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

BASALT – The Colorado Water Conservation Board is poised to approve a second round of water releases from Ruedi Reservoir for the benefit of endangered fish in a 15-mile reach of the Colorado River above Grand Junction.

Like last year, the CWCB wants to release up to 12,000 acre-feet of water from Ruedi and send it down the Fryingpan, Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers to help struggling populations of Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, ponytail, and humpback chub.

The CWCB signed a lease with the Ute Water Conservancy District in August to release the district’s 12,000 acre-feet, a back-up supply of water that it owns in Ruedi.

In September, 6,000 acre-feet of water was released from Ruedi, and another 3,000 acre-feet of water was released in October.

In an effort to maintain both fishing in the Fryingpan and hydropower production at the Ruedi dam, the flow rate did not exceed 300 cubic feet per second during the two months of releases, or cause the Fryingpan to go above 350 cfs.

The CWCB paid Ute Water $64,800 for the 9,000 acre-feet of water it actually used against its 12,00 acre-feet lease agreement. The price offsets what the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation charges Ute Water for managing the water in Ruedi.

Ute Water provides water to over 80,000 people in Palisade, Clifton, Grand Junction, Fruita, Loma and Mack. The district’s main water sources are on the Grand Mesa.

It paid $15.6 million in 2013 to the Bureau of Reclamation for the 12,000 acre-feet in Ruedi. It’s a back-up or emergency water supply for Ute Water that can also be used for instream flow purposes.

Concluding in a March 17 memo that last year’s release program “by most accounts, worked very well for everyone involved,” CWCB staffers are now proposing entering into a second one-year lease for Ute Water’s 12,000 acre-feet of Ruedi water.

At a CWCB board meeting Thursday in La Junta, CWCB staffers will seek approval for a lease with the same terms as last year, or 12,000 acre-feet for $86,400. The agency has $435,000 to spend for instream flow purposes from its Conservation Species Trust program.

The 2016 lease between CWCB and Ute Water includes the same release limit of 300 cfs and the same river-flow cap of 350 cfs below Ruedi.

CWCB staffers are set to meet with local stakeholders in the Eagle County Building in El Jebel on Monday, March 21, at 4 p.m. to talk about this year’s “lease and release” program.

The meeting is, somewhat awkwardly, four days after the lease is to be considered by the CWCB board of directors.

Mark Fuller, director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, which is coordinating Monday’s meeting in El Jebel, said it wasn’t possible to schedule a meeting before this week’s CWCB meeting.

Ruedi Water, Pitkin County and the city of Aspen have all told the CWCB they have concerns about the release program, including that it might set a precedent for higher flows in the lower Fryingingpan, which could crimp recreation.

Higher flows in the river make wading trickier for anglers, and releases drop the water levels in the reservoir, making it harder to launch and take out boats.

The lower Fryingpan River in March.
The lower Fryingpan River in March. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

CWCB pleased

In their March 17 memo, CWCB staffers said last fall’s release of 9,000 acre-feet “resulted in higher flows in the 15-mile reach and provided some operational flexibility for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and operators of other reservoirs that release water in late summer to benefit the endangered fish habitat.”

The CWCB, a state agency charged with both water-supply planning and environmental protection, holds an instream flow right of 581 cfs in the 15-mile reach, which starts at the river-wide roller dam in lower DeBeque Canyon above Palisade.

“This reach is sensitive to water depletions because of its location downstream of several large diversions,” a CWCB memo from May 2015 states. “It provides spawning habitat for these endangered fish species as well as high-quality habitat for adult fish.

“Due to development on the Colorado River, this reach has experienced declining flows and significant dewatering during the late summer months, and at times, there are shortages in the springtime,” the memo adds.

The CWCB’s release program has the support of the Colorado Water Trust, Western Resource Advocates, The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited.

But Ruedi Water also expressed concern about how the program may change long-standing water management practices on the lower Fryingpan.

The authority, in a May 2015 letter to CWCB, said the benefits of helping endangered fish “must be balanced with protection of existing economic, recreational and environmental values that have been fostered by Ruedi Reservoir management practices over the last 40-plus years.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Monday, March 15, 2016.

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...