Amping up attention to Colorado’s rivers |

Amping up attention to Colorado’s rivers

Summit Daily/Mark Fox

The Upper Colorado River is the sixth most endangered American river, according to a 2010 report from the group American Rivers.

It comes after the Upper Delaware River in Pennsylvania and New York, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River in California, West Virginia’s Gauley River, the Little River in North Carolina, and Iowa’s Cedar River.

When proposed projects to firm the Front Range water supply move forward – pumping just a small portion of what’s already removed – the Upper Colorado will be at less than 20 percent of its original flow, said Nathan Fey, American Whitewater’s Colorado stewardship director.

And that prospect poses significant threats to the river’s wildlife and ecological health as well as the tourism industry in Summit County, Grand County and beyond, he said.

The Colorado River is a mecca for fishermen, with prized trout fisheries. Whitewater boaters take to the rapids at all times of the year. Hikers enjoy the scenic panoramas and riverside hot pools. Wildlife is abundant in the headwaters area and as the river meanders down the Western Slope.

“River-based tours in Grand and Summit County are at risk,” Fey said, “because flows that are there now are not likely to be there in the future.”

Such values have qualified the river, from near its source to its confluence with the Roaring Fork in Glenwood Springs, as a candidate for federal Wild and Scenic River designation, American Rivers’ report states.

To continue to enjoy recreational activities and discourage environmental and ecological breakdown of the river, it’s all about flow, American Rivers’ Colorado conservation director Matt Rice said.

The Upper Colorado River is going to be a focal point for the organization, which opens a Denver office in the near future. Between hydropower reform and partnering to develop Wild and Scenic River designations, the group has a lot on its plate.

“It’s a homecoming of sorts,” Rice said about opening the new office. The organization started in Colorado in 1973, he added.

Specifically, Rice plans to work with utilities and federal agencies to ensure water diversions and hydropower projects don’t further “dewater” the state’s rivers.

“I got into this work because I’m an avid fly fisherman and boater,” he said. What makes his job rewarding is seeing the benefits to rivers at the same time power and water needs are met.

The challenge in Colorado is finding that balance with the state’s long, convoluted history of water rights, Rice said. Initially, his work is to make projects more efficient and effective and advocate for the recreational, wildlife and ecological benefits that come with free-flowing streams. But a longer-term goal is to restore the rivers to what they used to be – a difficult task.

Water diversions a century old have drained the Colorado River, American Rivers’ 2010 report states, with much of it related to hydropower and water supply. With more proposed hydropower development – both federal and private – coming down the pipelines, Rice thinks the time is right to get involved in improving operations.

The Upper Colorado also faces challenges like increased pressure as a water source for the Front Range – such as the Moffat Firming Project, meant to increase the amount of water imported to the Front Range from the Fraser and Williams Fork drainages by 18,000 acre-feet. The Windy Gap Firming Project is also under consideration.

The project would mean reduced stream flows and increased temperatures in the river systems as they flow into the Colorado River, aquatic biologist Ken Kehmeier said. The lower flows would increase sedimentation and subsequently affect aquatic insects and fish.

“A healthy Colorado River is critically important to the future of this state,” Wildlife Comission chairman Tim Glenn said in December. “Water projects like this have to be done right if we’re going to have a healthy river in the future.”

Rice believes it possible to be protective while meeting needs.

“What we work for – and it’s sometimes not attainable – is to try to work with the utility to develop an operating plan that closely mimicks what the river would be doing,” Rice said.

“We want to get in on the front end and work efficiently with the utilities and developers looking to benefit … and make sure they do it right,” he added.

Other rivers on American Rivers’ radar are the Yampa, the Gunnison, the Dolores and the Animas, among others.

A single river – the Cache La Poudre – in Colorado has been designated “Wild and Scenic,” a term established by Congress in 1968 to set aside rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values such that they remain free-flowing for the enjoyment of present and future generations. Designated rivers are managed with the goal of protecting and enhancing the identified values that qualified it as Wild and Scenic.

“Colorado has some of the finest rivers not only in the United States, but in the world,” Rice said, adding that the Congressional act was meant to protect “our most valuable rivers.”

But Fey said the Cache La Poudre has a “pseudo” designation – it accommodates future development.

“So we don’t have one honest-to-god wild and scenic river in Colorado,” Fey said.

Oregon, Alaska, Idaho, California and Michigan lead the pack in terms of states with the most rivers under the Wild and Scenic designation.

It’s a worthy goal for Colorado to boost its designations, Rice said, but Fey noted there hasn’t been political backing because of the state’s snowpack-dependent river flows. Dedicating flows downstream means risking the ability to fulfill water rights.

But Rice said there’s plenty of opportunity, and he and Fey plan to partner to encourage designations.

Rice used the example of the Blue River, which is “significantly impounded,” but has maintained downstream beauty in its free-flowing areas.

“There are some rivers left in Colorado that have not been dammed or diverted to the point of dewatering them,” Rice said. “Rivers are important to Coloradans. It’s my opinion that we need to take steps to protect them for future generations.”

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