A view of the Salvation Ditch diversion dam and head gate, just of off Stillwater Drive, east of Aspen. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

ASPEN – At the first public meeting this week about the emerging river management plan for the upper Roaring Fork River, Aspen officials wanted to ask people if, and where, they perceive the river to be struggling from factors such as diversion, development, pollution and recreation.

And while turnout was low on a cold and snowy Thursday, with only three members of the general public showing up, those who did go saw well-rendered maps of the Roaring Fork and its tributaries above the river’s confluence with Brush Creek, and were asked to place colored stickers on locations where they have noticed problems on the river.

The entire watershed above Brush Creek, which flows out of Snowmass Village and into the Roaring Fork River above Woody Creek, is being looked at in the study. That includes the main stem of the Roaring Fork River and its primary tributaries, Hunter, Maroon, Castle, Difficult, Lincoln, and Lost Man creeks.

A map of the upper Roaring Fork River watershed, from the Brush Creek confluence to the Continental Divide. Credit: City of Aspen/Lotic Hydrological

Flow modification

The river management plan will look at threats to the river’s health, including “flow modification” from diversions of water into ditches and tunnels, such as in the headwaters near Independence Pass, on upper Hunter Creek, or on the Roaring Fork east of town.

Diversions from the Roaring Fork and its tributaries can frequently lead the section of river that flows through central Aspen to fall below 32 cubic feet per second, the minimum amount of water deemed by the state to be necessary to protect the environment to a reasonable degree.

“We’re doing this river management plan because of known issues on the Roaring Fork,” said April Long, an engineer and stormwater manager for the city, who is managing the project.

The reach of the Roaring Fork River through Aspen that often runs lower than the state-prescribed level of 32 cfs. Credit: City of Aspen/Lotic Hydrological
Low flows in the Roaring Fork River just above Rio Grande Park in July 2012. City of Aspen officials say the Roaring Fork runs below environmentally sound levels on this stretch about eight weeks of the year now. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

Consultant team

The cost of the $200,000 plan is being split by the city and Pitkin County, which has concerns about the North Star area east of Aspen.

The contract was approved in June and a team of technical consultants has since been reviewing prior studies and developing new information about the upper Roaring Fork.

Seth Mason, the principal engineer at Lotic Hydrological of Carbondale, is the project manager; Greg Espegren is in charge of “river health evaluations”; and Lee Rozaklis is overseeing “water rights and resource planning.”

Also on the team is Bill Miller, a river biologist who has worked extensively in the past for the city, whose firm is called Miller Ecological Consultants.

Consultants with CDR Associates and the Consensus Building Institute are managing stakeholder engagement.

Lincoln Creek between Grizzly Reservoir and the Roaring Fork River will be one reach studied by the river management plan. Credit: City of Aspen/Lotic Hydrological
Grizzly Reservoir on Lincoln Creek, well above its confluence with the Roaring Fork River. The reservoir briefly stores water before it is diverted under the Continental Divide. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism / Aspen Journalism

Various stretches

The plan will focus on at least eight stretches of the river network, such as the Roaring Fork River between Lost Man Creek and Difficult Creek, and the stretch of Lincoln Creek between Grizzly Reservoir and the creek’s confluence with the Roaring Fork, just above the Grottos.

And that approach includes Castle and Maroon creeks, and the locations of the potential Castle Creek Reservoir and Maroon Creek Reservoir.

Long said the Roaring Fork River plan is on a separate track than the public process that city officials are preparing to soon roll out about storage alternatives for the city. But she said nothing is off the table for discussion.

“When we talk about water resources, we are at times talking about all of our water and all of our resources,” Long said. “We would be remiss in pulling anything off the table when we’re looking for solutions.”

The Maroon Creek valley, from the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks to the Roaring Fork River. Credit: City of Aspen/Lotic Hydrological
The site of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir, just below the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Jouranlism

Recommendations coming

Ultimately the goal of the plan is to make recommendations that inform “future river-related projects,” “water development planning and approval processes,” and “management of water infrastructure,” according to material passed out at the meeting.

The Roaring Fork River management plan joins a growing number of stream management plans and integrated water management plans being developed in Colorado.

The 2015 Colorado Water Plan called for 80 percent of priority streams in the state to be covered by loosely defined stream management plans, which so far tend to be smaller versions of more common watershed plans.

Whatever they are called, such river plans have a technical component to them, often overseen by an informal technical advisory group, and a social component, often represented by a group of local stakeholders.

The technical advisory group for the Roaring Fork plan has been selected, according to Long, and is poised to meet for the first time May 23. The meeting is not open to the public.

Over a dozen entities have been invited to send a representative to the technical group, Long said, including officials from the city’s stormwater, parks, and utilities departments and Pitkin County officials from its river and open space boards.

Also invited are representatives from the Roaring Fork Conservancy, Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, Salvation Ditch Co., Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., Ruedi Water and Power Authority, Colorado River District, Colorado Water Trust, Trout Unlimited, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and the U.S. Forest Service.

Long said representatives from Salvation Ditch Co. and Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. have agreed to serve on the technical advisory group.

She also said the city and county have decided against having a separate and distinct stakeholders group, as described in the approved proposal.

“There is a little bit of change in the scope, exactly, from that,” Long said. “Basically what we’re doing is having a back and forth between a technical advisory group and the public as stakeholders in the project.”

Long added, “We’re hoping that we have a broad technical advisory group so we can vet and deliver very viable and implementable options.”

Long plans to hold a second public meeting and has posted a survey, and the maps, on a city website. Aspen and Pitkin County expect to share draft actions and projects with the community this summer and present findings and recommendations to elected officials this winter.

A map of Hunter Creek showing the Fry-Ark project diversions on Midway, No Name, and Hunter creeks. Credit: City of Aspen/Lotic Hydrological
A map of the Fry-Ark system. Aspen, and Hunter Creek, are shown in the lower left. Credit: USBR
A portion of the flow in Hunter Creek is diverted to the Front Range and to locations downvalley from Aspen. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism / Aspen Journalism

Editor’s note:
Aspen Journalism is collaborating on coverage of water and rivers with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Vail Daily, and the Summit Daily News. The Times published this story in its print version on Saturday, April 29, 2017.

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...