A view of the Wheeler Ditch headgate, looking upriver on the Roaring Fork River.
A view of the Wheeler Ditch headgate, looking upriver on the Roaring Fork River. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

AVON — The city of Aspen’s efforts in the summers of 2014 and 2013 to leave more water in the Roaring Fork River as it flows through central Aspen were highlighted Wednesday at the 2014 Sustaining Colorado Watersheds Conference in Avon.

David Hornbacher, the city of Aspen’s director of utilities and environmental initiatives, told a crowd of over 50 people at a conference session on “collaborative water management” that Aspen’s partnership with the Colorado Water Trust to add more water to the river was “innovation for a stream in need.”

The annual watershed conference is sponsored by the Colorado Watershed Assembly, the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and the Colorado Riparian Association It attracts professionals from watershed organizations, such as the Roaring Fork Conservancy, regional water districts, municipalities, and other entities from Colorado’s water world.

During his presentation, Hornbacher said that due to water diversions upstream of Aspen, sometimes less then 10 percent of the Roaring Fork’s natural flow is left by the time it reaches Rio Grande Park near downtown Aspen.

And in the dry years of 2002 and 2012, the river through Aspen on many summer days was well below 32 cfs, which is the level the Colorado Water Conservation Board has determined is necessary to protect the river’s environment “to a reasonable degree.”

In an effort to help the situation in 2013 — which was expected to be drier than normal — city officials worked with the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust to review the municipality’s portfolio of water rights and see if it could add some water to the river, if necessary.

After reviewing its options, the city council approved entering into a “non-diversion agreement” in 2013 with the Water Trust.

Under a senior 1889 water right, the city has the right to divert up to 10 cfs at the Wheeler Ditch, and normally uses the water to irrigate parkland, to bring water to Aspen’s downtown malls, and to send water through the stormwater system in Rio Grande park Hornbacher said the city was able to modify its normal routine in those areas in order to leave 2 to 3 cfs in the river instead.

In 2013, the river dropped below 32 cfs in July On July 9, the city modified its usual irrigation practices on the Wheeler Ditch and began bypassing 2 to 3 cfs of water and letting it run down the river instead of being diverted.

This year, the city once again entered into a non-diversion agreement with the Water Trust and stopped diverting 2 to 3 cfs of water on August 21 after the river first dropped below 32 cfs.

While 2 to 3 cfs is a relatively modest amount of water, Hornbacher noted, it is a “significant increase” when the Roaring Fork’s flow has been reduced to around 15 cfs, as is frequently in the case in late summer.

The Water Trust helped cover some of the costs of the project, including installing temporary water measuring gauges on the river near the Rio Grande Park in order to monitor results.

One finding from the two summers of the program was that while it did raise the volume of water in the river, it did not appreciably drop the temperature of the water in the reach, which could have been beneficial to fish in the river.

Amy Beatie, the executive director of the Denver-based Water Trust, which works to restore and protect streamflows, said it helped Aspen developed a matrix of its water rights and the available tools and techniques it could possibly use to leave more water in the river.

All options had some degree of risk to the value and sanctity of Aspen’s water rights, Beatie said, but the city was comfortable with the risk of a “non-diversion agreement,” which did not include a trip through Colorado’s expensive and slow water court system.

She said the approach developed by the Trust was a flexible and quick way for Aspen to achieve its environmental goals But she added this was a pilot program and progress should not be seen as success.

“This is not a permanent solution and Aspen has long said that this water right can’t be a permanent solution because of the way the Colorado water law system works in regard to abandonment,” Beatie said, “but at least for the first two years, they were willing to take the risks of how their water right is quantified in the future by putting this water back in the river.”

One aspect of Colorado’s water law is “use it or lose it,” as limited use of a water right can come back to haunt the owner of a right who someday goes to sell or change the use of their water.

Hornbacher, after his presentation, said that if the city was willing to take the risk of leaving water in the river under certain circumstances, then other upstream diverters might as well.

The city and the Water Trust are now talking about whether the program should be implemented in 2015 for a third time.

Hornbacher said the city needs to consider if it is willing to take on the additional risk to its water rights posed by a third year of the effort, and it remains to be seen how dry next summer might be.

During the same session at the conference on collaborative water management, a consultant working on water efficiency and conservation plans with the municipal water utilities in Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs gave an update on that effort.

Updated water plans for each city are nearly complete and a regional plan is now coming together in draft form, said Beorn Courtney of Element Water Consulting, Inc, who is helping put the plan together with assistance from the Roaring Fork Conservancy and the Ruedi Water and Power Authority.

On Tuesday at the watershed conference, James Eklund, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, gave an update on the draft Colorado Water Plan, which is due on the governor’s desk by Dec 10 Eklund said public comments on the draft chapters of the plan — posted at wwwColoradowaterplancom — are due by Friday, Oct 10.

Eklund stressed that the draft plan will not include a call for a departure from the state’s “prior appropriation” system for managing water rights, which is based on the premise of “first in time, first in right.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on the coverage of local and regional water issues. The Daily News published this story on Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014.

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...