When the Fork really roared
June 16, 2011
At least once a decade, Aspen’s spring runoff tops river banks; low-lying areas are flooded, structures built near river banks are threatened, and residents marvel at the surging power of nature’s plumbing.
I held burlap bags while my father filled them with sand, as a child in the 1950s. We were helping the Volk family sandbag the stretch of the Roaring Fork that ran just outside the door of their home in Oklahoma Flats. The river roared as it jostled and turned over granite rocks of all sizes in the riverbed. High water came early in the morning after all the snowmelt from the mountains made its way to town. Each day the high water point was a little higher, and each day we added another layer of sandbags.
In the mid 1950s, a rampaging Roaring Fork caused damage east of town. As you climb the grade out of town on Highway 82 over a glacial terminal moraine you can see how that moraine acts as a dam to the water draining through the Stillwater area. At the sharp bend in the river, as you start to descend the moraine, there used to be a small trailer park owned by the Sparovic family. One year there was so much runoff that it backed up behind the moraine at that bend, flooding Sparovic’s. A short distance upstream from there, the water took out a bridge that connected Hemann’s sand and gravel operation to the highway. That bridge was never replaced.
The Hemann family owned a ranch upstream from their sand/gravel operation, on the north side of the highway, at the curve that allows you to see up and down the Stillwater area. Phil Hemann remembers many floods of the 1960s. From their house, sometimes the valley looked more like a long lake. He said the river typically did not return to its banks until mid-June. One year in the mid-’60s, he paddled around the flooded valley. The flooding aided their sand and gravel operation, delivering new supplies of material to their pit that was located where the Wildwood school is now.
I filled sandbags again in the 1970s at the Music School campus. Castle Creek climbed out of its banks at the upper end of the campus, flooding the basement of the old mining manager’s house. That was a tragedy for Aspen Country Day School because the basement stored boxes of books.
Those of my and my parents’ generations have noted that spring runoff has greatly diminished. Snowfall has not decreased, but beginning in the 1930s the transmountain diversion seems to move increasing amounts of water (average of 41,000 acre feet/year) from the Roaring Fork drainage for growing cities on the Eastern Slope.
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My parents talked of rivers you wouldn’t dare cross at any time. They described a Roaring Fork that roared all summer long. What captivated me most were their stories of pre-diversion Hunter Creek. In the summer, and especially during spring runoff, they could hear water of the creek tumbling granite boulders as it rushed from the valley above toward town. The giant cottonwood trees that now line Hunter Creek and muffle that sound were absent back then, and there were no competing sounds of heavy traffic. Residents enjoyed the Hunter Creek lullaby.
The Roaring Fork still roars in the spring, but not like it did when it lived up to its name.