Crystal River protection alternatives considered by community

Students from the Colorado Rocky Mountain School filled out surveys on their hopes for the future protection of the Crystal River. Juniors Nina Villafranco (third from left) and Spencer Mortell (right of Mortell) said the club hopes to see a Wild and Scenic designation for the river.
Josie Taris/The Aspen Times

As one of Colorado’s last free-flowing rivers, most community members agree the Crystal River’s future must be protected. At a community summit, a federal Wild and Scenic designation seemed to be the crowd favorite, though some still balk at federal involvement in the river.

The Crystal River Wild and Scenic and Other Alternatives Feasibility Collaborative hosted its second community summit at Roaring Fork High School Thursday night, drawing a crowd of about 200 people to consider protection options for the river, which begins in Gunnison County’s Elk Mountains and flows for about 40 miles before reaching the confluence with the Roaring Fork River in Carbondale. 

The Crystal River flows along the Highway 133 corridor, past Marble, Redstone, and Carbondale to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River.
Josei Taris/The Aspen Times

In the 1980s, the White River National Forest determined approximately 39 miles of the Crystal River were eligible for federal protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. They reaffirmed that finding in 2002. A Wild and Scenic designation is a federal label that, among other things, protects a free-flowing river from future dams or diversions. Pre-existing water rights are not affected by the designation, and proponents note that the designation is largely customizable to local priorities.

Congress would have to approve a bill granting Wild and Scenic status to the Crystal River at the recommendation of the U.S. Forest Service, or the designation could be approved by the Secretary of the Interior with slightly different terms.

Only one other river in the state is designated Wild and Scenic — the Cache la Poudre. 

Protection efforts have endured ebbs and flows since the 1980s, with the latest threat dissolved in 2011 when the Colorado River District abandoned the West Divide Project, which would have led to the flooding of Redstone and the canyon just below the Marble turn and McClure Pass.

While many participants in this latest protection effort still view Wild and Scenic as the “gold standard” for safeguarding rivers, the 3 ½ hour meeting covered alternatives.

Some state alternatives included seeking:

  • Outstanding Waters Designation, which protects water based on its quality;
  • Instream Flow Rights, which utilizes the Colorado water rights system for conservation purposes and recreational in-channel diversions. This grants in-channel recreation water rights for non-motorized boating;
  • 1041 Regulations, which gives local regulation control to areas of state interest.

Another option for protection through federal agencies are National Conservation Areas and Special Management Areas through the Bureau of Land Management and USFS, respectively. 

Presenter Jeff Widen, the senior regional conservation representative at The Wilderness Society, said that avenue worked for the Dolores River, a “politically poor candidate for a Wild and Scenic designation.”

Attendees listened to brief presentations on each alternative then participated in an open house-style forum to discuss the options with their respective presenters. The steering committee will take that feedback, collected via survey and posters relating to each alternative, to consider options.

Summit attendees consider proposed alternatives for Crystal River protection by writing their opinions on sheets for each alternative. The steering committee will collect the sheets to understand the community’s position inform a future path for the Crystal.
Josie Taris/The Aspen Times

Attendees thoughts on the Crystal’s options

Kayo Ogilby, science department chair at the Colorado Mountain School, said Wild and Scenic is the gold standard of protection in his opinion, though alternative protection methods could be used in concert with federal protection.

“As a science (teacher), kayaker, fisherman, and landowner on the Crystal, fighting for Wild and Scenic is very important to me,” he said. 

He brought the school’s environmental club along to the summit. The students echoed Ogilby’s preference for a Wild and Scenic designation.

“It’s very close to home for us,” said senior Maia Cullick. “We’ve all grown up on this river.”

For junior Nina Villafranco, getting more young people involved is a big priority.

“Right now, the main thing is having the school club be involved in protecting the river,” she said. 

And fellow junior Spencer Mortell chimed in, “We all just don’t want to see the Crystal get dammed. We want to protect it, and we feel a federal designation (of Wild and Scenic) would be the most protective.”

Manasseh Franklin, a Roaring Fork Valley resident since 2008, used to live in Redstone and is interested in the Crystal River as a resource and for its unique undammed nature. 

She is pursuing her Master’s Degree in Environment, Natural Resources & Society from the University of Wyoming, so the process of exploring protection options for the Crystal River piqued her interest. She’s still listening and weighing the alternatives for protection.

“It does seem like if not having dams or diversions is the priority, Wild and Scenic is the best route,” she said. “But I’m curious about the other options.”

And while most of the crowd seemed to be in favor of Wild and Scenic — the Wild and Scenic presenter received the loudest applause of the evening by far — there are still some community members who value the Crystal but do not see federal action as the best approach.

Larry Darien lives on his ranch outside of Marble and said he’s been involved with protection efforts for the Crystal since the 1980s. Although he agrees that a dam would be detrimental to the Crystal, he is a staunch opponent of a Wild and Scenic designation, favoring state control instead, as the state is the actor who controls water rights. 

“(I’d like to see) some kind of contract between the stakeholders,” he said. “(I worry about) the unintended consequences. As soon as they designate, a lot more people come.”

Will Roush, the executive director of Carbondale-based conservation nonprofit Wilderness Workshop, said that Wild and Scenic is the strongest option for dam prevention. 

The steering committee aims to have a draft set of recommendations by December, and they’re hoping to reach consensus by January for a path forward.