The Fryingpan River, orange with rain-driven sediment, enters the Roaring Fork River in Basalt on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. The coloration does provide a measure of what 300 cfs of water looks like as it enters the Fork. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

BASALT – The lower Fryingpan River will be flowing steadily in September as up to 300 cubic feet per second of water will be released from Ruedi Reservoir for the benefit of four endangered fish species in the Colorado River below Palisade.

On most days in September, about 100 cfs of the endangered-fish water will be released from the reservoir, and flows will be managed to keep the Fryingpan below 350 cfs at its confluence with the Roaring Fork River in Basalt.

Those levels largely accommodate both anglers and operation of the hydropower plant at the base of the Ruedi dam, according to Ted Kowalski, chief of the Interstate, Federal & Water Information Section at the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

However, if conditions turn drastically drier, as much as 300 cfs of endangered-fish water could be released, Kowalski said.

Holding water. The Ruedi spillway and dam on the Fryingpan River above Basalt. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

A win-win-win?

The release of what’s expected to total 6,000 acre-feet of water is the result of a one-year lease between the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Ute Water Conservancy District.

In 2013, the district paid $15.6 million for the right to store 12,000 acre-feet of water in Ruedi to the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns and operates the 102,000 acre-foot reservoir 15 miles above Basalt.

Ute Water serves 260 acres and 80,000 people in and around Grand Junction, and it bought the 12,000 acre-feet in Ruedi as a back up water source. But it also has the option to lease its Ruedi water to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for environmental purposes.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board, a state agency charged with both water-supply planning and environmental protection, holds a 581-cfs instream flow right for the section of the Colorado River between the Grand River Diversion Dam — the red roller dam in DeBeque Canyon — and the confluence with the Gunnison River in central Grand Junction.

And bringing the 300 cfs of water down to that reach, which is heavily diverted for irrigation, will help the agency meet both its instream-flow goals and the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

“These types of ‘win-win’ agreements are needed to assure that Colorado can beneficially use water within Colorado and help recover endangered fish that use the Colorado River for habitat,” said James Eklund, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, in a statement.

However, not everyone is thrilled about the CWCB contracting with entities to run water down the lower Fryingpan River.

“It is very important to the health and the economy of the Fryingpan that the not-to-exceed number is maintained,” Rick Lafaro, the executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy. “A well managed release can occur, but it has to start at the source by managing the Fryingpan as a river and not just a water delivery system.”

Water, colored orange after rainstorm, flows down the Fryingpan River just above its confluence with the Roaring Fork River, on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

Endangered species

The water from Ruedi is designed to help four species of endangered fish: the Colorado pikeminnow, the razorback sucker, the humpback chub, and the bonytail.

The $45,000 needed to pay for the expected use of 6,000 acre-feet of water under the first year of the lease will come from the state’s Species Conservation Trust Fund. In January, the Colorado Water Conservation Board approved spending as much as $500,000 from the conservation fund for water from Ruedi Reservoir to flow to the 15-mile reach.

“This is the first time that the Species Conservation Trust Fund has been used to purchase stored water to supplement flows to critical habitat for endangered fish,” Linda Bassi, chief of the Stream and Lake Protection Section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said in the statement. “We are excited that we have been able to use this particular funding source and our instream-flow program for this purpose.”

Officials at the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will coordinate the water releases.

A public meeting on the endangered-fish water was held in Carbondale in April, and concerns from a wide variety of stakeholders were voiced about flow levels, river health, winter flows, lake levels and how additional leases could change the pattern of releases from Ruedi.

Kowalski told the Colorado Water Conservation Board board in May that the 300 cfs cap met some of the concerns, and that moving forward he will work closely with interested parties, which include the city of Aspen and Pitkin County.

“On April 14, 2015, CWCB staff gave a presentation and answered questions on this proposal at a public meeting in Carbondale, CO that was convened by the Ruedi Water and Power Authority,” Kowalski and other CWCB officials wrote in a memo on May 7, 2015. “Attendees at the meeting included representatives of: Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Division of Water Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation; Pitkin and Eagle counties; the cities of Aspen and Glenwood Springs; the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Ruedi Water and Power Authority; and Roaring Fork Conservancy; and several other individuals.

“Issues raised at the meeting included: (1) potential impact of releases of leased water on hydropower generation at Ruedi Dam (cannot generate hydropower if releases exceed 300 cfs); (2) potential impact of releases of leased water on angling and fishery health on the Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir; (3) the need for sufficient releases from Ruedi Reservoir in winter to avoid anchor ice; and (4) concerns that this lease may lead to additional leases with other owners of Ruedi water, resulting in significant changes to the management of Ruedi Reservoir that could negatively impact the Fryingpan River.

“Staff has attempted to address issues (1) and (2) by developing proposed conditions under which the lease would be implemented (see Staff Recommendation).

“In addition, staff is committed to working with these stakeholders to try to address their other concerns, and has agreed to meet with these stakeholders before the CWCB staff would initiate conversations with other possible lessors of Ruedi Reservoir water, or before the CWCB staff would seek Board approval for any type of renewal of this lease from Ute Water.”

Mark Fuller, the director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, said it is important to the authority that releases stay at or less than the 300 cfs level and that the flows from the deal will be closely monitored.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating on the coverage of rivers and water with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. The Times ran published this story online on Sept. 2, 2015 and ran it in the Sept. 3 printed edition.

Brent Gardner-Smith

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...