Community gathering gauges public sentiment on Crystal River protection
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The Crystal River valley as seen through EcoFlight in May 2022.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times
Tucked in the Marble outpost of the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District, more than 130 community members from Aspen to Marble and beyond gathered to discuss the future of the Crystal River.
Thursday’s meeting was the first of a community outreach effort to gauge public sentiment on protection options for the Crystal.
In the 1980s, the White River National Forest determined 39 miles of the Crystal River was eligible for federal protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. They reaffirmed that finding in 2002.
Efforts to win that designation have waxed and waned over the years, and this go-around is starting at the beginning to determine what protections are best suited for the river and the surrounding communities.
Everyone from landowners, ranchers, anglers, and interested community members showed up to the meeting.
“There have always been different opinions on how to approach Wild & Scenic or permanent protection for the Crystal River,” said Zane Kessler of the Colorado River District. “The diversity of the crowd is representative of the diversity of the river.”
While the group responsible for reigniting the effort is called the The Wild and Scenic Feasibility Collaborative — which includes Pitkin County, the town of Marble, Gunnison County, Pitkin County, the Colorado River District, and American Whitewater — the end goal is not necessarily a Wild & Scenic designation.
“The Wild & Scenic campaign was the past push that everyone’s familiar with,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury. “We need to centrally organize the conversation to bring people together.”
A litany of local, state, and federal options exist as protection options for the Crystal beyond the Wild & Scenic designation, which would have to be approved in Congress.
One of the most recent threats to the Crystal River came up in 2011, when the Osgood and Placita Reservoirs proposals sparked public outcry.
That was fresh in the minds of attendees during group discussions about the Crystal’s value and their hopes for its future.
Multiple members compared the Crystal River Valley and their desire to never see it dammed to the Ruedi Reservoir. Some of the attendees grew up along the Fryingpan River before the reservoir and repudiated the idea of such a future for the Crystal.
In large sticky notes collected by facilitators, attendees named themes — like protecting ecological health, ensuring uninterrupted water flow, prevention of overuse, guarding existing water rights, and community support — as important criteria for evaluating protection options.
Concerns or perceived threats included transbasin diversions — particularly to the Front Range — overuse from too much demand, and losing the natural beauty unique to the Crystal River Valley.
Although much of the crowd were already enthusiastic supporters of a Wild & Scenic designation, many folks showed up with an open, if slightly wary, mind.
Bill Fales owns Cold Mountain Ranch in Carbondale. He and other members of the agriculture community attended with the intent to learn more about the stakes.
“Our wealth, life is in these ranches. Any time people talk about water, we listen. I want to make sure our rights are protected,” he said. “What is the risk here? I want to understand what the Crystal River protection is for.”
A steering committee of about 30 people will be selected (based on a diversity of perspectives) and schedule compatibility for monthly meetings soon.
Another meeting is tentatively scheduled for September to present protection options for the Crystal River, based on community input and guidance from the steering committee. This committee will take those results and decide on a path forward, according to facilitator Wendy Lowe of P2 Solutions, who ran the meeting with Jacob Wornstein of Wellstone Collaborative Strategies.
“I’m very optimistic that the product will be just right,” said Marble town administrator Ron Leach, “We’re going to go slow, and we’re going to get this right.”