Water diverters: Aspen area can relax | AspenTimes.com

Water diverters: Aspen area can relax

Two Front Range entities that tap the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers are trying to douse fears that potential expansion plans would leave the Aspen area high and dry.Representatives of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. and the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District acknowledged that the possible expansion of a reservoir near Pueblo would allow them to divert more water from the Roaring Fork watershed.But they both claimed they could only take additional water in so-called wet years – when the snowpack is at or above average. Diverting water then would have little impact on the Roaring Fork Valley, they claimed.The discussion came up Thursday night during a “State of the Roaring Fork River” conference designed to create better understanding between valley residents concerned about water and the entities that divert it either to the Front Range or within the Western Slope.The drought that hit Colorado and much of the West between 2002 and 2005 has raised awareness and concern about water issues across the state. Several water projects are being eyed as possible ways to deliver water from the mountains to the rapidly-growing Front Range.The governments of Aspen and Pitkin County are particularly concerned about possible expansion of Pueblo Reservoir and Turquoise Lake, west of Leadville. Aspen officials have noted that diversions by the Front Range and the Salvation Ditch, just east of town, already take more than half of the Roaring Fork River’s flow.The Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. developed the right to divert water from the upper Roaring Fork and its tributaries on Independence Pass in the mid-1930s. The company was formed to divert water for crops in the Arkansas River Valley, but municipalities have bought most of its shares. Colorado Springs now owns the controlling interest in the company.Twin Lakes has agreed to divert no more than 68,000 acre feet of water per year, and an average of 57,000 acre feet over any 10-year period, according to Kevin Lusk, head of Colorado Springs utilities and a member of the canal company’s board of directors.An acre foot of water is about enough to supply a family of four for one year.In reality, Twin Lakes doesn’t divert nearly that much, according to Lusk. The diversions have averaged 38,666 acre feet between 1935 and 2004, he said.The Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which taps from the upper Fryingpan River and its tributaries, also “forgoes” much of the water its entitled to divert, according to Phil Reynolds of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District.The district is known as the sponsoring agency of the Fry-Ark Project, which is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. It coordinates diversions for farmers, ranchers and municipalities in and around the Arkansas River Valley.An average of 69,200 acre feet of water can be diverted each year from the upper Fryingpan basin. The actual average is about 48,409 acre feet, Reynolds said.In “wet” springs, when runoff is abundant, the project hasn’t come close to diverting all it could, according to Reynolds. In 1997, for example, there was 47,500 acre feet in “forgone diversions,” he said.The reason is simple: In those wet years the reservoirs fill up quicker from a variety of sources, so not as much water is needed from the Fryingpan River. The Fry-Ark Project uses Turquoise Lake and Pueblo Reservoir for storage. So if they are expanded, more water could be used more often.”We would have bigger buckets,” said Reynolds. “We would not have forgone diversions.”Reynolds also noted that minimum stream flows must be maintained on the upper Fryingpan and its tributaries. For example, water is diverted through a tunnel from Hunter Creek to the Fryingpan diversion system. Hunter Creek must be maintained at 51 cubic feet per second. When flows drop to that level, diversions must cease.”There are restrictions,” Reynolds said. “We’re not just taking all the water we can.”An agreement was also signed to help keep more water in the Roaring Fork River during dry times (see related story).While the diversion of more water in “wet” years may sound benign, conservationists and local government officials contend it isn’t. Ken Neubecker, the Western Slope coordinator for Trout Unlimited, explained recently that maximum diversions can create “flat-line” rivers, which don’t see large flushing flows from floods. The hydrographs of the rivers are flat lines with variations when water rises and lowers.More diversions in wet years can also eliminate the flooding of wetlands that leads to a healthy ecosystem.The debate over bigger buckets and greater diversions may be moot at this point. U.S. Congressional approval is needed just to free funds to study expansion of Pueblo Reservoir. A bill to grant those funds has died each of the last three years and hasn’t been introduced yet this session.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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