Roaring Fork watershed may have even more Outstanding Waters

This map shows the existing and potential reaches for Outstanding Waters in the upper Roaring Fork Valley.
Roaring Fork Conservancy/Courtesy photo

A coalition of conservation groups have identified stretches of waterways in the Roaring Fork watershed that are likely eligible for the state’s Outstanding Waters designation, which would protect water quality in the designated streams. 

The Colorado River Basin Outstanding Waters Coalition formed in 2022 to identify and aim to protect “clean water” across the state. 

In Pitkin County, the coalition identified stretches of Woody Creek, Hunter Creek, Avalanche Creek, and Middle Thompson Creek as potential candidates for the Outstanding Waters designation. Some reaches beyond those creeks already bear the designation, and any tributaries off designated stretches would also win protection. 

This map shows the existing and potential reaches for Outstanding Waters in the Crystal Valley.
Roaring Fork Conservancy

Brush Creek and Big Alkali Creek in Eagle County were also identified as potential candidates. 

To qualify, a waterbody must meet three criteria:

  1. Waters must constitute an outstanding natural resource with “exceptional recreational or ecological significance,” like native cutthroat trout recovery waters, waters with outstanding recreation opportunities, or waters within wildlife refuges.
  2. Waters must require protection in addition to that provided by water quality classifications, standards, and protections from the state, like the need for native trout water to maintain high water quality.
  3. Waters must be equal to or better than the water quality standards for 12 key parameters to support aquatic life, recreation, and/or domestic water supply uses, illustrated in the graph below.
This table lays out the criteria for high quality water eligible for Outstanding Waters designation by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Roaring Fork Conservancy

If awarded, the designation requires that the “outstanding” water quality of the stretch of river, stream, or lake be maintained and protected. This limits any potentially degrading activity near the designated waters. 

“Only short-term degradation of existing quality is allowed and only for activities that result in long-term ecological or water quality benefit or clear public interest,” according to a pamphlet on Outstanding Waters. 

The designation cannot influence water rights. The state handles issues of water quality and quantity separately. Pre-existing activities, like cattle grazing or recreation, may continue along designated waters so long as water quality does not decrease.

The coalition — which includes American Rivers, American Whitewater, Audubon Rockies, Colorado Trout Unlimited, Eagle River Watershed Council, Friends of the Yampa, The Pew Charitable Trusts, Roaring Fork Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, Western Resource Advocates and Wilderness Workshop — are working across the state to collect sufficient data to identify eligible waters. 

At a Pitkin County Board of Commissioners work session on Tuesday, Roaring Fork Conservancy’s Chad Rudow, water quality program manager, brought the commissioners up to speed on the work as part of the process’s public outreach requirements. 

The commissioners would just be asked to sign a letter in support of the designation, eventually. 

“We’ve been out conducting sampling in all the seasons, trying to really capture the data and show that the water quality is high — whether it’s spring runoff, whether it’s low flow in the wintertime, or … in the fall,” Rudow said. “We’ve been out to all these different sites with a variety of interesting ways to access them in the wintertime and … we still have a number of samples to go.”

Still, he said that the process is only at about the halfway mark. With four rounds of water-quality data collected and three more to go, the proposed boundaries could change by submission. 

The Water Quality Control Commission, under the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), awards Outstanding Water designations. The process is involved and takes up to three years. In June 2024, the state Water Quality Control Commission’s will determine status for the streams at their Rulemaking Hearing, Rudow said. 

If awarded, the streams would go on the state’s roster of Outstanding Waters. To whom the responsibility would fall to keep monitoring the water quality seemed a little unclear.

“Some of the onus, I believe, is probably put upon (the state) to continue to look into this, but it’s kind of a shared thing,” said Rudow. “So we will probably look into ways continue to monitor that. It’s not something that has to be done urgently right away. It’s something that can be kind of organized and done in sort of a long term way.”

In a totally separate effort, stakeholders are currently in the process of exploring protection for the Crystal River, including a federal Wild & Scenic designation. That federal designation would — among other things — protect the stretch of the river from new diversions. 

He said that there are some key differences between Outstanding Waters and Wild & Scenic. Primarily, it does not deal with water quality the way Outstanding Waters does, and the qualification criteria are quite different. 

“Outstanding Waters designation is an additional layer of protection for high quality streams. It is a water quality-specific designation that can be layered on top of other types of protection which may not have a water quality component,” Rudow said. “We are pursuing Outstanding Waters designations because it is a water quality specific designation with a fairly straightforward process.”

After a few questions, the commissioners unanimously expressed support for the designation and signing a letter of support.

“Happy to sign it, but I don’t want to write it,” Commissioner Chair Francie Jacober joked at the end of the discussion.