State water agency supports county plan

Pitkin County’s innovative proposal to enter into a trust agreement with the Colorado Water Conservation Board in order to leave more water in the Roaring Fork River was well-received by the CWCB board on Wednesday.

“The discussion at the board meeting today was very positive,” said Linda Bassi, the head of the CWCB’s Stream and Lake Protection section.

“I was really happy with the reception that we received from the board members,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards, who attended the meeting in Denver with Pitkin County Attorney John Ely.

The county and CWCB staff are proposing to enter into a long-term loan of water from the county to the CWCB through a trust agreement. The deal would allow the county to let about 4 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water stay in Maroon Creek, and then in to the Roaring Fork River, instead of being diverted into the Stapleton Brothers irrigation ditch.

The county owns the water by virtue of its ownership of land now used as part of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. Since it no longer uses the water for irrigation purposes, the county wants to leave the water in the river to help meet the “minimum stream flow” in a reach of the Roaring Fork River as set by the CWCB.

The county is also proposing to “loan” another 30 cfs of water it owns from its open space purchases to the CWCB next year, if the proposal is approved.

The CWCB is a state agency with the power to hold “instream flow rights” and the trust agreement with the county will allow the CWCB to hold—and protect—the county’s water rights’ and leave more water in the stream to help maintain the river’s natural ecology. Under the terms of the agreement, the county could ask for the CWCB to return its water rights at any time.

The trust agreement would be the first of its kind entered into by the CWCB and the deal would be the first to take advantage of changes to state water law under House Bill 1280 that was passed last year. That bill strengthened the ability of the CWCB to protect water rights it is holding for minimum stream flow purposes.

As a result of the CWCB reviewing the proposal on Wednesday, a 20-day period is now open for any party to request a public hearing on the issue. And an 120-day review period is now open. The CWCB board could approve the trust agreement in March.

The trust arrangement could also lead to even more water being left in the river as Pitkin County voters passed a sales tax in November that is expected to generate $1 million a year toward efforts to protect the Roaring Fork River, which could include acquiring water rights.

“They were appreciative of the county voters’ efforts to pass the tax and have water available for this type of cause,” said John Ely of the CWCB board members.

The CWCB board has 15 members, including 10 voting members who represent the state’s eight river basins, the city and county of Denver, and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. The voting members are appointed by the governor.

The agency did receive two letters concerning the proposal by Pitkin County.

David Hallford, an attorney with Balcomb and Green in Glenwood Springs who represents the Basalt Water Conservancy District, told the CWCB board that “significant additional work must be done to examine the likely impact of the proposed acquisition on these water rights,’ referring to the water rights associated with the Stapleton Brothers Ditch. “The potential injury to other users on the Roaring Fork River will be severe if these matters are not properly addressed.”

An attorney for the town of Basalt also wrote a letter expressing concern that the deal between Pitkin County and the CWCB could hurt certain water rights held by the town.

Ely, the attorney for Pitkin County, said the concerns raised by the Basalt Water Conservancy District and the town were “technical in nature.”

“We should be able to deal with their concerns,” Ely said.

After the meeting, Commissioner Richards went out of her way to praise Ely for his work on the deal with the CWCB.

“I would really like to credit John Ely for his work on this,” Richards said. “He has really taken the goals set by the county commissioners at our retreat last year and found some solid ways to make them a reality.”

In turn, Ely gave credit to staff members at the Colorado Water Trust and staff members at the CWCB for helping shape the agreement.

Aspen Daily News
Brent Gardner-Smith