As I bounced along the bony Crystal River last Saturday in my 12-foot-long rubber “Shredder” raft, I was reminded that we are in a drought like we haven’t seen since 1982.
The “Avalanche” run on the Crystal is pretty challenging at low water and judging by the weekend’s challenges, I think we may already have seen the peak flow.
I’m spoiled. I just got off a Grand Canyon river trip, my second in 10 years. There was plenty of water down there but it was somewhat surreal.
When we put our boats in the water in mid-April drought conditions, the air temperature was in the mid-90s, yet icy cold, clear green river water was slipping past at nearly 10,000 cubic feet per second (cfs).
The river comes out of turbines at the base of Glen Canyon dam. This water from the bottom of Lake Powell is cold and clear and lacks the warmth and sediment that fed the canyon until 1963.
The flows of water in the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon are largely controlled by the power utility running the hydro-turbines. Flow considerations are based on the power needs and profitability of downstream cities like Los Angeles.
Not only is the water dispatched from the reservoir clear and cold, but the flows fluctuate by thousands of cfs each day. This makes keeping a raft tied off a challenge but it also puts nature against the ropes in many unanticipated ways. There are federal agencies working to mitigate the impacts of cold, controlled water but the Grand Canyon river ecosystem is suffering. The human tinkering hasn’t fixed anything so far.
Native fish are the hardest hit but the vibrancy and dynamic health that comes from the natural ebb and flow of high and low silted, warm water is missing in the Grand Canyon.
Here in the valley, our rivers have changed over the years. The Roaring Fork River is about half of what it should be, thanks to diversions to the Front Range coming off the top. Flows in the Frying Pan are influenced by the water rights of distant customers. The Crystal River is one of the last free-flowing streams left in Colorado.
The nonprofit organization, American Rivers, just listed our lovely Crystal River in the top 10 of “America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2012.” There has been a dam proposal known as the “West Divide Project” that would have dammed the Crystal near Redstone with the water being diverted for energy production near DeBeque.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District has abandoned a substantial portion of its conditional water rights for this project, which is great news, but the possibility of smaller dams and diversions on the Crystal is still real.
Riparian habitat is the area along the banks of a river. The Crystal has some nice habitat but much of it already is severely degraded. Highway 133 has led to widespread erosion of the riparian habitat on the Crystal, and mining and development also have had negative impacts. Every animal from bugs to bears (to humans) depend on riparian habitat for survival.
Dams and diversions can alter or destroy this fragile ecosystem. The banks of the river absorb water during spring runoff, and like a sponge, release water and regulate the river temperatures and flows during low water.
The reason we see eagles and herons and American dippers and bugs and leaves and branches along the Crystal now is because we leave some of that riparian habitat alone and let nature do her work.
Despite our best efforts, the Crystal River is the gem of the valley and I could not help but laugh out loud as my group of friends paddled our way down the rocky riverway last weekend.
Last year I had to hold off because the water was too high and I couldn’t get my boat under the bridges. This free-flowing river is still full of surprises, life and character. I sure don’t want to see her dammed or diverted.
American Rivers is helping to spearhead an effort to garner wild and scenic status to the Crystal, offering more protection to future greed and grabs. Find out more at americanrivers.org.
Steve Skinner is not into drilling, damming or diverting anything up there along the Crystal. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.