Steering committee IDs three ways forward for Crystal River protection

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Steering committee IDs three ways forward for Crystal River protection

Date: 04/08/2024     Category: News & Media     Author: Heather Sackett     Publication: Aspen Journalism    

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The Crystal River flows through the Gunnison County town of Marble, seen here with Beaver Lake. A representative from the Town of Marble is expected to participate in a subcommittee focused on an intergovernmental agreement to protect the river. CREDIT: ECOFLIGHT

After a year’s worth of work and meetings with a facilitator, a group focused on protecting the Crystal River is pursuing three potential ways forward.

The Crystal River Wild & Scenic and Other Alternatives Feasibility Collaborative Steering Committee recommends forming three subcommittees, each focused on continuing to evaluate a different method of river protection.

The first is an intergovernmental subcommittee composed of local governments that would develop an agreement that commits each of them to protecting the mainstem of the river against dams and trans-basin diversions. A “peaking” instream-flow subcommittee would look at protecting river flows during times of peak runoff and against diversions. A third subcommittee would move forward with writing a draft proposal for a federal Wild & Scenic designation that has the flexibility to address local landowner needs and that supporters say is still the strongest option for river protection.

Some Crystal Valley residents, along with Pitkin County, have pushed for a Wild & Scenic designation for years to protect the free-flowing nature of the river. But others, wary of any federal involvement, have balked at the idea, instead proposing different types of protections.

The steering committee was convened last year to explore different options, including Wild & Scenic, for river protections. As part of this work, they also held two community summits, which each drew more than 120 members of the public, as part of a process to get stakeholder input.

Marble resident Wendy Boland will be on the Wild & Scenic subcommittee. She said that the majority of residents are in favor of a federal designation, but that the subcommittee will have to address some people’s lingering concerns about private property and make sure those concerns are respected.

“Wild & Scenic is constantly being called the gold standard of river protection,” Boland said. “And the fact that it can be tailored to meet a local community’s needs and concerns is a big plus. So that’s really the goal of the subcommittee I’m on. We’ve listened to everybody’s concerns; can we draft legislation that would meet all those concerns?”

The Crystal flows from its headwaters in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness through the towns of Marble, Redstone and Carbondale before its confluence with the Roaring Fork and is one Colorado’s last undammed major rivers.

The U.S. Forest Service determined in the 1980s that portions of the Crystal River were eligible for designation under the Wild & Scenic River Act, which seeks to preserve, in a free-flowing condition, rivers with outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, and cultural values. Wild & Scenic experts say the “teeth” of the designation comes from an outright prohibition on federal funding or licensing of any new Federal Energy Regulatory Commission-permitted dam. A designation would also require review of federally assisted water resource projects.

Any designation would take place upstream from the big agricultural diversions on the lower portion of the river near Carbondale.

Jennifer Back, a retired National Park Service employee and former member of the Interagency Wild and Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council talks with Crystal River valley resident Larry Darien at a community summit on the Crystal River in April 2023. Three subcommittees will move forward with exploring options for protecting the river. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

‘Peaking’ instream flows

A second subcommittee will look at a tool that could be used to protect peak flows through the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s instream-flow program. The CWCB is the only entity allowed to hold water rights that keep water in rivers and are designed to preserve the natural environment to a reasonable degree. A “peaking” instream-flow water right would keep in the stream all of the water not claimed by someone else (also called “all of the unappropriated flow”) during certain times of the year.

So far, this particular tool is little-used, but there are three recent examples in the Gunnison River basin on Cottonwood CreekMonitor Creek and Potter Creek. These three water rights were filed for in July and are still making their way through water court. No entities have filed statements of opposition. All three still allow for some amount of future water development.

The way that instream-flow water rights work is that another entity, usually a land use agency such as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management or a wildlife agency such as Colorado Parks and Wildlife will make a recommendation to the CWCB for a particular amount on a particular stream. Roy Smith, a water rights and Wild & Scenic Rivers specialist at the BLM, worked on the recent peaking instream-flow water rights in the Gunnison basin. He said in those cases, a peak instream flow was needed to protect the cottonwood trees because they need high flood waters that slowly recede to germinate seeds.

“Basically, what it means is every drop of water that has not been spoken for by any previously claimed water right is spoken for by this instream flow,” Smith said. “What we decided was let’s propose a water right where when the stream reaches bank full, a water right will be triggered that protects all the flow from that flow rate and above until the flood event is over.”

But the “outstandingly remarkable values” that Wild & Scenic seeks to protect and the special riparian ecosystems that peak instream flows are designed to protect may not align in the case of the Crystal River.

“A lot of the values that the Forest Service identified for potential Wild & Scenic designation are values like recreation and scenic and those are little bit harder to fit into the state’s instream flow program because that focuses on water-dependent ecology like bugs and fish and riparian habitat,” Smith said. “So there’s still a question as to whether those values on the Crystal can fit into this type of approach. The stakeholder group is going to have to figure that out.”

The intergovernmental agreement subcommittee will focus on developing a draft agreement to memorialize a commitment to protecting the Crystal against mainstem dams and trans-basin diversions. It will include representatives from the town of Marble, Gunnison County, Pitkin County and the Colorado River Water Conservation District. The River District is no stranger to water sharing agreements and has helped craft some of the most important ones in Colorado between Front Range and Western Slope water users.

Zane Kessler, the River District director of government relations, was a member of the steering committee and will serve on the intergovernmental agreement subcommittee. He said he was glad the group could find consensus on pursuing the three potential options for river protection.

“I think this should serve as an example of how local, county and regional governments on the Western Slope can work together to represent and protect the water interests of our shared constituents,” he said in a statement. “But the path forward is going to have to include communication and collaboration. It can’t be just one town, or county or district going it alone.”

Each of the three ways forward do not preclude any of the others being considered. The three subcommittees plan to provide monthly updates, and the entire steering committee will continue to meet every six months for the foreseeable future.

“Everybody loves the river, and they want to protect it,” Boland said. “The question is: Which ways can we make that best happen?”

Pitkin County supports Aspen Journalism with a grant from the Healthy Community Fund. Aspen Journalism is solely responsible for its editorial content.
This story ran in the March 29 edition of The Aspen Times and April 1 edition of the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent.