Guest commentary: Rein in the Colorado Water Conservation Board
It’s been a big spring on our beautiful, high-flow rivers, especially the upper Colorado. But we can’t forget that our state’s longer-term water woes haven’t gone away. No one seems to need reminding of that fact more urgently than the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which recently released the draft Colorado Water Plan and unceremoniously undermined it just two weeks later in a heavy-handed, top-down rejection of Glenwood Springs’ plan for a whitewater park.
Come on, guys. We just celebrated the newly opened Gore Canyon Whitewater Park near Kremmling. It’s a fun, functional way to keep water in our rivers, support the recreation economy and ensure reliable flows as the climate warms and dries. The state board supported that application and then turned around and opposed the same recreational in-channel diversion rights for Glenwood. It makes no sense.
Or, I should say, it makes sense only if you’re still thinking about Colorado water through a 19th-century lens and haven’t quite caught up to the 21st century where we’ve maxed out existing water supplies and need to start getting serious about conservation and making sure our rivers don’t dry up.
What’s most frustrating about the state board’s recent decision is that they’re not even following their own guidance. Our newly unveiled draft water plan is all about listening to local communities and prioritizing projects that keep those communities healthy both economically and environmentally.
The board created that plan by combining the recommendations of local roundtables composed of diverse stakeholders. Their input was specifically designed to protect local waters, local interests and local economies. For the stretch of the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs, the local roundtable explicitly prioritized the recreation economy and the creation of whitewater parks through in-channel diversions as a critical way to protect recreational flows.
Local leaders of all stripes support the creation of this new park because they know you can’t paddle down a dry river. You also can’t sustain a river-based recreation economy on a dry river. Today, the economic impact of commercial river rafting in Colorado is about $150 million, and the river recreation industry as a whole added $9 billion to our state’s economy last year.
No one knows that better than the paddlers of our state, who live, work and play here because rivers matter to us! Now if only state decision-makers would listen to the folks who call this place home, and who know what real stewardship and wise water management really means. As the Glenwood park case winds its way through water court, we locals will continue to support the city, and we sure hope the state water board will too.
Peter Benedict is an avid recreational kayaker and a math teacher and River Program Manager at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale.
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