U.S. Drought Map

Aspen is located “dead center” in the part of Colorado where drought conditions transition from moderate to severe, as indicated on this U.S. Drought Monitor map that was published recently. The current snow-water equivalent in the Roaring Fork watershed is 61 percent of median, but some commercial operators say they aren’t concerned that low water will impact their businesses this summer.

Commercial industries that are potentially facing half of normal streamflow levels this summer for recreation uses like rafting and fishing say they aren’t concerned about negative impacts to tourism from the moderate to severe drought conditions emerging in the Roaring Fork Valley’s watershed.

Rafting companies, who count novices and families among their core clientele, might actually see more customers when rapids are less intimidating and the rivers are running slower, said two people in the industry Monday. The local fly fishing industry, another popular visitor activity, also doesn’t foresee negative impacts to business, at least during the first part of summer.

“In a light snow year when rivers drop and clear sooner, it’s better for the fishing industry,” said Will Sands, senior manager at Taylor Creek Fly Shops. “In our valley there are more visitors here in June, when the water typically is too high to fish.”

The statewide rafting industry that in 2017 carried a record number of boaters — about 575,000 — has the flexibility to take advantage of the preferable flows, be they on the Arkansas, Roaring Fork or Colorado rivers, said David Costlow, executive director of the Colorado River Outfitters Association.

Aspen Whitewater Rafting owner Jim Ingram, who has commercial permits to run those rivers, agreed.

“We’re not going to see epic water. It should be decent in Slaughterhouse through June and maybe into July,” he said, using one local example.

The city of Aspen may also be proactive in reacting to the drought conditions.

During today’s city council work session, in which Aspen snowpack and stream flows will be discussed, staff is expected to recommend that a stage one water-storage resolution be adopted at the next regular council meeting, which is May 14.

That’s about one month ahead of when stage one restrictions were instituted in 2012 and 2002, two other similar low-snow seasons, according to David Hornbacher, director of utilities for the city of Aspen.

A 10-percent reduction in treated water use and raw water use, along with voluntary conservation, are part of the first stage of restrictions, he said, adding that it’s beneficial to get the word out early if that’s the direction the city wants to take.

“Any conservation measures we have in place to increase effectiveness help the streams,” he said.

A recent map produced by the U.S. Drought Monitor “identified Pitkin County as displaying mostly moderate drought conditions, with severe drought conditions in the western tip of the county and abnormally dry conditions in the northeastern tip,” wrote Margaret Medellin, the city’s utilities portfolio manager, in a memo to council members.

“Aspen is in the transitional area between the normal to wet northeastern portion of the state and the exceptionally dry southwestern area. The area of exceptional drought in the southwestern portions of the state continues to expand,” she wrote.

Liza Mitchell, the author of a weekly streamflow and snowpack report for the Roaring Fork Conservancy, said 68 percent of the state is experiencing some kind of drought. At this time in 2017, only 3.5 percent of Colorado was experiencing drought conditions.

“The National Resources Conservation Service is forecasting streamflow to be 54 percent of average for the Roaring Fork at Glenwood Springs,” she said. More localized forecasts on river sections aren’t available, Mitchell said.

The snow-water equivalent in the Roaring Fork watershed as of Monday was 61 percent of median. Last year at this time it was 116 percent of median; in 2016 it was 94 percent of median and in 2015, snow-water equivalent was 76 percent of median, she said.

Measurements are taken at seven stations, ranging from Ivanhoe Lake above Ruedi Reservoir, which is a little over 100 percent of normal right now, to McClure Pass, which is at zero and whose summit campground has already hosted overnight campers, according to the city’s Hornbacher.

“On the map, Aspen is dead center of moderate drought,” he said, noting that Ruedi Reservoir was still filling up but that in the southern part of the state, drought conditions continue to worsen.

He said the city hasn’t heard yet from the governor’s office about statewide drought plans, nor has it been determined how much water will need to be diverted from the Twin Lakes tunnel, which also impacts the Roaring Fork watershed.

Weather in the coming month, including precipitation, temperatures and cloud cover, can also affect streamflow levels, but the recent spate of warm temperatures hasn’t helped.

“All SnoTel sites below 10,000 feet are completely melted out or are reporting negligible amounts of snowpack left,” said Mitchell.

She added that the Ivanhoe reporting station has been reporting relatively high snow totals all season, but it may be at a location where wind loading occurs.

 

‘Friendly water’

Aspen Whitewater plans to take its first commercial trips on the upper Roaring Fork River, from Woody Creek to Basalt, this weekend, said Ingram. He said that’s on schedule for when trips usually start.

Costlow, of the river outfitters association, said the annual number of rafting visits don’t always follow snowpack levels, and in some years, a moderate level of runoff can provide more “family rafting conditions.”

“People aren’t always looking for the highest water. Increasingly, they’re looking for the friendliest water,” Costlow said.

Ingram echoed that opinion: “In my experience, people from out of town don’t like big water. When you put them in that situation it can be pretty overwhelming.”

For those seeking the thrill of Pine Creek or the Numbers, Aspen Whitewater’s permit allows it access to the Arkansas River on the east side of Independence Pass until Aug. 15. Other valley raft companies also offer trips to the same area rivers.

Lower water has the potential to “minimize options, particularly on the upper Fork,” said RFC’s Mitchell on potential economic impacts of a drought year on the recreation industry.

“They can still do trips, but they’re spending more time and more money to make those trips happen,” she said.

In recent years the river outfitters organization has estimated the annual economic impact statewide of rafting at between $160 million and $180 million.

Ingram said his company will use smaller boats for early trips into Slaughterhouse and will transition into larger rafts when the Roaring Fork rises to between 800 and 1,200 cfs.

One of the main concerns that low water has on the local fly fishing industry is that it can lead to increased water temperatures, according to Mitchell. “Warm temperatures can stress trout,” she said.

Sands of Taylor Creek said that the releases from Ruedi Reservoir, which come from the bottom of the dam, remain at around 40 degrees year-round and “act like a swamp cooler.”

“We have a very insulated valley to fish in. We’re blessed,” he said.

Sands also said it’s still spring and that “we could still have a 5-foot snowfall” before the month is out, which also would impact water levels.

 

Madski@aspendailynews.com

Follow Madeleine on Twitter, @Madski99