When the snow is gone from Ridge of Bell on Aspen Mountain, the spring runoff has reached its peak, or so goes the local rule of thumb for river watchers.
A few stubborn patches of white were still hanging on up there as of Wednesday afternoon, but one thing is certain: This year’s peak will come sooner and lower than normal.
Roaring Fork Conservancy Executive Director Rick Lofaro said this year’s peak could be anytime between now and early June. The last comparable year was 2002, when the Roaring Fork River through Aspen nearly ran dry late in the summer and fall.
Historically, the Roaring Fork River, just before its confluence with the Colorado River, peaks in mid June with an average flow of around 4,000 cubic feet per second (cfs).
According to the National Weather Service’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center (www.cbrfc.noaa.gov ), the Roaring Fork at Glenwood is likely to peak this year between 2,000 and 3,000 cfs, a few weeks down the road.
The implications of lower water levels in local rivers will be discussed tonight at the annual “State of the River” meeting held by the Colorado River District, taking place at 6:30 p.m. at the Eagle County Community Center in El Jebel. This year’s presentation is called “From Flood to Drought,” and according to a press release it will note the “epic flip-flop” from last year’s high runoff, which didn’t peak until late June at over 9,000 cfs on the lower Roaring Fork.
River rats, irrigators or anyone with an interest in the region’s natural resources should take an interest in Wednesday’s presentation, which will outline anticipated reservoir operations and river forecasts, said Colorado River District education and communications coordinator Jim Pokrandt. It also will delve into how local water is distributed, and who gets priority.
Most valley locals are familiar with the “transbasin diversion” tunnels that take water from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork and Frying Pan rivers and run it under the Continental Divide to be consumed on the more populated Front Range. However, a more senior water right exists for farmers in the Grand Junction area, said Pokrandt. Known as the “Cameo Call,” the water rights, established in the 1890s and before, can take up to 2,200 cfs to grow peaches and other crops of the Grand Valley, Pokrandt said. If the Cameo Call comes in, it limits how much water the Front Range, as well as ranchers who rely on the Crystal River, can take. While such a call would leave more water in Roaring Fork Valley rivers, it would be a hardship for Crystal Valley irrigators because their rights are junior to the downstream Cameo Call, Pokrandt said.
Water law is “arcane,” he said, but “in years like this, people start figuring it out.”
“There’s nothing like a drought year to provide an educational moment to help people understand that water does not come from the spigot,” Pokrandt said. “There’s a whole system of distribution and priority.”