Minimum flows eyed for Colorado River

Bob Berwyn
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

SUMMIT COUNTY ” A new study considered by stakeholders in the Colorado River Basin would look at the minimum amount of water needed to be left in rivers and streams.

While most water questions have been examined from nearly every imaginable angle, stakeholders in the Colorado River Basin may be headed down a new path as they focus on the main stem of the Colorado River.

Trout Unlimited’s Ken Neubecker outlined the scope of the project at the Colorado River Headwaters Forum Thursday morning in Frisco.

The group is looking at what the non-consumptive needs are, Neubecker said, describing them as uses that go beyond the beneficial uses established by state law.

Under Colorado water law, it’s fairly clear how water is administered and used for irrigation and municipal use, for example. What’s not so easy to pin down is how much water is needed to maintain adequate habitat for fish and other animals.

Through the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the state does hold water rights for minimum stream flows on numerous reaches. But Neubecker emphasized that those are baseline flows intended to meet minimum requirements, protecting the environment to a reasonable degree.

“Environmental needs are more dynamic and cyclical that the flatline CWCB stream flows,” Neubecker said.

The concern among traditional stakeholders like Front Range water providers is that the study could develop in a way that challenges the state’s established water rights system. Neubecker said that concern has been described as approaching “paranoia” by some interests.

The intent is not to take away anybody’s existing ability to exercise water rights, he said. The initial goal is to define and quantify those non-consumptive uses.

“Where are they critical? What reaches are they not being met?” Neubecker said. “You must look at what the real needs are, otherwise you’re just cheating yourself. If we’re going to do it, it has to be meanigngful.”

Rather than challenging any existing water rights, the point is to identify the gap between the needs and the available water and then figure a way to get from point A to point B, he explained.

An obvious place to begin looking is along the Colorado River itself.

“One of the critical reaches in my mind is the main stem of the Colorado from the confluence of the Blue down to the state line,” Neubecker said.

While many tributaries, including the Snake and the Blue in Summit County, are protected by CWCB water rights, the state’s namesake river isn’t as-yet covered under the minimum instream flow program.

Anecdotally, anglers tell of being able to wade across some sections of the river in summer and fall, and late last year, the alarm went up when the river dropped to near-record low levels in nearby Grand County, upstream of Kremmling.

Establishing a regime of required minimum flows on the Colorado is likely to be a long-term project, requiring some additional research in addition to some of the data that’s already out there.

To that end, Neubecker said the plan is to approach the Colorado Water Conservation Board as soon as this fall to seek funding for studies.


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