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Fork targeted for preservation

A highly regarded international conservation group wants to preserve the Roaring Fork River and upper Colorado River Basin for natural ecosystems rather than see them sucked dry for Front Range growth.

The Nature Conservancy recently launched the Colorado River Project to try to influence water management of the upper Colorado River and the major streams that feed it, including the Roaring Fork River. The effort is particularly important now because of the ongoing threat of drought and the Front Range’s desires to tap additional water sources in Colorado’s mountains for growth, according to the organization.

“As matters stand now, the Blue, Eagle, Roaring Fork and Gunnison rivers are among the likely targets for East Slope water,” said a Nature Conservancy outline of the project. “As a result, these rivers may be threatened by more reservoirs and trans-basin diversions, which, in turn, could diminish available habitat and harm water-dependent fish and riparian communities.”

The goal of the project is to work with governments in Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield and Mesa counties to try to ensure that water management decisions weigh ecological issues and not just growth interests.

The Nature Conservancy considers ecological resources along the rivers in the Roaring Fork and Eagle river valleys to be “globally significant.”

The examination of the upper Colorado River Basin is something that the Nature Conservancy considers a “Platform Project” or one of critical importance that affects a large landscape in Colorado, according to David Gann, southwest Colorado program manager for the Nature Conservancy. Gann splits time between Carbondale and Telluride.

The Carbondale office was established about a year ago, signifying a greater role the Nature Conservancy is playing in the Roaring Fork Valley and throughout the West Slope. Gann said the Aspen area made significant contributions to a five-year fund-raising campaign called The Heart of the West. About $1.5 million was raised for Nature Conservancy projects specifically in Colorado.

The campaign raised a total of $80 million in public and private funds, land contributions and conservation easements.

Materials supplied by Gann show that the Colorado River Project will use scientific research to show why the Roaring Fork River and other components of the upper Colorado River Basin are so ecologically important. That information will be used to try to influence water management.

One key to the project will be to determine appropriate minimum stream flows in the Colorado River and its major feeders.

“Front Range cities are seeking ways to exercise their West Slope water rights, thereby exporting more water to the Front Range,” the project outline states.

Gann said the success of this and other Nature Conservancy projects depends on a “collaborate approach” with other parties that have an interest in the use of water from the basin. “We’ve staked that out throughout our history,” he said.

The Nature Conservancy will also place its ample resources and expertise behind efforts to help with land preservation efforts in the Eagle and Roaring Fork river valleys. It counts the Aspen Valley Land Trust and Eagle Valley Land Trust, nonprofits that aren’t affiliated with local governments, as its partners.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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