The Roaring Fork River, flowing over 3,000 cfs, has over topped new rock work installed in Basalt. The rock was designed to let the river flow over it, but the river has washed away topsoil and portions of a new gravel path.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

BASALT – The Roaring Fork River, flowing at more than 3,000 cubic feet per second through Basalt since Wednesday, has overtopped the rock work installed in the fall on the north bank of the river just below the Midland Avenue Bridge, and it has washed away some topsoil and portions of a recently installed gravel path.

From the bridge, the project looks as if it might have failed, but the rocks put in place along the river-right bank to stabilize the main river channel were designed to be overtopped and not hold back the river like a levee would.

“It’s designed to overtop and dissipate the energy over a broad flood plain,” said Robert Krehbiel, an engineer with Matrix Design Group in Denver, who designed the river-management aspect of the project. “We’re trying to return the river to its natural function. We’re not trying to channelize the Roaring Fork River.”

However, Krehbiel acknowledged that the rock work was designed to be overtopped by higher flows on a uniform basis, and it was not supposed to be breached in several areas, as it has been.

On Monday, one such outflow from the river was knee deep and moving fast enough to make crossing it tricky.

“We’re dealing with a few areas that have localized sags,” Krehbiel said. “We want the river to uniformly spill over the bank, and we don’t want any concentrated flow.

“It seems to coincide with the jetties, that they are backing up a foot of water or so, and that seems to be leading to more concentrated overtopping. Our design is to spread it uniformly,” he said. “So now we have an opportunity to refine it now.”

The rock work includes several small jetties that extend into the river. They are designed to create pillows of water that serve as a buffer between the bank and the corrosive fast-moving water in the river’s main channel.

Looking up the Roaring Fork River Monday toward Basalt where the river has over topped rocks placed along the river bank last fall. The rocks were designed to let the river flow over them, but not in a such a concentrated flow as had developed by Monday afternoon.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

No vegetation yet

Additionally, the rock work was designed so that when it was overtopped, water would flow over a mix of vegetation and not onto open topsoil. But there hasn’t been time to establish plants since the rocks were installed in September.

“Right now it is at its most vulnerable situation,” Krehbiel said. “None of the vegetation has taken hold yet. We have rock and we’ve got soil. We don’t have any root mass. That is going to change with all the plantings. That vegetation will withstand shallow bank overtopping.”

The river has swept away some topsoil, dismantled portions of a gravel path installed along the rock work and left piles of driftwood and construction debris on the rocks and the river bank. In all, it’s a bit of a high-water mess.

Basalt river work

No harm to building

The Roaring Fork River, as measured at a gauge in Emma, jumped over 3,000 cfs Wednesday, reached about 4,000 cfs and then dropped below 3,000 cfs Monday afternoon. Peak water was early Thursday morning.

The overtopping flows also have sent a steady flow of water into the bypass channel that runs past the new Rocky Mountain Institute building — now a blue color while under construction — and into Old Pond. From there, the water returns to the river.

But the overtopping has not caused any harm to the new institute building or, apparently, to the rock structure itself, according to Larry Thompson, the engineer for the town of Basalt.

“While we’re seeing some minor damage, if you will, from overtopping of the channel, in the bigger picture, I think we’ve got a lot less potential for damage than if we had a mobile-home park there,” Thompson said.

The site where the river is overtopping the new rock work used to feature a taller and more solid levee, which was built to protect the trailers in the former Pan and Fork mobile-home park, half of which was built in the flood plain.

The site of the Rocky Mountain Institute building and the balance of the open construction site between the building and Midland Avenue was raised up to be a foot above the 100-year flood plain. No development is slated for the lower-lying flood plain, which is designed to absorb water that overtops the river’s bank.

Thompson said that while the loss of topsoil and the gravel path this week is regrettable, at least the river is giving the town valuable feedback on the recent work.

“There may be some minor adjustments that we decide we need to make after observing what’s going on,” Thompson said.

He also said the window between when the rock work was completed in the fall and this spring’s high water just didn’t leave enough time to establish vegetation that might have held the soil in place.

“As soon as the river recedes, we’ll resume work on the planting, reseeding the banks and what not and hopefully by runoff season next year we’ll have that vegetation established and we’ll be less likely to lose some of the topsoil that we’ve lost,” he said.

The design of the rock work in Basalt was not meant to catch floating debris, such as driftwood, but it has.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

Other aspects of project OK

Thompson said other aspects of the town’s river work, which has a total cost of about $7.5 million, have been performing well so far this spring.

A channel was created on the left side of the river looking downstream that was designed to take some pressure off the right side of the river, and Thompson said that is working as designed. Work also is still underway on creating a new wetland area in front of the Basalt library.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of rivers and water. The Times and the Post published this story on Tuesday, June 16, 2015.

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...