Not just going with the flow
State officials say $25M needed to protect watershed
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
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