Keeping water in the Crystal River
In an effort to leave more water in the lower Crystal River in dry years, a growing number of irrigators in the watershed are considering entering into nondiversion agreements and are reviewing ways to deliver water to their crops more efficiently.
The agreements would be a product of discussions surrounding the recently released Crystal River Management Plan, which sets a goal of adding 10 to 25 cubic feet per second of water into the river during moderate and severe drought years.
The additional water could come from paying irrigators to reduce their diversions by 5 to 18 percent, depending on conditions, and by helping irrigators improve ditches and installing sprinkler systems.
The plan also calls on the town of Carbondale to fix the leaky irrigation ditches it uses to move water from the Crystal River through town and for the town to find ways to get its customers to use less raw water in dry years.
Apparently, progress is being made quietly on the plan’s recommendations.
“We’re really hopeful about this approach, and it has had a pretty good response from the folks that we’ve had the opportunity to speak about it with in the agricultural community,” said Seth Mason, the principal hydrologist at Lotic Hydrological in Carbondale, who was the primary consultant on the river management plan.
The plan also cites the potential benefits of a 3,000-acre-foot reservoir at the confluence of Yank Creek and North Thompson Creek, although it notes such a reservoir would cost $9.75 million, and it’s not clear who would pay for it.
Today there are 25 water diversions on the main stem and tributaries of the Crystal River, and together they can pull up to 433 cubic feet per second of water from the river system.
In really dry years, the diversions can leave a section of the lower Crystal disturbingly dry, even if the water is being used to keep fields near Carbondale refreshingly green.
Just how many ranchers and farmers in the Crystal River Valley are now actively weighing their water options is uncertain, as the process to develop the river management plan in concert with local irrigators has largely been conducted in private.
But the acknowledgment section of the Crystal River Management Plan released recently does list 12 irrigation ditches among the organizations that “informed and advised” the team that developed the new river management plan.
“A long list of individuals and organizations informed and advised the Project Team throughout the planning process,” the plan states, including “Crystal River water rights holders and agricultural producers, including representatives from the Sweet Jessup Canal, East Mesa Ditch, Lowline Ditch, Ella Ditch, Helms Ditch, Pioneer Ditch, Bowles and Holland Ditch, Rockford Ditch, Carbondale Ditch, Weaver and Leonhardy Ditch, Kaiser and Sievers Ditch, and Southard and Cavanaugh Ditch …“
No names of any individual ranchers, farmers or ditch company shareholders are included in the plan, but the ditches that are acknowledged account for the majority of diversions from the lower Crystal.
Bill McKee, a rancher and irrigator on the Crystal, has been actively involved in talking with local ranchers about the river management plan, and he voiced his support for the plan’s recommendations.
“In all our discussions, it’s seen as a good time to strike while the iron is hot,” McKee said.
Drought sparked plan
The planning process for the Crystal River Management Plan started after the drought of 2012 left a section of the Crystal River between Thompson Creek and the state’s fish hatchery, just upvalley from Carbondale city limits, with only 1 cfs of water flowing in it below several diversion structures. That year represented at least a one-in-20-year drought.
“It is a fairly large river channel,” Mason said. “You can imagine that a channel that size is a pretty astounding sight when there is no water in it.”
During 2012, staffers at the Roaring Fork Conservancy and Colorado Water Trust began talking with ranchers about ways to leave more water in the river.
The trust eventually reached short-term agreements with seven irrigators to leave water in the river in 2013, which was shaping up to be another drought year. Late-season rains negated the need for the agreements, but the work of the trust helped provide a foundation for ongoing discussions that shaped the current plan.
The conservancy then contracted with Mason to develop a technical study of the Crystal River and eventually brought in CDR Associates of Boulder to work with stakeholders. Public Counsel of the Rockies, an Aspen-based nonprofit, also joined the planning process and helped raise money for the plan.
The process has taken two and a half years and cost more than $300,000, said Rick Lofaro, executive director of Roaring Fork Conservancy.
Before the plan was unveiled, it was vetted by some irrigators, a number of whom are now in active discussions with the Colorado Water Trust about nondiversion agreements, according to Mason.
“There are ongoing conversations that I can’t say too much about,” said Mason, who was able to characterize the conversations both among irrigators and the town as “positive.”
A nondiversion agreement is a tool the water trust uses to give irrigators and other water users the option to leave water in rivers under certain conditions and terms, without going through a water court process to change an existing water right.
Mason helped clarify the situation for many local ranchers with a graphic that illustrates extremely low flows on the lower Crystal in late summer of 2012 in relation to various irrigation ditches.
He also developed a detailed scientific study of the Crystal River watershed and a model that could show what would happen in the river under various scenarios.
During the planning process, it became clear to Mason and other project team members that many local ranchers were not comfortable attending public meetings that included a bevy of professionals from various organizations.
“We did have other folks in the room at a couple points, and that did not go the way we wanted it to,” Mason said. “We had some negative reactions to that, and we’re very protective of the process. We wanted to make sure that the agricultural community knew that this process wasn’t a process run by folks who didn’t care about their livelihoods or their importance to the local community.”
The project team also learned that some threshold questions needed to be answered.
One question was whether the periodic lack of water in the Crystal was really “the largest constraint on the ecological function,” as Mason put it.
By studying many different aspects of the river, including sediment flows, Mason concluded that, yes, having enough water in the lower Crystal River is a key factor in its ecological health.
Another important question posed by stakeholders was, “How much water is enough to make a difference?”
In answering that question, Mason found that using the state’s instream flow right of 100 cfs in summer on the Crystal below Avalanche Creek as a planning goal was unacceptable to local ranchers.
“The agriculture community was not interested in talking about the state’s instream flow as the benchmark for ecosystem health,” Mason said.
He explained that the 100 cfs figure, which the state adopted in 1975 as the amount of water needed to protect the environment of the Crystal “to a reasonable degree,” was tied to average conditions, not drought conditions, and was therefore unlikely to be met in a really dry year.
What was acceptable to water users was working toward a “moderate,” but not “optimal,” level of flow between Thompson Creek and the fish hatchery during one-in-five-year and one-in-10-year droughts.
They also, notably, did not set a goal of reaching moderate flows in a one-in-20-year drought, such as 2012.
Mason concluded that during a severe one-in-10-year drought, an “optimal” flow level in the targeted stretch of river was 55 cfs, and a “moderate” flow level was 44 to 55 cfs.
During a one-in-five-year drought, he found the optimal flow level was 58 and moderate flow level ranged from 46 to 51 cfs.
To fill the expected gap between low river levels and the targeted moderate flow levels, the plan calls for 25 cfs to be left in the river from non-diversion agreements in a 1-in-10-year drought, and for 10 to 15 cfs to be left in the river in a one-in-five-year drought.
The plan states that stakeholders “indicated tolerance for moderate ecosystem risk under average to moderate drought conditions.”
Range of options
After developing a solid scientific foundation and a model to help answer “what if” questions, Mason then developed options for each major irrigator on the Crystal.
These ditch-by-ditch options are not included in the plan, but Mason has been working with willing irrigators to help them understand how a non-diversion agreement might work for them, especially if they are joined by other water users.
The plan also calls on the town of Carbondale to take steps to reduce its diversions from the river, along with the agricultural community.
“Carbondale does have a few big ditches that move quite a bit of water from the river,” Mason said. “That water supports all the lovely large trees that we see down here that wouldn’t be here normally.”
Those steps include lining more of the town’s irrigation ditches to prevent leaking of water and using market forces to curtail use of raw water in dry years.
The new Crystal River Management Plan could be a potential model that could be used to develop other stream management plans, as the state’s recently released Colorado Water Plans calls for such plans on 80 percent of the state’s rivers.
James Eklund, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which produced the state water plan, complimented the planning process in the Crystal River Valley.
“Our quick read says that this plan is based on sound science, examined viable alternatives, and engaged many stakeholders,” Eklund said. “Continued collaboration with water users is required in order to implement effective solutions, but the Crystal River is headed in the right direction.”
Aspen Journalism is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on issues relevant to communities in the Roaring Fork River watershed and on the Western Slope of Colorado.
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