What’s worth more, 50 houses in Lakewood or kayaking on Daisy Creek?
That question, or something close to it (I wish I’d taken better notes), was posed on Oct. 7 following a presentation by American Whitewater staffer Chris Menges to the Gunnison Basin Roundtable on the results of a survey of flow needs for whitewater recreation in the Gunnison Basin.
That’s the kind of values question that will be hovering in the background as Colorado’s water leaders struggle to develop a plan that can stretch the state’s limited water supplies to meet its growing needs.
The Gunnison Basin Roundtable, along with eight other basin roundtables around the state that were formed by the Colorado legislature in 2005, is charged with doing “bottom up” water planning and helping to develop a statewide water plan. Gov. John Hickenlooper has ordered the Colorado Water Conservation Board to compile a draft of that plan by late 2014, and a final version by the end of 2015. Each roundtable has designated seats for water providers and local governments as well as agriculture, recreation and the environment.
Water managers have long been accustomed to assessing water needs for crop irrigation and household use and factored that into their long-term planning. It’s only in recent decades that flow needs to keep streams healthy have begun to be taken into consideration, and an even more recent development to consider the flows needed to keep boaters happy.
Whitewater recreation has become a big business in Colorado, as well as an icon of the “Colorado lifestyle.” In the Gunnison Basin, commercial float trips were estimated to have added over $6 million to the economy in 2011. The Colorado River Outfitters Association estimated that statewide, whitewater boating accounted for $155 million tourist dollars spent in that same year.
And so whitewater recreation advocates are now taking their place among other stakeholders wrestling with how to guide Colorado’s water future. According to an American Whitewater announcement promoting participation in their survey, it was designed to “help American Whitewater inform future management of the Gunnison River basin, and build support for healthy river flows threatened by drought, development, and management policies.”
Generally speaking, the survey found that the lowest flows respondents considered worth a repeat trip were in the range of 400-800 cubic feet per second (cfs), while flows considered “optimal” ranged between 500 - 10,000 cfs. Respondents tended to prefer higher flows on stream segments farther downstream in the basin.
Menges pointed out that these “acceptable” flows do tend to be achieved seasonally on most of the segments considered in the survey, and that maintaining these seasonal flows also helps serve environmental needs on these streams.
Roundtable members expressed some irritation with how the whitewater boating community has interfered with other land and water users in certain instances, but also expressed appreciation for data that could help bolster the case for the need to keep adequate water on the Western Slope. They made no immediate decision on what to do with the data from the survey.
There is precedent for basin roundtables formally recognizing data like that in the Gunnison Basin survey. The Yampa-White and Colorado Basin Roundtables have integrated data from similar services by American Whitewater into the flow evaluation tool they developed to assess their basins’ “nonconsumptive needs.” “Nonconsumptive” needs for water are those that do not require taking water out of the stream and typically refer to environmental and recreational water needs. The Basin Roundtables are required to assess both nonconsumptive and consumptive needs in their basins.
What remains to be seen is how Colorado’s water plan will make choices between consumptive and nonconsumptive demands when there’s not enough water to satisfy all of them.
This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison basin roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region.