State water money flowing into Roaring Fork and Crystal projects | PostIndependent.com

State water money flowing into Roaring Fork and Crystal projects

Heather Sackett
Aspen Journalism

Five water plans or projects concerning the Roaring Fork, Colorado and Eagle rivers are on track to receive $337,000 in state funds to study water users' needs, plan for future water use and restore river ecosystems.

The efforts include a web-based information system about the Roaring Fork River watershed, restoration work on the Crystal River near Carbondale, an agricultural-water study in Garfield County and funding for two integrated water management plans for the Eagle River basin and a section of the Colorado River.

All five of the projects are part of a bigger effort toward stream management planning and list that goal in their grant applications. An objective of the 2015 Colorado Water Plan is to cover 80 percent of rivers with stream management plans.

These plans already exist for the Poudre River, the Crystal River, the North Fork of the Gunnison, the Upper Gunnison Basin and the San Miguel River and have been proposed on the Eagle, Yampa, Upper San Juan and Middle Colorado rivers.

Last month the Colorado River basin roundtable, which meets in Glenwood Springs and reviews and votes on water-project grant requests before sending them to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, approved a $37,000 request from the Roaring Fork Conservancy to create a $50,000 public interactive map and information system.

Anyone from school kids to scientists would be able to access, search and sort data about the Roaring Fork. The project will organize the information contained in the 145-page Roaring Fork Watershed Plan so it's easier for the public to find and understand.

Recommended Stories For You

In March, the CWCB approved a $20,700 grant from the town of Carbondale to restore and enhance a half-mile stretch of the Crystal River near the state fish hatchery, as well as make improvements to the town-owned Weaver Ditch headgate and diversion structure.

The project aims to restore ecological health by reconnecting the river with its flood plain, improve river channel stability and enhance a riverfront park with signs and trails. The project, at a total cost of $200,000, is also being funded by the town, Great Outdoors Colorado, and Aspen Skiing Co.'s environmental fund.

The CWCB also approved grants last month to the Eagle River Watershed Council and the Middle Colorado Watershed Council. Both groups received funding for their respective stream management plans, which emphasize collaboration among water users. Eagle received approval for $75,000 and the Middle Colorado for $103,800.

The Middle Colorado stream management plan will cover the main stem of the Colorado River from Dotsero to DeBeque. It will identify water needs for nonconsumptive uses, like the environment and recreation, which depend on sufficient water left in a river or stream.

The state funding will be used to evaluate ecosystem health and water quality, and to develop hydrologic flow models.

"The question is if we see any issues that are flow-related and what additional flows do we need to attain a healthier ecosystem," said Laurie Rink, executive director of the Middle Colorado Watershed Council.

Rink will soon be moving into a project management position so she can devote more time to developing the stream management plan, and the watershed council will hire a new executive director.

In addition to $103,800 from the state, the council is seeking funding from Garfield County, Rifle, Glenwood Springs, the Colorado River District, and the Tamarisk Coalition for a project total of about $415,000.

Ag water

A key to understanding the Middle Colorado River and its tributaries is also understanding agriculture's use of water from the river system. But the ag community has historically been hesitant to participate in studies that focus on recreation and environmental concerns. This study aims to bring them into the fold of stream management planning.

To help get consumptive users involved, three regional conservation districts, the Bookcliff, South Side and Mount Sopris districts, have teamed up to do their own study of ag's use of water.

"We really want to understand for our watershed both the consumptive and non-consumptive uses we have and what gaps exist," Rink said.

At its March meeting the Colorado basin roundtable approved a $100,000 grant request for the three conservation districts to create an "agriculture water plan" for Garfield County that will inform the stream management plan being done by the Middle Colorado council.

That grant request now goes to the CWCB in May.

"The dry year is the immediate impetus, and the future of our water rights," said Liz Chandler, program coordinator of the ag-water study. "With the looming prospect of a compact call, the agriculture community needed to get much more involved with a planning process to make sure agriculture's voice is heard loudly and clearly."

The ag-water study would focus on ag lands between Glenwood Springs and DeBeque, and aims to determine the current irrigated acreage and to conduct an inventory of irrigation ditches.

The study would also determine water needs for the crops and develop a plan to protect agriculture water.

In 2016, the Eagle County Conservation District completed a similar irrigation asset inventory, the results of which officials said should remain private, although the study was paid for with public funds.

But unlike that study, Chandler said the results of the Garfield County study, which will not include the names of ditch owners or operators, will be "100 percent public information."

"The end goal of our project is very different from Eagle," Chandler said. "They wanted to get shovel-ready projects for their diverters. We want to create an integrated water plan. And we have so much more agriculture down here than Eagle does."

Eagle River Watershed

A few miles upstream, the Eagle River Watershed Council is developing its own stream management plan.

Their plan aims to develop water management recommendations based on three factors the watershed will face in the coming years: increased municipal demand for water that comes from population growth, climate change and still-to-be-developed projects related to the "Eagle River MOU" project, which could include new or expanded reservoirs and transmountain diversions to the Front Range.

"Collaboration is absolutely critical to this plan," said Holly Loff, executive director of the Eagle River Watershed Council. "In creating the scope of work, we reached out to all the people we thought should be participating as a stakeholder and clumped them together in six different groups: local government, agriculture, recreation, conservation, federal and state agencies, East Slope water interests and West Slope water interests."

Loff said she expects the entire stream management planning process will take three years to complete.

In addition to the $75,000 from the state, the Eagle River Watershed Council also expects to receive money and in-kind donations from Vail Resorts, Homestake Water Project Partners (Aurora and Colorado Springs), the towns of Avon, Gypsum, Vail and Minturn, Eagle Park Reservoir Company, Climax Mine, Eagle County and the Colorado River District for a combined total project cost of nearly $390,000.

Editor's note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating on coverage of rivers and water with the Vail Daily, the Summit Daily, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times. More at aspenjournalism.org.

water money

Recent state grants approved for regional water plans and projects (amount listed is state funding the projects received, not the total project costs):

Middle Colorado Watershed Council – stream management plan: $103,800

Eagle River Watershed Council – stream management plan: $75,000

Roaring Fork Conservancy – interactive information system: $37,500

Town of Carbondale – restoration on the Crystal River: $20,700

Garfield County Agriculture Water Plan – study of water needs/irrigation: $100,000