A new report on the Beaver Creek watershed funded by Williams says the basin has been degraded due to impacts from oil and gas drilling and roads, livestock grazing and logging.
The Beaver Creek watershed is a stream system southwest of Rifle that supplies about 10 percent of the city of Rifle's drinking water.
The report was completed in late 2011 by the Glenwood Springs-based water resources consulting firm Resource Engineering, on behalf of the city of Rifle.
It identified increased sediment content in the stream as the most significant impact, along with decreased bank stability. The report authors singled out poorly built and under-maintained roads and well pads as the largest source of the problem.
"These [impacts] are mainly the result of access roads," said Michael Erion of Resource Engineering, who worked on the report. "Fine sediment is an indicator that there is a direct connection between disturbed areas and the creek."
Examples of disturbed areas include places where vegetation has been removed to construct well pads or roads. Since vegetation slows and absorbs storm water runoff, these barren areas are particularly prone to high rates of erosion, according to the report.
At the request of the Rifle City Council, the study was funded by Williams, which operates 14 drilling pads in the watershed. When Williams submitted a permit to clear several more pads in the area last year, the council asked the company to fund the study as a condition of approval.
Susan Alvillar is a community relations representative for WPX Energy, which recently spun off from Williams to handle drilling operations. She said WPX and three other gas companies operating in the watershed have met with the Garfield County Road and Bridge Department to discuss capping access roads with gravel. The technique is a central recommendation in the watershed study for reducing sediment runoff.
"It's also in our best interest to reduce our traffic up there," said Alvillar. "We are monitoring our operations remotely through telemetry, and don't want to be up there if we don't need to be."
Most of the city of Rifle's water comes directly from the Colorado River, and Beaver Creek is a supplemental source, according to City Engineer Rick Barth.
But sediment has disrupted supply at the city's Beaver Creek water intake.
"There was one day, about a year ago, that the creek got muddy enough that our intake couldn't handle it, and it shut down," Barth said.
Study authors did not test water samples for the presence of drilling compounds or petroleum products, but Barth said sensors at the city's intake continuously monitor for those elements.
In addition to capping roads with gravel, other report recommendations include:
• Installing ponds to capture sediment before it reaches the city's intake.
• Revegetating unused areas.
• Establishing a standard size for culverts and stream crossings.
It's too early to say whether the report will result in more stringent permit requirements for development in the watershed, Erion said. City officials are planning to assemble all permit holders - including drilling companies, ranchers and loggers - before the end of March to discuss implementing some of the report's recommendations. A meeting date has not been set.
The Rifle Watershed Protection District, a city agency established in 1999 to regulate activities in the watershed, issues permits for any activity that could affect stream health or water quality. Since the water district was founded, the level of industrial activity around Beaver Creek has increased dramatically.
"It's getting busier up there, so we need to look at how we can keep a better eye on things," said Barth.