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2005 Prize Winning Series

Part 4 – Pitkin County: Trouble looms in Glamour Gulch
Aspen's Roaring Fork River could drop to a whisper

By Todd Hartman
Rocky Mountain News, Oct 6, 2004

ASPEN - The Roaring Fork gurgles through this gilded town, a sparkling accessory to Colorado's most glamorous locale.

Tumbling out of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness in countless alpine rivulets, the river makes its way to Aspen's heart, where it parallels a meandering parkway filled with people who can afford to skate, pedal or dog-walk the days away.

The town, and its come-and-go, ultra-wealthy residents, cherish this stream as an oasis in a paradise of sorts, where they can go to contemplate life if gazing at granite peaks and forest-green mountainsides ever wears thin.

But many Aspenites who love the river today have no idea how grand it used to be - or how meager it could become.

The Roaring Fork is just a phantom version of the once-noisy beast that gave the waterway its evocative name.

In decades past, the river has been divided, diverted and drained. It has been steered toward ski areas and hayfields and even through mountains to irrigate the emerald corn and melon fields of southeastern Colorado's Arkansas River Valley and the pop-up suburbs of Colorado Springs.

Front Range diversions alone have cost the Roaring Fork above Aspen nearly 40 percent of its flow. Another 10 percent leaves the river above town at the Salvation Ditch, which waters hayfields and ranches down valley.

Few realize another troubling fact: The Roaring Fork appears to be on the verge of losing even more water, which could turn this Aspen landmark into the "Roaring Seep," as one Western Slope water official put it.

Losing more water could threaten fisheries as river levels - already dangerously low in some stretches - drop even lower for longer periods of time. The loss is stressful, even deadly, for creatures who prefer the streams deeper and colder.

It also could endanger Aspen's water supply as the river's overflow is no longer enough to recharge the city's key aquifer. It means less water pouring through the White River National Forest, and it risks the calendar image of high-country Colorado, where pure water rushes over black rock and through green trees.

Those on the Western Slope who follow the obscure world of water say this would be disastrous for Aspen and the Roaring Fork basin and will be greeted with fury even by the carefree rich of this gold-plated hamlet.

"Knowing what the stakes are," said Mark Fuller, a Pitkin County-based water expert who tracks river issues in the Roaring Fork Valley, "I find it hard to believe it would be acceptable to people when they see what we stand to lose."

Quietly - as all water deals tend to unfold, at least initially - Front Range water interests are gearing up to do again what they've been doing for almost 125 years: move water from this moisture-rich region west of the Continental Divide to the water-starved communities on the east side.

Just how much water is a matter of debate, with estimates ranging from 8,000 to 15,000 acre-feet on average per year. That amounts to another 7 to 14 percent of the Roaring Fork's headwaters, on top of the 50 percent already taken.

The Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., which wants to move the additional water, says the diversion would be perfectly legal under its water rights, which many on the Western Slope concede. The backers say the extra water probably could be taken only in wet years, when there's typically enough water for everyone, and not in drier years.

There are still several legal and political hurdles to overcome. The Twin Lakes company must secure more storage on the Front Range, and an existing streamflow agreement with the Western Slope would make it difficult for Twin Lakes to deplete river levels further in many cases.

Shareholders in Twin Lakes, including Pueblo and Colorado Springs utilities, have owned rights to this extra water for decades but have gotten by without claiming it. But the drought of the past four years has made it hard to resist.

"This drought has really put the exclamation mark on the need for additional storage," said Kevin Lusk, a senior project engineer for Colorado Springs Utilities, the major shareholder in the Twin Lakes company. "So we're pursuing" the Roaring Fork water, he said.

The Roaring Fork watershed begins in the tundra of three wilderness areas - the Hunter-Fryingpan, Collegiate Peaks and the Maroon Bells-Snowmass.

They are home to postcard Colorado landscapes: glacial lakes, jutting peaks, wildflower-carpeted meadows and thick, cold forests of spruce, fir, pine and aspen.

In springtime, snowmelt heads downhill, joining forces to form spectacular, boulder-strewn white-water streams. These are the beginnings of what become a parade of creeks and rivers that eventually join the Roaring Fork - Maroon Creek, Conundrum Creek, Castle Creek and the Fryingpan River among them.

These waterways make Pitkin County a treasure for fly fishing, kayaking and rafting, as well as a haven for fish and wildlife. It's home to what locals boast is the state's most-photographed scenery - the spectacular Maroon Bells, 14,000-foot sentinels towering over Maroon Lake in a wilderness area protected from any Front Range water diversions.

Over the past decade or two, more residents of what was long a sleepy, out-of-the-way county have recognized the river's economic and environmental bounty.

But few in Pitkin County seem to know how much water was long ago lost to the Front Range, diverted by farmers who had exhausted flows on the Arkansas River and turned west for more.

The earliest such project, a consortium of farmers that made up the Twin Lakes company, won legal claim to 60,000 acre-feet of water rights in the headwaters of the Roaring Fork back in 1936. The company built a system of ditches and reservoirs, capped with an eight-mile tunnel drilled under Independence Pass and into Twin Lakes Reservoir.

That gave Twin Lakes rights to more than half of the roughly 110,000 acre-feet produced annually by the headwaters of the Roaring Fork above Aspen.

But the Twin Lakes company has never had enough storage to exploit all its rights. It takes about 38 percent of the headwaters - 35,000 to 40,000 acre-feet that would normally pour off the peaks around Independence Pass and flow through the Roaring Fork to the Colorado River below.

Now, the Twin Lakes company is ramping up discussions with the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal dam-building agency, about storing water in federally owned reservoirs. Twin Lakes says it has a right to that storage space under an agreement dating to the 1960s.

If Twin Lakes' claim succeeds, company officials say they could legally divert - at least in theory - the full 60,000 acre-feet. That's roughly one-fifth of what Denver Water consumes each year.

Of course, nothing is simple in Colorado's east-west water wars. If history is any indication, environmentalists on the Western Slope will put up a ferocious legal fight. And they'll start by saying there's not enough water left to take, not without drastic effects on fish and recreation in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Tom Cardamone, director of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, said the ecological effects of water diversions are innumerable and damaging.

"To deplete that already overused ecosystem seems to be ill-advised ecologically and economically, and perhaps even morally," he said.

In 2002, the drought year that left most of Colorado reeling, Aspen residents were stunned to see their dependable Roaring Fork go almost completely dry in its mile-and-a-half run through town.

"You could walk across it without getting your feet wet," said Phil Overeynder, who, as head of Aspen Water and Electric, has tried to keep the area's thirst quenched for a decade.

In late summer that year, rainbow and brown trout became isolated in pools, unable to get to the tiny flows left in the river channel. Some made it, but some died.

"The stream's oxygen levels were down, the water temperatures up. No food was being conveyed through the stream," Overeynder said. "Every system (the fish) rely on for living is shut down."

Some residents called the utility department. Others called the mayor, wondering how this could be happening and can't you do something about it?

"They said, 'Can't you just put some water in the stream?' " recalled Overeynder with a chuckle.

That was the worst year in memory for the Roaring Fork through Aspen. But summertime flows in that stretch are never good any more.

Twin Lakes company diversions to the Front Rage are not solely to blame. Perched right above Aspen, an aging concrete and steel structure steers much of what's left of the Roaring Fork River into a canal dubbed the Salvation Ditch.

It's a salvation to some downstream landowners - not to Aspen. On one day this June, the ditch was diverting about a third of the river to irrigate hayfields in the Roaring Fork Valley for the few remaining big-time ranchers and the many hobby ranches.

Typically, by July and August, more than half the river disappears into the Salvation Ditch. And for the next mile and half, until bolstered by the confluence with Hunter Creek, the remaining flows in the Roaring Fork often fail to meet what Colorado Division of Wildlife officials say are sufficient levels for fish.

Once flows get too low, waters become warmer and can harm, even kill, aquatic life. When waters hit 75 degrees, biologists get alarmed.

"When the water starts to warm up, the trout try to go deeper for cooler water," said Randy Hampton, a spokesman for the wildlife division. "The problem is, when they get too deep, they lose oxygen content. That's where you can get fish mortality."

Fish aside, the scenic damage caused by low flows is troubling, locals say.

"To have that stretch of river turn to gravel for a month to six weeks every summer, it's sort of a microcosm of the sort of things that make us crazy over here in relation to water diversions," said Fuller, head of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, a consortium of local governments that tracks water issues in the Roaring Fork basin.

"It has aesthetic impact, recreational impact, fishery impact. It seems to us to be one of the places the state ought to be doing whatever it can to keep water in the river," he said.

Draining the bank account
Aspen officials worry that losing more Roaring Fork water could affect how much they have for town residents, too.

The bulk of the town's water comes directly from the Roaring Fork into a treatment plant, but Aspen also relies on a critical aquifer, which supplies 5 to 30 percent of the town's water, depending on the time of year.

This ancient lake bed is recharged with water when high springtime flows pour over the Roaring Fork's banks and soak into the porous valley floor.

But those crucial floodwaters have dwindled, thanks to Twin Lakes diversions and four to five years of drought.

Compounding the problem: ranchers trying to control the Roaring Fork took many of the bends out of the stream to make the water flow faster. But the fast water also cut a deeper streambed that is harder to overflow. While it once took a springtime flow of just 300 cubic feet of water per second to flood the valley, it now takes about 500 cfs.

Flows haven't broken the flood threshold since 1999, leaving the aquifer without the saturation required for Aspen to efficiently pump water. Though plenty of water still lies below ground, the lack of recharge makes it harder for the city to get to it.

Should the river lose even more to the Front Range, Overeynder expects greater impact on the aquifer, particularly by the time Aspen expands from its current one pump to three pumps drawing on groundwater.

In 2002, the depleted aquifer and low flows in the Roaring Fork forced Aspen to ask its customers to take voluntary conservation steps - which nearly half did, shrinking consumption by 10 percent.

They may have to conserve a lot more. Aspen has no reservoir to store water above ground, so its aquifer functions as an underground water bank account for low-flow times.

But for every year the river doesn't flood, the bank account dwindles.

A sleeping giant
Most Aspenites are so accustomed to the river flows that they don't realize one-third of the watershed never makes it to town, water brokers say.

And many of the West and East Coasters who populate the town have little idea of the ways of water in Colorado.

"They have to be here awhile before they understand Colorado is a dry place," said Cardamone of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.

But the low flows don't go completely unnoticed.

Maureen Poschman, a public relations whiz in Aspen, has deep affection for the Roaring Fork and its contributing streams. Hiking up Independence Pass, she's seen the concrete piping in the middle of the forest, where water disappears into small, dark tunnels, unseen again until it emerges on the other side of the Continental Divide.

"I'm very aware of it, certainly," Poschman said. "It's not my point to say what the laws should be, but at some points the rivers run too low, it doesn't seem very protective of the environment."

Poschman, like several others interviewed, including environmentalists, was surprised to learn that Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. is considering moving additional Roaring Fork water to the Front Range.

"This is the first I'd heard of it," said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the public lands-oriented Wilderness Workshop in Aspen. "This would have significant impacts for us."

Any new diversions out of the Roaring Fork would likely waken a sleeping giant.

After Twin Lakes began diverting water in the 1930s, the next major diversion of the Roaring Fork was the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project of the 1960s.

But since then, Pitkin County has attracted some of Colorado's wealthiest individuals, along with the now self-described aging hippies who arrived in the 1970s and are still wise to the ways of activism.

At the same time, population growth, drought and a creeping environmentalism have raised the profile of water. Streams and rivers, once seen as a flood-prone nuisance, are increasingly viewed as community treasures, locals say.

One big sign of that was the formation of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, a group that got its start in 1995 trying to protect riverside wildlife habitat from a planned golf course in Basalt.

Since then, the group has grown into Pitkin County's leading advocate for the Roaring Fork and its tributaries, monitoring water quality, protecting riverbanks from ecologically damaging development and educating schoolchildren about river science.

Kristine Crandall, a research specialist for the organization, said the conservancy would be on guard against any future cross-mountain diversions out of the Roaring Fork basin.

"I would say, politically, it would be a tough go. Communities would fight that very hard," Crandall said, noting that the group wants to learn more about the Twin Lakes company's plans.

"This is something we'll want to get more involved in," she said.

Crandall is struck by the irony of losing more water from Pitkin County and other headwater communities to the Front Range, when people from Denver and other cities love coming to the Western Slope to enjoy its waters.

"It's interesting because a lot of the Front Range benefits from our rivers and streams over here," Crandall said. "A lot of our tourism is built on these headwater communities and what they offer."

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