River team

Matt Annabel, Aspen Valley Land Trust, Mark O’Meara, Town of Carbondale and Stephen Ellsperman and Jason James from DHM are working on a new management plan for the Crystal River.

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the most recent edition of the Roaring Fork Weekly Journal, an Aspen Daily News sister publication serving the midvalley.


After years of decline and natural degradation, the Crystal River on the outskirts of Carbondale is ready for a makeover. Overdevelopment, a buildup of sediment and a lack of a management plan for farmers, ranchers and others who draw from or contribute water to the Crystal have contributed to the river’s current state.

In 2016, Roaring Fork River Conservancy, Public Counsel of the Rockies and Lotic Hydrological led an effort to create a new management plan for the Crystal River. Yet, after the 2016 plan was published, it was determined that it would be too costly to enact at one time; smaller restoration projects on the Crystal have since surfaced.

Chelsea Congdon was a strategic and outreach consultant with Public Counsel of the Rockies.

“This project has been important to demonstrate how stream management planning works in Colorado, and the role of stakeholders in bringing their values and concerns to the table,” Congdon said.  

Currently, a diverse group of stakeholders is pushing a restoration plan that would restore the health of the river and enhance the management of the Weaver Ditch that runs from it, through Carbondale, before dumping its water in the Roaring Fork River.

Stephen Ellsperman is director of ecological planning and a principal with DHM, a landscape architectural and design firm in Carbondale.

“The current project extends from the bridge on Crystal Bridge Drive that crosses into River Valley Ranch upstream,” Ellsperman said. “It is a three-pronged project. This reach of the Crystal River is constrained by flow, volume and depth, and a really important riverine system needs to be restored. Right now, it looks like it’s flowing really well, but at times during the year, it is really, really low. The connectivity for the fishery and the habitat is segmented. It’s really hard to get fish through the system from a habitat standpoint.”

The $1.2-1.5 million plan that Ellsperman and other members of the team are currently designing would stabilize the river bank in several places upstream from the bridge, remove some of the sediment that has built up in the Crystal in that area so one main channel is created to help fish navigate that length of the river and create a walking trail that would extend from the bridge upriver. 

Heather Tattersall Lewin is director of science and policy with the Roaring Fork Conservancy, one of the stakeholder groups involved in the initiative.

“We are genuinely excited about the project and multiple benefits it provides to the river and the community,” Lewin said. 

“The instream work will include construction of a more efficient diversion structure that functions in harmony with the stream and require less annual maintenance. The enhanced riparian area will benefit both the stream and local wildlife habitat by providing necessary shade and cover. All of this will be accessible to the community and Carbondale schools with a gathering area, rustic trails and interpretive signage to help increase engagement with the river and provide educational opportunities,” she added.

Aspen Valley Land Trust is another stakeholder in the project. “Today, the conservation community struggles with connecting youth to ongoing stewardship. Five hundred kids go to school within a half-mile of this restoration project. Anybody, AVLT, Audubon, local school teachers, can build educational programs around it,” said Matt Annabel, outreach director for the trust.

Pushback to trails

While the current project is only 60 percent designed, public outreach has both limited the project and helped focus the overall plan. Many neighbors near the restoration location pushed back on the idea of drawing large numbers of people to that area. Currently, there is only a small parking lot with four spaces near the proposed restoration location. 

No other car parking is envisioned, because neighbors and the planning team did not want to create another Hanging Lake-type destination. The local Audubon group, which has worked for years to protect and enhance the bird population on that part of the Crystal River, also did not want to see large numbers of new visitors to the location.

“Some of the pushback started in the original management plan that talked about higher level, more active uses,” said Jason Jaynes, a landscape architect and principal with DHM. “That set the stage for how this plan was going to be approached. It was made very clear that things like paved trails running through and creating regional connections through this zone have not been well-received by the public and was not well-received by those that care about the ecology of this site.”

Standing on the bridge looking upstream, town of Carbondale utilities director Mark O’Meara pointed out specific aspects of the restoration plan.

“There are strategic pieces that have been prioritized in their own way because of accumulating damage,” O’Meara said. “One of the things about the whole corridor that we have expressed is using surgical techniques along the river corridor. I think this is a theme for the Crystal River restoration that goes all the way up to Redstone and beyond. A surgical approach will work best.” 

DHM of Carbondale and the local firm River Restoration will head up the design and implementation of the restoration work.

Ellsperman noted some of the project’s particulars: “A main mission is to create a design where this large sediment discharge pile is channeled to create a main stem of the river with natural hydrology, as well as with systems that will allow the sediment to move through the system and not clog it back up again. 

“Stabilization of the river bank is done by strategically placing boulders and larger size cobble and then combining that with woody vegetation that knits it all together. Our goal is to combine ecological restoration of the riparian zone with the riverine environment,” he said.

O’Meara pointed out where the Weaver Ditch aligns with the Crystal River and explained how head gates on the ditch as well as head gates upriver from the restoration location will be reconfigured so that they can open and close electronically, allowing more water to stay in the river during low flow periods, creating a more healthy river and river habitat for fish.

 “There is a lot you can do for Colorado rivers if you can improve these ancient leaky ditches,” Congdon said.   

The stakeholder team will continue with the design of the river restoration project as money is raised to enact the plan. Because of river flow during summer and critical wildlife breeding times, the work can only be done during a few months out of the year. The stakeholder team hopes to start in 2020.

For more information on the proposed restoration, visit yourcrystalriver.com.