Kayakers, developers battle each other over their rivers of dreams
SALIDA – Software engineer Tom Palka likes to spend his lunch break catching a wave in the town’s whitewater park.Through the wonders of telecommuting, Palka collects a paycheck from a Boston firm while he enjoys a renaissance propelled by Salida’s decision to turn this long-abused stretch of the Arkansas River into a paddler’s paradise.”I can slide out the back of my house right into the water,” Palka said.With out-of-state tourism now a $7 billion-a-year economic pillar – not counting the millions more spent by outdoor-minded Coloradans – a number of mountain towns are looking to claim some of the state’s overworked rivers for whitewater parks.Pushing upstream against entrenched power brokers, communities such as Golden, Vail, Breckenridge and Gunnison have made headway in obtaining water rights for recreation, sparking a debate over water priorities.Water developers fear that, if unchecked, owners of kayak rights will be able to limit development and cut off exports of water to other parts of the state. Many feel that residential, agricultural and industrial uses should have greater priority.”This is truly an example of the Old West vs. the New West,” said Boulder water attorney Glenn Porzak, a kayak-park proponent.In the past 10 years, whitewater parks have surfaced from Reno, Nev., to Fort Worth, Texas. But Colorado is the first state to allow water decrees for kayak parks.At least 15 Colorado communities have built courses since the early 1990s. Among those now seeking a water right is Chaffee County, whose officials say they are trying to protect a whitewater industry that generates $80 million a year.The Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is charged with maximizing the use of Colorado’s water, has been the most persistent court opponent of kayak-park applications.”No one is saying these rights don’t exist,” said Rod Kuharich, director of the board. “But people across the state are recognizing the finite limits of water.”In most years, whitewater parks would have all the water they need. During times of drought, recreational water decrees would be among the last to get water, because they are the newest.But they worry about the so-called traditional water brokers because by having a large water right, a kayak-course owner will have a seat at the table when changes in future water use are considered. That might enable rural governments to limit development of reservoirs and water exchanges between farms and cities, critics say.
In 2003, a state judge granted the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District a water decree enabling it to command a peak of 1,500 cubic feet per second in late June, or 157,000 acre-feet per year. That’s 30 percent more than Denver currently pipes under the Continental Divide from its Dillon Reservoir.If the decree is upheld, it would greatly reduce the amount of water that could be siphoned off to supply growth on the Front Range 100 miles away.Likewise, a big Chaffee County kayak decree could complicate future efforts by Colorado Springs and Aurora to export more water from the Arkansas headwaters.That’s why state officials advocate capping flows for kayak parks at 350 cubic feet per second. Many high-quality kayak courses operate at or below that level, they argue.Last week, the state Supreme Court ordered the Gunnison case back to the lower court, where the state will again seek to limit the water right.This week, a state House committee approved a bill that limits decrees to 350 cubic feet per second – or less. Water-course developers acknowledge that a water right is insurance against development drying up river flows.”Fifty years ago, Aurora wasn’t even on the map,” said Mike Harvey, a paddler and boat-course builder in Salida. “Who could have predicted that they would now be the major player in the Arkansas Valley?”Whitewater devotees say the cap would limit water flow to the equivalent of bunny slopes, when expert kayakers want double-diamond runs. Several experts believe the bill would fundamentally alter Colorado water law.”A cap would be unprecedented,” said Jeris Danielson, the former state engineer. “It would be like telling Highlands Ranch, ‘You can’t grow anymore because we want to save the water for another purpose.’ I think it would be unconstitutional.”Park proponents say the bill is designed to kill a vital new economic development tool.Five years ago, a Golden consultant’s testimony that the town’s kayak park generated between $1.3 million and $2 million per year helped win the first big-water boating decree. Since then the course has grown in length and popularity.
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