A river that started the day with a modest flow dwindled by the afternoon to a thin sheet of ice covering the dry ground below. Dead fish lay frozen on the riverbed nearby.
John Pallaoro, a Breckenridge resident who owns a business on the Blue River, observed water levels drop significantly Tuesday.
"As I watched the river today, it went from flowing to absolutely nothing and I noticed the smell of dead fish," Pallaoro said Tuesday. "I've observed several dead fish throughout the day."
Pallaoro said the levels of the river this year compared to previous years is "black and white."
"Something is up, something non-natural is going on," he said. "I look up at the mountain and see them blowing all of this snow for the halfpipe and Dew Tour and I don't know if that's the answer or not, but it's hard not to make a connection."
Breckenridge Ski Resort officials say the low levels are not connected with ongoing snowmaking efforts.
"We are constantly monitoring streamflows at the Maggie Pond dam and the Highway 9 bridge gauge to make sure we are not impacting minimum streamflows in the Blue River," said Kristen Petitt-Stewart, spokeswoman for the resort. "We have been well within our flow parameters and 100 percent compliant so far this snowmaking season and minimum streamflows are being met."
As part of this monitoring and management of the water rights, the ski resort has legal right to call for water to be released into the Blue River from the Goose Pasture Tarn above the snowmaking intake.
"Our company has put significant effort and multiple resources into our water rights over the years," Petitt-Stewart said. "We are fortunate to have access to plentiful water to ensure snowmaking across our resort, as we saw last winter."
The town of Breckenridge and Breckenridge Ski Resort, the two entities that divert water from the tarn and Maggie Pond that flow into the Blue River as it extends through town, are within their legal right to use the water, said Troy Wineland, water commissioner for District 36 of the Blue River Basin.
"Breckenridge Ski Resort is certainly hitting it hard right now - they're trying to get every drop of water they can up the mountain to get all of the terrain open for the upcoming busy season, but it's very important to stress that they are perfectly within the confines of their water right and are meeting the minimum flow requirements downstream," Wineland said.
The low level of the Blue River, particularly at a section directly behind Main Street businesses near French Street that nearly dried up Tuesday, can be blamed on the dry conditions and low snowpack levels.
"We're on the heels of one of the worst snowpack seasons in the last 60 years," Wineland said. "The lowest flows occur during the fall and winter, that's the paradigm of the snowmaking issue: They're taking water out of the streams when streams are at their most stressed, but they are within the perimeters of what they're legally allowed to do."
The minimum bypass flows at the diversion point for Breckenridge Ski Resort's snowmaking is 2 cubic feet per second. Downstream on the Blue River near Tiger Road, the minimum streamflow requirement is 10 CFS.
"The minimum bypass flows are being met, but the streamflows are so deficient the river is not flowing above the surface of the stream bed - I need to stress that the water is there, you just can't see it because it's sub-surface in some sections," Wineland said.
The town of Breckenridge rehabilitated through-town sections of the Blue River that were devastated from historical dredge work, but the section with lowest flows Tuesday was a restored area that was left without an impermeable liner to keep stream- flows above the surface, Wineland said.
The town of Breckenridge holds the senior water right of the tarn and allocates water to the ski area for snowmaking. Town officials say conservation of water resources is a joint effort.
"This is a pretty dry year," said Kim Dykstra-DiLallo, spokeswoman for the town of Breckenridge. "We'd like everyone to consider being as conservative with the water as possible."
Pallaoro said the ski resorts should participate in conservation efforts during the drought.
"Just because they're allowed to use up most of the water legally, it doesn't make that level of snowmaking ethical," Pallaoro said.
Jon Ewert, a fisheries biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife observed dead brown trout in the Blue River Wednesday at the low level section reported. Upstream, near the Riverwalk Center, though Ewert saw living specimen.
"We didn't experience a complete fish-kill from this drop - that's good," Ewert said. "But when we're having fish die, we want to know why."