Not just go­ing with the flow

State of­fi­cials say $25M needed to pro­tect wa­ter­shed

The Denver Post - - DENVER & THE WEST - By Bruce Fin­ley

Colorado of­fi­cials want $25 mil­lion to cre­ate stream-pro­tec­tion plans in ev­ery cor­ner of the state, try­ing to save wa­ter­sheds in­creas­ingly im­per­iled by in­dus­try, droughts and more peo­ple si­phon­ing water.

A Colorado Water Con­ser­va­tion Board pro­posal, sent to state law­mak­ers last week, rec­om­mends the stream-sav­ing ac­tion to meet state en­vi­ron­men­tal and eco­nomic goals. It re­mains un­clear who would en­force the com­mu­nity wa­ter­shed plans.

But there’s lit­tle doubt streams statewide are strained by thirsts of a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion ex­pected to dou­ble by 2060, ac­cord­ing to state of­fi­cials. And a Den­ver Post look at the lat­est water qual­ity data found that 12,975 miles of streams across Colorado (14 per­cent of all stream miles) are clas­si­fied as “im­paired” with pol­lu­tants ex­ceed­ing lim­its set by state reg­u­la­tors.

Cre­at­ing lo­cal wa­ter­shed plans to save streams is es­sen­tial, said James Ek­lund, the CWCB direc­tor and ar­chi­tect of the year-old Colorado Water Plan. Ek­lund pointed to low-snow win­ters and drought in Cal­i­for­nia’s Sierra Ne­vada, where 2015 snow­pack at 5 per­cent of av­er­age forced a dec­la­ra­tion of a state of emer­gency re­quir­ing 25 cuts in ur­ban water use.

“When our Colorado moun­tain snow­pack drops be­low 60 per­cent of av­er­age, we get ner­vous. If it hap­pens in the Sier­ras, it can hap­pen in the Rock­ies,” he said. “We need to pro­tect cer­tain streams be­fore a cri­sis. We have got to get on this quickly.”

No sin­gle agency over­sees wa­ter­way health. State nat­u­ral re­sources of­fi­cials mon­i­tor flow lev­els in streams and rivers. They run a pro­gram aimed at en­sur­ing suf­fi­cient “in-stream flow” so that, even dur­ing drought, streams don’t die.

Mean­while, the Colorado Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health and En­vi­ron­ment sets stan­dards on max­i­mum lev­els of pol­lu­tants that peo­ple and com­pa­nies are al­lowed to dis­charge into wa­ter­ways. In 2015, only 51.6 per­cent of to­tal stream and river miles in Colorado met qual­ity stan­dards, and 30.1 per­cent of lake sur­face acres met stan­dards, ac­cord­ing to a CDPHE plan­ning doc­u­ment.

“If stream flows are low, there is less di­lu­tion in the stream to han­dle the ad­di­tion of pol­lu­tants through per­mit­ted dis­charges,” CDPHE water qual­ity direc­tor Pat Pfaltz­graff said in re­sponses sent by agency spokesman Mark Sal­ley.

Yet CDPHE of­fi­cials do not make rec­om­men­da­tions to nat­u­ral re­sources of­fi­cials about water flows nec­es­sary to improve stream health.

The health depart­ment has made sep­a­rate “wa­ter­shed plans.” CDPHE of­fi­cials “are con­sid­er­ing broad­en­ing the divi­sion’s wa­ter­shed plans to in­clude ecosys­tem health that might be more con­sis­tent with stream man­age­ment plans.”

Pfaltz­graff de­clined to dis­cuss stream health.

Water in Colorado is al­lo­cated us­ing a sys­tem of prior ap­pro­pri­a­tion where se­nior water rights pre­vail and water is treated as prop­erty that can be used up

en­tirely.

CWCB chair­man Russ Ge­orge sup­ported the push to cre­ate lo­cal wa­ter­shed plans, to in­clude de­tailed maps cov­er­ing ev­ery stream.

“Ev­ery stream and trib­u­tary needs to be in­ven­to­ried. … It should have been done a long time ago,” Ge­orge said in an in­ter­view last week.

“We have kind of hit the pop­u­la­tion and de­mand place where we have to do it. We didn’t have to do it for the first part of his­tory be­cause the pop­u­la­tion was small and there wasn’t the im­pact of all the is­sues we are get­ting into now,” he said.

The CWCB voted unan­i­mously last month to ask law­mak­ers to ap­prove $5 mil­lion a year for up to five years to launch lo­cal stream plan­ning.

The plans are to be de­vel­oped within the eight river basin “roundtable” fo­rums that Colorado has re­lied on for ad­dress­ing water chal­lenges. Th­ese groups draw in residents with in­ter­ests in stream health who helped hash out the Colorado Water Plan, which was fi­nal­ized last year and calls for statewide cuts in per per­son water use by about 1 per­cent a year.

Con­di­tions along Colorado streams vary, said Bart Miller, healthy rivers pro­gram direc­tor for Boul­der-based West­ern Re­source Ad­vo­cates. “There are plenty of streams that have prob­lems.”

While state nat­u­ral re­sources of­fi­cials run the pro­gram aimed at keep­ing at least some water in heav­ily tapped streams, sur­vival in a com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment is com­plex. Leav­ing water in streams for en­vi­ron­men­tal pur­poses of­ten de­pends on tim­ing, when the moun­tain snow­pack that serves as a time-re­lease water tower for the West melts, the amount of snow­pack, and needs of cities, pas­tures and farms.

Col­lab­o­ra­tive lo­cal fo­rums to find flex­i­bil­ity to re­vive streams “is a great ap­proach.” How­ever, state of­fi­cials even­tu­ally may have to play a cen­tral role con­vert­ing plans into ac­tion, Miller said.

“The state should help both in fund­ing the plan­ning but also in im­ple­ment­ing the plans,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do. This mat­ters be­cause this is about ‘the Colorado brand.’ Ev­ery­one de­pends on healthy rivers.”

The roundtable fo­rums in com­mu­ni­ties draw in di­verse stake­hold­ers from cat­tle­men to an­glers.

Ir­ri­ga­tors and other water users west of Aspen al­ready have cre­ated a “stream man­age­ment plan,” for the Crys­tal River, seen as a model lo­cal ef­fort. Their plan­ning in­cluded an as­sess­ment of wa­ter­shed health that found sig­nif­i­cant degra­da­tion above the con­flu­ence with the Roar­ing Fork River. They set a goal of re­duc­ing the es­ti­mated 433 cu­bic feet per sec­ond of water di­verted from the river by adding 10 to 25 cfs dur­ing dry times. They’re de­vel­op­ing “non­di­ver­sion agree­ments” that would pay ir­ri­ga­tors to re­duce water use when pos­si­ble with­out hurt­ing agri­cul­ture, com­bined with im­prov­ing ditches and in­stal­la­tion of sprin­kler sys­tems de­signed to ap­ply water to crops more ef­fi­ciently.

En­force­ment of plans hasn’t been de­cided. “We’d like to see more en­force­ment” of mea­sures to improve stream health, Rocky Moun­tain Sierra Club direc­tor Jim Alexee said. “We def­i­nitely think there’s room to do more. We also want to be re­spect­ful of the gover­nor’s wa­ter­shed process.”

Colorado has no his­tory of re­ly­ing on a cen­tral agency to en­force water and land use, CWCB chair­man Ge­orge pointed out.

“When you have a sys­tem de­signed to have every­body at the ta­ble, what you’re do­ing is rec­og­niz­ing there is a fi­nite re­source that is shared by every­body. And im­pacts are shared by every­body statewide. In or­der to keep from hav­ing some force dom­i­nate in ways that would not ac­count for all statewide im­pacts, you need to dif­fuse the con­ver­sa­tion into all ar­eas. That is what round­tables do,” he said.

“When you do that, you’re go­ing to get a bet­ter statewide re­sult over time. … It is a process that is de­signed to get as many in­ter­ests into the de­ci­sion-mak­ing as you can. … It gets harder, of course, as the sup­ply-de­mand makes pinches. For the rest of our lives, it is go­ing to be that way.”

Mon­ica Linares, car­ry­ing her 2-year-old son, Erick, takes a re­fresh­ing walk with her 3-year-old daugh­ter, Bella, in a stream at Belle­view Park in En­gle­wood in July. Andy Cross, The Den­ver Post

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