The town of Carbondale and the Roaring Fork Conservancy are finalizing funding to restore a half-mile stretch of the Crystal River and 18 acres of riparian habitat — provided they can convince Colorado Parks and Wildlife that it can be done with a light touch.

The location, next to the River Valley Ranch subdivision on the south side of town, is the ideal spot for the effort due to Carbondale’s Riverfront Park on the west side and the headgate for the town-owned Weaver Ditch on the east side, with some associated in-stream impacts.

As spelled out in a Water Plan grant request to the Colorado Water Conservation Board — originally slated for consideration in September but since pushed back to January — improvements will include streambank stabilization and river channel restoration, plant diversification and better access to the park as well as an automated ditch headgate. Efficiency work is ongoing on the ditch itself, but it is not officially part of the project.

The cost of the whole effort was originally estimated at $1,466,478, with roughly half hinging on the Water Plan grant. The multifaceted nature of the project lends itself to a wide array of sources to pay for the rest.

At least eight other agencies have committed funding or are considering grant applications. This includes $100,000 awarded from the Colorado River Water Conservation District in October. Other agencies partnering in the project include the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers Program, Great Outdoors Colorado, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Fishing Is Fun Program and the Aspen Valley Land Trust. Carbondale has committed at least $220,000 toward the effort to improve the reach of river described in the Water Plan grant application as “severely to unsustainably degraded.”

The project’s many layers make it a perfect fit for the Roaring Fork Conservancy (RFC), according to Heather Lewin, director of Watershed Science & Policy.

“You’ve got so many different things that we’re interested in doing — a flow issue, a riparian corridor, this older ditch outtake and the potential for efficiencies within the ditch itself,” she said.

Although better access and an outdoor classroom are part of the plan, the majority of the property will remain relatively rustic to provide an authentic outdoor experience and good wildlife habitat. Credit: Will Grandbois / Aspen Journalism

It’s also in alignment with the 2016 Crystal River Management Plan, which seeks to preserve the river’s scenic, historic and recreational values in the face of development and water demands. But few private owners have the time or money to devote to irrigation improvements or wetland rehabilitation. And it shows.

“There are certain concerns about areas of low flow on the Crystal and what that does for aquatic habitat and overall stream health,” Lewin said.

Although the work won’t necessarily increase the amount of water in the river, it should help mitigate the Weaver Ditch’s impact. Until now, the town has maintained a somewhat antiquated “push-out” diversion into a manually operated gate. It requires substantial in-stream changes to keep water flowing into the ditch, which sometimes means heavy machinery.

“The only way the machinery can access it is to drive about a quarter mile in the river,” Lewin said. “You’ve got this artificially widened, shallow, low-flow channel. There’s a pretty big difference between super-low water and high water.”

The new headgate, slated for installation this winter, will feature automation, freeing the ditch rider from making frequent trips to adjust it. With time, an algorithm should predict the ebb and flow of water supply and demand and adjust to compensate. Meanwhile, reconstructing a narrow, deep stream channel could allow the river to flow clear and cold even at low water.

This view, looking north toward the town of Carbondale, shows the Crystal River and the ditch. Other than headgate improvements, most of the riparian work will take place on the west side of the river. Credit: Photo courtesy of Roaring Fork Conservancy
A map showing the site of the Crystal River restoration project led by Roaring Fork Conservancy and the town of Carbondale. Credit: Courtesy image

The ends and the means

But there’s a hangup. Although the conservancy is confident in its ability to raise the remaining funds and the project is otherwise shovel-ready, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) is concerned about the immediate impacts of construction, said Matt Yamashita, area wildlife manager.

“We’re in charge of articulating the needs and concerns of the resource,” he said. “The proposed instream construction window is estimated at about four months. There’s really not a single window that wouldn’t be grossly impactful to all the fish species during the year.”

According to Yamashita, in-stream projects in the area would typically be limited to between Aug. 15 and Sept. 30 in hopes of avoiding fish spawning and egg incubation. By those rules, work would probably take several years to complete, with a substantial increase in cost. But CPW is working with project partners to try to build a model for larger projects like this one.

“We support the scope of the project wholeheartedly,” Yamashita said. “The future of our waterways is only going to continue to become more and more impacted, so the more time and effort we can put toward improving those and preserving their natural qualities, the better.”

The park enhancements should be more straightforward. The most visible part of the project for the general public will be additional accessibility via an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant ramp and an outdoor classroom to engage the public. Most of the park will remain fairly primitive.

A fisherman takes advantage of the water pooling at the Weaver Ditch headgate on a fall afternoon. Both the gate itself and the river around it are slated for changes to ease impacts on the river itself. Credit: Will Grandbois /Aspen Journalism

Keeping it simple

The restoration project is less intensive than what Aspen Valley Land Trust (AVLT) first proposed in a round of public presentations in 2015. It was one of the first projects identified for the River, Riparian and Restoration (R3) Fund, which memorializes brothers Kea and Ian Hause. For AVLT’s executive director, Suzanne Stephens, “it was a great opportunity to show what could be done on a river that needed some love.”

“It is still natural habitat, which there’s not a lot of when you’re looking at a river that’s running through town,” she said.

The original vision called for a fairly significant overhaul of a longer stretch of river, but that didn’t sit well with area residents.

“At that point, it was just a much bigger project than folks wanted to support,” she said. “We kind of went back to the drawing board, dialed back the plan and did some more community engagement to figure out how to maintain the scenic, parkland nature of that land without domesticating it.”

With the town and RFC stepping up, AVLT has been able to take more of a support role, with the R3 Fund contributing $10,000, according to the Water Plan application.

“It’s been a long, winding road, but I feel like going slow and having all the right partners on board are really key,” Stephens said. “Hopefully, we get some momentum, and more folks want to start doing things like this.”

This story appeared in the Nov. 13 edition of The Aspen Times.