Crystal River restoration project moves forward in Carbondale | PostIndependent.com

Crystal River restoration project moves forward in Carbondale

Carbondale's Weaver Ditch runs along the east bank of the Crystal River in River Valley Ranch. Part of a riverfront restoration effort that is in the works involves making the ditch more functional for water users with less maintenance for the town.
John Stroud | Post Independent

A multi-agency project to restore a degraded section of the Crystal River in Carbondale that has been the focus of a fundraising effort for nearly three years is moving to the official planning phase.

The project involves the town of Carbondale, the Aspen Valley Land Trust, American Rivers, Roaring Fork Conservancy, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, Public Counsel of the Rockies, and Trout Unlimited.

Together, they are working on a plan to restore a ½-mile reach of the river that flows alongside the Carbondale-owned Riverfront Park below the River Valley Ranch Golf Course.

Beginning this week and continuing through spring, initial surveying and site analysis work will be conducted.

“They’ll be in the river taking survey measurements,” said Aspen Valley Land Trust Communications and Outreach Director Matt Annabel. “They want to be able to do flow models of the river to understand how it’s functioning. That would be a key thing to recommend any improvements, if any were warranted.”

In addition, the project will involve vegetation terrestrial surveys in the riparian zone to study the plant community, “what’s healthy and what’s not,” Annabel said.

Restoration efforts for the full 1.5-mile stretch of the Crystal River as it flows through the River Valley Ranch started in 2013. A fundraising campaign was initially set up in 2015, in memory of late river guide Kea Hause, called the R3 (Rivers, Riparian, Restoration) Fund, to help launch the effort.

However, too big a task to take on all at once, the project now focuses specifically on first steps towards improving in-stream and riparian habitat along the river. The various agencies have honed in on the publicly accessible Riverfront Park and the adjacent reach of the river. Riverfront Park lies between the Carbondale Fish Hatchery and Crystal Bridge Drive.

“The project site at Riverfront Park offers a unique opportunity for our community to come together around restoring one of our biggest assets, the Crystal River,” Carbondale Town Manager Jay Harrington said in a press release.

“Our goal is to maintain the park’s character and passive use as a wildland park, but improve the health of ecosystem and enhance the educational experience.”

The planning, design, and permitting for the project carries with it an anticipated cost of $200,000 and will take over a year to complete.

The project was awarded grant funding earlier this year — $100,000 from the Watershed Restoration Grant Fund and $20,700 from the Water Supply Reserve Fund. Another $9,300 grant was provided by the Environment foundation.

The remaining $70,000 the project needs will come in part from the town of Carbondale and in-kind contributions from the partnering organizations and other funders.

Project partners will share the results of the site analysis and engage stakeholders and the public for input in the late summer or early fall.

“The goal of that would be to take the temperature of the public’s feeling about the data and what should be done and use that to guide the next stage of the planning process,” Annabel said. “The community already embraces the Crystal and it’s really important in all of our lives, but it will give folks a whole other level of insight.”

AVLT Executive Director Suzanne Stephens has been part of the project’s evolution.

“Riverfront Park has huge educational potential for the next generation of land and water stewards,” she said. “We’d love to see it better leveraged as part of the regular learning environment for Carbondale schoolchildren.

“If we can create a healthy ecosystem, and engage in ways to learn from it, both the river and our community will benefit,” Stephens said.

The park could also benefit the Roaring Fork Conservancy’s educational programs, said Heather Lewin, watershed action director for the Conservancy.

“We’re excited to take advantage of this opportunity to share the restoration process with the community, fostering a better connection between the town and the river,” she said.

The RFC, along with Public Counsel of the Rockies, developed the Crystal River Management Plan in 2016, one of the first stream management plans in Colorado.

“A management plan is only as useful as its execution,” Lewin said. “Our goal is to bring the management plan’s recommendations to reality and this project is an early opportunity to dig in and get started.”

Ken Neubecker, Colorado projects director at American Rivers, has been working with Carbondale Utilities Director Mark O’Meara on a long-term parallel plan to improve the efficiency of the town’s ditch systems. The Weaver Ditch diverts from the Crystal River in the middle of the project reach using a “push-up dam,” a pile of large rocks and river material pushed into place by heavy equipment to form a partial dam across the river.

Push-up dams require frequent maintenance and, according to Neubecker, “Nobody likes seeing heavy equipment in the river less than the fish. One of the important benefits for this project is to install a minimal-maintenance diversion structure that reduces sedimentation and also creates great fish habitat.”

The project will also replace the Weaver’s old manual screw-type headgate with a structure that can be retrofitted with an automated headgate system in the future.

“Rivers are always changing,” O’Meara said in the release. “With a manual system, there is an art to maintaining the right level of flow in the ditch. Making a simple adjustment means sending somebody out to the headgate. That takes time.”