Fish prevail with new water-quality regs | AspenTimes.com

Fish prevail with new water-quality regs

Janet Urquhart

Aspen, CO Colorado

New temperature standards to protect aquatic life in Colorado’s rivers, streams and lakes won unanimous approval Tuesday from the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission after a two-day hearing in Denver.

Conservation and sportsmen’s groups have angled for stricter regulations for more than two years, but this week’s lengthy hearing also drew the testimony of mining and energy interests, wastewater treatment operations and water districts involved in diversion projects.

“I think the fish came out fairly well,” said Nicole Vieira, water-quality specialist for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

The state has long had temperature regulations on the books, but they were so vague, they were essentially unused and unenforceable, conservation groups complained.

Fish are vulnerable to excessive temperatures, and rapid changes in temperature.

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The proposal adopted by the commission establishes both long-term regulations, to be applied as each river basin in the state comes up for periodic review (the Colorado River basin is next, in 2008), and interim measures that go into effect this year for cold-water streams populated by cutthroats and brook trout, as well as Gold Medal fisheries like the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers.

Standards for warm-water fisheries were also adopted.

The new standards won’t impact existing diversions, according to proponents, though lowered water levels in rivers and streams can result in water temperatures that are higher than optimal for trout populations. The standards will, however, be a factor in the approval of new developments that can impact water temperature, Vieira said.

They could also impact entities that discharge water into streams, like waste-water treatment plants, and industrial and mining concerns, for example.

Conservation group Colorado Trout Unlimited heralded adoption of the new standards, and the interim regulations for which it lobbied.

“They actually adopted everything we asked for,” said Mely Whiting, an attorney for Trout Unlimited.

The interim standards call for an average weekly temperature of 63 degrees Fahrenheit for rivers and streams above 7,000 feet that have cutthroat or brook trout populations. For Gold Medal rivers, designated by the Division of Wildlife as premier trout waters for the size and number of trout they contain ” the standard is 65 degrees.

“Right now, the Gold Medal ” that means the status quo is working. Now we have a tool to protect that,” Vieira said.

But the Northern Colorado Water Conservation District, an agency charged with providing water for agricultural, municipal, domestic and industrial uses in northeastern Colorado, was among the entities that raised objections to the new protections for Gold Medal rivers.

The district’s stance was that the commission shouldn’t be implementing standards simply to produce trophy trout, explained Esther Cincent, water resource engineer with the district. Gold Medal waters are clearly healthy already ” they’ve been deemed the state’s top fisheries, she noted.

Of particular concern for the district is the Gold Medal stretch of the Colorado River below its Windy Gap Reservoir, west of Granby, where data indicates the water temperatures won’t meet the standard, but fishery is nonetheless healthy, according to Cincent.

The district is now exploring methods of storing Windy Gap water and ensuring reliable future deliveries through new or expanded facilities and other options.

The district will need to seek a site-specific exemption from the standards, Cincent said.

Overall, however, the district wasn’t displeased with the outcome of the hearing, she added.

“Consensus was reached on a lot of issues,” Cincent said.

Application of the new standards will put the onus on new developments and water diversions to show they won’t result in violation of the standards, Vieira said.

“That’s were the burden of proof belongs, in my opinion,” she said. “There aren’t many people speaking for the fish.”

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com

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