January 13, 2016

Aspen to develop river management plan for upper Fork

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ASPEN – The city of Aspen is seeking consultants to help it prepare a river management plan for the upper Roaring Fork River, which has been plagued in drought years by low flows as it winds through central Aspen.

“The city of Aspen plans to study the upper Roaring Fork River, from its headwaters to a point just below the confluence with Maroon Creek,” the city’s request for proposals, or RFP, says.

April Long, the city’s stormwater manager, said the development of a river management plan was one of the Aspen city council’s top ten goals in 2015. Long said she expects regional engineering firms specializing in water to put together teams of consultants and submit proposals to the city, which are due by Jan. 15.

“Since 2008, the city has focused on improving the quality of water discharged through its outfalls. The city now feels it is important to focus its attention on one of the other probable causes for impairment – inadequate flows during periods of drought,” the RFP says.

The city’s RFP also says it expects proposed consulting teams “to include members with experience and expertise in water resources engineering, river science, hydrology, water quality, stream geomorphology, Colorado water rights and water law, and group facilitation.”

Long said the city’s river management plan will be similar to the ‘”stream management plans” that are called for in the recently released Colorado Water Plan, and that ongoing work being done by the Colorado Water Trust for Pitkin County on ways to add more water to the river will be looked at when formulating the city’s river plan.

“Our ultimate goal for the project is to develop a plan that outlines operational, management, and physical options that improve the health of the river while respecting each stakeholder’s rights and interests,” the city’s RFP says.

The Roaring Fork River flows into the city’s boundaries at Stillwater Drive east of downtown Aspen.

The stretch of the river between there and the confluence with Castle Creek has been known to drop below 32 cubic feet per second, which the Colorado Water Conservation Board considers the minimum amount of water necessary to protect the river’s environment “to a reasonable degree.”

“In the early 2000s several studies investigated the health of the Roaring Fork River and reported a severely degraded or impaired stretch of river within the city,” the RFP says. “The instream flow determined for this stretch in the 1970s is 32 cubic feet per second. During the droughts of 2002 and 2012, the river in this stretch dropped to only 5 cfs – only 15 percent of the instream flow.”

The Roaring Fork River in central Aspen in July 2012.

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The Roaring Fork River in central Aspen in July 2012.

One big factor in the amount of water in the Roaring Fork River through Aspen is the Salvation Ditch, an irrigation ditch that diverts water from the river at Stillwater Drive.

The ditch has a senior 1902 water right that allows up to 58 cfs of water to be diverted and sent across lower Red Mountain to Woody Creek.

During the drought of 2012 there were days when there was more water flowing down the Salvation Ditch than was flowing down the Roaring Fork as it winds through town.

For example, according to a study done by S.K. Mason Environmental LLC, on July 27, 2012 there was 17.4 cfs flowing in the Salvation Ditch and 7.6 cfs of water flowing down the Fork below the ditch.

Also, diversion records included as part of a recent water rights application in Division 5 Water Court show that during the 2012 drought, the Salvation Ditch diverted an above average amount of water. Between 1975 and 2013, the Salvation Ditch diverted an average of 6,751 acre-feet per year from the Roaring Fork River. In 2012, it diverted 7,233 acre feet.

The six-foot-tall river-wide dam across the Roaring Fork River at Stillwater Dam that diverts water into the Salvation Ditch.

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The six-foot-tall river-wide dam across the Roaring Fork River at Stillwater Dam that diverts water into the Salvation Ditch.

However, Tom Moore, the president of the Salvation Ditch Company, said the shareholders who own land along the ditch company also need the water in dry years, they have made significant investments in the water system, and they are concerned about weakening their water right by not diverting the water.

He also pointed out that the Salvation Ditch water right is senior to the 1930s era water rights held by the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., which diverts water under Independence Pass. As such, the Salvation Ditch plays a role in keeping water in the Roaring Fork River, he said.

The city’s Long said talking with the Salvation Ditch Co. will be an important part of the river management plan, which is why the city is seeking proposals that include consultants with an expertise in working with various stakeholders.

The city’s RFP says “we hope that by determining valuable attributes of the river, we can work together as a community to lessen impairment and improve water quality, river health, ecological health, recreational opportunities, and riparian habitat in ways that closer meet the community’s goals.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water in collaboration with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times. The Times published this story online on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016.

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