RF Diversion dam

Edtor’s note: please see a video version of this story on Vimeo.

Heavy snow last winter and a cool spring led to an unusually long and sustained runoff on most of Colorado’s rivers and streams this year.

But because of the water diversions under Independence Mountain, the upper Roaring Fork River and two of its tributaries – Lost Man Creek and Lincoln Creek – did not enjoy the benefits of this year’s runoff.

Nor, indeed, have certain reaches of those rivers felt the urgent flow of spring runoff since the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System was installed in the mid-1930s.

Instead, the three rivers receive only a trickle of water below the dams, which create Lost Man Reservoir, Grizzly Reservoir and a fleeting pond of water behind the large concrete dam on the main stem of the Roaring Fork River that diverts almost all of its water into a tunnel.

“In a year like this, leaving a reach of any stream or river bone dry, de-watered, is to me, very wrong,” said Ken Neubecker, the executive director of the Western Rivers Institute in Carbondale. “It’s immoral if nothing else.”

Below the confluences of Lost Man Creek and Lincoln Creek, the Roaring Fork River does pick up some more water from smaller tributaries and ground water.

But by the time the Roaring Fork River flowed through Aspen in June and July, it was still only carrying half as much water as was coursing through the 4-mile-long tunnel that takes the water from Grizzly Reservoir to the south fork of Lake Creek, to the Twin Lakes Reservoir, and, eventually, to cities on the Front Range.

Below Aspen, as numerous tributaries flowed into it – including Castle Creek, Maroon Creek, Owl Creek, Brush Creek, Snowmass Creek and the Fryingpan River – the Roaring Fork River was muddy, frothing and running with a natural intensity.

But through Aspen, the Roaring Fork River was calm, clear and tepid. It appeared to be a completely different river, divorced from the reality of this year’s unusually long and sustained runoff.

G. Moss Driscoll, of Elk Mountain Consulting in Carbondale, recently completed a study of the Independence Pass system, which is also called the Twin Lakes system. The report also looked at the diversions that take water from Hunter Creek, the Fryingpan River and other streams in the Fryingpan River watershed.

“We have come to understand that these kinds of above-average years are critical to maintaining hydrologic and ecologic functions in healthy stream systems,” Driscoll said in a recent e-mail interview. “‘Flushing’ and ‘flooding’ flows create and maintain channel shape and riparian habitat, recharge groundwater levels, flush excess sediments from the river bottom, and redistribute nutrients to the riparian environment. Instream and riparian biota are highly adapted to and dependent upon these natural processes.”

But the flushing and flooding flows are missing from lower Lincoln Creek below Grizzly Reservoir and from the upper Roaring Fork River below the diversion dam, which is behind and just above Lost Man Campground.

Instead, about 47,000 acre-feet of water has been diverted each year of the last decade off the top of the Roaring Fork River drainage and sent through Tunnel No. 1 under Independence Mountain.

The lack of water in the upper Roaring Fork River and in lower Lincoln Creek concerns Ken Neubecker, who is working to convince Colorado’s water community, and the state’s citizens, that rivers have a right to their own water.

“We need to really start looking at different ways of providing water for people and their faucets, but also providing water for rivers,” Neubecker said. “And not just most of the river, but all of the river. Rivers are connective systems. You can’t just chop them up into neat little management units. The management unit is the watershed, not just the reach, and we’ve got to start looking at it that way.”

For him, that means finding out how much water the river ecosystem needs to stay healthy.

“What we need to do is do a serious study up there and find out just what that reach really needs in terms of normal flow to maintain health,” Neubecker said. “Not just a minimum flow but an actual flow that would help maintain the channel and occasionally over-banking flows that would protect the riparian areas up there.”

The roaring tunnel

The constant stream of water below the east side of the tunnel under Independence Mountain.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

For six weeks from the beginning of June to mid-July this year, the water from the Roaring Fork River watershed coming out of the Independence tunnel flowed at a steady 625 cfs.

During the same period, the Roaring Fork River above Difficult Creek was fluctuating between between 300 cfs and 500 cfs.

The roar of water tumbling down the man-made channel below the tunnel on the Twin Lakes side of Independence Pass was in stark comparison to the trickle of water below the three diversion dams on the Aspen side of the pass.

Below the Roaring Fork River diversion dam, for instance, there was only 4 cfs of water being released, as is standard practice.

The outflow of the Roaring Fork River below the diversion dam near Lost Man Campground.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

Greg Poschman, the chair of Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams board, visited the eastern end of the tunnel under Independence Pass in mid-July.

“It’s impressive because it’s roaring, it’s raging,” Poschman said, standing below the outflow of the tunnel. “This is a rocking river up here. It’s beautiful. It looks like something off a Coors beer can from, you know in the ’70s, when they had that beautiful flowing water on the Coors can.”

But Poschman knew he was not standing on the banks of a scenic natural river, but instead was next to the man-made channel that delivers water from the tunnel into the south fork of Lake Creek.

The natural creek at that point, just after it has come winding through the wetlands below one of the most exposed sections of Highway 82 on the east side of Independence Pass, was sparkling with fresh spring runoff. But after the water from the Aspen side of the pass joins it, Lake Creek becomes a raging stream.

By the time it reaches Parry Park Campground just above the town of Twin Lakes, Lake Creek foams with churning whitewater, fueled by the unnaturally consistent injection of 625 cfs of water from the Roaring Fork River system.

“Look at the volume of water that is flowing out of that tunnel,” Poschman said that same mid-July day. “That’s water that would have flown west – all of it – through the Roaring Fork drainage.”

Instead the water now flows primarily to water utilities in Colorado Springs, Aurora, Pueblo and Pueblo West.

And while that might not be a beautiful sight to residents on the Aspen side of the pass, it sure looks good to many people on the Front Range.

“As a fan of showers, and drinking [water], it’s a beautiful sight,” said Kevin Lusk, a senior water resource engineer with Colorado Springs Utilities, which owns 55 percent of the water coming out of the Independence tunnel. “It’s kind of our bread and butter system.”

While Poschman does not dispute the value of the water to communities on the Front Range, and he’s concerned about fanning the flames of the always simmering east-west conflict, he strongly believes that the riparian zones depend on a healthy flow of water in the river.

“And what we’re seeing with diversions is nobody thought about that when they put in all these massive and spectacular diversion projects,” Poschman said. “Nobody really realized the biology. So we know a lot more about the situation now, but we’re looking at an antiquated system that allows more water to be diverted than probably should.”

How the tunnel got there

The eastern end of the tunnel that begins in Grizzly Reservoir.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

The 4-mile-long tunnel under Independence Mountain above Aspen was built in the mid-1930s to bring water from the Roaring Fork River drainage to sugar beet fields east of Pueblo.

Farmers in the area had been diverting water from the Arkansas River and into the Colorado Canal since the 1890s to grow and sell their crops to a sugar factory owned by the National Sugar Manufacturing Co.

But by 1929, there was a desire by the “dirt farmers” to bring more water to their dry fields.

“Nature had failed them and if they wanted to survive the effects of the drought that was increasing from year to year they must act upon the precept that ‘God helps those who help themselves,’” wrote Denver attorney Frank N. Bancroft in a 1936 article written about the history of the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion Project.

The article was subtitled “A Story of How Vision, Faith and Work Performed a Miracle for Crowley County, Colorado.”

After searching for a way to divert more water from the tributaries of the Arkansas River, which flows from the the east side of the Continental Divide to its confluence with the Mississippi River, the farmers looked to the Western Slope of Colorado.

Bancroft describes how board members of what was called the Twin Lakes Co., which already owned water rights in the Twin Lakes Reservoir, stood on top of Independence Pass one day in August 1930.

“They then turned their faces toward the West and looked down upon the valley of the Roaring Fork, 2,000 feet below them, with its unused waters rushing madly to join the unused waters of the Colorado River at Glenwood Springs, and then, still unused, passing out of the State of Colorado forever,” Bancroft wrote.

(The concept that water is “unused,” and has no benefit, if left in a river, is a key tenant of Colorado water law, and it is a concept that Neubecker of the Western Rivers Institute is trying to change.)

The board members instructed their engineer to find a way to bring water from the Roaring Fork River to the eastern side of the pass.

After “tramping and surveying lines over the ranges and valleys” of the Roaring Fork River watershed in 1931, the engineer, O.R. Smith, reported back that he had found “abundant water” and a way to divert the water from Lost Man Creek, the Roaring Fork River and Lincoln Creek and three of its tributaries through two tunnels and a series of canals.

He estimated the entire cost would be $2 million in 1931, which would be worth about $24 million today using one estimating tool from the Measuring Worth website.

The website also suggests looking at construction projects though the lens of “relative share of GDP” to estimate the relative importance of a construction project to the economy at that time. In that instance, a $2 million construction project in 1931 is as significant as a $383 million project today.

In 1932, the president of the National Sugar Manufacturing Co. went to Washington to lobby for a federal loan for the project.

The government agreed to a $1.1 million loan for Tunnel No. 1, under Independence Mountain, which would divert water collected from Lincoln Creek, Brooklyn Creek, Tabor Creek and New York Creek and stored briefly in Grizzly Reservoir.

Work was started on the tunnel in November 1933; by February 1935, works crews “holed through” and met in the middle of the perfectly straight and level tunnel, which is 3.8 miles long and big enough to drive a pickup truck through.

The first year of operation, more than 20,000 acre-feet of water was diverted “in time to overcome the long drought and save the crops for that air,” Bancroft wrote.

Tunnel No. 2, which runs for 9,300 feet under Green Mountain and transports water from Lost Man Creek and the Roaring Fork River to Grizzly Reservoir and Tunnel No. 1, was completed in February 1937.

Since then, the system has diverted up to 65,535 acre-feet in a single year.

The Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., which owns and operates the system, is allowed to divert up to 68,000 acre-feet in a single year and up to 570,000 acree-feet in a 10-year period.

About 40 years ago, the sugar beet farmers of Crowley County agreed to start selling the shares of the Twin Lakes Co. and their original water decree was changed to allow for the water to be used for municipalities and industry.

Today, Colorado Springs Utilities owns 55 percent of the shares in the Twin Lakes Co., entities in Pueblo own 23 percent, entities in Pueblo West own 12 percent, and Aurora owns 5 percent. Each share of the Twin Lakes Co. represents about an acre-foot of water.

A question of value

Lusk, the engineer with Colorado Springs Utilities, also serves as the president of the board of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., which is private and based in Ordway, Colo.

“We as a company are only the trustee, or caretaker if you will, of the system,” Lust said. “But the water itself is owned by each and every individual shareholder.”

Today, a share in the Twin Lakes Co. sells between $30,000 and $35,000.

That means, at least in theory, that value of 47,000 acre-feet of water from the Roaring Fork River drainage in perpetuity could be worth $1.5 billion.

Given the high value of the water flowing east, it’s not surprising that Lusk said calls for more to be left in the Roaring Fork River are unrealistic.

“This is something of great value and relied on by many on the Front Range,” Lusk said. “And without this particular water right, there would be pressure to develop other West Slope water. And it is far more responsible and efficient to use a system that is already in place than to limit the use of an existing system and have to build another one.”

And Lusk points out that under an intergovernmental agreement, the Twin Lakes Co. does leave 3,000 acre-feet a year of water in the Roaring Fork drainage.

However, that amount of water amounts only equates to about 3 or 4 cfs a day flowing below the dam on the upper Roaring Fork River.

Lusk said it is not unusual to hear concerns from the Aspen side of the pass about how much water is being diverted to the east, but says there are no easy answers.

“There are lots of different solutions that can be found that are creative and out of the box, that don’t include me giving something away to the West Slope,” Lusk said. “We do have our fiduciary responsibility. And that goes beyond just being generous. We do have a financial responsibility as a board to our shareholders and we have some liability there for not exercising our rights.”

Neubecker of the Western Rivers Institute said he frequently hears similar sentiments from the owners of Western Slope water rights on the Front Range.

“It just to me expresses a total lack of concern for other values other than the myopic parochial viewpoint of ‘This is our job, we need to provide water to our customers no matter what the consequences to the rest of the state, or to other parts of the state, we need to just fill our buckets and keep our customers happy and if that causes a problem for you, tough,’” Neubecker said.

In terms of creative solutions, Lusk said if there are concerns that not enough water is being left in the natural stream channels below the dams, maybe the channels could be made smaller.

“You know, the idea of stream channel mitigation,” Lusk said. “Instead of throwing more water at the channel maybe you adjust the channel to the water that’s there. Kind of live with the reality you find yourself in. And that could certainly be a far better solution than just trying to return things back to the way they were, which as we all know, never happens. Even if you get the water back, it’s never going to be the way it was.”

In fact, it is likely that more water will be diverted from the Roaring Fork River headwaters, not less.

In his recent report for the Ruedi Water and Power Authority about the transmountain diversion systems in the watershed, consultant G. Moss Driscoll concluded that “with increased East Slope storage capacity, added West Slope diversions, improvements and repairs to existing collection and diversion infrastructure, and development of conditional water rights, the three transmountain diversion systems operating in the Roaring Fork watershed could each potentially be expanded, a possibility that must be viewed in light of the rapidly growing municipal water demands on the Front Range.”

Lusk acknowledges that is a possibility.

“I will not deny that the goal of the company is to maximize use of its water,” he said. “However, we are not filing for any new water rights. We are not going to be making the tunnel any larger, for example. The water rights we have are what we are going to use. And as demands grow on the East Slope, yes, probably the overall amount of water taken over a long period of time will increase.”

On Monday, July 25, three of the five Pitkin County commissioners took a tour of the diversion dams, canals and tunnel on Lost Man Creek and the Roaring Fork River. Commissioner Rachel Richards said the board has an increased interest in the diversion systems in the watershed, because many other interests do as well.

“I think the momentum is coming from the overall statewide water supply initiative work through the CWCB [Colorado Water Conservation Board] and Governor Hickenlooper’s intent of having a state water supply plan in place in the next four to five years,” Richards said. “So, water is, across the west, becoming more dear, and certainly in our valley as well.”

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...