There are three main types of water in Ruedi Reservoir. Credit: Source: Bureau of Reclamation

BASALT — Knowing who owns, or controls, the water in Ruedi has become of greater public interest since 2013, when all of the water in the reservoir was sold, as the new ownership regime could change how much water is released from the reservoir in any given year.

And how much water is released from Ruedi has implications for the quality of the trout fishing on the lower Fryingpan River and the health of four species of endangered fish in the Colorado River below Palisade.

Given that, we thought it worth figuring out who owns the water in Ruedi, and the resulting list, signed off on by the Bureau of Reclamation, is below.

There are three types of water in Ruedi. The first is “fish water,” or water held in storage in Ruedi until it is released to benefit struggling populations of native fish in the Colorado River between Palisade and Grand Junction, in what’s known as the 15-mile reach.

The fish water is released from Ruedi and sent down the Fryingpan River, which flows into the Roaring Fork River in Basalt, which in turn flows into the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs.

The second type of water in Ruedi is “contract water.”

This is water that has been sold by the Bureau of Reclamation to recover the costs of building and operating the reservoir.

Contracts for annual delivery of water from Ruedi 
vary in size from 12,000 to 15,000 acre-feet (AF) and there are now over 30 individuals and entities with water contracts.

When these Ruedi water owners are called out by senior downstream water rights holders, most significantly the large diverters near Grand Junction collectively known as “the Cameo call,” then they can ask Reclamation to release their “augmentation” water in Ruedi instead of stopping their normal use of water from their local sources.

In practice, this does not happen very often. But in a dry year, it could be important to many of the contract holders.

The third type of water can be viewed as “reservoir water.”

This is water not generally released from the reservoir, and includes the “dead” pool, the “inactive” pool, the “recreation and regulatory” pool and the “replacement” pool in Ruedi.

Ruedi was built, in part, to provide a “replacement” pool for the big upstream diversions of the Fry-Ark project, but these various “reservoir” pools are not a big factor in shaping the amount of flow out of the reservoir.

An angler in the Fryingpan River last fall, when the river was running about 300 cfs. Credit: Courtesy Frying Pan Anglers.

2015 flows

The question of how much water was flowing out of Ruedi, and who owns it, became an issue for many anglers on the lower Fryingpan River in September and October last year, when the river was consistently flowing at about 300 cubic feet per second.

At that level, the river can be hard to wade across, and local fly-fishing guides began to get complaints from some regular customers, who prefer levels in the 230 to 250 cfs range.

The river was high last year because 24,412.5 AF of water was released from Ruedi to help the endangered fish. This was an increase from 2014 and 2013, when 15,412 AF and 10,412 AF was released, respectively, as fish water.

There are three sub-pools of fish water in Ruedi, totaling 15,412.5 AF.

The first pool is 5,000 acre feet of fish water under contract to the CWCB and provided to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for use in the 15-mile reach.

The second pool of fish water contains 5,412.5 AF. This pool is under contract to the Colorado River District, which acts as a custodian for the water on behalf of Western Slope interests.

The third pool contains another 5,000 AF and remains under the control of Reclamation, which considers it available for use in four-out-of-five years, or 80 percent of the time.

This third pool of fish water is, in essence, “extra” water that is provided by Reclamation to help the fish when conditions in Ruedi allow.

So while there is a total of 15,413.5 AF of fish water in Ruedi, only 10,413.5 AF of it is counted in our tally under the heading of “fish water.” We list the third pool of 5,000 AF, under the heading of fish water, but it is actually included in the “reservoir water” category.

A view of Ruedi Reservoir showing the face of the dam, the spillway, the building that houses a hydropower plant, and an overflow outlet just above it. The pool just below the outlets often has the biggest fish on the river lurking within it. Credit: Photo courtesy USFWS

Contract water as fish water

In addition to the 15,413.5 AF of fish water released in 2015, there was also 9,000 AF of contract water released as fish water, which was a new development for both Ruedi and the lower Fryingpan River.

The 9,000 AF of contract water released as fish water was part of a 12,000 AF pool of water bought in 2013 by Ute Water Conservancy District in Grand Junction.

Ute Water bought its 12,000 AF for $15.6 million, or $1,300 an AF, to use as a back-up source of water. But last year it entered into a lease contract with the CWCB, at $7.20 an AF, so that the water could be used instead to benefit the endangered fish.

After Ute Water and CWCB finalized a lease arrangement in August to release up to the full 12,000 AF, only 9,000 AF could be released by the end of October without bringing flows over 300 cfs in the lower Fryingpan.

This year, though, Ute Water and CWCB hope to get an earlier start on releasing the full 12,000 AF as fish water, on top of the three pools of fish water totaling 15,412.5 AF.

If they succeed, that could mean 27,412.5 AF of water could be released from Ruedi as fish water, and flows in the Fryingpan could again be in the range of 300 cfs.

Given the discussion of water in Ruedi, a lingering question is, how much of the other contract water can be turned into fish water?

Bob Rice, a contracts specialist at Reclamation, said some of the water in contracts held by the Colorado River District could potentially be used for fish water, but it is currently unlikely that they will be.

While other contracts may also include the flexibility for the water to be used for “piscatorial,” or fish, uses, almost all of the water held by other contract holders is limited to use within their individual jurisdictions, and not in the 15-mile reach. The 12,000 acre-feet owned by Ute Water is a rare case, as the 15-mile reach is within their boundary.

So while more contract water may not turn into fish water in the future, it is the case that a fair amount of contract water could also be released along with fish water, at the request of the owners of the water. And that could bring the river up.

A map showing Ruedi Reservoir, the Fryingpan River, and the 15-mile reach on the Colorado River near Grand Junction. Credit: Source: Bureau of Reclamation

The list

Here’s the list of who owns water in Ruedi, by acre-feet.

Some entities have multiple contracts for water in Ruedi. In those instances, we have added up the AF in each contract and combined them and included the amount of AF in each contract in parenthesis.

Ownership of Water in Ruedi Reservoir

Fish Water

5,000 AF Colorado Water Conservation Board, for 15-mile reach
5,412.5 AF Colorado River District, for 15-mile reach

Subtotal: 10,412.5 AF

(5,000 AF) (CWCB, for 15-mile reach, available 4-out-of-5 years. It’s often used as fish water, but technically it is in the “reservoir water” pool).

Contract Water

12,000 AF Ute Water Conservancy District
11,413.5 AF Colorado River District (500, 530, 700, 4,683.5, 5,000)
6,000 AF Exxon Mobil Corp.
2,000 AF Colorado River District (tied to 5,412.5 fish water as “insurance” water)
1,790 AF Basalt Water Conservancy District (300, 490, 500, 500)
1,250 AF Battlement Mesa Metropolitan District
600 AF West Divide Water Conservancy District (100, 500)
550 AF City of Rifle (200, 350)
500 AF Town of Basalt (200, 300)
500 AF City of Glenwood Springs
500 AF Snowmass Water and Sanitation District
500 AF Town of Carbondale (250, 250)
400 AF Mid-Valley Metropolitan District (100, 300)
400 AF City of Aspen
400 AF Town of New Castle
400 AF Garfield County
330 AF Summit County
300 AF Town of Silt (83, 217)
200 AF Town of Palisade
185 AF Ruedi Water and Power Authority
150 AF Wildcat Ranch Association (50, 100)
140 AF Wildcat Reservoir Company
125 AF Town of DeBeque (25, 100)
100 AF Crown Mountain Park and Recreation District (38, 62)
100 AF W/J Metropolitan District
75 AF Town of Parachute
43 AF Starwood Water District
35 AF Thomas Bailey
30 AF Elk Wallow Ranch LLC
21 AF Owl Creek Meadows
20 AF Westbank Ranch Homeowners Association
15 AF Owl Creek Ranch Homeowners Association
15 AF Ted and Hilda Vaughan
Subtotal: 41,087.5 AF

Reservoir Water

28,000 AF replacement pool
21,778 AF recreation and remaining regulatory pool
1,032 AF inactive pool
63 AF dead pool
Sutotal: 50,873 AF

Total Water

102,373 AF

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...