West Slope eyes water in Ruedi
BASALT – Officials who manage Ruedi Reservoir said the last unspoken-for water reserves in the reservoir could be purchased by local governments to protect Western Slope interests from the growing demands of the Front Range.Mark Fuller, director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, said it is critical to secure that remaining water as quickly as possible because of the growing Front Range communities. Mainly, Fuller said, it would take cooperation from all governments in the Roaring Fork Valley to secure local interests.Those interests are varied: Longtime Fryingpan Valley resident Bruce Gabow wants enough water kept in Ruedi Reservoir to accommodate sailing and windsurfing throughout future summers;Jeanne Beaudry, director of the Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy, wants the amount of water released from Ruedi to remain high enough to support a healthy ecosystem and prime trout habitat in the Fryingpan River;The Colorado River Water Conservation District wants any available water source, like Ruedi, secured to help irrigate crops and quench the thirst of growing cities on the Western Slope.All of those interests, which sometimes conflict, could be met if governments of the Roaring Fork Valley banded together and purchased the remaining 18,600 acre-feet of water in Ruedi, which spans Pitkin and Eagle counties. The 102,000 acre-feet reservoir was built as mitigation for water taken over the Continental Divide into the Two Lakes system and onto southeastern Colorado via the Arkansas River. An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot. There are 325,851 gallons in one acre-foot, roughly enough to serve two typical American families of four people for one year.The topic was discussed at a recent meeting between local water experts and newly elected state Rep. Kathleen Curry of Gunnison.Cities such as Pueblo and Colorado Springs already tap the headwaters of the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork rivers and are studying if they can divert more from the basin.Red tape complicates water purchaseRuedi, 14 miles east of Basalt, is contracted with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation by various city and county governments, water districts and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for water rights.Buying that water and securing it to benefit interests in the Roaring Fork Valley isn’t easy. High prices, stiff regulations and competition from thirsty Front Range cities present challenges.Fuller said the Bureau of Reclamation is asking $15.5 million for the 18,600 acre-feet of water still available from Ruedi. Even if the governments could raise that amount, federal red tape might prevent them from using the water how they see fit.When Ruedi Reservoir was authorized by U.S. Congress, the decree prohibited use of water for recreation and environmental causes. It was built to fuel the growth of Colorado.Smoother sailing, fishery protection soughtTo sailing enthusiasts like Gabow, buying water for recreation should be just as legitimate as other uses. Gabow, a member of the Aspen Yacht Club at Ruedi, said heavy water demands during the summer drain the reservoir at a time when it is being used most for boating, windsurfing and fishing. When the water level drops below 50,000 acre-feet, or about half the capacity of the reservoir, it is “unusable” for recreation, Gabow said.Buying the 18,600 acre-feet of uncontracted water could assure a usable water level was maintained throughout the summer.The demands of boaters dovetail with those of the Roaring Fork Conservancy.Beaudry is concerned that if Front Range interests divert more water from the upper Fryingpan through the existing Fryingpan-Arkansas Project or tap into the uncontracted water at Ruedi Reservoir, winter flows on the Fryingpan River could suffer.The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Ruedi, is required to release enough water from the dam to maintain winter flows of 39 cubic feet per second (cfs) on the Fryingpan River. The bureau typically keeps flows well above that threshold, but the drought in recent years forced a reduction.Beaudry is concerned that the 39 cfs threshold is too low for a healthy trout habitat. Preliminary data from a study for the conservancy show that a lot of the bug population can be wiped out during cold winter months when the flow drops below 60 cfs.Because trout fishing is so important to the economy of Basalt, the conservancy believes buying water from Ruedi to protect the fishery should be a legitimate use. The same water that could guarantee good boating conditions during summers could be released during winters to keep the fishery healthy.Scott Condon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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