Guest commentary: The benefits of Basalt’s whitewater park
Two recent front-page stories in The Aspen Times featured the improvements currently taking place on the Healthy Rivers whitewater park in Basalt and their associated costs. Unfortunately, both articles left out clarifying information regarding the benefits of the project to the river’s ecology and the Basalt community. Residents and visitors alike may be interested in knowing the whole story.
The reason the whitewater park was conceived and built in its present location is to secure a permanent water right for the Roaring Fork River, and to restore a degraded stretch that has incredible potential as a community asset. The type of water right is called a RICD, or Recreational In-Channel Diversion. This legal mechanism allows water to be left in a river for recreational purposes if that water is delivered to a man-made structure. By securing this water right, the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers program legally insures that sufficient water will continue to flow into the future.
Unfortunately, safety concerns became apparent after last spring’s high runoff. A safe, user-friendly water feature is critical to the success of the project, and we are committed to getting it right.
We in the Roaring Fork Valley know the incredible value of an ecologically healthy river. Our environment, with a healthy watershed at its core, is a big part of our identity. It is a driver of our quality of life, and vital to our economy. Unfortunately, trans-mountain water diversions remove around 37% of our annual river flow. What water remains in the river is allocated to irrigators and municipalities along its course. The only water in the river that is not already claimed, are the peak flows of our spring run off.
Ecologically, spring runoff flows are the pulse of the river, and are not unlike our own pulse. They give life to the stream by flushing smothering sediments, and by infusing the river with nutrients. It is this very pulse of spring water that is most at risk. Future water developments for reservoirs and diversions would likely tap this un-allocated water.
The RICD right that Pitkin County has secured will help to prevent any project that would de-water the river from the headwaters on Independence Pass to the whitewater park in Basalt. Thus, the entire upper river will benefit. Specifically, the water right for the park calls for up to 1350 cfs of water during the time of peak flows in June. Modest stream flows such as this are currently typical of the Roaring Fork; they are not, however, guaranteed into the future.
Though this water right may be junior to all water rights predating it, the whitewater park RICD right will be senior to future attempts to flatline the pulse of the Roaring Fork. Funding for this project and others comes from a 0.1% voter approved healthy rivers county sales tax. The Pitkin County Healthy Rivers volunteer board feels that this is money well spent to secure our river’s vitality and water future.
Andre Wille is chair of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board. He lives in Basalt.