Releases of water from Ruedi Reservoir into the lower Fryingpan River are getting more complicated and requiring greater coordination among agencies and stakeholders in both the river and the reservoir.

Tim Miller, a hydrologist with the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Ruedi, discussed “the difficulty of meeting everyone’s needs to their satisfaction” at a meeting in Basalt earlier this month.

According to a summary of the meeting prepared by the Roaring Fork Conservancy and the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, Miller said the competing interests “include the Fryingpan fishery, hydro plant operations, refill of the reservoir, meeting minimum streamflows, providing for endangered fish and following the dictates of the Fryingpan Arkansas Project operation principles.”

The Nov. 8 meeting summary said that “these various interests, some of which are incompatible, means that interested parties will not have all of their concerns fully addressed.”

A ready example of the need for coordination can be seen today on the river.

The current release of less than 50 cubic feet per second of water from Ruedi, due to the year’s low flows and relatively high releases, is making it harder to maintain operations in the hydropower plant at the base of the big dam on the Fryingpan.

But, a recently amended lease of 3,500 acre-feet of water between the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Colorado River District could bolster the low flows. But that lease does not start until Jan. 1.

Once it does start, however, that same lease of water could also provide higher flows through the rest of the year for the benefit of endangered fish in the Colorado River, which is a good thing.

Ironically, those higher releases in late summer and early fall may not be a good thing for anglers below the reservoir struggling to wade in higher water, or a good thing for sailors at the Aspen Yacht Club, struggling to reach their docks as reservoir levels fall.

It’s all part of the new flavor of sauce bubbling up on the Fryingpan as the water in Ruedi, which holds 102,000 acre-feet, is now being used more often by more parties for more reasons.

And low water this year is presenting fresh challenges.

A graph from USGS that shows the low flows in the Fryingpan River below Basalt. The flow of about 40 cfs is well below the 50-year average of about 100 cfs. The low flows might be boosted next year by a new lease of water by the state. Credit: USGS

Fish and contract water

In addition to the regular releases from Ruedi of “fish water,” which are designed to benefit endangered fish in the Colorado River near Grand Junction, a lot of water was sent out of Ruedi this year from other pools of water held in the reservoir under varying contracts.

In 2018, there were 19,496 acre-feet of “fish water” releases, and another 11,608 acre-feet of “regular contract releases” from Ruedi, according Reclamation.

That totals 31,105 acre-feet of water released from those two categories, which is well above the 21-year-average of 19,167 acre-feet.

Now the low flows of 2018 have forced Reclamation to reduce releases from Ruedi so the agency can meet its goal of filling the reservoir again by July 1.

On Friday, the Fryingpan below the dam was flowing at 41 cfs, and the river has not been above 50 cfs since Oct. 19.

And that’s causing problems for the City of Aspen’s hydropower plant, which sits at the bottom of the dam.

he concrete building that houses the City of Aspen Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Water for hydropower

At the Nov. 8 meeting in Basalt, two city officials, Margaret Medellin, a utilities portfolio manager, and Rob Covington, a water resources and hydroelectric supervisor, brought up their concerns.

“The plant is operational at 50 cfs or more but once flows go below that level the plant loses efficiency and could be damaged because the turbine is not designed to operate at such low flow levels,” the meeting summary said. “The operators will be monitoring plant operations closely as flows drop to monitor performance and possibly shut the plant down if problems develop.”

Linda Bassi, the chief of the CWCB’s stream and lake protection section, told the directors of the CWCB last week about the various concerns voiced at the Basalt meeting.

“They really stressed the need for coordination on the releases because they are worried about low flows,” Bassi said of the roughly 20 people in attendance. “There are a lot of competing interests. And a lot of the people who live along the river are very interested and really care about what’s happening on the river.”

She also told the CWCB board that as result of the meeting a new more flexible standard would be used regarding target flows in the lower Fryingpan, which have previously been set at 300 cfs to 350 cfs in an effort to maintain optimum “wadeability” in the river for anglers.

“So the bottom line from this meeting is that rather than say that we will limit releases to 300 cfs, instead I think it’s better to commit to coordinating,” Bassi said. “The Roaring Fork Conservancy is in direct communication with the angling community so we can get perspective in a more organized fashion. And then of course we’ll coordinate with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, because they are monitoring the status of the fishery on the Fryingpan.”

And she noted, the state will also be coordinating with the Bureau of Reclamation and the Colorado River District on the releases.

Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications publications. The Times published this story on Saturday, Nov. 24 in its print edition and Nov. 23 online. The Glenwood Post Independent published it in its print edition on Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018 and online on Nov. 24.

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...