MARBLE — Two water-conservation districts are working to find solutions to a long-simmering problem on the Crystal River: In dry years, there may not be enough water for both irrigators and some residential subdivisions.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District plan to submit a state grant request for a feasibility study on a basinwide augmentation plan, or backup water supply plan, for the Crystal. The study would look at water demands and augmentation strategies, including the potential for a reservoir in or near the town of Marble.
The historic drought late in the summer of 2018 illustrated some long-acknowledged problems with water rights on the Crystal. In August and again in September, the Ella Ditch, which irrigates agricultural land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the river for the first time ever. This means, in theory, that junior-rights holders upstream have to stop taking water so that the Ella Ditch can receive its full decreed amount.
No back-up water supply
Most junior-rights holders have what’s known as an augmentation plan, which lets them continue using water during a call by replacing the called-for water with water from another source, such as a pond, a reservoir or an exchange.
The problem on the Crystal is that several subdivisions don’t have augmentation plans.
“This hasn’t been a surprise for at least 30 years,” said John Currier, chief engineer for the river district. “This is a well-known problem. The issue has been out there all the time, but the call is potentially becoming more frequent in those kind of dry years.”
The entities that were out of priority in 2018 — and therefore could potentially have water to homes shut off to satisfy a downstream call — include the town of Carbondale, the Marble Water Company, Chair Mountain Ranch, Crystal River Resort, Crystal View Heights and Seven Oaks Commons.
The Colorado Division of Water Resources, which administers the calls, sent these entities letters encouraging them to create an augmentation plan. Otherwise, their water could be shut off or they could be fined for every day they are using water out of priority when there is a future call by a downstream senior-rights holder.
Division 5 Water Engineer Alan Martellaro hopes it won’t come to that. Issuing fines won’t do anyone any good, he said.
“We basically told everybody: As long as we are moving forward and not dragging our feet, we are not going to issue any orders, especially since we are searching for regional answers,” Martellaro said.
West Divide, which is based in Rifle, with its boundary extending up the Crystal River Valley nearly to McClure Pass, sees the situation as an opportunity for basinwide cooperation to find what will probably be a multi-faceted solution. But that will require groups that were once at odds to work together.
“At this point, we are just getting back into this to see what’s feasible, and at this point we want to, and are open to, working with any interested parties up there,” said Bruce Wampler, a West Divide board member.
In 2011, the West Divide district and the Colorado River district abandoned their conditional water rights for nearly 200,000 acre-feet of water storage in the Crystal River drainage after local groups — Crystal River Caucus, Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association — opposed the reservoirs included in the conditional rights.
At the Gunnison Basin Roundtable meeting in Montrose on Sept. 16, Wendy Ryan, project manager for Colorado River Engineering, an engineering firm that works with West Divide, asked roundtable members for a letter of support for the grant application. (The town of Marble, which could be the site of storage, is in Gunnison County, but not in the Gunnison River basin.) Some roundtable members said they want to see the involvement of environmental groups before they would offer a letter of support.
“It’s going to be a hard nut to crack,” said Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck, a roundtable member.
As of Thursday, no members of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board said they had been informed of the grant application or the augmentation-plan study. The group officially opposes the construction of new storage facilities in the Crystal River watershed.
To get the state money from the Water Supply Reserve Fund, the feasibility study request must be approved first by the Colorado River Basin Roundtable and then the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The request, though not yet finalized, will probably be for roughly $100,000, Currier said.
West Divide introduced the proposal to the CBRT on Monday, and plans on putting forth a formal grant request in November.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Sept. 24 edition of the Times.