The board of a local ditch company has decided not to accept Pitkin County’s offer of grant money to complete a piping project after all.

At the recommendation of the county’s Healthy Rivers Board, Pitkin County commissioners in May agreed to fund $48,000 of the cost to pipe the final 3,600 feet of Red Mountain Ditch. After a 20-year project to pipe the majority of its 12-mile ditch system, Red Mountain Ditch Co. applied for public sources of money for the last stretch because, according to the application, the project would have a public benefit of keeping between 0.5 and 1 additional cubic feet per second of water in Hunter Creek.

But in a June 27 letter to Pitkin County attorney John Ely, a representative from the company said after discussing the project at its annual shareholders meeting that they could not accept Pitkin County’s grant for additional piping at this time.

“At the meeting, the shareholders agreed that some of the information and representations contained in the application were erroneous, did not accurately represent the views or intentions of the shareholders, and were not properly authorized by the shareholders,” the letter reads.

The letter adds that longtime ditch manager Jim Auster did not have the benefit of certain engineering studies or information on shareholders’ current and anticipated uses of the ditch at the time he submitted the grant application. There was also a difference of opinion whether piping was necessary or beneficial. Additionally, certain shareholders opposed eliminating all open ditch segments.

Auster and Tam Scott, president of the board and attorney for Red Mountain Ditch Co., said they had been instructed by the shareholders not to talk about the issue. Anne Marie McPhee, who signed the letter and is vice president of the ditch company, also declined to answer questions from Aspen Journalism about the grant reversal.

Red Mountain Ditch irrigates about 380 acres of grass pasture on Red Mountain and in the exclusive Starwood neighborhood with Hunter Creek water rights that date to 1889.

Improvements, including piping, of the ditch over the past two decades have reduced water lost to seepage and evaporation, as well as problems with blowouts and beaver activity that caused flooding. Now that the majority of the ditch is piped underground, Auster said in May that 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.

Starwood Homeowners Association president Rick Crandall said the HOA wants to get more information on things such as seepage before they decide whether to do the piping project. The HOA is one of about 12 shareholders on the ditch, Crandall said.

“Just putting money on the table doesn’t give us the data we need,” he said. “You kind of want to make a decision based on data.”

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

Pitkin County officials disappointed

Pitkin County officials said they were disappointed that the piping project isn’t moving forward. Healthy Rivers Vice Chair Bill Jochems said the board had been enthusiastic about the project because it furthered the goal of maintaining and improving water quantity in the Roaring Fork watershed.

“What a disappointment to learn that the grant application was not authorized and that we and the BOCC had wasted time in consideration,” Jochems said in an email.

Healthy Rivers chair Chris Lemons agreed.

“It’s a little bit disappointing because it did seem like a viable way to keep water in the watershed,” he said. “Those opportunities are harder and harder to come by.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the July 31 edition of The Aspen Times.

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...