the second-highest amount of water to the Front Range among Colorado’s six headwater mountain counties, and the state’s thirst soon could suck more from the Aspen area’s rivers and streams, a new study has determined.

Pitkin County provides an estimated annual average of nearly 99,000 acre-feet via transmountain diversions to the Eastern Slope, according to the study, “Water and Its Relationship to the Economies of the Headwater Counties.” To put that amount into perspective, Ruedi Reservoir holds slightly more than 100,000 acre-feet.

Among the headwater counties along the spine of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, only Grand County loses more than Pitkin County through diversions. It supplies 307,500 acre-feet annually. Summit and Eagle counties are well behind Pitkin County in water diverted to the Eastern Slope. Gunnison and Routt counties are virtually untapped.

The mountain counties don’t want to suffer environmental or economic consequences from future diversions. An association that lobbies on their behalf, the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, commissioned the study to show how vital adequate water supplies are not only to the mountain communities but also to the entire state.

There is a building awareness in Colorado that siphoning water from the Eastern Plains to the Front Range will sacrifice agricultural areas for urban development. The mountain counties want to make sure state decision-makers also consider the consequences of taking mountain water.

The study isn’t intended to pit the mountain headwater counties against the Eastern Plains, said author Jean Townsend of the Denver firm Coley/Forest Inc. The headwater counties are simply saying, “There’s an economic impact to us, too,” she said.

Pitkin County and the other headwater areas depend on streamflows for fishing, camping and boating activities. Townsend also noted that Aspen has a worldwide appeal. Its economy is built partially on real estate sales and service to second-home owners. About 47 percent of homes in Pitkin County are owned by out-of-state residents.

“They require a serene, clean natural environment, or they wouldn’t be there,” Townsend said.

The study goes into extensive detail about how water is tied to the headwater counties’ economies.

“The intended message is a simple one – water has a direct economic impact in the mountain counties,” Townsend said.

A second message is that Colorado’s economy as a whole is dependent on a healthy mountain environment. The mountains not only draw people to the state and support a strong tourism industry, they also make Denver and the rest of the Front Range more attractive for businesses.

In the Roaring Fork Valley, the diversions from the Fryingpan River basin are most visible and well-known among local residents. The Fryingpan-Arkansas Project taps more than a dozen creeks in the Upper Fryingpan basin and diverts some of the water.

About 41 percent of the Fryingpan’s natural water flow is diverted east, according to the council’s study.

Less visible is the plumbing for the Twin Lakes Tunnel transmountain diversion system in the Upper Roaring Fork River basin. It diverts about 37 percent of the river’s natural water flow.

The study said environmental consequences are already being paid. Minimum stream flows advised by the Colorado Water Conservation Board often aren’t met on Lincoln Creek, the Upper Roaring Fork River and Hunter Creek, all in Pitkin County. The minimum stream flow levels are junior in rights to transmountain diversion projects and diversions in the Roaring Fork Valley, the study said.

In the Upper Roaring Fork watershed, more than half of the instream habitat quality is moderately to severely degraded. That means the river’s ability to sustain aquatic wildlife is suffering.

Diversions have “dewatered” East Snowmass Creek by August in some summers, the study said. Questions persist on whether existing and winter diversions will affect fish populations.

Although there are signs that habitat is already suffering in places, Pitkin County’s rivers and streams could be tapped for more diversions. The city of Aurora, the behemoth Denver suburb, is considering an expansion of the Busk-Ivanhoe diversions in the upper Fryingpan Valley. A project called the Ruedi Reservoir Pumpback is being considered to deliver winter reservoir releases through the Boustead Tunnel to the Arkansas River Basin.

Structural improvements to the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project could add 14,400 acre-feet to the current yield.

In the Upper Roaring Fork River basin, the Twin Lakes Canal Co. could develop remaining conditional water rights and deliver more water if the Eastern Slope storage capacity was expanded by the cities of Aurora, Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

Townsend said her research showed that oil shale development in western Colorado and Utah could have an effect on the Roaring Fork Valley. Up to 120,000 acre-feet of water could be needed annually if oil shale development goes commercial. Most of the water would come from the White River in northwest Colorado, according to the study, but oil companies could set their sights on Ruedi Reservoir, where the Bureau of Reclamation has 16,700 acre-feet of water for sale.

“If oil companies contract directly with the Bureau, it may be required to release significant amounts of water over a short period of time from the Ruedi Reservoir into the Fryingpan River, exacerbating the already problematic hydrology and flow regime of the Fryingpan River as well as the Roaring Fork River downstream … ,” the study said.

The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments released its study at the 2012 Colorado Water Conference in Denver in late January, and it is working to get the information into the hands of policymakers on state water issues.

The extensive study can be found at


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