Crystal Valley groups urge challenge to water rights |

Crystal Valley groups urge challenge to water rights

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Correspondent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

Residents of the Crystal River Valley, south of Carbondale, have asked Pitkin County to challenge decades-old water rights that allow two dams on the river and impede local interest in seeking a Wild and Scenic River designation for the Crystal.

The Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA) has asked both county commissioners and the county’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board to oppose the conditional water rights. The Crystal River Caucus has joined in that call, according to Redstone resident Bill Jochems, a member of both the CVEPA board and the county rivers and streams board.

Commissioners and the river board are scheduled to meet this afternoon.

The Glenwood-based Colorado River Water Conservation District holds the conditional water rights on behalf of the West Divide Water Conservancy District. The rights, decreed in the 1950s, are the basis for two proposed water storage projects on the Crystal that were authorized by Congress in the mid-1960s but never built.

The West Divide Project water rights must be reauthorized in Colorado Water Court every six years. In May, the holders of the water rights must show diligence, or continued progress on the project, in order to keep the water rights alive. The Crystal River groups have asked the county to challenge the validity of the rights.

“Nothing has been done on the ground for 54 years,” said Jochems. Progress has been limited to studying the options, he added.

“We feel it’s time to challenge that as progress,” he said.

The conditional water rights allow for the proposed Osgood Reservoir, which would impound nearly 129,000 acre feet of water, flooding the town of Redstone, Redstone Castle and several subdivisions, CVEPA said. Also envisioned is the Placita Reservoir south of Redstone, which would impound about 62,000 acre feet of water. For the sake of comparison, Ruedi Reservoir on the Fryingpan River, east of Basalt, holds 140,000 acre feet of water, CVEPA noted in its letter to county officials.

“We do not think anyone takes these proposed reservoirs seriously, yet they threaten to deny designation of the Crystal River as a Wild and Scenic River and cost the taxpayers money as they continue to be defended,” the letter states.

With no dams or significant diversions on the Crystal currently, advocates would like to see it further protected by the federal Wild and Scenic River designation. The upper Crystal River Valley is nestled between the Raggeds and Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness areas to the east of Marble. The Crystal River flows into the Roaring Fork River at Carbondale.

Discussions about the Wild and Scenic designation took place in the 1980s, and the U.S. Forest Service has considered its eligibility, but there was local opposition at the time, according to Dorothea Farris, a former county commissioner and president of CVEPA.

“We just thought maybe the time is right to suggest it again,” she said.

The West Divide Project water rights don’t necessarily prevent the Wild and Scenic designation, according to Jim Pokrandt, spokesman for the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

“Certainly, the water rights would have to be part of the equation,” he said.

Even if the reservoirs on the Crystal River are unlikely in the near future, the water rights are valuable, Pokrandt said.

“You don’t want to give them up without putting a lot of thought into that,” he said. “Those who hold water rights in the arid West don’t give them up easily.”

A call to the West Divide Water Conservancy District office in Rifle was not returned Monday, but its website indicates “the evaluation of development alternatives for the West Divide Project is ongoing.”

As long as the rights on the Crystal are not extinguished, the specter of reservoirs will remain, Jochems contends. Towns have been flooded before for reservoir projects when the need is deemed great enough, he noted.

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