A new approach to Crystal River protections

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A new approach to Crystal River protections

Date: 04/14/2024     Category: News & Media     Author: Austin Corona     Publication: Aspen Daily News    

Original Post ➡️

A log creates a small wave in the Crystal River. Jason Charme/Aspen Daily News

After roughly 40 years of debate and litigation over keeping dams and out-of-basin diversions off the Crystal River, stakeholders say they are now finding greater alignment.

Crystal River Valley community members and governments say an ongoing “stakeholder process” has been a new and uniquely productive stage in the decades-old conversation on how to protect one of Colorado’s last free-flowing rivers.

“I respect what they say, and they respect what I say, and that was not happening before we started this process. I mean, we were at odds,” said Larry Darien, a Crystal River Valley ranch owner and participant in current talks about protecting the waterway.

An ongoing stakeholder process, initiated and funded by four local government organizations — the town of Marble, Gunnison County, Pitkin County and the Colorado River Water Conservation District — has become the third formal community effort around establishing federal protections for the river since the 1980s.

But unlike previous endeavors, this process is not tied to a specific result. Rather, participants say the ongoing discussions are open-ended, allowing stakeholders to creatively define the way they want to protect their river.

“We want what works best for the community and, obviously, for the river,” said Michael Gorman, campaign manager at Carbondale-based nonprofit Wilderness Workshop. “The mission that we’re on now is figuring out what that is and what that looks like.”

Wilderness Workshop used a $35,000 grant from Pitkin County in 2021 to initiate a public outreach and education campaign that ultimately led to the ongoing stakeholder process. Gorman represents the organization in that process.

The Crystal River flows north from beneath Chair Mountain. This perspective is from a recent EcoFlight trip over the river valley. Austin Corona/Aspen Daily News
Participants of an October 2023 community summit held in Carbondale discuss the Crystal River’s future. Courtesy of Wilderness Workshop

In the past, community campaigns for protection of the Crystal have sought to officially designate it as “Wild and Scenic” under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. The stakeholder process is considering that option, but it is not the process’s only possible outcome or goal. Other options using state or local arrangements also are on the table.

Some Wild and Scenic advocates say this more flexible and consensus-based process could lead to weaker protections on the river or take too long. However, others say it has allowed organizations and individuals with entrenched disagreements to share their values, learn about one another and develop trust.

“We have the same common goal (preserving the river). Everybody’s got a different way to get there,” Darien said.

Charting a path

To date, the process has gathered community members and other stakeholders for seven educational webinars with subject matter experts, two community summits and seven meetings by a “steering committee” formed last year and composed of residents, governments and environmental organizations.

Local governments paid for professional dialogue facilitators to guide the steering committee as it developed a strategy on how to protect the river. Participants frequently told the Aspen Daily News that the two facilitators, hired from Denver-based Wellstone Collaborative Strategies and Arizona-based Participation Company, were key to the committee’s overall success.

On March 27, the steering committee announced that it had agreed on three potential avenues for protecting the Crystal. The committee has since split into three subcommittees, which are exploring the possibilities of each avenue. The subcommittees will rejoin in June or July to share their findings and chart a path forward. The ultimate goal, participants say, is to keep dams and out-of-basin diversions off the Crystal.

The three options under consideration are the Wild and Scenic designation, a local intergovernmental agreement deterring dams on the river, and the establishment of instream flow rights — special water rights that keep a certain amount of water flowing in the river at certain times — in the Crystal. Participants say the options are not mutually exclusive and they could pursue some form of all three.

A stand of trees shades a bend on the Crystal River. Jason Charme/Aspen Daily News

“To get complete consensus at the end of this with the skepticism that a lot of people had coming in, and the anxiety that a lot of people had coming into the process says a lot about the success,” said Gunnison County Commissioner Liz Smith, who is the steering committee’s co-chair.

The Crystal River, which rises in the mountains above the town of Marble and ends at a confluence with the Roaring Fork River in Carbondale, is one of the last rivers in Colorado where nature defines most of the river’s flow. With the exception of several large agricultural diversions near the town of Carbondale and a small reservoir in the town of Marble, the river is largely unaffected by manmade water projects.

“It’s an increasingly rare thing to find in the West — a free-flowing river that still has the natural runoff cycle in the spring with these big, unrestricted flows from the snowmelt,” Gorman said. “There’s a whole system of life that works around that natural flow regime of a river.”

In 2013, Pitkin County initiated a lawsuit against the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District over the latter’s attempt to maintain water rights associated with a possible reservoir on the Crystal. The district dropped its interest in the water rights as part of a resulting settlement. A year earlier, West Divide dropped its interest in water rights associated with another potential reservoir on the Crystal that would have inundated the town of Redstone had it been constructed.

The threat of a dam on the river motivated community members to seek permanent protection for the river in the form of a Wild and Scenic designation. In the 1980s, the U.S. Forest Service determined three stretches equaling 39 miles of the Crystal River to be eligible for the designation. They reaffirmed that finding in 2002, and the Forest Service manages public lands around the river as if they were under that designation already. Wild and Scenic status prohibits federally permitted water projects like dams or major diversions on the river.

The three eligible stretches begin on the north fork of the Crystal in the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness and extend down to a point just above the Sweet Jessup canal, a large agricultural diversion. Each one is eligible for a different range of protections, and there are gaps between them. The areas around the towns of Marble and Redstone would not be part of the designation.

Only one river in Colorado, the Cache La Poudre, has stretches designated under the act.

Community members Chuck Ogilby, Dorothea Farris, Chuck Downey and Bill Jochems ran their campaign for Wild and Scenic designation from 2012 to 2016, ending it when Republicans won the White House and secured a majority in Congress. Campaigners feared they would see less sympathy from Republicans in Washington if they pushed for the designation at that time.

That effort to secure Wild and Scenic ran into local opposition. Some community members, particularly around Marble, balked at the possibility of federal regulations in their community, which they feared would affect their private property rights. Responding to those fears, the town of Marble and Gunnison County — the river begins in Gunnison County, flows into Pitkin, and then ends in Garfield — withdrew their initial support for the idea. Relations between community members grew tense.

But longtime residents of the Crystal Valley say the ongoing stakeholder process has shifted many of those dynamics.

Darien, who has long been a vocal opponent of federal protections for the river, particularly Wild and Scenic designation, said his conversations about the subject are becoming more understanding and civil.

In the past, Darien said Wild and Scenic advocates assumed that he opposed the designation because he supported dams or out-of-basin diversions on the Crystal. In reality, he said he strongly opposes dams on the river, and that he opposes the Wild and Scenic designation purely out of concern about federal regulations on his property.

Darien said the ongoing stakeholder process has allowed him an opportunity to express his views and correct misconceptions about his position.

The Crystal River is shown from a vantage point off Highway 133. The eastern bank is to the left. Jason Charme/Aspen Daily News

“I’ve had people who are on the committee who told other people I know that they hated my guts because I wasn’t in favor of the Wild and Scenic,” Darien said. “The (current) process really brought everybody together, and everybody has been civil and worked together … and I think that was really important because we didn’t have that prior to this.”

Notably, Gunnison County and the town of Marble are no longer officially opposed to the designation, and both bodies have representatives participating in the stakeholder process.

Smith, the Gunnison County commissioner, said she thinks the county has shifted its position largely because of the structure of the new process.

“As I understand it, when this came around previously, Gunnison County was kind of consulted at the last minute after plans for Wild and Scenic had already kind of been agreed upon,” Smith said. “And there were people in the Marble area on the Gunnison side of the county line that had concerns … it was, I think, a difficult position for Gunnison County to not have been at the table and to not make sure that the constituents on our side of the county line were comfortable with that direction.”

“I think there’s just been a lot of clarity and clear expectations from the beginning (of the current process),” Smith said.

Smith noted that she was not on the Gunnison County board of commissioners during previous Wild and Scenic discussions, saying her perspective comes from what she has heard and seen while participating in the current process. Smith said the county supports the ideals and goals of protecting the Crystal and will follow whatever option on which the community aligns.

“Water quality and quantity have been part of our strategic plan for as long as I can remember,” she said. “So from a values standpoint, the voters in Gunnison County have expressed that generally, we back these types of environmental protection efforts.”

As a bonus, Smith said the project has allowed her to connect more deeply with the Marble community. Marble is separated from Gunnison County’s main population centers (Gunnison and Crested Butte) by the Elk Mountains. In order to drive to Marble from Gunnison, one must drive several hours over two high mountain passes, one of which is unpaved.

“People seemed to be impressed that somebody from Gunnison would come over,” Smith said.

Another view from the west bank of the Crystal River. Jason Charme/Aspen Daily News

A slow process?

The river district, which continued to oppose the Wild and Scenic designation for at least a year after its settlement with Pitkin County, now is saying it no longer opposes the designation and has joined Pitkin in hosting the stakeholder process.

Still, some participants in previous conversations have stayed away from the current process. Bill Jochems, one of the four community members who led the pre-2016 effort, said he attended a few meetings with the new stakeholder process and decided not to continue.

“I went to a few of the initial meetings, but I could see that it was such a different approach that I could not agree with it, and I just didn’t feel it was the way to go,” he said.

Jochems said he believes that Wild and Scenic has broad support among community members in the Crystal River Valley. He said advocates should start going directly to government officials and seeking support rather than working to appease an oppositional minority in the community.

“In the one [subcommittee] titled Wild and Scenic there are at least three very avowed opponents of the designation,” Jochems said. “So how can how can that subcommittee ever reach a consensus favoring Wild and Scenic designation?” Darien is a member of the Wild and Scenic subcommittee.

Downey, who led the pre-2016 effort alongside Jochems, has continued participating in the stakeholder process. Downey said the process has been slow thus far, but he understands that governmental processes can take a while.

He said that so far, most of the steering committee’s conversations have centered around procedural issues and structure. Going forward, he said is excited for substantive discussion among members of the Wild and Scenic subcommittee.

“Today, there is no real threat out there,” Downey said. “But if we do nothing, I think you can pretty much guarantee the outcome will be dams and diversions, because the value of water just keeps getting more and more expensive. And when money gets involved, oh boy.”