The Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners has approved one year of funding toward completing a ditch piping project with the aim of keeping more water in Hunter Creek.

Over the past two decades, the Red Mountain Ditch Company has been working to pipe the entirety of its 12-mile ditch system — a $3.8 million cost so far — paid for by the ditch share owners. But to complete the final 3,600 feet, the ditch company is turning to public sources of money because they say the project will have the public benefit of keeping between 0.5 and 1 additional cubic feet per second of water in Hunter Creek.

The Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board recommended the county grant nearly $48,000 toward the project in April and county commissioners approved the request on Tuesday.

“I think this is the first time when I’ve been on the board that I’ve seen this type of project and I really think it’s valuable,” said commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury. “It’s a conservation-first type of program and to me this is the way I think the treatment of ditches should head in the future around the Western Slope.”

Red Mountain Ditch, whose horizontal scar across Red Mountain features prominently in the view from across the valley, has senior water rights that date to 1889. It irrigates about 380 acres of grass pasture on Red Mountain and in the exclusive Starwood subdivision with water from Hunter Creek.

A herd of elk feast on a sprinkler-irrigated meadow in the Starwood subdivision. The area is irrigated with water from Hunter Creek via Red Mountain Ditch. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

More water in Hunter Creek

Jim Auster, who has managed the ditch since 1983, said before the capital improvement project, the high-maintenance, open ditch lost water to seepage and evaporation and had problems with blow outs and beaver activity that caused flooding. Now that the majority of the ditch is piped underground, he said it’s easier to get water during low-flow times of year and the company has reduced the amount it diverts from Hunter Creek by up to 6 cfs.

Auster said before the piping project, the ditch used to divert about 14 cfs on average; now it takes about 8 to 9 cfs. Numbers from the Colorado Division of Water Resources indicate the ditch has in fact diverted less in recent years.

“Technologically, we are progressive,” Auster said. “I don’t know of any other ditch company that is doing 100% piping like we are. It’s certainly the future. Open ditches are obsolete.”

Recent ditch inventories conducted by conservation districts across the Western Slope hint at widespread problems, disrepair and inefficiencies with irrigation infrastructure. Environmental groups often back irrigation efficiency projects because they could result in reducing the amount irrigators need to divert, thereby leaving more water in the river to the benefit of the environment.

But repairs and upgrades are often expensive. And most projects don’t put a number on how much water will be left in the stream. In most cases, paying irrigators for their extra water is the only way to ensure an environmental benefit.

Aaron Derwingson, water projects director for The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program, has worked on efficiency projects with irrigators. He said it can be hard to quantify a project’s environmental benefits and success often depends on the willingness of the irrigators.

“I think the challenge with our team that we run into is we are never going to have enough money to buy the water to really make a difference for a lot of streams and where does that leave us?” Derwingson said. “That’s why some of these efficiency projects can be great because it’s a one-time investment and you get continued benefit.”

This is part of the open ditch through properties in the Starwood subdivision that would be piped if Red Mountain Ditch company can secure the funds. Manager Jim Auster said up to an additional 1 cfs could be left in Hunter Creek if the last 3,600 feet of ditch is piped. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

How to protect the water

McNicholas Kury brought up an unanswered question in Tuesday’s discussion: how to legally protect the water the piping project leaves in Hunter Creek. Under Colorado water law, another water user could pick up that water and put it to beneficial use, canceling out any environmental benefit to the stream. And as stream flows continue to dwindle due to climate change, an environmental benefit may be short-lived, especially if the water is not legally protected.

“I have some concern about the water that is going into Hunter Creek,” McNicholas Kury said. “That is fantastic; I don’t want others to pick it up along the way.”

McNicholas-Kury suggested the Red Mountain Ditch Company look into an agreement with the non-profit Colorado Water Trust, which helps water rights holders lease their water rights for the purpose of boosting environmental streamflows.

In addition to finishing the piping, Auster said $25,000 of the grant money will go toward installing remote monitoring and headgate controls, which will allow him to be more precise and reduce the amount of excess water that is run through the system.

Auster said the total cost of the project for the final 3,600 feet of piping is $680,000, and the ditch company is also applying for grants from the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the National Resources Conservation Service. The ditch company may return to the county in 2023 and 2024 to request additional funding.

Board of County Commissioners Chair Patti Clapper and Vice-Chair Francie Jacober questioned whether the residents of one of Aspen’s wealthiest subdivisions couldn’t pay for their own ditch piping project, but in the end, backed the grant request.

“The best interest of this community is keeping water in our rivers and that is a benefit to everyone,” Clapper said.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is supported by Pitkin County’s Health Community Fund. Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the May 28 edition of The Aspen Times.

Heather Sackett

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...