The dam on Lost Man Creek that creates Lost Man Reservoir.
The dam on Lost Man Creek that creates Lost Man Reservoir.

The Colorado River Basin Roundtable has released its draft Basin Implementation Plan.

I know, I can hear you going “Yawn. What-ev-er.”

But, I can also hear you saying something today like, “Honey, the lawn looks a little brown, could you turn the sprinklers on and bring me some ice water before we go fishing? Oh, and remind me to pick up some local grass-fed beef for dinner.”

In other words, you may not care about water, but you probably should, given that your Colorado lifestyle largely depends on it.

But given that the plan laboriously prepared by consultants at SGM in Glenwood Springs for the Colorado roundtable includes 89 dense pages in an unwieldy 11-by-17 inch format, and that it takes a day to fully decipher and absorb, it’s hard to blame someone for not digging into it.

On the other hand, the plan could well be the key to whether your grandchildren, should they live in Colorado, have clean water to drink, healthy rivers to fish in or float on, and scenic working ranches to gaze upon.

As the plan notes, “water = tourism, recreation, sustainable ecosystem, agriculture and resource development.”

At a minimum, the draft “basin implementation plan,” or BIP, is full of compelling facts, figures, projections and projects. It also explores and explains broader themes and lists important projects in the Roaring Fork River watershed, including potential dams on upper Castle and Maroon creeks.

On the defining-factoid front, consider that 80 percent of the water in Colorado originates on the Western Slope, while 80 percent of the state’s population lives east of the Continental Divide, mainly in cities on the Front Range.

This explains much of the underlying tension in the plan between shipping more water to the Front Range versus leaving it in rivers, or using it, on the Western Slope.

The Colorado River originates in Rocky Mountain National Park and it, or its tributaries, run through Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield and Mesa counties on the river’s journey out of the state and onto Utah, Arizona, California and Mexico.

Before the river reaches Glenwood Springs, though, there are more than a dozen tunnels under the Continental Divide that take between 400,000 to 600,000 acre-feet of water each year from the Colorado River and its tributaries to cities and farms on Colorado’s Front Range.

An acre-foot of water, by the way, is equal to an acre of land covered by a foot of water. Ruedi Reservoir holds about 100,000 acre-feet. Paonia Reservoir holds about 15,000 acre-feet. The abbreviation “AFY” means acre-feet-per-year.

When people water their lawns in Denver or Colorado Springs, they are likely using water from the Fraser, Blue, Roaring Fork or Fryingpan rivers, all tributaries to the Colorado River.

Folks on the Western Slope are diverting plenty of water out of Western Slope rivers, too, mainly to grow hay.

Agriculture uses 85 percent of the water diverted from rivers in Colorado, and the most senior water rights are usually tied to ag land.

The Colorado River Basin has 268,000 acres of land under irrigation, or 8 percent of the irrigated land in Colorado, resulting in a consumptive use of 584,000 acre-feet-per-year of water.

So, in rough terms, of all the water diverted from rivers and streams in the Colorado River Basin, almost half goes to Front Range cities and farms and almost half goes to irrigate fields and crops in the basin.

Some of the water goes toward “municipal and industrial” uses, which includes residential use.

There are 54 water-providing utilities and organizations in the Colorado Basin.

In 2008, those providers delivered 68,480 acre-feet to houses, factories and ski areas.

That demand for “municipal and industrial” water is expected to double, or more, to between 129,940 to 179,440 AFY by 2050, according to the draft plan from the Colorado roundtable.

The Grottos on the Roaring Fork River. About 40 percent of the flow of the Fork has been diverted under the Continental Divide for the last 85 years.
The Grottos on the Roaring Fork River. About 40 percent of the flow of the Fork has been diverted under the Continental Divide for the last 85 years. Smith / Aspen Journalism Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

Local water, state water

While it may not be obvious, the development of a basin-wide and a state-wide water plan is indeed a local story, as the Roaring Fork River valley is in the thick of the debate over the future supply of water for the state’s growing population.

Water from the Roaring Fork River watershed, which includes the Fryingpan River, is diverted east each year to Colorado Springs, Aurora and Pueblo through the Fryingpan-Arkansas and Twin Lakes projects.

“On average, 37 percent of the upper Roaring Fork watershed (40,600 AFY) and 41 percent of the upper Fryingpan watershed (61,500 AFY) is currently diverted annually to the Front Range,” the plan notes. “These are the 5th and 3rd largest transmountain diversions, respectively, in the state.”

These diversions mean that about 100,000 AFY of water does not flow each year down to the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers in Glenwood Springs as nature intended, but instead flows east, as water managers intend.

There are eight other river basins in Colorado, and the appointed roundtables in each basin, meeting under the auspices of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, are also developing their own BIPs.

Each plan is supposed to inform the state of the needs and potential water projects in each basin, and the basin plans will be incorporated into a statewide Colorado Water Plan.

The roundtable in the South Platte River Basin on the Front Range, and another roundtable representing metro Denver, are both likely to mention in their plans that new supplies of Western Slope water — meaning more dams and reservoirs — must be developed to meet the water needs of the state’s growing population.

Colorado’s population is expected to grow from 5.1 million today to between 8.6 and 10 million by 2050, according to state estimates, with most of that growth happening on the Front Range.

But the population on the Western Slope and in the Colorado River Basin is also expected to grow significantly, especially along the Interstate 70 corridor. The population in the Colorado River Basin was 307,000 in 2008. It is expected to climb to 661,000 to 832,000 by 2050.

The state has estimated that by 2050 there could be a “gap” between water demand and water supply of some 500,000 acre-feet in the state. Many members of the Colorado Basin Roundtable, which meets monthly in Glenwood Springs, question the validity of the size of the gap.

Even without a big new water-supply project being developed, the plan from the Colorado roundtable points out that many other smaller projects already in the works will divert even more water from the Colorado Basin. Many existing diversions could take more water, and may do so in the future, in a process known as “firming up yields.”

“It is currently estimated that an additional 150,000 AFY will be diverted in the future as Front Range diverters firm up yields in the future,” the plan states. “These additional planned firming projects include: the Moffat Collection System Project, Windy Gap Firming, Eagle River memorandum of understanding, Future Dillon Reservoir diversions, firming in the upper Roaring Fork and Fryingpan Rivers, and Colorado Springs Utilities expanded diversions from the Upper Blue River.”

Both the Fry-Ark project and the Twin Lakes project own conditional water rights that could be developed in the future, meaning more water could be diverted from the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan headwaters.

And yet, the Colorado Basin Roundtable’s plan is adamant that there is no more water to divert from the basin.

Hunter Creek in the Hunter Creek valley.
Hunter Creek in the Hunter Creek valley. Smith / Aspen Journalism Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

Tapped out?

“The Colorado Basin has played more of a role in solving Colorado’s water shortage than any other basin in the state,” the plan states. “These transmountain diversions have had a dramatic impact on the health of our ecosystems, economy and culture of the headwater counties of the Colorado Basin. The headwaters are tapped out.”

The plan, in another section, also plainly says that “there is no more additional water to support other basins into the future.”

The basin roundtable has also articulated a set of “Western Slope Principles,” chief among them is that “Colorado Water Plan solutions should originate first in the basin in which the problem exists.”

In other words, if the Front Range wants to keep growing, it has to find water in its own basin, not look to the Western Slope.

But throughout this planning process, Front Range interests have generally said it would not be a good idea to take any long-term options off the table.

The Colorado Basin plan also calls for the state of Colorado to remain neutral in the grand east-west fight over water.

“The state should act as a facilitator — not an advocate — in inter-basin conversations surrounding transmountain diversions,” the plan states.

The plan also makes a strong call for growth control in the Colorado Basin and the state.

“A strong link should be made between land use patterns and water use together in a meaningful and binding way,” the plan states. “Land use and growth should be directed within urban growth boundaries where water supply plans are currently in place. Land use planning across the basin should recognize the shortage and limits of water supply.”

It also notes, in an apparent dig at Front Range lawns, that “the land use policies of the future must recognize that preserving water for streams and rivers and maintaining agriculture is more important than watering outdoor landscapes.”

The stretch of Maroon Creek, just below the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks, where city of Aspen plans show a large dam. City officials say climate change may someday make either the Maroon or Castle creek dams a good option.
The stretch of Maroon Creek, just below the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks, where city of Aspen plans show a large dam. City officials say climate change may someday make either the Maroon or Castle creek dams a good option. Smith/Aspen Journalism Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

New reservoirs?

The Roundtable’s “basin implementation plan” clearly recognizes the need for new reservoirs to meet the needs of both agricultural and municipal needs, and it provides a list of potential new dams and reservoirs, albeit relatively small ones, across the sub-regions in the basin.

It also recognizes that building new reservoirs is going to be challenging, especially for municipal water utilities.

“Many of these water providers’ long term water supplies are based on conditional storage rights for on-stream reservoirs,” the plan states. “Today’s regulatory and permitting climate makes the construction of channel reservoirs virtually impossible.

“Even if they can be permitted as an off-channel reservoir, the expense for any one small utility is cost prohibitive,” the plan states. “Therefore many utilities are discontinuing the diligence filings on these on-channel reservoirs.”

The city of Aspen’s water utility, however, is not walking away from its conditional water rights for dams and reservoirs on upper Castle and Maroon creeks.

In fact, the city has been advocating for the two potential dams and reservoirs to be included in the basin’s draft plans and it has stated in the past it intends to keep the option open to build the reservoirs.

The dams on Castle and Maroon creeks are indeed mentioned in the draft basin plan, which was released by SGM on May 16.

The dams are listed in regional tables that SGM describes as “examples of projects that each region identified from the full list as being a top candidate for the Colorado Basin Roundtable.”

The table for the Roaring Fork region is on page 71 of the plan.

Under the column entitled “themes and supporting vulnerabilities,” it lists “Storage for supply assurance during low flow periods” under the subhead of “Secure Safe Drinking Water.”

The next column over is called “methods,” and here the plan recommends that the city should “investigate the development of storage reservoirs in both Maroon and Castle creeks if no better alternative is discovered.”

And under the column heading of “Projects,” it recommends the city “continue due diligence for the preservation of the 1972 storage rights on Maroon and Castle creeks by giving true consideration to all other potential options.”

Aspen is required in 2015 to file a diligence report with the state showing it is making progress toward building the dams and reservoirs.

While the statements in the draft basin plan would seem to give support for the idea of building a dam within view of the Maroon Bells, the plan also throws plenty of cold water on the idea of new dams in the high country to meet municipal needs.

“Water providers in the upper reaches of the basin are dependent upon direct flow stream intakes and are susceptible to extended drought periods,” the plan notes about water utilities in the Roaring Fork River watershed.

“Because the watersheds above these intakes are primarily located on U.S. Forest Service lands and because of the strong environmental ethics present, the likelihood of construction of reservoirs above intakes is small.

“These water providers should seek redundancy through other means including: enlargement of existing reservoirs, interconnects between regional water providers, development of well supplies and reliance upon multiple stream water supplies,” the plan states.

While the Castle and Maroon creek dams are mentioned in the section of the report that focuses on the Roaring Fork watershed, the primary emphasis in that section is about the lack of water in certain sections of local rivers.

“The primary need of the Roaring Fork watershed is to protect, maintain, and restore healthy rivers and streams,” the plan states. “Almost 140 of 185 miles of streams surveyed in the Roaring Fork watershed have moderately modified to severely degraded riparian habitat.”

The plan further notes that “there are three critical reaches of main streams that have been targeted for restoration 1) the Roaring Fork River below the Salvation Ditch through the city of Aspen; 2) the Roaring Fork River upstream of the confluence of the Fryingpan River, and 3) the Crystal River upstream from Carbondale.

“These three main reaches do not include all the smaller tributaries in the upper Fryingpan and the upper Roaring Fork that have been dried up due to transmountain diversions,” the plan states.

The plan then lists many water projects, some physical and some policy oriented, for the Roaring Fork basin and the five other sub-basins in the Colorado Basin.

The next step for the BIP is for the members of the Roundtable to review it at meetings in June. Then the draft is to be sent in July to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for its review.

In the meantime, if you want to dig deeper into your water future, go to SGM’s website and look for the plan under the “Resources” tab.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism’s Water Desk is collaborating with the Aspen Daily News on coverage of regional water issues. The Daily News published a version of this story on Saturday, May 24, 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...