The plight of Roaring Fork water
ASPEN – The amount of water diverted from the upper Fryingpan and Roaring Fork rivers is likely to increase in coming decades as Front Range cities seek ways to tap existing resources, concludes a comprehensive study released Monday.
Three major systems already divert an annual average of about 100,000 acre feet, according to the study, called the Front Range Water Supply Planning Update. That amount is about equal to Ruedi Reservoir at full capacity.
The amount diverted is about 12 percent of the total natural yield of the watershed, but about 40 percent of the yield of the headwaters of the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers above their major tributaries. In other words, greater diversions could mean about half of the water produced in the headwaters will flow east, via tunnels through the Continental Divide, rather than flow down the Roaring Fork Valley.
The study says there are no specific plans to increase diversions from the Roaring Fork watershed at this time. However, population growth and demand for public services make it inevitable, the study says. Many Front Range cities possess legal water rights to take more water than they currently divert.
“All of the [diversion] systems currently in place in the Roaring Fork watershed have the potential to increase their diversions through structural improvements and expansions, increases in Front Range storage capacity, conversion of conditional water rights into absolute rights, or some combination of all three strategies,” the study says.
The amount of potential increases in diversions is difficult to assess.
But greater diversions to Front Range cities will have wide-ranging effects, from the amount of water available for municipal and agricultural use in the Roaring Fork Valley to supply for healthy fish and wildlife habitat.
The study was commissioned by the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, which represents local governments on watershed issues. The study was conducted by G. Moss Driscoll, a Colorado attorney with experience in water law, environmental law and natural resource management.
Mark Fuller, director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, said the study was designed to educate Roaring Fork Valley government officials and residents about how water issues could affect them in the future. It wasn’t intended to drive a wedge deeper in the relationship between the valley and Front Range water rights owners.
To the contrary, he said, the study “opened lines of communication.”
“There are people in Colorado Springs who know what’s on our minds. That wasn’t the case a year ago,” Fuller said.
The study provides a thorough inventory of who owns what when it comes to the Roaring Fork watershed’s liquid gold, and it describes the infrastructure associated with each of the three major diversion projects. For example, the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion system diverts water from numerous creeks east of Aspen into Grizzly Reservoir, then sends the water east via two tunnels. The major shareholders and recipients of the water in that system are Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Pueblo West and Aurora. The system yields an annual average of 40,589 acre feet, the study says.
Fuller said he learned from the study that the Front Range cities that own the system have conditional water rights that could be converted into regular rights, meaning more water gets diverted. One example would be getting court approval to extend their diversion season.
“They basically don’t have to ask our permission” to exercise those conditional rights, Fuller said.
In other cases, greater diversions would be difficult, in practical terms, Fuller said. The Fryingpan-Arkansas Project is approved for additional diversion structures, but constructing them would require local government approvals. The Front Range cities understand the political and public relations challenges they face from adding diversions or developing new water resources, Fuller said.
He feels water supply and demand issues will be negotiated on a broad scale in an amicable way. But he acknowledged that other observers believe the historically contentious issue of West Slope water supply and Front Range use will lead to a sort of “World War III” before settled.
He hopes officials in governments and entities in the Roaring Fork Valley will use the Front Range water supply study to inform themselves on the big issues coming in the future. The more officials know, the better they can represent the valley and protect water resources, he said.
The study is available for public consumption at the website of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, http://www.roaringfork.org.
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