Fuller retiring after 37 years of protecting Roaring Fork Valley’s water
The man who helped the Roaring Fork Valley fend off water grabs by Front Range cities, oil and gas companies and even the federal government is stepping down from his position of 37 years.
Mark Fuller will retire as director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority as soon as the organization hires and transitions into new leadership. Fuller is the only director the authority has had since it was formed in 1981.
“I would have bailed long before now if I didn’t like it. I’m not that much of a glutton for punishment,” Fuller said with a laugh Tuesday.
Mark Kittle, a Basalt councilman and member of the water authority’s board of directors, said Fuller worked hard to protect Roaring Fork Valley water interests.
“He was able to do $10 worth of work on a $1 budget,” Kittle said.
Fuller found water issues fascinating yet Byzantine.
“I still don’t fully understand them,” he said.
The water authority was created by Pitkin County and the city of Aspen in 1981 to pursue development of hydropower at Ruedi Reservoir. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission promoted development of hydroelectric projects around the country at the time, and some major utility companies were interested in Ruedi Reservoir’s potential.
One utility’s proposal would have added a second dam a couple of miles downstream from the existing Ruedi dam. The company planned to release significant amounts of water from the existing dam when demand for power peaked during mornings and late afternoons — when electricity was most expensive. The water would have powered a hydroelectric operation and then gotten caught by the second dam and released at a lower pace.
The effects on the Fryingpan River would have been dramatic, particularly the 2-mile stretch between the dams. It would have been “a toilet bowl that they would have flushed a couple times per day,” Fuller said. Local governments would have had little say in the operations.
“Their plans were far more ambitious and destructive than what went in there,” he said.
Federal regulations gave priority in development of hydroelectric facilities to local government over utilities, so Aspen and Pitkin County decided to build a hydroelectric project themselves rather than defer to a utility company.
However, the authority remained intact and eventually Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and Eagle County joined Aspen and Pitkin County in the authority. They created the first regional government collaboration, even predating the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. Garfield County was a member for a while but dropped out over finances earlier this decade.
“The joke about the Ruedi Water and Power Authority was that we had neither water nor power nor authority,” Fuller said.
But the authority acquired water rights from Ruedi Reservoir, which is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. It yielded to Aspen and Pitkin County on power production for strategic reasons, and it’s exerted some level of authority as the collective voice for the Roaring Fork governments on water issues.
“That voice was louder,” Fuller said, “because it came from the Roaring Fork Valley and not just individual voices.”
Kittle credits Fuller with helping the authority find that voice.
“He was instrumental in keeping this ship afloat,” Kittle said.
The director’s position is part-time, on an hourly basis. One of the prime responsibilities is acting as liaison for the Roaring Fork Valley governments with the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and numerous other entities. Many issues revolve around keeping water in Ruedi through Labor Day Weekend for recreation and avoiding releases that are too low or too high in the lower Fryingpan River.
Ruedi Reservoir and dam were constructed between 1964 and 1968 as part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas trans-basin water diversion project. Numerous interests outside the basin covet the water, but its importance to the economy of the region is tremendous. The lower Fryingpan River is a gold-medal trout stream. The reservoir attracts thousands of visitors for water sports and camping each summer.
One threat to the water level came when the federal government eyed Ruedi as a sole provider of water to the lower Colorado River for an endangered-fish recovery effort. Fuller said the power authority lobbied hard to get the government to rely on a variety of sources for the water and not put the entire burden on Ruedi.
Another early threat came from the possibility of Exxon buying all the available contracts for water for potential use in oil shale operations in western Garfield County in the 1980s. The authority didn’t have any direct influence over the issue, Fuller said, but lobbied the reclamation bureau to focus on diverse water uses. The contracts were sold over a longer period of time for what many people feel are broader and more beneficial uses for the West Slope.
The upper Fryingpan Valley remains an apple in the eyes of Front Range water users.
There are 16 stream diversion structures and eight tunnels that collect spring runoff and direct it to the Boustead Tunnel and the Busk-Ivanhoe Tunnel to the east side of the Continental Divide. Additional water from streams at the headwaters of the Fryingpan is fed to the Twin Lakes Tunnel on the upper Roaring Fork drainage.
Fuller said there are additional water rights that haven’t been developed by Front Range interests. The water-storage system on the east side of the divide cannot handle more water on a “good” year for water yield, he said, so those water rights haven’t been tapped — yet. That could be a matter of time. More diversions would mean less water draining into Ruedi Reservoir.
“They’re not really front-burner issues, but they’re still out there,” Fuller said.
Another of Fuller’s responsibilities included protecting the reservoir from a different kind of invader. He helped create and operate the watercraft inspection program for zebra mussels and other invasive species.
“We haven’t tested positive to this point,” Fuller said.
He will help the board search for his replacement. The goal is to have candidates to interview by mid-March.
Fuller was paid $75 per hour for his services, but the post is being advertised with pay depending on qualifications and experience.
“I will be staying around as long as I am useful in the transition process,” he said.
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