REDSTONE - A national environmental organization named the Crystal River one of 2012's most endangered rivers in America on Tuesday because of the threat of dams and diversions.
American Rivers ranked the Crystal as the eighth most endangered river in the country for 2012. Its status as one of the last and largest free-flowing rivers in Colorado is in peril, according to Matt Rice, Colorado conservation director for American Rivers.
The Colorado River District and West Divide Conservancy District hold conditional water rights that could be used to build the 4,000-acre-foot Placita Reservoir; a similar-size reservoir on Yank Creek, a tributary of the Crystal River; and a water diversion on Avalanche Creek, the largest tributary of the river. The Placita Reservoir would be about four miles upstream from Redstone.
Rice said giving the Crystal River the "endangered" label isn't the end of action. It's just the beginning.
"We hope this will begin a renewed effort to protect the Crystal River with a 'Wild and Scenic' designation," he said. That designation would bring federal protection and prevent dam-building.
Rice made the announcement during a news conference Tuesday at a place called the Placita Overlook, a bench above the river bottom. If the dam is built, the overlook will be slightly above the water level of the reservoir. A swath of the valley more than a mile long would be swamped.
American Rivers has released its "most endangered" list annually since 1986 to draw attention to waterways imperiled by one threat or another. The list is designed to spur action.
Pitkin County government and local environmental groups welcomed American Rivers' designation because it will bring greater awareness and scrutiny of what's known as the West Divide Project.
"It's hard to be excited about the designation of most endangered river," quipped Sharon Clarke, a staff member of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, a Basalt-based organization that specializes in water quality and quantity issues in the Roaring Fork River basin. The conservancy is fighting the water development projects and supported American Rivers' designation of the Crystal.
Clarke said the proposed reservoir would flood one of the few wide spots in the narrow valley. Placita is a particularly scenic section of the valley, and it is also an "alluvial hotspot" where wetlands work as a natural filter for the water, she said.
Pitkin County and the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association nominated the Crystal River as an endangered river. Pitkin County's interest carried extra weight, Rice said, because it is usually conservation groups making the nominations.
Pitkin County Attorney John Ely said most people are willing to brush off threats of water development and say it will never happen somewhere as scenic as the Crystal River.
"The prospect of something happening here is very realistic," Ely said.
The only way to prevent the reservoir and diversions is for various government entities and conservation groups to unite in opposition. Pitkin County is leading a coalition that is challenging the conditional water rights being held for the Placita Reservoir and diversion projects. A trial in Colorado water court is scheduled for August 2013.
The Colorado River District contends Placita Reservoir would have potential beneficial uses for the Crystal River, spokesman Jim Pokrandt said. Water releases from the reservoir could boost flows in the Crystal River late in the summer when water levels are low, the organization contends.
The Colorado River District, in conjunction with the West Divide Conservancy District, voted in April 2011 to scale down water-diversion plans for the Crystal Valley. They pulled the plug on the long-planned Osgood Reservoir. At 128,728 acre-feet, Osgood would have been bigger than Ruedi Reservoir and would have flooded the town of Redstone, south of Carbondale. Placita Reservoir was initially planned at 58,000 acre-feet, about 60 percent the size of Ruedi Reservoir. The Colorado River District and West Divide Conservancy District slashed the plan to 4,000 acre-feet.
The water districts thought the downsizing of plans would placate the opposition, Ely said.
"They have not answered the question of need," he said.
Chuck Downey, a member of the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association, contended that the environmental price of the proposed dam would be high and the irrigation benefits negligible.
The dam would be built about 3.7 miles upstream from Redstone. It would cover 500 surface acres, stretching upstream to where the county road heads to Marble, Downey said. Roughly 10 houses would go under water, he said.
A hydroelectric project associated with the dam would have the capability to generate power for 70 houses, but only when the reservoir is full, Downey said. The reservoir would be dry half the way.
"You'd be looking at a mud flat," Downey said. "Four thousand acre-feet, it only takes 20 days to drain it."
The environmental protection association, Pitkin County and their allies want the water districts to abandon the conditional water rights and leave the Crystal River free-flowing. To try to force the issue, they will fight the water rights and press for "Wild and Scenic" designation.
"River district - wake up. We're here, and we're not going away," Downey said.