The Runoff: A monthly newsletter from Aspen Journalism's Water Desk
The Runoff: A monthly newsletter from Aspen Journalism’s Water Desk

Here at Aspen Journalism a big part of what the Water Desk covers are meetings of governmental agencies. Before you yawn too loud, an important thing to understand is that a major responsibility of these organizations is to dole out grant money. Lots (sometimes millions) of taxpayer-funded grant money. It goes to water projects in the Roaring Fork watershed and across the state. September was a busy month for the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Pitkin County Healthy Rivers, which approved (and denied) grant requests from local entities. Read on to find out which projects your tax money is funding.

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

— Heather Sackett
Reporter and Managing Editor of the Water Desk

The Briefing
A transmountain diversion on Sawyer Creek in the Fryingpan River headwaters. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

River District comments on Water Plan

Colorado River Water Conservation District board members and staff discussed the comments they plan to submit on the updated version of the Colorado Water Plan at a Sept. 15 meeting. A main concern of theirs remains the very reason the River District was formed in 1937: transmountain diversions. Director of Technical Advocacy Brendon Langenhuizen said there is still a disconnect in the Water Plan between the basin of origin (the Colorado) and the place of use (the Front Range). The River District would like the Water Plan to include more context about TMDs and to address their long-term economic and environmental impacts. A point the River District continues to make is that many of the water quality issues in headwaters communities (algae, high water temperatures) are actually a water quantity issue — a result of reduced flows from TMDs taking water to the Front Range. “Water quality is not discussed as thoroughly as we think it needs to be,” Langenhuizen said. CWCB officials told Aspen Journalism in July when the new Water Plan was released that it stopped short of a detailed analysis of TMDs because of ongoing litigation and permitting processes, but promised to revisit the issue before the next update to the plan.

Pitkin County Healthy Rivers funds projects

At their September meeting, Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board members decided to hold off on a $77,000 request from the Airborne Snow Observatory for a snow-mapping-with-LiDAR project in the Roaring Fork Valley. This promising (and expensive) technology, which essentially involves flying a LiDAR-equipped plane over the snow-covered peaks to see how much water is left in the snowpack, can provide vital information to water managers. But board members wanted to see Front Range water providers — who can use the information to better operate their big reservoirs — fund the majority of the project since they are the ones who would benefit most. 

Board members approved a $35,000 grant to EcoFlight for aerial advocacy for protecting the Crystal River. Proponents are at the beginning of what could be a long fight for a federal Wild & Scenic designation on the river.

Crystal River rancher Bill Fales
Crystal River rancher Bill Fales stands at the headgate for the Helms Ditch, with Mount Sopris in the background. As part of an agreement with the Colorado Water Trust, Fales could be paid to reduce his diversions from the ditch when the river is low. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Crystal River ranch/Water Trust agreement activated

The Colorado Water Trust on Sept. 13 began paying Cold Mountain Ranch owners Bill Fales and Marj Perry to reduce diversions out of the Crystal River and boost flows during late summer and early fall. This is the first year the pilot program has been implemented. The ranchers will get paid for not diverting from the Helms Ditch, which could leave up to 6 cfs in a chronically dry, roughly two-mile stretch of the Crystal River. The agreement can remain in effect for up to 20 days through the end of October. “Where Bill’s diversion is, is right where the river is really dwindling; it’s the pinch point,” said Alyson Meyer Gould of the Water Trust. “It makes a huge critical difference in terms of connectivity.” Our story from July explains more of the background.

Ruedi releases for anchor ice

Several entities are planning to fund the release of water from Ruedi Reservoir to boost flows on the Fryingpan River to prevent the formation of anchor ice. The water, owned by the River District, would be leased by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Pitkin County and others. During the coldest days of winter when flows are low, anchor ice forms on the bottom of the Fryingpan, a Gold Medal trout fishery and an economic driver for the region. When it warms up with the sun and the ice releases, it scrapes the streambed — bad news for the fish and the bugs they eat. The CWCB has funded the initiative in the past. The Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board approved $50,000 a year for five years toward the effort, but this amount now must be approved by Pitkin County commissioners. The Colorado Water Trust, the River District, Roaring Fork Conservancy and Roaring Fork Fishing Guide Alliance have also earmarked funds.

AGCI staffers and a Pitkin County Public Works employee assemble the Castle Creek Roaring Fork Observation Network station
AGCI staffers and a Pitkin County Public Works employee assemble the Castle Creek Roaring Fork Observation Network station on Oct. 7, 2019. The station stands near Cooper Basin Road in the Castle Creek watershed. Credit: AGCI

Aspen Global Change Institute gets soil moisture grant

At its September meeting, the CWCB approved a $140,000 Water Plan grant request from the Aspen Global Change Institute to better understand how soil moisture data can support drought-ready, climate-adaptive water management. The importance of soil moisture as an indicator for streamflow forecasts was thrust into the spotlight in 2021 when a near-normal snowpack resulted in just 34% of inflow into Lake Powell because dry soils sucked up the runoff before it got to streams. The grant will help the institute’s Roaring Fork Observation Network figure out what kind of correlation there is between the soil moisture, snowpack and runoff in the local watershed. “We know soil moisture is impacting our runoff somehow,” said Elise Osenga, the institute’s community science manager. “The goal of our network is to get a long-term picture so we can understand how climate change is impacting our water and what does that mean for our ecosystems and our water supply.” The institute has also applied to the River District for grant funding.

Roaring Fork Conservancy denied grant funding by CWCB

The Conservancy, along with Lotic Hydrologic and others, is working on a research project that would survey 400 agricultural water users on the Western Slope with the goal of gauging participation rates in a large-scale demand management program. The River District and American Rivers are expected to help fund the project, but CWCB staff turned down a $238,000 Water Plan grant request, saying the state already did a similar effort in 2020 and 2021 with its Agriculture Impacts workgroup. The workgroup was part of the state’s investigation into a demand management program, which would pay irrigators to temporarily fallow fields. “The committee believes it would be premature at this time to recommend any demand management proposals while the Board is still considering the feasibility of a Demand Management program,” the response to the grant application reads.

Water for endangered fish

The Colorado Water Trust and its partners are working to keep more water in the notoriously dry 15-mile reach of the Colorado River between the big irrigation diversions in Palisade and the river’s downstream confluence with the Gunnison. The area is critical habitat for endangered fish, including the humpback chub. The Water Trust is paying Caerus Oil and Gas $40 per acre-foot to release 3,500 acre-feet of water the company owns in Ruedi Reservoir, according to Water Trust attorney Kate Ryan. The oil and gas company, which operates in the Piceance and Uinta basins and has an office in Parachute, is donating another 1,000 acre-feet, Ryan said. The goal is to boost flows to meet the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program’s 810 cfs flow target. Releases began on Sept. 25 and will continue through Oct. 11.

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:

Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

The water in Lincoln Creek above Grizzly Reservoir has been running yellow in recent days. A culprit could be defunct mines in the area, where prospectors mined gold, silver, lead and copper in the early 1900s.

Downstream view of White River dam site
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The Bureau of Land Management will have an additional opportunity for the public to weigh in on the controversial reservoir project on the White River between Rangely and Meeker. The BLM would need to grant a right of way to build Wolf Creek reservoir since the project site is on BLM land.

Maybell Ditch headgate in the lower left pulls water from the Yampa River for irrigation.
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

The Maybell Irrigation District and The Nature Conservancy are working together on an ambitious project to rehabilitate and modernize the historic structure with the goal of improving conditions for all the water users on this stretch of river. TNC has secured about $3.5 million in funds for the project so far.

Water congress panel
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

An MOU for water conservation among municipal water providers and the upper basin states’ 5 Point Plan may do little to get additional water into the nation’s two largest reservoirs with the urgency officials say is needed.

Grizzly Reservoir
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

The work will include replacing the 80-year-old tunnel gates that take water to the Front Range, the dam face and the outlet works that release water down Lincoln Creek. Some of the creeks that feed Grizzly Reservoir — Lost Man, New York, Brooklyn and Tabor — will be “turned out” or allowed to flow downstream, meaning there will be more water in the Roaring Fork above Aspen.

Roaring Fork River wave in Basalt, CO
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

The project, which includes tweaks to play waves, upgrades to a boat ramp and a new boardwalk, is the next stage of the county’s multimillion-dollar effort to maximize the river experience tied to its recreational in-channel diversion water right.

Low water levels on Lake Powell
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

With so many dam and reservoir projects across Colorado tied to the Bureau of Reclamation, some water managers — including River District board members — are asking if the feds have control over the water in those projects, and whether they could send it downstream to boost a dwindling Lake Powell. Clarity from authorities has been hard to come by.

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...