A 10-year agreement between the city of Aspen and Colorado Water Trust will help keep the Roaring Fork River flowing at a healthy rate through the remainder of the summer season.
The city partnered with Colorado Water Trust — a nonprofit organization that restores flows to rivers in need by developing and implementing voluntary water-sharing agreements — on Tuesday to reduce diversions from the Roaring Fork River at the Wheeler Ditch in Aspen. The project is meant to boost river flows and added up to three cubic feet per second of water to the river’s flow, which will help maintain sustainable water levels, according to a press release from Colorado Water Trust.
“The Roaring Fork is bone low,” Aspen’s utility resource manager Steve Hunter said. “I think every little bit helps — every little bit of water that we can leave in the Roaring Fork, anything we can do to help the fish, the wildlife, the recreation, all those things. Three cfs is a very small number, but we’re doing the best we can with what we have.”
The city uses a headgate at the Wheeler Ditch to store water, and on Tuesday, staff members adjusted it to allow one cfs into the ditch so that the rest of the water stays in the river, Hunter said. He added that it’s important for everyone in the Roaring Fork Valley, not only in Aspen, to do their best to conserve water, especially in back-to-back drought years.
“As we adapt to climate change in Colorado, we’re fortunate to have flexible water sharing tools like the one that allows the city to leave a portion of their Wheeler Ditch water right in the Roaring Fork River,” Colorado Water Trust Program Director Mickey O’Hara said in the press release. “These tools allow communities to build flow restoration projects that support the natural environment while boosting flows for the benefit of the local community.”
Since 2016, Colorado Water Trust has worked with the city to monitor river conditions and protect the city’s water rights. Each year, Colorado Water Trust forecasts the coming spring’s water conditions and works with the city to address those. When water levels drop below 32 cfs — the level necessary to preserve the natural environment downstream of the Wheeler Ditch — O’Hara said Colorado Water Trust keeps a close eye on conditions and implements strategies like the Wheeler Ditch project to restore flows.
In the past, efforts have increased the Roaring Fork’s flows from mid-summer into October — and at times contributed more than 50% of the river’s flow, according to the release.
The three cfs will likely not create a noticeable rise in water levels, O’Hara said, and depending on weather conditions and the city’s ability to physically divert water, the number may drop at times. However, with a focus on preserving the environment long-term, the project is intended to support the river during times of low flow and will contribute to healthier conditions in the future. O’Hara added that in the long-term, the project will also hopefully maintain river flows for recreational uses and community benefits. The project was also operated in 2013, 2014, 2018 and 2020, and all together resulted in an estimated 1,115 acre-feet of water being released into the Roaring Fork, according to the release.
“We take a comprehensive approach at our utility to both serve our customers and preserve our community values, which includes the health of the Roaring Fork River,” Hunter said in the release. “This program has been successful since we piloted it eight years ago and we are encouraged by how seemingly small shifts in water management can benefit the community, wildlife and habitat of the Roaring Fork River in Aspen and the downstream environment.”
Colorado Water Trust also said in the release that the project would not be a success without support from the city of Aspen, the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board, Aspen Skiing Co.’s Environment Foundation, the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, and the Laffey-McHugh Foundation.