What’s in store for our water?
When temperatures climb high enough this month to kick-start the spring runoff, snowmelt will cascade down numerous streams on Independence Pass east of Aspen just as they have done for thousands of years.But a lot of the water that once earned the Roaring Fork River its name will defy gravity and flow east, not downstream to the west.Water diversions on several of the small creeks and a big tunnel burrowing under the Continental Divide will siphon off enough water each day this spring to cover up to 1,300 football fields to a depth of 1 foot.Under natural conditions, that water would roll down the Roaring Fork and flush sediments that collected throughout the winter, spill over the river banks to recharge wetlands and aquifers, and create one hell of a whitewater rafting season.Under today’s unnatural conditions, however, about 20 percent of that diverted water is used to irrigate melon fields in Rocky Ford and other crops throughout the Arkansas River Valley, while 80 percent fuels the rampant growth of Colorado Springs and surrounding towns caught in its sprawling web.As a result of various diversions, about 54 percent of the water flowing into the upper Roaring Fork River never makes it to Aspen, according to Phil Overeynder, director of the Aspen Water Department.If Front Range water interests get their way, Overeynder estimated that an additional 10 percent of the Roaring Fork will never flow through town. In other words, nearly two-thirds of the river could be diverted before it reaches Aspen.Instead of the Roaring Fork River, it might more accurately be called the Mewing Fork.
The Twin Lakes Canal Co. diverts nearly 1,300 acre-feet of water every possible day during spring and summer from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork. An acre-foot is enough water to supply a family of four for about one year.The diversions start when the spring thaw sends enough water tumbling down streams like Tabor and New York creeks. From those high-country streams, the water is carried through the Continental Divide into Lake Creek to Twin Lakes, south of Leadville on the Arkansas River.The diversions end when owners of senior water rights downstream in western Colorado “call” that water or when the “bucket” east of the Continental Divide reaches capacity.That bucket is Pueblo Reservoir, a man-made lake six miles west of Pueblo that holds about three-and-a-half times more water than Ruedi Reservoir. Water from both the upper Roaring Fork and the upper Fryingpan is sent to that reservoir, then released for use by municipalities and irrigators farther downstream.The city of Colorado Springs wants to expand the bucket. It is seeking U.S. Congressional approval to expand Pueblo Reservoir by 30,000 acre-feet. If that expansion occurs, then additional water from Pitkin County will be diverted.How that increased diversion could affect the Roaring Fork watershed is a matter of debate. Supporters of the plan say the additional water could only be taken when snowpack is at or above average and there is “surplus” water available during runoff.But the prospect of increased diversions makes Roaring Fork Valley conservationists and water officials nervous.The proposed expansion of Pueblo Reservoir is “a concrete step for the Front Range to divert more West Slope water,” said Mark Fuller, executive director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, which monitors water issues for a consortium of Roaring Fork Valley governments. “One of the things that’s kept them in check is the lack of a place to store the water.”Aspen and Pitkin County share Fuller’s concerns about the proposal.
“We’ve taken an active role in opposing it,” said Overeynder.Overeynder said the diversions by the Front Range and the Salvation Ditch, just east of Aspen, combine to draw more than half of the river water before it reaches town. The expansion of Pueblo Reservoir would reduce the amount by another 10 percent per year on average, depending on snowpack levels.Little protection for riverThe Twin Lakes Canal Co. is a private water-diversion firm that was created in 1936 to supplement agricultural uses in the dry Arkansas Valley. At the time it was formed there was little concern, if any, about maintaining minimum flows to benefit the Roaring Fork River ecosystem.”They could dry up the river,” said Overeynder. And they sometimes do.In the nearly 70 years since the Twin Lakes Canal Co. diversion system was developed in the upper Roaring Fork basin, water demands have changed. Instead of being used almost exclusively to grow melons and other crops, 80 percent of the diverted water is for municipal and industrial use, according to Chris Treese, director of external affairs for the Colorado River Water Conservation District.Colorado Springs, the state’s second-largest city, has steadily acquired water rights over the decades and now owns a 51 percent interest in the Twin Lakes Canal Co., Treese said.That’s why Colorado Springs is pushing hardest in Congress for the Preferred Storage Option Plan, known as the PSOP legislation, which could result in the enlargement of Pueblo Reservoir and Turquoise Lake, the reservoir west of Leadville that’s fed by diversions from the upper Fryingpan River. If approved, the anticipated bill would only authorize funds to study the pros and cons of expanding those reservoirs. Some observers contend, however, that if the study is approved, then the expansions will certainly follow.Pitkin County, like Aspen, opposes the PSOP legislation unless it guarantees minimum streamflow in the Roaring Fork River. “We share this position with the city of Aspen given the precarious flow of the Roaring Fork River in the last several years,” said a October 2004 letter from Pitkin County to the Colorado River Water Conservation District.The PSOP idea has not yet taken bill form before the current Congress, but the issue has divided people in the Arkansas Valley, according to Overeynder.”We think it’s too close to call because of the political situation,” he said.
Pitkin County already plays a key role in the supply of water to the Front Range. The diversion systems at the headwaters of the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork are the third- and fifth-largest transmountain diversions, respectively, in Colorado, according to Ken Neubecker, West Slope organizer and water expert for Colorado Trout Unlimited.Few people realize how big a role Pitkin County plays, he said. Even fewer realize Pitkin County water is such an easy target because the diversion systems are already in place.”They don’t have to build a thing,” Neubecker said. “They have the capacity to divert it.”Officials with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation insist that the expansion of Pueblo Reservoir wouldn’t increase diversions from the upper Fryingpan. The expansion is sought so that water from outside the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project could be stored in the reservoir, according to Malcolm Wilson, a water resource engineer for the Bureau, which operates the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project. Therefore, the upper Roaring Fork would likely receive the brunt of any future diversion increases, via the Twin Lakes diversion system. Currently there are 16 diversion structures on creeks and streams in the upper Fryingpan headwaters and on Hunter Creek, which enters the Roaring Fork in Aspen. The water is collected and then shipped under the Continental Divide through the Boustead Tunnel to Turquoise Lake, west of Leadville, before it is released to downstream users such as Colorado Springs.The Fryingpan-Arkansas project was approved in 1962 with minimum streamflow requirements on creeks like Granite and Mormon, which flow into the upper Fryingpan. Those requirements limit how much water can be diverted.The project may divert up to 2.35 million acre-feet in any consecutive 34 years. That works out to an average of 69,200 acre-feet per year.That amount is rarely diverted, according to records by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which administers the system. In the drought year of 2002, only 13,188 acre-feet were diverted. With a more normal snowpack in 2003, about 55,000 acre-feet were diverted.
The 25-year average for diversion is 52,000 acre-feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.It demonstrates Neubecker’s point that more water could easily be diverted. And two creeks in the upper Fryingpan River system, Lime and Last Chance, haven’t been tapped yet.No 800-pound gorillaNot all water officials in the Roaring Fork Valley condemn the PSOP legislation. The Colorado River Water Conservation District, an entity that looks out for West Slope water interests for an area that includes Aspen, supports studying the expansion of Turquoise and Pueblo reservoirs.The plan has the advantage of affecting only one West Slope basin, Treese said, and district officials contend the impacts on the Roaring Fork basin may be minimal.Even if the storage capacity was increased at the reservoirs, Treese said, the only additional diversion would be “surplus water” created by average and above-average snowpacks. In other words, the Twin Lakes Canal Co. couldn’t divert water when downstream users on the West Slope, like farmers and ranchers near Grand Junction, call the water. And minimum streamflow requirements would still limit diversions from the upper Fryingpan.Treese said he doesn’t believe much threat exists of further diversions from the Roaring Fork – other than during so-called “wet years” when there is surplus water available.”If you’re looking for more water from the Roaring Fork basin, the headwaters have been developed,” Treese said. “Now it’s the margins,” or the times when plentiful water exists, that can be further tapped.Other West Slope basins like the Gunnison River and Eagle River, which have fewer diversions, appear more ripe for new projects. Treese said no “800-pound gorilla” in the form of a big, unknown project looms for the Roaring Fork watershed.”We’ve been tapped in many respects,” said Treese. “The water potential is no longer there.”
Trout Unlimited’s Neubecker and Aspen environmentalist Dee Malone contend the Roaring Fork River cannot spare so-called surplus water during years with a healthy snowpack, as Treese contends.Neubecker said skimming off more water during high runoff deprives rivers of flushing flows they need to maintain their health. He said “flat-line rivers” result when diversions remove some of the high flow that would typically occur during spring runoff. The flat line represents a more consistent flow rather than a flow that spikes during peak runoff and calms down during summer. The risk to fish is that lower flows result in higher, inhospitable temperatures.Treese said water can be taken during runoff without creating that flat line.Malone, a biologist who is part of a team of conservationists collecting data to gauge the health of the Roaring Fork River, said diverting more of the Roaring Fork River during spring runoff reduces flooding and its benefits to the ecosystem. Flood waters spill into wetlands, get absorbed into spongelike soils and replenish underground aquifers, she said.As the river dries out during the summer, water from the saturated soils discharges into the river and helps maintain flows naturally. Front Range cities like to pretend there is no harm from skimming water during high runoff, but it is really just another “water grab,” Malone said.Malone said the health of the upper Roaring Fork River is already imperiled at certain times of the year. U.S. Geologic Survey data shows the Roaring Fork dries completely in late summer at a diversion near Lost Man Creek, part of the Twin Lakes system. She visited the site last September and found an absence of most bugs and a bird called the American dipper, an “indicator species” of stream health.Overeynder said there is a six-week period virtually every summer when the river dries.The city, county, water district, Bureau of Reclamation and Twin Lakes Canal Co. have inked a deal that could ease that depletion. A water exchange was negotiated that will require an extra 3,000 acre-feet to be diverted from the Fryingpan-Arkansas system to relieve the need for the Twin Lakes Canal Co. to take that amount from the Roaring Fork.Overeynder said the exchange will be timed to try to maintain streamflow in the Roaring Fork River when it is driest. The accord previously existed, but wasn’t binding. Now it is.
Overeynder remains concerned about the additional spring diversions that could result if Pueblo Reservoir is expanded because of potential effects on Aspen’s water supply.The Roaring Fork River used to flood when its flow reached about 300 cubic feet per second. Flood-control and channeling efforts by landowners boosted the flood stage to 500 cfs, according to Overeynder.Higher flows are beneficial because about 15 percent of the city’s water supply comes from aquifers that are recharged by the flooding river, he said. That water is tapped when surface water from streams isn’t as readily available, so the aquifer’s importance is magnified. If the aquifer was lost because increased diversions didn’t allow recharging, the city would have to explore options like its own reservoir, he said.Curry issues warningState Rep. Kathleen Curry, a Gunnison Democrat whose district includes the Roaring Fork Valley, said there is only one sure way for the people of the Roaring Fork watershed to guarantee the Front Range won’t divert more of its water. That’s by acquiring water rights and putting the water to what state law considers “beneficial use.””We can sit here and ask the General Assembly to save us, but they won’t,” Curry said.Without local interests taking direct action, it’s just a matter of time before the Front Range entities find ways to acquire more West Slope water, especially in the Roaring Fork watershed where the plumbing and rights to move more water exist.”That kind of water right is the low-hanging fruit,” Curry said.She said Pitkin County and Aspen are wise by not signing off on the PSOP legislation.”If I were living where you are, I’d be really leery of this,” Curry said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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