Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Delicate Condition - The Upper Colorado River

Back Country Tributary to the Colorado
I moved to Colorado in 2001.  The draw of a mountain environment and lifestyle is primarily one of the reasons I choose to live here.  Recreation and tourism, largely headquartered in the center of our state, provides a huge percentage of Colorado's revenue, exceeding that which is generated by both mining and agriculture combined.

Western slope water accounts for most of our tourism dollars.  Snowmaking for skiing, whitewater rafting, kayaking, fishing, camping, or simply soaking in the mountain atmosphere are all economically dependent on winter snowpack.  On the other hand, it also provides for most of the drinking water,  irrigation, domestic and commercial activities necessary to keep our urban economy thriving along the Front Range.  Snowfall in the Upper Colorado Watershed is the source for most of this water.

The appetite for water from providers for the Front Range continues to grow.  Increasing amounts continue to be diverted from the Upper Colorado headwaters to support its growing population.  At the same time,  mountain communities continue to struggle just to keep enough water to provide for its citizens and tourists that are so vital to their economy, and that of the rest of the state.  It's easy to understand why the conviction on each side of this debate is so intense.  Both have very real problems.  Stuck in the middle of this push and pull is the Colorado River and its finite resource.

After much debate, and based on the severity of the problem, finally Denver Water and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District have elected to start collaborating with one another.  They have devised a proposal to take the edge off the impact their two projects will have on the Upper Colorado Watershed.  The proposal has received a big cheer from Grand County and other private river advocates as it represents a comprehensive approach to managing the resource.

More than 60% of the natural water in the Upper Colorado Watershed is currently diverted to the Front Range.  Between recently proposed Northern's Windy Gap Project and Denver's Moffat Expansion, at peak usage, these two proposals could leave as little as 15% of the natural flow in the Colorado River.  This could have a devastating impact on the riparian habitat, increase water temperatures and ultimately diminish the quality of the water.  This would obviously have hugely negative consequences for trout and other aquatic species that call the Upper Colorado home, not to mention severely influencing the tourism use of the area which contributes so much to our state economy.

On the surface, we appear to be making progress concerning the responsible use of the watershed.  However, as with many things in life, it's not what people say that matters, it's what they do that counts.  History being the guide, I still worry for the fish.  The next step is for concerned citizens and organizations to meet over the coming months to flesh out the details of a responsible plan to knock the ball out of the park.  Our water consumption, recreational use of the Upper Colorado River, and a vibrant aquatic ecosystem depend on it.  According to Trout Unlimited's Colorado Water Project, the next set of questions we need to focus on during this important project planning phase are:
  1. What measures will there be to maintain and measure water quality?
  2. What steps might be taken if river temperatures reach dangerous levels for fish?
  3. Will the volumes of water mentioned in the proposal meet the needs of the stream?
  4. How will monitoring be implemented to measure the potential impact of these new diversions?
  5. What will be done if the fishery declines?
I'd ask that all those reading this get involved with your local Trout Unlimited Chapter.  Volunteer your time and make sure to attend public hearings concerning the use of natural water resources.  If you care about the Upper Colorado and the seriousness of its current plight, contact Trout Unlimited Nationally and lend a hand. If you don't, like many river systems that suffer at the hands of public commerce, the Colorado River could become another statistic. Who knows, your home water could be next.

I would like to credit Colorado Trout Unlimited and the Northwest Counsel of Governments for many of the facts and storyline included within the content of this post. 

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Coloradocasters said...

Thank you so much for posting this information. The balance between water needs and river health is becoming a more critical issue year after year in Colorado. Better planning and more conservation is the key. Great post!

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