Water trust, ranch partner to bolster Crystal River

Aspen Daily News, September 16, 2022, by Megan Webber

The Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch in Carbondale implemented a project on Tuesday designed to bolster flows in the Crystal River.

The water trust and ranch finalized a six-year agreement in early July that was intended to increase streamflow in the river during drier years. Through the agreement, the ranch will be compensated by the water trust for retiming their practices to leave irrigation water in the Crystal when the river needs it most, according to a news release from Colorado Water Trust.

“Although we certainly wish conditions were wetter, we are excited for a chance to run the program,” Alyson Meyer Gould, staff attorney for the water trust, said in the release. “On one hand, it enables an active, family-owned ranching operation to use its water rights portfolio in a new and flexible way. On the other hand, it keeps water in the river when it is most in need. It checks the boxes for the definition of a win-win solution.”

The project is the second pilot program between the water trust and Cold Mountain Ranch to add flow to the Crystal. The first was an agreement finalized in 2018 that was intended to last three years but ended early in 2020. Water levels in the river were too low in 2018 to implement the project, the release says, and flows did not allow sufficient time for implementation in 2019 either. In 2020, temperatures were so high that Cold Mountain Ranch needed all the water it could get to support its hay crop, so the agreement came to an end.

This time around, hopes are high that the project will help maintain a healthy river flow. Cold Mountain Ranch owner Bill Fales said on Thursday that he thinks the project is a positive step forward and he’s looking forward to helping keep the river flows up, because no one likes to see it dry.

“Because my family — my wife Marj and I — are in total control of when we do it, I think we can do it with minimal impact to the ranch, I’m hoping,” he said. “I think it’s good, and in the last few years, I think we were headed that way fast. The river would drop down to single digits. … It was going to be really bad.”

Under the agreement, the water trust will monitor river flows, and when it drops to 40 cubic feet per second in August or September, Fales can voluntarily decide whether to cease diversion from the Crystal in August through October, according to the release.

The water trust will determine the amount of water left in the stream and pay the ranch $250 per cfs per day for up to 20 days each year. Once streamflows reach 55 cfs based on a three-day rolling average, payments will cease, but should the river drop back below 55 cfs, diversions can stop again and compensation will resume. The release adds that the project could restore up to 6 cfs in the Crystal.

Levels below 40 cfs are a cause for concern because that’s the point when the river starts to incur ecological damage, Fales said. Only a couple of days into the project, he said he hasn’t seen much progress yet, but the rain that fell on Wednesday night provided a significant jump in water flows.

“We’re all getting readings at noon. Yesterday, it was at 30 and after the rain, it jumped up to 73 cfs,” Fales said Thursday. “The rain we got last night was fantastic. … It’s good for everything.”

With the new contract, partners tried to account for drier years, changing climate conditions and the economic needs of the ranch, the release says. The changes included a $5,000 signing bonus to support agricultural operations, additional payment and flexibility for coordination, and extending potential coordination into October.

In the end, the release adds, the project will bring environmental benefits to the river without affecting ranches’ long-term sustainability, thus supporting both people and the environment.

“I don’t know that this is a perfect solution, but it’s a trial because some things have to give,” Fales said. “We can’t go on pretending that everything’s all the same. Things are going to be changing because the climate is changing.”

Aspen Daily News
by Megan Webber
Original Article