Drought Watch 2012: What’s the protection for the environment in our drought? | SummitDaily.com

Drought Watch 2012: What’s the protection for the environment in our drought?

Brian Lorch and Lane Wyatt
Summit County Open Space; and Northwest Colorado Council of Governments

Editor’s Note: This is the 10th in a series of articles that the Summit Daily will run over the summer to keep the community informed about ongoing drought conditions in the county.

The recent Summit Daily News series on our drought demonstrates the depth of preparation and coordination by local water providers and emergency response organizations in response to an emerging water crisis. These articles also help citizens understand what conservation measures and user restrictions are in place to most efficiently use the dwindling sources of water. Local governments have prepared well to ensure that we continue to have an adequate source of water for our needs even in times of drought, and want to make sure you understand what responsibilities you have as an end user to protect this resource.

Managing our demand for water by implementing water conservation measures also reduces the stress on the aquatic environment found in the streams and reservoirs that are the source of most of our local water supplies. As the stream flows diminish in a drought, water temperature goes up and habitat and refuge for fish and aquatic invertebrates goes down. What is the effect of this situation on the environment and what other measures are in place to protect the aquatic environment?

When water temperatures in streams get to the mid-60s trout and other fish are sluggish, show signs of stress and become vulnerable to disease. If the stream temperature gets to the 70s it begins to be lethal for many aquatic species typical to Summit County. Air temperature is one of the most significant factors effecting water temperature but this situation is compounded by low streamflows like those during a drought. Fish will move to deep pools or shaded areas for protection from the effects of temperature but as stream-flows drop riffles get shallow and make it difficult for fish to find refuge from the heat. Obviously some minimum level of streamflow is critical to provide protection for these aquatic species.

In Colorado, only the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) can hold water rights to protect streamflows for the environment. Individuals, environmental groups and others cannot hold these water rights for instream environmental purposes although they can petition the CWCB to acquire these rights or can donate existing water rights for this purpose. The CWCB will consult with the Division of Parks and Wildlife to quantify an instream flow level that provides only the “minimum amount to protect the environment to a reasonable degree”. This flow is usually enough to provide passage for fish though riffles that may limit connectivity to pools and other safe havens, essentially only about enough to keep the backs of the fish wet in these shallow areas.

Like other water rights in Colorado, the effectiveness of these instream flow water rights to protect stream- flows is based on their seniority within the prior appropriation system. So in order for the instream flow rights to protect streamflows from diversions out of the stream they must be senior, or older than the water right associated with the diversion. We are lucky in Summit County that most of our streams have some instream flow water right for protection. For a description of the instream flow water rights in Summit County and for more information on Colorado’s instream flow program, check out this website: http://cwcb.state.co.us /environment/instream-flow-program/Pages/main.aspx

Look for this column every Monday throughout the summer. Articles will focus on drought, water conservation and the perspectives/realities of water management in Summit County. Due to drought conditions in the Blue River watershed, water providers in Summit County are implementing increased levels of water conservation. Please go to your water provider’s website to see how these changes will affect you. For additional water conservation tips, visit: http://www.blueriverwatershed.org.

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