A map of potential revegetation opportunities at Janeway. Shades of green depict new riparian habitat, the three bars in white represent beaver dam analogues, while the red arc in the upper left represents a permanent barrier with controlled outflow. Courtesy graphic

Just downstream of the confluence of Avalanche Creek and the Crystal River, a 50-acre floodplain has become a site of optimism — and controversy — among water users in the Crystal River Valley.
Early this summer, the West Divide Water Conservancy District and the Colorado River Water Conservation District published a report on a joint feasibility study conducted to examine potential strategies to augment the Crystal River. Strategies included storage at Beaver Lake, Rapid Creek Pond and Upper Basin Pond. However, among the various water storage prospects examined, none was given more attention than a potential solution at Janeway.
Janeway, a historic floodplain on the east side of the Crystal, just downstream of the Avalanche Creek confluence, was identified in the study as a site for an aquifer recharge. Such a strategy would involve hydrologically connecting the plain via an excavated channel at its southern end, around 765 feet long. Then, porous wood structures referred to as “beaver dam analogues” would be constructed to retain water. Lastly, revegetation could occur in appropriate areas with riparian species, such as willows or cottonwoods.
Flooding this area during runoff season would create a store of groundwater with lagged returns, allowing for more stable year-by-year flows into the Crystal. Ideally, this would result in a more stable source of water for users. Additionally, the Crystal River would see the creation of an additional riparian habitat rich in biodiversity.
All of this could come at an estimated total cost of $1.5 million. The report identified various sources of grant funding, notably a 50% funding match from the Colorado Water Plan as well as a 25% funding match from the Colorado Basin Roundtable. While funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board cannot exceed 75% of the total project cost, the report determines that Pitkin County need not foot the entire bill for the project.
While this may seem like a win-win for water users and the environment, the potential recharge has its critics.
Currently, Janeway sits dry, primarily populated with sagebrush and juniper, with a historic railroad grade along its western side. Dale Will of the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association wrote in a column published by The Sopris Sun in August that the site is no longer a seasonal wetland. “The whole flat is quite dry,” Will wrote, and while artificially flooding the area may technically be a “nature-based solution,” Mother Nature hasn’t flooded the plain in the past century.
Will and Pitkin County attorney Laura Makar pointed to the $1.5 million price tag of the project, arguing that it may be more prudent to simply reduce water waste and seek cooperation between water users — especially between agricultural and residential taps. However, others in the Crystal River Valley are optimistic about the project. “It seems like an awesome opportunity,” said Howie Kuhn, a teacher at Basalt Middle School and part-time hand at Cold Mountain Ranch.
Kuhn, whose family lives off of the flows of the Crystal River, recognized the Janeway site years ago for a potential ecological project while working at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. Now, he recognizes its potential for benefiting humans upriver.
“There are 205 houses up the Crystal that lack a senior water right,” Kuhn emphasized. “When you’re talking about [that many] houses without a legal right, conserving water just isn’t enough.”
And while the area may be dry now, introducing water isn’t necessarily destructive. Kuhn argues that many species rely on riparian areas, and if the beaver dam analogues are successful as part of this project, beavers may introduce dams on their own and sustain the floodplain as a haven of biodiversity.
However, Kuhn pointed out the need for additional studies in order to justify the project. The report states that current groundwater levels at Janeway are uncertain, and wells may need to be dug in order to determine the viability of the site as an aquifer.
What is ultimately apparent is that concerns about water supply are only rising in the Crystal River Valley. Carbondale is expanding rapidly, drought shows no signs of easing up, and after the historic Ella Ditch call in 2018, action of any kind may need to be taken in order to ensure both livelihoods and households aren’t left stranded without a drop in their taps.
“This is something that could alleviate potential fears,” praised Kuhn.