A recent engineering report prepared for the Southeastern Water Conservancy District concludes that the district can probably divert up to its agreed-upon limit of water from the existing facilities in the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project without building diversion dams on six streams in the Holy Cross Wilderness.

However, Southeastern, based in Pueblo, still wants to hang on to the conditional water rights tied to the potential diversion dams in the wilderness for at least another six years.

“It is my opinion that under optimal operations, the existing project infrastructure could yield the average annual 69,200 acre-feet (of water) authorized in the original project operating principles,” Erin Wilson, the principal engineer at Wilson Water Group, said in the engineering report that Southeastern filed in Division 5 water court in Glenwood Springs on Nov. 20.

Wilson also said it is “reasonable” for Southeastern and the Bureau of Reclamation “to continue to optimize operations to increase project yield before building new facilities to develop conditional rights.”

The Fry-Ark Project, in the upper Fryingpan and Roaring Fork river basins, includes 15 diversion dams and 26 miles of tunnels and conduits on the Western Slope that move water from the Hunter Creek and Fryingpan river basins to the centrally located Boustead Tunnel, which can divert as much as 945 cubic feet per second under the Continental Divide to the Arkansas River basin.

Southeastern, based in Pueblo, has accepted Wilson’s engineering conclusions, but the district is still seeking to maintain the conditional water rights, according to a letter also filed in the water court Nov.

“Southeastern is continuing to assess the feasibility of maximizing the project yield to authorized levels through existing facilities,” Leonhardt said. “If this alternative should prove insufficient to realize the project’s full authorized yield, Southeastern will further assess the feasibility of either moving its conditional water rights to locations outside of the Holy Cross Wilderness area, or requesting further continuation of the conditional rights for development as decreed.”

Wilson’s report and Leonhardt’s letter were filed as part of the ongoing review of a diligence application Southeastern submitted to the court in May, in an effort to maintain its conditional rights in the Fry-Ark Project.

The U.S. Forest Service filed a statement of opposition in the diligence case, questioning whether Southeastern can build the new diversion dams since they are inside the wilderness boundaries.

The Forest Service filed a similar statement of opposition in 2009, the last time Southeastern filed for diligence.

In that case, the Forest Service settled with Southeastern in 2011 and agreed to give the district more time to study the project’s potential yield from the existing facilities, and determine if it still needed the conditional rights in the wilderness.

Wilson’s recent engineering report, filed with the court in November, is designed to meet the terms of the 2011 settlement.

However, it does not appear as if her report will change the status of the conditional water rights, which carry a 1958 decree date, as Southeastern wants to keep them on the books in case they need them after working to increase the yield from the existing facilities.

The wilderness boundary on Last Chance Creek, in the upper Fryingpan River basin. Southeastern Water Conservancy District owns conditional water rights on Last Chance Creek, beyond the wilderness boundary, and it wants to hang on them, even though it may not need them. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Last chance creek?

Southeastern’s conditional water rights for the six diversion dams inside the wilderness area would allow for the diversion of 10 cfs from an unnamed tributary of the North Fork of the Fryingpan River; 135 cfs from Last Chance Creek; 10 cfs from an unnamed tributary of Last Chance Creek; 85 cfs from a creek called Slim’s Gulch and 85 cfs from an unnamed tributary of Slim’s Gulch; and 50 cfs from Lime Creek, the creek farthest to the north of the existing Fry-Ark facilities.

The diverted water would be sent through new canals and tunnels and tie in the existing Fry-Ark Project facilities at Carter Creek, the northern end of the existing diversion system.

The combined diversions from the wilderness creeks equal 345 cfs and could yield an additional 6,490 acre-feet of water a year, on average, for Southeastern.

Under its operating principles, the Fry-Ark Project can divert up to a maximum of 2.35 million acre-feet in any period of 34 consecutive years.

That sets a corresponding limit of 69,200 acre-feet per year that the project can divert over a 34-year running average.

The project also is limited to diverting no more than 120,000 acre-feet in any one year. Ruedi Reservoir, by comparison, holds about 100,000 acre-feet.

The Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the physical Fry-Ark Project system, has been working with Southeastern to divert more water through the existing facilities, trying to reach the average annual limit of 69,200 acre-feet.

From 1985 through 2017, the Fry-Ark Project diverted 51,650 acre-feet of water on average, each year.

And from 2010 through 2017, with some improvements and earlier access to the structures in the spring, the project diverted an average of 59,800 acre-feet a year.

Measured in an even-shorter span — specifically, from 2013 through 2017 —the project diverted 63,600 acre-feet on average in each of those years, something Wilson found notable in her report.

“Even though the Colorado River basin has been in drought conditions since the early 2000s, the average annual project diversions through Boustead Tunnel for the period 2002 through 2017 have increased by 17 percent over the diversions from 1985 through 2001 — indicating that more efficient project operations have increased project yield by a significant amount,” Wilson wrote in her report.

However, to continue to “optimize” diversions, the physical system, which was built in the 1960s and 1970s, needs additional improvements, Wilson said.

Half Moon Lake, on Lime Creek, not far from where a potential diversion dam and tunnel would be built to move water from Lime Creek to the Fry-Ark Project, under conditional water rights held by Southeastern. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism


The improvements, some now under way, include cleaning the drains in the 5.5-mile-long Boustead Tunnel to ensure that hydrostatic pressure “does not build to the point of potential tunnel failures,” and replacing “radial gate actuators” on 14 of the project’s 15 diversion dams, as “actuator failures due to age could impact project deliveries.”

Wilson’s report also describes several options available to Southeastern to possibly take advantage of its conditional rights, without building in the wilderness.

One option is to move the diversion points for the rights lower down the streams, outside of the wilderness boundary, “and construct pump stations and pipelines to delivery to Boustead Tunnel.”

Another option is to let the water run down into new reservoirs and then release it in order to meet instream, or bypass, flow requirements in the Fryingpan River near Thomasville, which can limit diversions off the top of the system.

“A reservoir yield analysis estimated that a 4,000-acre-feet reservoir on Lime Creek could increase the project yield by approximately 4,200 acre-feet,” Wilson wrote. “A 4,000-acre-feet reservoir on the Fryingpan River could increase the project yield by approximately 4,800 acre-feet.”

Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Dec. 13, 2018.

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...