Colorado’s water future will require a confluence of ideas and efforts

 

Panel discusses draft Colorado Water Plan, conservation in Glenwood Springs

Diverse ideas and efforts will have to come together from often-opposing interests if a strong and effective water plan for Colorado is to be forged.

That theme of cooperation, including striking a balance between consumption and conservation, quickly rose to the surface Friday, as members of the whitewater, conservation and political communities met at Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs to discuss the future of state water policy.

“To the best of our ability, we don’t want it to be West Slope against East Slope, “ said Heather Lewin, watershed action director for the Roaring Fork Conservancy. “We want to be working together to understand where water comes from, and how to use it most efficiently … so that we can do the best we can for the people who live here and for the environment.”

Members of the environmental group Conservation Colorado hosted the confab, which was set to coincide with Colorado River Day. The discussion largely revolved around local water issues and the recent release of the draft Colorado Water Plan. As water levels dwindle throughout the West, Colorado is formulating its first state water plan.

Gov. John Hickenlooper signed an executive order in 2013 for the creation of the water plan, and a draft compiled by the Colorado Water Conservation Board was completed in December. An updated draft version was released July 15.

A benefit of the state effort is that many interest groups have gotten together to discuss the issue, creating new partnerships that before may never have been possible, said Kristin Green, Front Range field manager for Conservation Colorado.

“I think it’s important to recognize the diversity of holders we do have in this state, particularly in this area, that feel very direct effects from how we are managing our rivers,” she said. “Now more than ever we need to make sure all those different voices are being heard.”

More than 24,000 comments have been made concerning the draft water plan, and the public comment period doesn’t end until Sept. 17, Green said.

She noted that the second draft of the water plan begins to delve into potential solutions, and suggests a conservation goal of saving 400,000 acre feet by 2050. It’s the start of establishing the criteria officials may want to discuss, she said.

“There definitely was more meat on the bones,” Green said of the second draft.

That draft is available at coloradowaterplan.com, and the final version is due on Gov. Hickenlooper’s desk on Dec. 10.

Roaring Fork watershed increases 
quality of the Colorado

Lewin said that while the Roaring Fork River may be a small component of the overall Colorado River Basin, it still contributes around 1 million acre feet of water to the larger river each year.

She said the quality and quantity of that water can be very significant farther downstream in both an ecological sense and for its value to industries, municipalities and agriculture. But diversions strain that resource.

“Having high-quality water in the Roaring Fork makes a big difference of the water quality overall in the Colorado,” Lewin said.

She added that the river’s gold medal fishing designation is a huge economic boost to the valley. That lofty standard is met when there are at least 60 pounds of trout per acre of water, including at least 12 fish that are 14 inches or longer.

“That’s a lot of fat fish,” Lewin said. “But [keeping] those fish growing fat, healthy and swimming doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”

These conditions occur when a river or stream consists of clean water, and is home to an abundant insect population and a healthy riparian area. Lewin said surrounding riparian areas provide shade to cool river temperatures; food for aquatic creatures; erosion control; and help to filter pollutants.

“As you increase development, and as we diminish stream flows, riparian vegetation becomes one of the first things to really suffer,” she said. “So it’s hard to regenerate cottonwoods without overbanking flows. Cottonwoods are a key part to that riparian vegetation piece.”

Lewin said the recent wet spring led to the term “miracle May,” a month with a huge amount of precipitation that helped make up for a dry and warm winter. The heavy flows also helped to clear out sediment that built up in areas of the Roaring Fork.

“One of the biggest transmountain diversions out of the basin, the Independence Pass Tunnel, was shut down for nearly two months,” she said (that was because the East Slope had ample water supplies). “It just started operations about a week ago or so. By closing down that tunnel we were able to really see the full effects of the spring flushing flow and the benefits to the river.”

 

Lewin added that old oxbows in the North Star Nature Preserve east of Aspen were again filled with water this spring, putting the wetland area in a more natural state.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy has also engaged residents in the Crystal River Valley to work on addressing low stream flows. That effort has focused on looking at best practices to manage diversions and return flows, and studying the area’s physical features.

“We’re trying to see if we can use all of those pieces together in cooperation with the people who live on and around the river, and use that water to do the best we can for the Crystal,” Lewin said.

Dean Moffatt, a local architect, inquired about efforts to bestow the federal “Wild and Scenic” designation and its protections on the Crystal River.

“As an organization, we’re certainly supportive of the process,” Lewin replied. “We think that it’s really important and has the potential to be really beneficial.”

Solomon Liston, a guide for Whitewater Rafting LLC, said he sees first hand the huge economic benefit the rivers have on the valley’s economy.

His company sees over 20,000 people a season, and employs over 65 seasonally, “and that’s just us.” Liston said the ripple effects of river outfitter patrons include a boon for restaurants, retail 
stores and lodging.

“The touch point we have with the tourism industry is huge,” he said, adding that local rivers attract people from across the world.

As water is diverted from the Western Slope, it harms not only the local economy but the quality of life for residents, Liston said.

“Taking away the water from the Colorado River and diverting it elsewhere, it has impacts,” he said. “It takes away from the whole experience.”

‘No more water to give’

Aron Diaz, a Silt town trustee, said there’s a lot of interest among local leaders in the Colorado Water Plan.

“We’re really in a unique position and have the opportunity to craft Colorado’s water policy at the larger state level,” he said. “But we need to keep in mind how that affects the Western Slope.”

Diaz said the biggest point of concern is that Front Range basins are still adding placeholders, indicating that they may need more West Slope water to meet demands.

“We’re pretty tapped out for the amount of water that we have available to us,” he said. “Both with our obligations to stakeholders along the Colorado and those environmental, recreational, agricultural, industrial, municipal needs … as well as our downstream obligations with the compact, we’re really at the limit.”

There’s a need to set “achievable, but very aggressive conservation goals” to assure every avenue is studied before looking at new diversions, Diaz said. He urged the public to visit westslopewater.com to sign a petition that will be delivered to Gov. Hickenlooper and Colorado Water Conservation Board director James Eklund. It requests that no new diversions of water be made to the Front Range.

“The Western Slope in Colorado has no more water to give. We, the undersigned western Colorado residents, strongly urge you to oppose any new trans-mountain diversion that will take more water from the Western Slope of Colorado, as you develop Colorado’s Water Plan,” the petition states. “We cannot solve our state’s future water needs by simply sending more water east.”

collin@aspendailynews.com