The Runoff Monthly Newsletter from Aspen Journalism

Welcome back to The Runoff, our monthly newsletter featuring insight and news from our Water Desk you won’t read anywhere else, plus additional context and updates on our most recent reporting. Once again we are taking the place of the normal edition of The Roundup, which will return next week.

Thanks for going deeper with us and for supporting Aspen Journalism!

The Briefing

Free irrigation assessments

The city of Aspen is offering free irrigation assessments to its water customers. According to a press release, a team of certified water-efficient landscapers can visit a property and look at sprinkler systems, identify needed repairs and opportunities for efficiency improvements. Outdoor watering accounts for about 60% of Aspen’s demand and using less water on lawns and landscaping makes a bigger difference in water conservation than indoor use. Aspen is currently in a Stage 2 Water Shortage, which means no sprinkler watering between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.; outdoor watering on an “odd-even” schedule according to address number; no washing of sidewalks, driveways, patios or tennis courts; no refilling of swimming pools and no new water connections will be authorized. For more information, contact Tim Karfs at 970-920-5072 or

Mueller testifies at Senate hearing

Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, speaks at the district’s annual seminar in 2018. Mueller testified before a Senate committee on Tuesday about the crisis on the Colorado River. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Colorado River Water Conservation District General Manager Andy Mueller testified Tuesday at the Senate Subcommittee on Conservation, Climate, Forestry and Natural Resources Hearing on the Western Water Crisis. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who chairs the committee, said the purpose of the hearing was simple: to sound the alarm about the water crisis in the American West. In his five-minute speech, Mueller recounted the crisis he is seeing play out before his eyes across the 15 Western Slope counties the River District represents. Mueller asked for help from the federal government to mitigate the impacts of climate change. He said that western Colorado needs additional strategically placed small reservoirs in high mountain valleys to re-time spring runoff as well as more robust agriculture efficiency projects. And if Congress is going to incentivize a reduction of irrigated agriculture in the Colorado River basin, such a program must focus on fallowing hobby farms and marginal ground, not productive ag land. To survive and thrive in the southwest, where water demands greatly outstrip supply, “every water user sector from agriculture, industry, to municipal water users will have to meaningfully reduce their water consumption,” Mueller said.

No CROS in 2022

The 15-mile reach of the Colorado River, shown here  near 19 Road in Grand Junction, is home to four species of endangered fish. Water managers have decided there’s not enough to spare in Western Slope reservoirs this year to release water for endangered fish through what’s known as Coordinated Reservoir Operations or CROS. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Water managers have decided there’s not enough to spare in reservoirs this year to release water for endangered fish in the critical 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction. Every year since 1995 water managers have considered whether to release extra flows to try and extend the peak flow period as part of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, known as Coordinated Reservoir Operations or CROS. Participating entities include the Bureau of Reclamation, (Green Mountain, Ruedi reservoirs), Denver Water (the Moffat Tunnel collection system and Williams Fork Reservoir), the Colorado River Water Conservation District (Wolford Mountain Reservoir), and Northern Water Conservancy District (Windy Gap and Willow Creek reservoirs). CROS has occurred in 12 of the last 27 years, according to Michelle Garrison, senior water resource specialist with the CWCB. Water will still be released later in the year for the benefit of the fish through other programs.

Colorado Basin Roundtable member appointments

At the May 23 meeting of the Colorado Basin Roundtable, Grand County Commissioner Merrit Linke was appointed the at-large agriculture representative, replacing Kremmling rancher Paul Bruchez, who is now on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Kirsten Kurath, general counsel for the Grand Valley Water Users Association, and April Long, a water resources engineer for the city of Aspen and executive director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, were both appointed vice-chairs of the roundtable. Jason Turner, an attorney with the River District, remains the chair.

San Juan trends

A kayaker makes her way down the San Juan River, which delivers water from Colorado, New Mexico and Utah to Lake Powell. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

A recent paper by John Norton and Michael Preston analyzing the trends in temperatures, precipitation and stream runoff in the San Juan Mountains over the last 22 years seems to confirm what climate scientists have been saying: temperatures are rising and streamflows are declining more quickly in the southwestern part of the state. Using data from 23 SNOTEL sites and 18 stream gauges in the San Juan, Rio Grande, Dolores and Gunnison river basins, the paper found the average annual temperature has increased by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit while average annual precipitation has decreased by 19%. The fall season has experienced the greatest average annual temperature increase. Precipitation in winter is slightly up, while decreasing significantly in spring, summer and fall. Runoff from 18 streams emanating from the San Juan Mountains has decreased by nearly 27%, with the San Juan basin seeing the worst decline at 34%.

Town of Eagle water project

The town of Eagle has filed a water court application for storage rights, laying the infrastructure for a future residential development of over 800 homes. The application is for three ponds on the Haymeadow property: Haymaker Pond at 5 acre-feet, Dylan’s Pond at 16 acre-feet and Strawberry Pond at 28 acre-feet. The ponds will be used as augmentation, or replacement water in case of a downstream call, and also for irrigation. The land for the Haymeadow development was already annexed into the town years ago and will get its domestic water from the Town of Eagle’s system, not the ponds. The water to fill the ponds would be delivered from Brush Creek through existing irrigation ditches. The water court application has several opposers, which is normal for this type of project, including Eagle County, Grand Valley Water Users Association, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs, among others. 

Since the last edition of The Runoff, Aspen Journalism’s Water Desk has reported the following stories. If you are not already, subscribe to The Roundup to get our weekly rundown of new news and insights:

Early peak runoff for Western Slope rivers

Heather Sackett | June 3, 2022

Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Most Western Slope rivers saw their peaks over a three-day period in May: May 19 for the higher elevation tributaries, May 20 for bigger rivers near their confluence with the Colorado and May 21 for Cameo and the state line. Fueled by dust on snow, which accelerates melting, the early runoff can cause challenges for reservoir operators and boaters. Story update: According to Cody Moser, a hydrologist with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, unseasonably high temperatures this weekend could push streamflows at some locations to nearly as high as the original May peak as the snow above 11,000 feet melts out in earnest. “Weather models have been trending quite warm and dry and are now forecasting temperatures being ~10 degrees above normal starting around the middle of this week and continuing into the weekend,” Moser said in an email. Although confidence is high streamflows already peaked at downstream locations, the Crystal River could see flows on June 10, 11 and 12 that are very close to the May 19 peak of about 1,870 cfs, Moser said. The same could be true for the Roaring Fork River through Aspen, although it will depend on how much water is being taken over the continental divide through the Twin Lakes Tunnel.

Pitkin County agrees to fund ditch piping project

Heather Sackett | May 27, 2022

Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Pitkin County commissioners agreed to contribute nearly $48,000 in funding for a ditch piping project that aims to keep more water in Hunter Creek. Red Mountain Ditch operators say piping the remaining 3,600 feet of ditch through Aspen’s exclusive Starwood development could result in an additional .5 to 1 cfs remaining in the river. 

Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

As a fix for illegally diverting Yule Creek and violating the Clean Water Act in 2018, Colorado Stone Quarries must construct a bridge and culvert at Mud Gulch as well as rehabilitate Yule Creek. The mining company must meet 10 special conditions as part of its permit issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, but environmentalists say this mitigation still doesn’t go far enough to compensate for the environmental damage.

Boaters float the Yampa River in northwest Colorado
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

A goal of Colorado’s 2015 Water Plan was to place more emphasis on figuring out flow needs for recreation and the environment through stream management planning. But according to a recent report, the process has often been taken over by agricultural water users. The SMP process reveals the tension between traditional water users like agricultural producers, who take water out of the rivers, and recreational and environmental water advocates, whose goal is to keep water in the river.

Heather Sackett is the managing editor at Aspen Journalism and the editor and reporter on the Water Desk. She has also reported for The Denver Post and the Telluride Daily Planet. Heather has a master’s...