Low water this summer on the Roaring Fork River through Aspen.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

The Roaring Fork Conservancy and the Colorado Water Trust are asking owners of water rights in the upper Roaring Fork River basin and in the Crystal River basin to leave some of their water in the river this summer to benefit fish and the environment.

The two nonprofit organizations are seeking water owners who might be willing to lease their water on a short-term basis to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) — without endangering their water rights — as part of an innovative program launched in the face of a looming drought.

“We’ve personally contacted them,” said Sharon Clarke, a land and water conservation specialist with the Roaring Fork Conservancy, about a number of major water rights owners in the valley. “We’re trying to reach out and get as many people to know about the program as possible.”

The snowpack in the Roaring Fork River basin was at 22 percent of average on April 29 and conditions are similar to 2002, when the Roaring Fork through Aspen was reduced to a trickle.

A meeting has been set for Thursday at 5:30 p.m. in Carbondale Town Hall for interested water rights owners to meet with representatives from the Water Trust and the Conservancy to discuss the program, which is called “Request for Water 2012.”

The deadline for water rights owners to sign up for the program is May 11. The initial round of screening is set to be wrapped up by June 6 and the leases are to be implemented — and the first round of checks to owners to be sent — by July 1.

That’s working at warp speed compared to how Colorado water law usually proceeds, but the Water Trust has designed the facilitated process in conjunction with the CWCB, which will lease the water and hold the water right for up to six months.

The Colorado Water Trust is not a policy or advocacy organization but instead works “with willing sellers and lessors to put senior water rights back into rivers to benefit the natural environment.”

The price paid for the leased water is to be equal to the market value of the crops that would have been produced by the irrigation water. That price is likely to vary in each situation, according to the Water Trust.

The scope of the program is between $400,000 and $500,000, according to Colorado Water Trust Executive Director Amy Beatie, who said the nonprofit is also fundraising against the opportunity and may approach Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Stream Board for support.

The Salvation Ditch diversion structure on the upper Roaring Fork River. In the drought of 2002, there were times when there was more water in the ditch than in the river. Will that happen this summer?
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

The goal is to keep at least enough water in the rivers to meet the environmental instream flow levels as set by the CWCB.

For example, the “minimum streamflow” needed to protect the Roaring Fork River “to a reasonable degree” as it flows through Aspen between Difficult Creek and Maroon Creek is 32 cubic feet per second (cfs), according to the CWCB.

On the Crystal River, the CWCB’s instream flow right is 100 cfs from Avalanche Creek to the Roaring Fork from May 1 to Sept. 30, and 60 cfs after Oct. 1.

However, the CWCB’s environmental instream flow rights are typically junior to more senior water rights, which means that the “minimum streamflow” levels are often not met, especially in drought years when Colorado’s priority system for water is enforced.

In many years, the lower Crystal River is left nearly dry and well below the level of the state’s instream flow rights, in large part because of a series of irrigation ditches used to water crops and fields on ranches in the Crystal River valley.

Salvation Ditch ditch

During the severe drought of 2002, the Roaring Fork through Aspen was nearly dry while about 35 cfs of water was still flowing through the Salvation Ditch, which diverts water from the river just above the Aspen Club and sends it to fields and homes along the ditch’s 20-mile route to lower Woody Creek.

Gary Beach of Beach Resource Management, which manages several ditch companies including the Salvation Ditch, said the owners in the Salvation Ditch would likely consider the Colorado Water Trust’s program.

“I think the idea is a good idea,” Beach said. “In dry years, everybody needs water, including the fish.”

He agreed that the 2003 state law underpinning the program protects water-rights holders against claims of abandonment, but he warned that leaving water in the river instead of diverting and consuming it could reduce the economic value of a water-rights portfolio were a change-of-use ruling sought as part of a sale.

However, Beatie, the executive director of the water trust, said there was a provision in the revised law that created the water leasing opportunity that protects water-rights owners in that regard. Instead of logging a “zero” on a list of historical consumptive use because of a lease, under the 2003 law an “NA” or “not applicable” would appear.

“This year would be like a skip on your record, not a zero,” Beatie said.

In any event, Beach said that for owners not planning to sell their water rights anytime soon, that consideration may be relatively minor. And he put the owners of the Salvation Ditch in that category.

“I think the Salvation Ditch has a history of being accommodating to the stream,” he said. “It has reduced diversions during the Ducky Derby, for example.”

Beatie said the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers made the list of rivers that are part of the pilot program for a number of reasons.

One, they have instream flow rights held by the CWCB. Two, they were on a watch list of rivers created by a drought task force. Three, they are in a community where people buy into the idea that leaving water in a river for environmental reasons makes sense.

“The program is probably not going to go over well in places where they are not fans of the state’s instream flow program,” Beatie said.

On the other hand, reaction to the program that was announced last week has been positive, she said.

“We are actually being offered water statewide,” Beatie said. “Water owners aren’t even paying attention to our priority list, they are just offering to help.”

Another look at the Salvation Ditch diversion structure.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

There are a number of nuances to the Colorado Water Trust leasing program.

Owners must control at least 1 cubic foot per second of water or 50 acre-feet of storage water to be eligible.

A water right must be on the main stem or tributary of one of the rivers on the Water Trust’s list. This includes the Roaring Fork River above its confluence with the Fryingpan River and the Crystal River.

There are three types of water leases available: a 3-in-10 years lease, a single-year lease, or a split-season lease for part of the irrigation season.

The water in question must be left in the river and cannot be used for irrigation during the period of the lease. However, owners can keep irrigating during the application process.

The water owner must be willing to permit a preliminary inspection of the diversion infrastructure in question and allow for follow-up inspections.

Owners must work with the water trust in a timely fashion to ensure the water is in the river this summer.

The value of the water in question will vary in each situation and will likely require negotiations between the owner and the water trust.

The initial screening of the appropriateness of a water right is confidential, but if an owner enters the formal program, it becomes public information.

Owners do not have to go to water court. The short-term loans are administered by the CWCB and the state’s water engineer.

Editor’s note: A version of this story was also published in the Aspen Daily News on Monday, April 30, 2012.

The straight-edged dam across the upper Roaring Fork River that diverts water into the Salvation Ditch creates a still pond above the rocky riverbed.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

Related articles:

Salvation for the Roaring Fork?
, The Aspen Times, March 25, 2007

In-stream water loan bill cruises in House, The Aspen Times, Feb. 7, 2005

Salvation Ditch under new management, The Aspen Times, May 12, 2003

Salvation Ditch may save a lot of fish … next year, The Aspen Times, Sept. 24, 2002

Water-sharing deal is closer, The Aspen Times, Sept. 20, 2002

Water official: Fork’s fish have few rights, The Aspen Times, Sept. 18, 2002

State official stands in way of water deal
, The Aspen Times, Sept. 17, 2002

Ditch owner works to give river a boost, The Aspen Times, August 23, 2002

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...