ASPEN — On a recent, clear, cold Saturday morning, local students from Carbondale-based Youth Water Leadership Program packed into a six-seat, single-engine Cessna 210 piloted by Gary Kraft of EcoFlight.
From the cockpit and high above the Roaring Fork watershed, certain features jumped out — the long, straight line of Red Mountain Ditch cutting across the hillside; infrastructure of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. siphoning water to the Front Range; the ponds that feed Aspen Skiing Co.’s snowmaking system; and the glittering surface of Ruedi Reservoir.
One goal of the flight was to give students a firsthand experience of natural resources — in this case, rivers and water. Aspen-based EcoFlight flies policymakers, students and journalists over Western landscapes to highlight man-made impacts to the natural world.
“The best way to teach people about places is to get them in the places,” said Sarah Johnson, watershed-education specialist and founder of the Youth Water Leadership Program.
The plane took off from the Aspen airport, gaining altitude as it flew up Independence Pass to the headwaters of the Roaring Fork, down the Fryingpan River valley, around the white flanks of Mount Sopris and up the Crystal River valley before cruising past the Maroon Bells and Aspen Mountain back to the airport.
How humans modify water
Also evident from the air were the burn scars from 2018’s Lake Christine Fire on Basalt Mountain, as well as the many large homes near Aspen with ponds on the property. For Coal Ridge High School senior and youth-water program leader Aidan Boyd, it was striking to see the patterns of land use in the valley.
“It is really interesting to compare the remote mountains that seem completely untouched to as you get more into the towns it’s just a very different feeling,” he said. “We’ve talked a little bit about how a lot of really wealthy houses will modify water — houses with lakes and pools. It was really interesting to see that.”
From 13,000 feet, it also became apparent just how near to one another are the headwaters of the watershed’s three main tributaries: the Roaring Fork, Fryingpan and Crystal rivers — something that isn’t evident when one travels the region by car. All three begin as trickles in close proximity, high among the 14,000-foot peaks of the Elk and Sawatch ranges.
“I never really realized how close everything is to each other because I’ve always driven up to Aspen and Basalt,” said Isla Brumby-Nelson, an eighth-grader at the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork.
Youth Water Leadership Program
The goal of the Youth Water Leadership Program is not only to increase students’ knowledge of their local watershed and Colorado River issues, but also to create student-driven, call-to-action projects. Students will present these projects — on topics that range from how drought affects small farmers to microplastics and desalination — at the annual Youth Water Leadership Summit in December.
The invitation-only event is sponsored by Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams. Representatives from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and Sen. Michael Bennet’s office have already confirmed they will attend.
“The program is about teaching young people how to participate in public life,” Johnson said.
The Saturday field trip culminated with a tour of the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District and Zeigler Reservoir. But the bird’s-eye view of the watershed that students experienced with EcoFlight is the experience that is most likely to stay with them, Johnson said.
“I think that perspective is eye-opening,” she said, “when you start to see all the ditches and diversions, man-made lakes versus natural lakes and how many more water-storage structures there were than we thought. … They are going to have this reference point and bring that into the conversation, and I think that is powerful.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. This story ran in the Nov. 2 edition of The Aspen Times.