Basalt-based conservancy connects people to watershed
HIGH-ELEVATION SNOWPACK SURGING
The high elevation snowpack in the Roaring Fork watershed has surged off the charts this month after cold temperatures halted melting and storms kept adding layers of heavy, wet snow.
The snowpack is 373 percent of average at the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s automated snow measuring station at Ivanhoe Reservoir in the upper Fryingpan River Valley. The snowpack contains the equivalent of 13.8 inches of water at the site, which is at an elevation of 10,400 feet.
The conservation service’s snow measuring station near the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River east of Aspen showed a snowpack 236 percent of average with snow water equivalent of 8.5 inches on Friday.
The snowpack was below average for most of the Roaring Fork River basin for much of the winter.
The gloomy forecast for a dry summer and low stream flows suddenly doesn’t look so bleak.
“Typically this time of year, snow at high elevations is melting as temperatures are increasing,” the Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy said in its weekly snowpack and stream flow report this week. “Due to the recent wet, cold weather we are receiving snowfall at the higher elevations, rain in the valley, and slower melting of snow. Therefore, streams are flowing between 40 and 68 percent of average for this time of year.”
The onslaught of precipitation has altered outlooks for peak runoff. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation initially figured the peak this year would be during the end of May, according to Mark Fuller, director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, which works closely with the agency on a number of issues.
“They’ve pushed that back a couple of weeks,” Fuller said.
Ruedi Reservoir, 13 miles east of Basalt, is currently 80 percent full at 81,520 acre-feet of water in storage.
The reclamation bureau’s office that oversees Ruedi Reservoir didn’t respond to messages from the Aspen Times requesting comment on water management issues this year.
“The Bureau of Reclamation tries to manage it so it will fill by the first of July,” Fuller said.
— by Scott Condon
About 20 people stood in rapt attention downstream from the Ruedi Reservoir dam one recent evening, gazing up at the red earthen structure towering above them as Mark Fuller explained how it fits into the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project diverting water from the Western Slope to the Front Range.
Fuller, the director for the Ruedi Water and Power Authority for nearly 35 years, told his audience of local residents and visitors how Ruedi was planned in the 1950s after a proposal for a dam on the Roaring Fork River east of Aspen ran into practical and political problems.
Ruedi Reservoir and its dam were controversial, particularly in the Fryingpan Valley, but the population was too small and had too little pull to stop the project. Congress authorized construction of the reservoir and diversion system it is connected to in 1962. Work on the reservoir started in 1964.
The valley of fertile ranch and farmland with a meandering river upstream from the current dam was excavated of dirt, like cleaning out a bowl. A hillside of the Fryingpan Valley’s distinctive red rock was obliterated to create the thousands of tons of fill needed to build the dam, Fuller said.
Water was first available for irrigation, municipal and industrial purposes in September 1975, according to the Bureau of Reclamation material.
An average of about 60,000 acre-feet of water — an amount equal to about 60 percent of a full Ruedi Reservoir — is diverted annually from the upper Fryingpan River and the small streams that feed it. The water is piped through the Charles H. Boustead Tunnel to Turquoise Lake.
Fuller was peppered with questions about the logistics of the diversion and for details about the large plumbing system from the audience. He was selected to give the presentation by the Roaring Fork Conservancy because of his expertise. The conservancy is a Basalt-based nonprofit organization that’s been working to maintain and improve the health of the Roaring Fork watershed for 18 years. Environmental education of schoolchildren and adults is a core part of its mission.
The conservancy hosted 25 “watershed exploration” events, such as the tour of the Ruedi dam, in 2014. It attracted more than 1,200 adults to the events. The events range from annual education floats on the Roaring Fork River in late May or early June to snowshoe tours of the Northstar preserve outside Aspen in winter.
“Our whole purpose of them is to get people out into the watershed,” said Christina Medved, education director for the conservancy. More about the conservancy and its watershed exploration programs can be found at http://www.roaringfork.org.
On his tour, Fuller said he believes the Ruedi dam was so well-built that it will remain intact indefinitely, with proper maintenance. He noted that the porous sandstone at and around the base sometimes leaks water, especially during a wet spring when the ground is saturated. It’s not a sign that the dam is giving way, though observers often call authorities in a panic.
The Bureau of Reclamation stresses that the dam wasn’t constructed for flood control, but Fuller said the presence of the reservoir and dam has tamed the lower Fryingpan River, whose spring peak flow prior to the dam was more than double the current peak.
“In fact, the river is probably safer now than before the dam was put in,” he said.
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