Aspen Daily News, January 2, 2023
An innovative program is releasing a little more water from Ruedi Reservoir dam this winter to provide a lot of environmental benefits on the 14 miles of the lower Fryingpan River.
Multiple local and statewide groups have teamed to raise the funds necessary to lease water from Ruedi and increase the flow on the lower Fryingpan River between Dec. 16 and March 1. The goal is to keep the winter flow high enough to diminish the build-up of anchor ice on the stream bottom.
“Really, it’s about adding the most important ingredient to the river — which is water,” said Rick Lofaro, executive director of the Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy. “Less ice and more water just makes more available habitat, whether you’re a caddis fly, a sculpin or a trout in the Fryingpan River.”
The Fryingpan was flowing at about 46 cubic feet per second prior to Dec. 16. That flow rate is typical during winters and leads to the formation of anchor ice on the rock, gravel and sediment on the stream bottom. The presence of the ice is detrimental to macro-invertebrates, the bugs that are the foundation of the food chain in the river system. Problems with the insects can lead to problems for trout, problems for the anglers that seek them out and problems for the economy of Basalt, Lofaro said. Boosting flows to around 70 cfs provides enough water motion to diminish the formation of the ice.
Various organizations came up with a plan in winter 2018-19 to lease water and increase winter flows to the beneficial level. About 3,500 acre feet of water were released for three out of four winters prior to this year. The 2019 summer and fall provided so much water that the reservoir was high enough to allow winter releases above the 70 cfs threshold, Lofaro said.
The earlier program had one flaw: The lease was structured in a way that releases couldn’t start until Jan. 1 and they continued until mid-March.
“We know that it gets cold and [the river] gets low long before Jan. 1,” Lofaro said. Temperatures are typically warm enough in March to diminish the formation of anchor ice.
Monitoring of the Fryingpan River near Seven Castles by the Roaring Fork Conservancy’s water quality team confirmed that earlier releases would be beneficial.
Colorado [Water] Trust entered the picture this year and was able to help provide water and funding so flows could be increased starting in mid-December. The [water] trust is a statewide nonprofit organization that works to restore flow to Colorado’s rivers.
Lofaro said the most visible benefit of the program is for the Fryingpan River ecosystem. The program, he said, “is something that’s really an innovative use of water and water rights, and it’s not traditional in the West. It’s simple, it’s feel good, it’s mom and apple pie. It’s putting water in the river when it needs it.”
The less visible benefit is it demonstrates how multiple parties can collaborate for the benefit of a river, Lofaro said. The Colorado Water Conservation Board provided about half of the roughly $280,000 expense of the program through its water acquisition fund. The Colorado River District is providing the water via a lease to boost the flows. The river district’s mission is to lead in the protection, conservation, use and development of water resources in the Colorado River Basin.
The Colorado Water Trust and several Roaring Fork Valley entities teamed to raise $131,000 in commitments for the program. Pitkin County Healthy Rivers approved $50,000 contingent on county commissioner approval. Colorado Water Trust committed $30,000. A $20,000 grant will be sought from the Colorado River District’s community funding partnership. The Roaring Fork Conservancy, city of Aspen and town of Basalt have each committed $10,000. The Roaring Fork Fishing Guide Alliance committed $1,000.
Lofaro said Roaring Fork Conservancy will start a fundraising effort where donors can contribute specifically to the Fryingpan winter flow enhancement program for future winters.
The change in the program to start water releases earlier this winter was fortuitous timing. Colder weather hit earlier than usual this winter, so the increase to near 70 cfs has already proven beneficial.
“Even if anchor ice does form — which it will in extreme cold conditions — we have less of it forming, and the river recovers faster,” Lofaro said.
A total of 3,866 acre feet of water is expected to be released. That is water that otherwise might have been used for environmental benefit in the summer in case of dry conditions and low flows. Lofaro said using the water for an environmental advantage during the winter is a worthwhile alternative.
“I don’t see it as creating a shortage or water that is wasted,” he said. “It’s nice to see a program that focuses specifically on the health and ecology of the Fryingpan River.”