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Whatever floats your boat

Donna Gray
More than 100 people got a free raft trip on the Roaring Fork River Saturday, compliments of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the health of the river. (Kelley Cox/Post Independent)
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Boaters were treated to a naturalists’ tour of the Roaring Fork River Saturday afternoon on the third annual river float hosted by the Roaring Fork Conservancy. A flotilla of 14 boats, each with about eight rafters aboard, learned about the birds and plants native to the river as well as its overall health.

The conservancy is also celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The free float trip included a barbecue at Veltus Park in Glenwood Springs that evening.

Boaters assembled at Veltus Park Saturday afternoon and were bused to the Carbondale put-in below the Highway 133 bridge. Once on the river, conservancy executive director Rick Lofaro announced a scavenger hunt, alerting us to be on the lookout for various birds and plants and features of the river.

Lofaro warned our boat, “You’re going to see a lot of McMansions, but don’t give them a thought.”

The idea of the trip was not house-gawking but to see the river in its natural state. But it was hard not to notice the tony homes tucked into the banks above the river as we floated through Aspen Glen.

The bald eagle nest in a towering pine tree above the river soon grabbed our attention. Two fledglings perched on branches close to the nest under the protective eye of one of the adults with its brilliant white head plumage.

Lofaro explained the Roaring Fork is the second largest tributary of the Colorado River, second only to the Gunnison. It also experiences the largest transbasin diversions, out of Ruedi Reservoir, which send water over the Continental Divide to cities on the Front Range.

This day, the Roaring Fork was at peak flow, about 2,500 to 3,000 cubic feet per second, which propelled us along at a very good clip.

While the Roaring Fork is one of the least-dammed rivers on the West Slope, and its premier trout fishing has caused parts to be labeled gold medal water, it still is prey to the impacts of growing numbers of housing developments and the infrastructure that goes along with it.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy, formed in 1996 as a partnership between the town of Basalt and the Roaring Fork Club, monitors the health of the river by conducting stream flow studies and educating local students about the river.

Lofaro explained the river was treated to an extra release of water from Ruedi Reservoir a few weeks ago because of high spring runoff. The release helps flush the gravels out of the river to provide better fish habitat.

“It’s the highest (flush) in 11 years,” he said.

During the drought of the last several years, the spring runoff flow is comparable to “flushing your toilet with two cups of water,” said Jan Jamison, of Marble, who was along for the float trip.

As Lofaro explained the work of the conservancy he also pointed out the rich variety of birds along the river, including a merganser duck and a golden eagle floating as we were but on a current of air high above our heads.

Lofaro was full of interesting trivia. Ponderosa pine, common along the river, has bark “that smells like vanilla or butterscotch,” he said.

The conservancy holds several conservation easements along the Roaring Fork, for fishing access on the Burry Ranch and 54 acres to preserve the ecology of the river at Bair Chase on the former Sanders Ranch.

Conservation easements “are a tool that helps stop development” and preserves riparian or riverbank vegetation, which provides shade for fish and stabilizes the banks, Lofaro said.

“It’s so important to keep it preserved,” he said.

As we floated between Bair Chase and the Teller Springs subdivision, we passed directly under the stacked nests of a large heron colony that has been growing steadily over the past few years.

“They like this condo setting,” Lofaro said.

Despite the abundant wildlife and verdant vegetation along the river, there are also places of concern to the conservancy.

“We are working on water quality issues,” Lofaro said, such as elevated pH levels in Brush Creek near Snowmass and selenium in Cattle Creek, which runs into the Roaring Fork at Bair Chase.

“Four Mile Creek (in Glenwood Springs) has nutrient issues from aging and failing wastewater treatment plants and septic systems and grazing,” he said. “Any time there’s an upgrade or a new wastewater plant, it’s a huge step up for water quality.”

One of the conservancy’s current projects is to help prevent uncontrolled storm-water runoff that can dump pollutants into the river. It is working with Glenwood Springs High School and the city to identify problem areas and construct storm drains that filter out potential pollutants, such as magnesium chloride.

After a quick and wet run through the choppy waves in Cemetery Rapids, the boats arrived at our destination, Veltus Park. We went over our scavenger list one more time, noting we’d seen everything except baby ducks or geese.

It was more than just a fun day in a raft, but an enlightening look at the life of the Roaring Fork River.


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