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Roaring Fork Conservancy: making water visible

Amy Hadden Marsh
Special to the Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

The confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers provides more than a community park in Glenwood Springs. It marks the spot where 1 million acre feet of water rush and tumble into the Colorado River every year.

The Roaring Fork is a major tributary to the Colorado, second only to the Gunnison River. For Rick Lofaro, executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, it’s a headwaters watershed. This means water from rivers such as the Fryingpan and the Crystal – and streams such as Cattle Creek – that begin in the mountains high above the Roaring Fork Valley all flow into the Roaring Fork, which in turn carries that water to the Colorado.

“The true nature of a watershed,” explained Lofaro, who was once a fishing guide in Montana, “is that it’s a geographic area where water drains to one central point.”



The Roaring Fork watershed is no longer polluted by heavy industry, such as coal mining, but pressure on local waterways comes from other sources.

The majority of the valley’s population lives along the rivers. Highways, railroads, and trails impact riparian areas and water quality. Increased population, both in the valley and on the Front Range, demands more water.



“Everybody’s a diverter,” explained Lofaro. “Our rivers are suffering deaths by a thousand cuts.”

The main goals of the Roaring Fork Conservancy (RFC), now in its 16th year, are to protect the quality and quantity of local water and to preserve riparian habitat.

But the organization functions a lot like its namesake. RFC collects water data through research, water quality studies, sampling stations, and volunteers, including anglers who are always on the river. The information then flows to the local, state, and national public.

“We’re a clearinghouse,” he explained. “Water is the invisible resource and we want to make it visible.”

Since 1996, RFC has provided water education and hands-on activities for students in more than 20 schools throughout the valley. Adult education programs include the annual, mid-valley heron, osprey and bald eagle tour along the Roaring Fork River.

In 2004, RFC began hosting a late-spring river float from Carbondale to Glenwood Springs as a first-hand, educational experience of wildlife, water issues, and riparian areas along the valley’s primary watershed.

River stewardship programs include the annual Fryingpan River clean-up, and a tip-line for reporting spills or illegal discharges. But Lofaro said he doesn’t run a law enforcement agency.

“We act as a liaison between the public and the proper authorities,” he said.

Most of Colorado’s water comes from the Western Slope and Lofaro is passionate about all of it, including the kind that’s wrapped in plastic.

“It’s a seemingly benign thing,” said Lofaro about bottled water. “It’s marketed as pure, healthy, and clean, but it’s not.”

RFC launched a campaign against bottled water three years ago using the 2009 documentary “Tapped” as its centerpiece. One of the targets of “Tapped” is Nestle Waters North America, which markets Arrowhead spring water. The company purchased water rights in 2009 on the Arkansas River for use in the product.

Lofaro said Nestle’s move directly affects the Roaring Fork watershed because Western Slope water is diverted to the Front Range and other parts of the state.

“Nestle takes our water, trucks it to Denver, bottles it, and then sells it back to us,” he explained. “And, it costs more than a gallon of gas.”

RFC’s project examined local water sources and encouraged valley residents to drink what comes out of the tap.

Clean drinking water also depends on healthy stream and river banks.

As a nationally-recognized land trust, RFC has preserved close to 300 acres of critical riparian habitat in the Roaring Fork watershed since 1998. Some of this land is adjacent to developments, such as a 54-acre easement next to the River Edge property, along Cattle Creek to the Roaring Fork.

It’s more than protecting heron rookeries and osprey nests, said Lofaro. “We protect water, animals, plants – the whole thing.”

RFC recently teamed with the Thompson Divide Coalition to produce a baseline water quality study of the area south of Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, and with the Colorado Water Quality Control Division for a macro-invertebrate study of the entire Roaring Fork watershed. RFC is also helping restore Coal Basin near Redstone.

Future plans include a state-of-the art river center in Basalt that will house a museum, offices, a water quality lab, and other facilities. Construction is expected to begin next year.


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