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CDOT sticks with safety protocols during flood threats in Glenwood Canyon

A hot Sunday afternoon that saw temperatures top 90 degrees brought throngs of river enthusiasts to Glenwood Canyon, who were happy to finally have a weekend when they could get on the Colorado River.

Rest areas and recreation facilities along Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, including boat put-ins, trails and the paved bike path, have been routinely closed to nonpermit public use this summer during flash flood watches.

While the boat ramps remain open to commercial rafting outfitters, they are not open to the general public during flood watches.

Over the past month, that has been more days than not.

The Colorado Department of Transportation announced Friday that it plans to stay the course with that safety protocol, following the intense flooding that occurred last summer when record rains triggered debris flows from the 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar into the Colorado River.

Whenever a storm is imminent and a flash flood warning is issued by the National Weather Service, the canyon closes completely, including to traffic on I-70.

But Sunday was about as bluebird as a clear Colorado day can get — and hot to boot. 

Caitlin Brosnan and TJ Tills were visiting for the weekend from Denver, and were happy to learn they could get on the river at the Grizzly Creek Recreation and Rest Area.

“We’re only here for the weekend, and we were fortunate they haven’t had a closure,” Brosnan said as they prepared their paddleboard for a float down to Glenwood Springs.

“We try to make it out here at least once or twice a year, and this is a big part of our trip,” Tills said.

Locals Erica Diemoz and Peter Heitzman were also getting ready at Grizzly Creek for the paddle downstream to Two Rivers Park.

“We’ve been going in at No Name more this summer, because we haven’t been able to put in at Grizzly,” Diemoz said. “I’m excited to get on the water for a little bit longer.”

Heitzman said they double-checked to make sure the Grizzly put-in was open by checking CDOT’s cotrip.org travel alerts website before heading out. 

“Sometimes the website has said it’s closed, when it’s actually open,” Heitzman said. “I’m just glad it’s open today.”

CDOT works with the National Weather Service and the U.S. Forest Service to stay on top of the daily and hourly weather forecast, so the agencies can decide when to limit access so that recreationists and motorists don’t get caught in a flood.

CDOT Region 3 Transportation Director Jason Smith said in a Friday news release that the agencies continue to assess the safety protocol in place for Glenwood Canyon and whether any adjustments need to be made.

In early July, CDOT met with the National Weather Service and U.S. Geological Survey to review closure data, weather forecasts, safety incidents in the canyon and other factors, he said. 

They determined the current protocol is the most effective at keeping the traveling public safe, Smith said.

“We understand the safety closures of I-70, the rest areas and recreation path are challenging for motorists and local communities,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, they are necessary to protect the traveling public.”

So far during this summer’s monsoon season, there has been little to no flooding in the canyon. But the rainy stretch of the summer isn’t over, and the canyon is still at a high risk for mudslides and debris flows, he said.

When it comes to staying on top of the various closures and whether a flood watch or warning are in effect, it’s best to go straight to the primary source, CDOT Regional Communications Manager Elise Thatcher said.

While the various county emergency alert systems will share closure information, those systems are forwarding information that comes from the National Weather Service and CDOT, she said.

“It’s best to check whatever weather forecasting app you use, because they’re getting the information directly from the National Weather Service,” Thatcher said.

Whenever a closure of the rest areas or I-70 is in effect, that will be posted to cotrip.org. Motorists and anyone planning to venture into the canyon should monitor that site for any changes, she said.

“We are receiving a lot of phone calls from people when those facilities are closed,” Thatcher said. “We hear your frustrations, and if we could change it, we would. But it’s a matter of public safety.”

With so many people using the various recreational amenities in Glenwood Canyon, from the bike path and trails to the river access points, it would be hard to evacuate everyone during an actual flood event, she added.

“There are a lot of people having a lot of different adventures out there, sometimes parking in one place and shuttling to another, and it’s very difficult to track them down in an emergency,” Thatcher said. “That’s part of why we’ve had to keep them closed so often.”

Sunday was a good example.

Colleen Pennington is the Glenwood Canyon Recreation Manager for the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District of the White River National Forest.

“On weekends, when the rest areas are open to the public, and even when they’re not, we’re out at the boat ramps tracking both visitor and commercial use,” she said from her post at the Grizzly Creek put-in on Sunday.

As of about 3 p.m., they had counted 115 private river users, just at Grizzly. Another team was at the Shoshone put-in, and another working with H20 Ventures at the Hanging Lake trailhead where access is allowed only by permit.

“It’s something our local commercial outfitters came up with to help prevent overuse of this stretch of river,” Pennington said. “We’re here as a go-between with the public and private users, and it’s a great way to interact with the community and see the different types of use.”

While there have been no major flood events this summer so far, the risk still exists, Thatcher said.

“It’s hard for people to understand that without the flooding like we had last year,” she said. “We just want to emphasize that it’s always good to have a plan B, just in case.”

jstroud@postindependent.com

Preliminary oil and gas regulation affects nearly 2 million acres of federal land, including Garfield County

Federal officials are considering whether most of nearly 2 million acres of surface lands — including a solid chunk of Garfield County — should remain open or closed to oil and gas leases.

Larry Sandoval, field manager for the BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office, presented details on a court-ordered reevaluation of Resource Management Plans to the Garfield County Energy Advisory Board on Thursday.

The reevaluation stems from litigation in 2016, when Carbondale-based conservation watchdog Wilderness Workshop filed a lawsuit against the BLM. Wilderness Workshop argued the federal entity did not fully analyze and disclose environmental impacts resulting from a 2015 RMP, which opened thousands of acres to oil and gas production between the Colorado River Valley and Grand Junction field offices.

Litigation resulted in BLM having to broaden the range of alternatives for lands available for oil and gas development and provide air quality impacts from combustible greenhouse gasses based on all alternatives.

“There’s just shy of 2 million acres that basically speak to federal minerals,” Sandoval said.

This poses a huge strain on oil and gas revenue, the Garfield County Board of Commissioners recently argued in formal comments to the BLM Upper Colorado District last week. And, according to maps presented by Sandoval, there’s at least 689,400 acres of high to very high oil and gas potential in this area, with another 251,800 acres considered moderate potential.

Meanwhile, the new preliminary alternative — the most restrictive — attached to this supplemental environmental impact statement includes closing off 80% of about 1.94 million acres to oil and gas leases. It would focus on areas of low-moderate potential for oil and gas development.

“The preliminary issues we identified are, what are the environmental consequences — that downstream combustion?” Sandoval said. “Then the socio-economic impacts, because you’ve got Garfield County, who feels strongly about the importance of oil and gas leasing.” 

Sandoval said the planning process consists of receiving public comment and holding public meetings on the draft of the supplemental environmental impact statement in spring and summer of 2023. The final SEIS and decision is slated for 2024.

Garfield County Energy Advisory Board Member Jerry Seifert, also a Silt trustee, asked if public input has any influence on the final decision coming in 2024.

“I think the thing to focus on is there’s such good comments,” Sandoval said. “Those things that are more immediate, that we can chew on.”

rerku@postindependent.com

State considers designating wolves reintroduced to Colorado as experimental

As Colorado Parks and Wildlife continues its meetings and process to reintroduce grey wolves back to the Western Slope, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is beginning its process to introduce a 10(j) rule at the request of the state. On Wednesday, leadership from Parks and Wildlife and the Fish and Wildlife Service met in Silverthorne to continue public engagement about the process. 

Under a 10(j) rule in the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service may designate a population of a listed species as “experimental” if it will be released into suitable natural habitat outside the species’ current range. 

“A 10(j) rule provides special management considerations and enhances management flexibility for species relative to a fully listed species, for example, one that’s listed as fully endangered, which grey wolves are right now in Colorado,” John Hughes, wildlife biologist with the service, said. “This management flexibility is needed for reducing potential conflicts for livestock producers, other stakeholders and increasing the likelihood that the overall reintroduction effort being put forth by (Parks and Wildlife) will be successful.”

Hughes said that the endangerment status of wolves has gone back and forth over the past several decades. Active wolf reintroduction efforts began in 1995 in the north Rocky Mountains, with introductions to central Idaho, western Montana and in northwestern Wyoming. Because wolves have far ranges when it comes to territory, it’s not uncommon for them to show up miles from where they were introduced. This, he said, is potentially why wolves have been documented in the northern part of Colorado, like in Moffat County and in Walden. However, this doesn’t mean they constitute a population, which is two animals producing at least two offspring for two consecutive years.  

The Fish and Wildlife Service has three alternatives to consider. The first is what was requested by Parks and Wildlife, the 10(j) rule. The service would determine if a population is essential or non-essential through an internal rulemaking process, and it would establish a boundary for this population, which is currently anticipated to be the entire state of Colorado. If there is an experimental population, then the rule would establish management provisions for experimental groups that may or may not be different from the protected group. 

The second alternative would be more of a hybrid one, Hughes said. It addresses the possibility that there is an identified population of wolves in the state. If that happens, the service would issue a Safe Harbor Agreement for the population, and a separate 10(j) rule would exist for any experimental population of reintroduced wolves. It would also create a separate boundary for experimental groups. 

The third option is no action. This would mean that the state would introduce wolves, and they would remain endangered and would not have the flexibility that the other alternatives have, Hughes added. 

“The key is, (a 10(j) rule) allows us to define when ‘take’ is going to be allowed, under certain situations, and take means harass, injure or kill,” Scott Becker, regional wolf coordinator, said. “When we talk about endangered versus experimental population, it’s really a difference between — under endangered, all you can do is non-injurious harassment, but under experimental populations, or even threatened status, you can conduct some injurious harassment as well. This will just define exactly when those situations might be allowed.”

In recent weeks, Parks and Wildlife has continued its process to reintroduce wolves on the Western Slope after voters approved the initiative in 2020. The department has faced criticism from environmental groups for not being transparent enough in its processes, and a group has created its own wolf plan as a response. 

Those interested in making public comment during Fish and Wildlife Service’s process can visit https://www.regulations.gov/commenton/FWS-R6-ES-2022-0100-0001 to submit an online comment. There will also be a virtual webinar on Aug. 10 from 6-8 p.m., and attendees can register at https://www.regulations.gov/commenton/FWS-R6-ES-2022-0100-0001

enoe@summitdaily.com

Western Slope water managers ask: What authority do the feds have?

As the deadline approaches for the seven Colorado River basin states to come up with a plan to conserve water, some Colorado water managers are asking what authority the federal government has in the upper basin and which water projects could be at risk of federal action. 

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton sent water managers scrambling when she announced in June that they had a 60-day window to find another 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water to conserve or the federal government would step in to protect the system. With many reservoirs, transbasin diversion systems and irrigation projects in Colorado tied in one way or another to the Bureau of Reclamation, some are asking if the water in these buckets could be commandeered by the feds to make up the shortfall. 

“I think that there’s probably a good argument that the Secretary (of the Interior) has some authority under those projects,” said Eric Kuhn, Colorado River author and former Colorado River Water Conservation District general manager. “The projects on the Western Slope and in the upper basin states that are owned by the federal government and are ultimately under the authority of the Secretary of the Interior, those are the projects at risk.”

Paonia Reservoir, seen here in May 2022, has ties to the Bureau of Reclamation and its stored water is used for irrigation in the North Fork Valley. Some Western Slope water managers say it’s unclear what authority the federal government has over projects like these.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Courtesy photo

There are many dams and reservoirs across Colorado that are tied to the Bureau of Reclamation’s 20th-century building frenzy to impound water and “reclaim” arid regions through irrigation. On the Western Slope, some of the well-known projects include the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project (Ruedi Reservoir), Dallas Creek Project (Ridgway Reservoir), the Dolores Project (McPhee Reservoir), Paonia Reservoir, the Grand Valley Project, the Silt Project (Rifle Gap Reservoir), the Uncompahgre Project (Taylor Park Reservoir) and more. 

In general, the local entities like conservancy districts, irrigators and municipalities who use the water are responsible for repaying the Bureau for the cost of the project. But the infrastructure is owned by the Bureau of Reclamation. Some projects are operated by Reclamation and some are operated by a local entity. Many also have a hydropower component. 

“I think each project operator is having to look at their contractual obligations with the Bureau and their attorneys are going back over those with a fine tooth comb to see if the arm of the Bureau can reach up through Lake Powell and into the upper basin states,” said Kathleen Curry, a rancher and Gunnison County representative on the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “All of the upper basin projects are going to need to look real hard at what authority the Bureau has.”

Last year Reclamation made emergency releases out of Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs to prop up Lake Powell. In this instance, their authority was not questioned since these reservoirs are, along with Lake Powell, the four initial reservoirs of the Colorado River Storage Project. They store what’s called “system water,” which is used specifically to help the upper basin meet its delivery obligations to the lower basin. 

But water managers still don’t know exactly what, if anything, Reclamation is allowed to do with the water contained in other reservoirs with Reclamation ties. 

At the River District’s third quarterly board meeting in July, board members repeatedly tried to pin down answers from federal and state officials without much luck. 

Montrose County representative and state Rep. Marc Catlin asked state engineer Kevin Rein where he stood on whether the Bureau of Reclamation could make reservoirs with Reclamation ties release water downstream to Lake Powell to meet the 2 to 4 million acre-feet conservation goal. 

“If the Bureau of Reclamation comes into the state of Colorado and says it wants to move water… down to Lake Powell, what’s the state engineer going to do?” Catlin asked. “Are those water rights under state law or federal law?”

Rein did not know the answer.

“I’m not sure what authority — this is not one of those rhetorical ‘I’m not sure,’ I really am not sure — what authority the Bureau of Reclamation would have to induce a federal project with state water rights to release them to get to Powell,” Rein said.

A boat floats past bathtub rings showing how low Lake Powell levels have dropped Tuesday, June 7, 2022, in Page, Ariz.

Brittany Peterson/AP

Later in the meeting, Katrina Grantz, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Assistant Regional Director, gave a presentation and took questions from board members. Curry asked if changes could be proposed to the operation of projects within the 15 counties represented by the River District with federal ties to get closer to the 2 to 4 million acre-feet. Grantz side-stepped the question.

“At this point we are not looking at specific locations,” she said. “I would turn it around and say: Are there areas where you locally think there might be areas to conserve?”

River District General Counsel Peter Fleming said the authority of the feds in the upper basin is untested. This is partly because the upper basin has dozens of small Reclamation projects as well as thousands of individual water users on private ditch systems that are not affiliated with the federal government. Colorado has generally been left alone to administer this complex system of water rights under the state doctrine of prior appropriation, which means older water rights get first use of the river. 

The lower basin, in contrast, has only about 20 diversions — and only six or so big ones —  from the Colorado River. And each entity that uses water from Lake Mead has to have a contract with Reclamation, meaning the federal government is directly involved with water deliveries. 

“The reason I think these issues are untested is historically the secretary’s role in the upper basin has been different than the secretary’s role in the lower basin,” Fleming said. “It’s much more hands-off. The difference in river administration is huge.” 

Fleming said that the River District does not have advice for its water users on the situation, other than to reiterate the upper basin stance that the responsibility to come up with the 2 to 4 million acre-feet lies overwhelmingly with the lower basin. 

“At the end of the day I think there will be a big effort to try to resolve things through agreement and I believe the secretary will exercise her authority to the greatest extent she can without triggering litigation,” Fleming said. 

Water managers may not have to wait long to get some clarity. The deadline for the states to come up with a conservation plan before the feds take action to protect the system is fast approaching. The upper basin states, through the Upper Colorado River Commission, have put forward a 5 Point Plan, which lays out actions they say are designed to protect the reservoirs. 

Amee Andreason, public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Reclamation, said officials may answer the question of federal authority in the upper basin at a media event on Aug. 16 that coincides with the release of the August 24-month study, which lays out reservoir operations for the following water year.

If the feds end up curtailing uses in the lower basin, it could set a precedent that would strengthen the argument that they can do the same in the upper basin, Kuhn said. 

“That’s one I think is the elephant in the room,” he said. “The fact that the River District board was asking about authorities tells you people are thinking about it.”

Aspen Journalism is an independent, nonprofit news organization that covers water and rivers in collaboration with the Vail Dailiy. For more, go to AspenJournalism.org

Former New Castle police chief arrested for menacing assigned to Garfield County District Court judge

The New Castle police chief accused of walking around a residential neighborhood while carrying a loaded rifle and later pointing it at a friend had his case set for an arraignment Wednesday.

Tony Pagni, 58, was arrested Friday evening for felony menacing involving a deadly weapon and misdemeanor counts of prohibited use of a weapon while intoxicated and harassment. Pagni was later released on a personal recognizance bond.

He was also formally dismissed Wednesday from his position effective immediately, New Castle announced in a news release. Town Administrator David Reynolds has named Sgt. Chuck Burrows as interim chief and “is confident that the department will continue to operate smoothly during the transition period.”

“The town would like to thank our residents for their continued support of the men and women of our Police Department during this transition period,” the release states.

Pagni appeared from a remote location before 9th Judicial District Magistrate Judge John Shamis on Wednesday afternoon. Shamis allowed Pagni to remain free on his personal recognizance bond and also scheduled him to appear for an arraignment before 9th Judicial District Court Chief Judge James Boyd on Aug. 23.

According to a Garfield County Sheriff’s Office arrest affidavit, Pagni was arrested around 9 p.m. Friday after being accused of pressing the nozzle of a loaded AK-style semi-automatic rifle into a neighbor’s chest on his front porch. Pagni was appointed New Castle police chief in 2014.

rerku@citizentelegram.com

Colorado stakeholder group outlines recommendations about when wolves could be killed

An advisory group working on Colorado’s wolf reintroduction process believes if wolves are actively attacking livestock, they can be killed by wildlife agents and, in some cases, livestock producers.

Initially, producers would need to obtain a permit to take a wolf that is attacking livestock, but when populations are large enough to be delisted — at least 150 wolves sustained for two years — no permit would be required.

“The vast majority of wolves that are anticipated to be on this landscape are not going to be involved in any type of conflict,” said Eric Odell, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s species conservation program manager.  

The recommendations come from Stakeholder Advisory Group, one of two working groups helping the agency fulfill a 2020 ballot measure to reintroduce gray wolves in Colorado by the end of 2023. The stakeholder group lacks rulemaking authority, but recommendations will be incorporated in the final reintroduction plan that CPW expects to have finished by the end of the year.

Odell presented the group’s recommendations to the CPW Commission on July 22, noting that lethal management is one of many tools available and shouldn’t be considered a “first line of defense.”

“At a population scale, this type of management is not a threat to the long-term viability of the species,” Odell said. “Lethal control is not intended to be a long-term tool across both space and time. It is a short-term response to an immediate issue.”

Current recommendations for reintroduction suggest it will be carried out over three phases. Phase 1 would be when wolves are still considered “endangered” at the state level. Phase 2 is referred to as “threatened,” with this transition occurring after CPW documents at least 50 wolves for four years.

Phase 3 would correspond with de-listing wolves on a state level. This would happen if there are 150 wolves for two years, or at least 200 wolves. Odell said CPW views these thresholds as minimums, not population goals.

The group recommends that wolf education and nonlethal tactics to haze a wolf are preferred to lethal management in all phases.

Killing a wolf wouldn’t be allowed in a case where wolves are present but not attacking livestock. Noninjurious tactics like fladry, range riders and guard dogs as well as injurious tactics like rubber buckshot would be encouraged if needed.  

When wolves are caught in the act of attacking livestock, and nonlethal tactics have been tried, recommendations say state or federal officials could kill the wolf. In Phases 1 and 2, a producer could kill the wolf if they obtained a state permit and they provide evidence of an attack.

In Phase 3, the producer wouldn’t need a permit, but the case will still be investigated by CPW to ensure there was actually an attack.

If wolves are determined to be a chronic problem, state and federal officers can decide to kill the wolves regardless of the phase. In some cases a producer may obtain a permit to take a chronically depredating wolf, but the stakeholder group wanted CPW officials deciding whether a wolf has become that much of a problem, not producers.

“They intentionally did not make a recommendation to state that a particular number of depredations within a particular period of time would be classified as chronic; rather, evaluation of the entirety of the situation will inform CPW in making this determination,” Odell said.

Recommendations also consider what to do if the presence of wolves leads to a decline in ungulate — deer, elk, moose — populations in a particular area. The group agreed these wolves could be relocated, but they did not take a vote on whether they could be killed. The group made the same recommendation regarding wolf impacts on other species like sage grouse and Canada lynx.

In a parallel effort to the working groups, Reid Dewalt, CPW’s assistant director for aquatic, terrestrial and natural resources, said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is starting the process to get CPW what is called a 10(j) ruling under the Endangered Species Act.

When voters initially passed the 2020 ballot measure, wolves were about to be delisted, after which management authority would go to CPW. But a court ruling in February relisted wolves and put the Fish and Wildlife Service back in charge. The 10(j) would designate Colorado’s wolves an “experimental population” and give CPW authority to manage them.

This will require an environmental review, which is currently under a 30-day review process. The Fish and Wildlife Service is holding several public meetings on the potential ruling, including one from 6-8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 4, at Moffat County High School in Craig.

“If all goes according to plan, late fall of 2023 the record of decision and final rule will be published,” Dewalt said.

To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com

Opinions differ on timeline as Crystal River Wild & Scenic efforts move ahead

A campaign to protect one of the last free-flowing rivers in Colorado is moving forward, but some proponents say not enough progress has been made over the past year.

Last spring a handful of advocates led by Pitkin County revived an effort to secure a federal Wild & Scenic designation, which would protect the upper Crystal River from future development, dams and diversions. A year into the effort, some say a planned stakeholder process is moving too slowly, while others say a designation can’t be rushed and must be approached carefully and inclusively.

The different philosophies underscore a rift between those who say a cautious and thorough multi-year approach is what’s needed to ensure success and those who say mounting threats to the river, driven by the climate crisis, demand bold and immediate action. 

State Highway 133 crosses the Crystal River several times as it flows downstream to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River in Carbondale. Some proponents of a federal Wild & Scenic designation are pushing for a quick timeline while others want a more cautious approach.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Crystal-Eco-flight-2

“That difference of opinion concerns me a great deal,” said Kate Hudson, Crystal River Valley resident and western U.S coordinator for Waterkeeper Alliance. “We are at an existential moment both in terms of water and climate and our congressional balance of power that requires we at least try and do this faster. We should at least try to move this as quickly as possible.”

In 2021 Pitkin County Healthy Rivers granted $35,000 to Carbondale-based environmental conservation group Wilderness Workshop to start up a public outreach and education campaign, with the goal of laying a foundation of grassroots support for the effort. The organization has built a website, held events and collected about 1,000 signatures on a petition supporting the designation. The next step will be working with Pitkin County to hire a facilitator for a formal stakeholder process. 

At the June Healthy Rivers board meeting, Wilderness Workshop’s Wild & Scenic campaign manager Michael Gorman gave a presentation about progress so far. Board member Wendy Huber asked about the timeline and whether the process should be moving faster. Gorman said a designation could take several more years.

“I’m feeling a little urgency,” she said. “To sort of dilly dally seems to be losing opportunities.” 

Grant Stevens, communications director for Wilderness Workshop, said that while he understands the community’s urgency, it’s important to develop a proposal that Colorado’s congressional representatives can get behind. A designation must be approved by Congress and advocates have been in contact with representatives from Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper’s offices.  

“We want to make sure we have something that a federal elected official will support, and we need to make sure we go through a community-driven process to get to that point,” Stevens said. “We don’t want to rush that.”

Designation details

The U.S. Forest Service first determined in the 1980s that the Crystal River was eligible for designation under the Wild & Scenic River Act, which seeks to preserve rivers with outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic and cultural values in a free-flowing condition. There are three categories under a designation: wild, which are sections that are inaccessible by trail, with shorelines that are primitive; scenic, with shorelines that are largely undeveloped, but are accessible by roads in some places; and recreational, which are readily accessible by road or railroad and have development along the shoreline.

This map shows the sections of the Crystal River that could be designated wild, scenic and recreational according to the finding of eligibility by the U.S. Forest Service. 
Courtesy Roaring Fork Conservancy

crystalriver_1_12_11-wild-and-scenic-eligible

The potential proposal for the Crystal includes all three types of designation: wild in the upper reaches of the river’s wilderness headwaters, scenic in the middle stretches and recreational from the town of Marble to the Sweet Jessup canal headgate. Each river with a Wild & Scenic designation has unique legislation written for it that can be customized to address local stakeholders’ values and concerns.

Despite its renowned river rafting, fishing and scenic beauty, which contribute to the recreation-based economy of many Western Slope communities, Colorado has just 76 miles of one river — the Cache La Poudre — designated as Wild & Scenic. This underscores the difficulty of trying to preserve free-flowing streams, especially in a water-scarce region where some would like to see rivers remain available for future water development. 

Stakeholder participation

Since the Crystal flows through Gunnison County and the town of Marble, advocates say getting those residents and elected representatives on board will be key to moving the effort forward. A first attempt at a Wild & Scenic designation, which sought to prevent the possibility of a future dam and reservoir project, couldn’t get buy-in from some Marble residents or Gunnison County. Advocates shelved the discussion in 2016 with the election of President Donald Trump. This time around, they hope to secure at least the participation if not the support of past opponents.

Marble Town Administrator Ron Leach acknowledged there is still a lot of work to be done as far as gauging public sentiment and building awareness. 

Leach has been heavily involved in the town’s multi-year process to address overcrowding on the Lead King loop, a popular off-highway vehicle route near Marble. He said when it comes to these things, slow and methodical is the right strategy and that town officials are totally supportive of the Wild & Scenic stakeholders group, in which he participates as the Marble representative.

“The more process, the better the product,” Leach said. “I’ve learned that the hard way. Take it easy and make sure it’s right.”

Gunnison County Commissioner Roland Mason agreed. He said more conversations need to happen before he could say whether Gunnison County would support a designation. 

“I appreciate the fact that they are not trying to rush the timeline,” Mason said. “From my perspective it’s moving at a little bit of a slow pace because of trying to get everyone on board but at the same time, it’s kind of necessary.” 

But supporters may never get everyone on board. Larry Darien, who owns a ranch on County Road 3 that borders the river, was one of the early opponents to the designation and still remains opposed to Wild & Scenic because of its potential effect on private property. 

While the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act does give the federal government the ability to acquire private land, there are many restrictions on those abilities. Condemnation is a tool that is rarely used, according to a Q&A document compiled by the Interagency Wild and Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council.  

“I’m not in favor of a dam on the Crystal River and I’m not in favor of water being taken out and sent someplace else and I’m not in favor of Wild & Scenic designation,” he said. “There are other ways we can manage this besides Wild & Scenic and I think that’s the way we need to go instead of getting the federal government involved.” 

The alternate route Darien is referring to is a collaboratively created alternative management plan on the Upper Colorado River, which offers some of the same protections as Wild & Scenic, but still allows for some water development. 

Advocates will have to decide whether total consensus is a realistic goal and if they should move forward even though some opposition remains.

Threats to the Crystal?

While there may be a general feeling of worry about drought and falling reservoir levels in the Colorado River basin overall, it’s unclear what — if any — specific, imminent threats there are to the upper Crystal River. In 2012, conservation group American Rivers deemed the Crystal one of the top 10 most endangered rivers. This was spurred by plans, which have since been scrapped, from the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Conservation District to preserve water rights tied to reservoirs near Redstone. 

The view looking upstream on the Crystal River below Avalanche Creek. Pitkin County and others want to designate this section of the Crystal as Wild & Scenic.
Curtis Wackerle/Aspen Journalism

Crystal-below-Avalanche-1170×786-1

Still, in a place where much of the state’s headwaters are taken across the Continental Divide to thirsty Front Range cities, Wild & Scenic proponents say it could happen on the Crystal, even if those threats are currently hypothetical. Many of Colorado’s rivers have been overly tapped, but there’s still water left to develop on the Crystal.

“To me, the greatest threat to the Crystal isn’t so much the storage facility, it’s that there’s still water in the Crystal,” said Pitkin County Attorney John Ely. “The biggest risk to the Crystal is just taking water out of the drainage. That’s why I think the (Wild & Scenic) effort is still worth doing.” 

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. For more go to www.aspenjournalism.org

Embattled mental health care provider, Mind Springs Health, hires new CEO

The largest mental health and addiction treatment provider in western Colorado, Mind Springs Health, has hired John Sheehan to become the organization’s chief executive officer, as announced on Wednesday.

Sheehan will begin duties at Mind Springs Health in early August, according to the health care provider that serves patients in Routt, Moffat, Grand, Eagle, Summit, Garfield, Mesa, Pitkin, Rio Blanco and Jackson counties.

“The Board of Directors did not enter the search for a new CEO lightly when we began the process in January,” said Mind Springs Health Board Chair Stefan Bate in a news release.

“The national search resulted in a number of extremely talented candidates who were vetted with extreme diligence,” Bate continued. “Mr. Sheehan was our choice to lead our organization, as he impressed us with not only his experience and industry knowledge, but with his empathy and compassion for the vulnerable populations Mind Springs Health serves.”

Sheehan’s hiring comes after a six-month search following former CEO Sharon Raggio’s resignation at the beginning of the year. Her early resignation was a result of Mind Springs Health coming under increased scrutiny for failing to serve many of its clients, detailed in reporting by the Colorado News Collaborative, along with other issues.

Officials in Summit and Eagle counties have taken steps to cut ties with the health care provider that relies heavily on state funding.

Doug Pattison, the firm’s former chief financial officer, has been filling in an interim role since Raggio left the organization in January.

“The Board of Directors is grateful to Doug for stepping in as interim CEO during a turbulent time and for his hard work in helping improve relationships on local and state levels,” Bate said.

According to Mind Springs, Sheehan started his career as a mental health tech and worked his way up through various management and executive level positions, including having a wealth of experience with in-patient care and telehealth integration.

Sheehan has been at the helm of Rochester Health Information Exchange for the last year, and he and his team helped redesign the health care system in anticipation of being awarded one of the largest 1,115 waivers ever granted by the federal government.

The waivers are intended to give states the option to test new approaches in Medicaid that differ from what is required by federal law and can offer states considerable flexibility in how they operate their programs.

For seven years, Sheehan also served as the CEO of Harbor Toledo, one of the largest behavioral health providers in the Midwest with more than 30 treatment locations in Ohio, Michigan and Virginia.

Prior to his time at Harbor Toledo, Sheehan was the vice president of Behavioral Health Services for BayCare Health System based in Clearwater, Florida, the largest nonprofit private provider of inpatient care in the state.

Eli Pace is the editor of the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Reach him at epace@steamboatpilot.com or 970-871-4221.

Shooters Grill, owned by Rep. Boebert, closes its doors after losing its lease

For years, Downtown Rifle’s restaurant scene was furnished with one of the only places in the U.S. you could order a cheeseburger from a server packing a 9mm pistol on her hip. The establishment — Shooters Grill — was the brainchild of now-U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert.

On Sunday, the Silt Republican officially closed the doors to her restaurant.

“We were like a family,” she said. “I would say Shooters, for any employee, was their life. We lived and breathed it every single day. They were a part of this culture and brand that we created in Rifle, and there was a lot of pride with that.”

In June, Boebert was told by new landlord Milken Enterprises that her lease wasn’t going to be renewed.

Boebert said the letter came as a shock. She soon called the landlord but “there wasn’t really much wiggle room or anywhere to compromise unless we bought the building ourselves.”

“Within the next two hours, I had reporters reaching out to me asking me if this was true and if we were being evicted,” she said. “I said, ‘Well, we’re not being evicted. The lease is not being renewed — that’s a big difference.’”

The real question is, what’s next for Boebert in the restaurant industry? Will it fade away into myth like the Old West or are there plans in the works to relocate?

Boebert said she doesn’t want to make any promises, but she and her husband, Jayson, are praying and planning to continue the Shooters brand, culture, name and presence on Rifle’s Third Street.

“We would just dramatically scale it back, because, obviously, we’re not in our building,” she said. “It may look like a Shooters coffee shop with pastries and some easy breakfast sandwiches and merchandise.”

Shooters itself originally came to fruition after Boebert spent time ministering to female inmates at Garfield County Jail. She said she wanted to give these women help and “trade their shame for glory.”

Boebert would later hire some of these women after they were released, she said.

The gun theme came when someone was allegedly beaten to death in front of Shooters and Boebert’s employees started asking if they could open carry. It later turned out the man ostensibly beaten to death in fact died of methamphetamine overdose.

Shooters would go on to serve an average about 100 tables a day and employed over 75 people since opening in May 2013, Boebert said. Servers had their own choice as to what guns they carried.

“Most carry semi automatics, because that’s what we practiced with,” Boebert said.

When a growing number of people started coming to Shooters, Boebert said they’d buy T-shirts then explore other downtown shops or local attractions, like Rifle Falls State Park.

Now, she’s hoping to bring back something at a much smaller scale, she said.

“It’s been an amazing journey. I don’t regret anything. It’s always sad to close a chapter. But this is where we’re at.”

Closure planned for I-70 eastbound in Glenwood Canyon on Wednesday

A closure for the eastbound lane of Interstate 70 is planned for Wednesday, the Colorado Department of Transportation announced in a Friday news release.

The closure starts at 10 a.m. and should last about six hours, the release states.

“The length of the closure could change depending on weather and other variables, so CDOT asks that eastbound motorists plan alternate routes for the day,” the release states. “Westbound I-70 will remain open. The eastbound closure is planned to start mid-morning to limit impacts on commuter traffic through the canyon.”

Removing the commercial motor vehicle will not affect CDOT’s ability to adhere to safety protocols for flash flood watches and warnings for Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, the release states.

The northern alternative route on U.S. Highway 40 is recommended for most motorists. The alternative route takes about 2.5 hours longer than going on  I-70 through Glenwood Canyon. 

Eastbound motorists should anticipate construction at exit 205 in Silverthorne when returning to I-70 from Colorado Highway 9, the release states. During the closure, motorists will continue to have access to Glenwood Springs and the Roaring Fork Valley. Motorists should use COtrip.org or CDOT’s free COtrip Planner mobile app to plan an alternate route.