Colorado streams wild and scenic?
Aspen, CO Colorado
DENVER – Hundreds of Colorado streams are being analyzed for possible protection under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the largest such review in more than 30 years.
The study comes as cities and water districts race to develop water in many of those same streams, efforts that will be much more difficult – and, in some cases, impossible – once the federal protective process is under way.
In the decades since Congress passed the law, Colorado water utilities and the Colorado Water Conservation Board have often fought use of the scenic rivers act because they fear it will limit their ability to deliver much-needed water to cities and farms.
Since its passage in 1968, just one stream segment in the state – on the Poudre River north of Fort Collins – has been formally protected under the act.
Several other streams have been recommended for wild- and-scenic status but have never been formally listed by Congress in part because of Colorado’s opposition.
But the state’s position may be shifting, said Mike King, deputy director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources.
“It is not this administration’s perspective to say carte blanche that wild and scenic is not something that should be considered. We think, under some circumstances, it is appropriate,” King said. “We think you need site-specific analysis on potential impacts … and we will be involved closely in those discussions.”
Water utilities, though, are deeply worried about the reviews by the Bureau of Land Management – particularly about a provision that says stream segments initially identified as eligible have to be managed to protect stream flows and shorelines until Congress makes a decision on whether or not to include them under the act.
And Congress can delay action for decades, creating what water providers view as a hellish, legal limbo.
River advocates, however, believe the reviews will provide much-needed stream protection, as Colorado seeks water projects to offset the effects of chronic droughts, global warming and population growth.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll get some new (wild-and-scenic) designations in Colorado,” said Andrew Fahlund, vice president of conservation programs at Washington, D.C.-based American Rivers.
“When folks think about Colorado, they think about its outstanding, remarkable values and its rivers. Designating a few of them shouldn’t be as controversial as it has been.”
Still, the reviews have begun at a time water demands in the state are skyrocketing. Studies indicate Colorado will need 53 percent more water in pipelines and reservoirs by 2030.
Last year, Russell George, then director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, urged the BLM not to do reviews in the Yampa River Basin until the state had finished its own water planning, a process that may result in a new water project on the Yampa.
But the BLM is required by law to do the studies.
As a result, a segment of the Little Snake River, a tributary of the Yampa, is now close to being listed as suitable by the BLM, a move that water utilities, including the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, adamantly oppose because it could hamper any new project there.
Roy Smith, who is spearheading the BLM reviews, said the wild-and-scenic analyses don’t automatically mean rivers can’t be tapped for additional water supplies.
“People need to understand that we’ve gone through this process in lots of places and the world did not blow up,” he said.
Colorado’s water utilities are on edge, though, because the reviews are under way in critical Western Slope hot spots such as the Blue and Colorado rivers, as well as segments of the Eagle and Yampa rivers.
All have potential water projects that will require federal permits if they move forward.
“We share a concern that a lot of water users share about what a designation means for the future management of that stream,” said Eric Wilkinson, manager of the water conservancy district, which serves Greeley, Fort Collins and Boulder, among other cities.
“What we need for the future is as much flexibility as we can get. Our chief concern on the Yampa is the development of water supplies that are available right now. This really could bind our hands.”
Last week, water utilities from the Front Range met with the BLM to urge a slower approach to the reviews and looking at other ways to protect the streams rather than designating them as wild and scenic.
“This puts us in a challenging position,” Smith said. “It may be a couple more years before the state and the water utilities decide where they want to build projects. In the meantime, we have our own deadlines to meet. It puts us in a really, really challenging position.”
In the meantime, river advocates say they’re willing to consider alternatives to wild-and-scenic designations if strong protections for stream flows and shorelines can be negotiated with the water utilities.
“I think the notion of trying to get people to sit down and come to an agreement about a vision for the future of a river is a good thing to do,” said David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited. “It gets people out of the mode of drawing battle lines.
“When Congress passed the act,” Nickum said, “it said it was to establish a national protection policy for rivers to balance the policy of dam building. The idea was to not look at these rivers as workhorses only. But we’ve had so much development on these streams that it’s important to look at the best of what we have while we still have it. That the Poudre River is the only one that’s ever been formally designated in our state is a sad statement.”
This month, more talks are planned among the state, water utilities and the BLM to look at, among other things, how to preserve what’s left of the Colorado River as it flows through Grand County, Gore Canyon and down into Glenwood Springs through Glenwood Canyon.
Few expect solutions that satisfy the federal law and Colorado’s water utilities to emerge quickly.
“This process is always controversial in the West,” said Steve Glazer, president of the High Country Citizens Alliance, an environmental group active on the Western Slope.
“The only place it ever goes smoothly is east of the Mississippi.”