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Upper Colorado River - Project Update

Posted: 08/27/2009
By: Nathan Fey

The Upper Colorado Protection Project

The Upper Colorado River is the largest source of supplemental water supplies for Denver and Colorado’s Front Range, where water providers have used numerous reservoirs and pumps to lift river water up and over the Continental divide to provide municipal and irrigation water for east slope cities and farms.   In 2005, Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources released their State Water Supply Initiative report (SWSI), which projected significant increases in population, and a 20% gap in the state’s ability to meet increased water demand.  Considering SWSI findings, state agencies and local water providers are proposing new or enlarged reservoirs in the Upper Colorado basin to meet future projected demands.  At risk from the push to develop new water supplies are the remote and unprotected river canyons just downstream from these proposed projects.

In 2007 the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) found the Upper Colorado river eligible for federal protection of it’s nationally significant whitewater paddling, wild trout fishing, and other “Outstandingly Remarkable Values” under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Visitors are willing to travel long distances to float and fish the Upper Colorado River, injecting over $20 Million annually into the economy from rafting alone (Colorado River Outfitters Association, 2008). Whitewater paddling and fishing experiences are also flow-dependant, and can be significantly degraded if more water is captured and removed from the river.

In an effort to prevent Wild and Scenic River management from preventing future development of water supplies in the Upper Colorado, numerous State agencies and water managers oppose federal protection of the river corridor. Designation as a “Wild and Scenic River” protects a river from ever being dammed, and also protects and enhances that river’s “Outstandingly Remarkable Values.” This federal effort to “protect and enhance” flow dependant values of the Upper Colorado River is on a collision course with state efforts to capture more water from the river for municipal uses.

To bridge the conflict between flow protection and water development, local stakeholders and consulting agencies have come together in good faith to develop an alternative to Wild and Scenic management that would be equally protective of the outstanding wild trout fishing and world-class rafting and kayaking thru Gore Canyon, State Bridge, and Glenwood Canyon on the Colorado River. Conceptually, this alternative will protect the river’s outstanding remarkable values, prevent damming, and allow flexibility for water development. 

American Whitewater is actively engaged in this initiative and regularly attends negotiations with various stakeholders representing environmental interests, state and local governments, and water providers to discuss its potential benefits and pitfalls. We are representing private boaters and commercial outfitters in the negotiation process, and are among the only stakeholders advocating for dynamic flows that sustain sediment transport, fish spawning cues, riparian health, and world-class whitewater experiences. 


American Whitewater’s 2008/2009 efforts

American Whitewater’s first responsibility is to the river, and we are working for the most protective viable option for managing the Upper Colorado.  To accomplish this, it has been critical that we introduce a new conservation ethic into these management discussions by leveraging the recreation economy and recreational resource needs using sound science and good policy.

To this end we have and continue to:

- conduct technical analysis of instream flows needed to maintain recreation opportunities in the Upper Colorado River.

-  engage our membership, partner organizations like Colorado River Outfitters, and our network of affiliate clubs in defining the recreational value of the Upper Colorado, and in quantifying the existing condition of recreational opportunities.

- provide technical expertise that gives all stakeholders an understanding of environmental and recreational water needs for over 80 miles of high mountain river corridor.

- advocate for future flow management to mimic a natural hydrograph and provide high spring flows that sustain critical environmental services.


American Whitewater has changed the tone of stakeholder negotiations by advocating for protection of dynamic flows critical to the conservation and enhancement of riparian forests, fish and otter habitat, and human-powered recreation. We have used the best available science to describe the relationship between recreational opportunities and instream flows, and have gained support from local government councils, Water Conservation Districts, and groups like The Wilderness Society, Trout Unlimited, and Colorado Environmental Coalition. We have succeeded in presenting robust scientific data upon which stakeholders will base future instream flow protection. In addition to our advocacy role American Whitewater is working to ensure that the BLM has sufficient information on recreational and environmental flow needs on which to base the Wild and Scenic Management Plan for the Upper Colorado as part of their forthcoming Resource Management Plan.  American Whitewater has achieved three major milestones through our Upper Colorado River Protection Project:

1) Identified flow ranges, both necessary and preferred by recreational users, for each of the Colorado River segments subject to new federal resource management plans.

2) Achieved broad stakeholder support for flows necessary to protect recreation and flow management that will enhance critical environmental flow needs.

3) Greater Public involvement in federal resource management, and stronger alliances between environmental and recreational interests


American Whitewater’s Strategy has resulted in:

Over 250 volunteers working with AW to identify flow ranges necessary to support existing recreation in the Upper Colorado River.

Flow management guides that protect the average number of “Usable Days” for rafting and kayaking based on hydrologic conditions.

Proposed flow guides that offer greater protection of environmental and recreational habitats in the upper Colorado River, than flow guides supported by State agencies and east slope water developers.

First-of-it’s-kind scientific data of recreational water needs in the Upper Colorado River.

Robust representation of paddler interests in over 100 stakeholder negotiations and countless committee meetings.


With support from our members and affiliate clubs, American Whitewater will ensure that the Upper Colorado River is awarded lasting environmental protections under new federal resource management plans, and locally crafted management directives for federal resource management agencies.




Associated Projects

Colorado SWSI (CO)

Colorado's Statewide Water Supply Initiative may very well determine the fate of Colorado's whitewater rivers by dictating how much water can be removed from rivers to serve a growing population.

Upper Colorado River (CO)

American Whitewater is working with various stakeholders to develop a resource management plan for the BLM, as an alternative to "Wild and Scenic River" management.

Join AW and support river stewardship nationwide!