A monumental win for the Dolores and Colorado’s Rivers!

Posted: 09/23/2016
By: Evan Stafford
Colorado, Sept. 2016 – After another lengthy round of meetings between American Whitewater and our conservation partners, and members of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), a monumental shift in Wild & Scenic River considerations has been won in the State. This week, the CWCB reversed its long-standing policy of opposing federal Wild & Scenic River protections and voted unanimously to support the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) draft Resource Management Plan and Wild and Scenic Suitability determination for key segments of the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers, and important tributaries to the Gunnison River. The decision by the Board marks a new approach to working with federal agencies to cooperatively manage the significant values of the river, committing the state to protect instream flows for recreation and the environment in place of a federal water right. We applaud the CWCB for recognizing the strength of Wild and Scenic suitability determinations as a land management tool, and for taking steps to coordinate with federal partners to protect the flow-related outstandingly remarkable values (ORVs) in some our most treasured watersheds.
Sixteen stream segments are proposed for suitability in the BLM’s draft plan and preferred alternative--three in the Gunnison River basin, thirteen in the San Miguel/Dolores river basins.  The board wants to improve protection for the candidate streams, using its instream flow protection program, both in order to enhance the land protection that will come with the BLM Resource Management Plan and to head off the potential for federal water rights on those streams (in the event of congressional W&S designation).
The negotiations and dynamics leading to this letter (a far cry from the CWCB staff's original July recommendation to oppose all suitability) have been extensive and fascinating. Over the past two months, AW staff have worked closely with Southwest basin CWCB board member ( and AW member) April Montgomery in critiquing and challenging the CWCB staff's original memo and recommendations, providing her with select phrasing, legal and policy research, and outreach suggestions. At the meeting, April spoke convincingly about the potential for W&S suitability and select water development projects to coexist, as evidenced by the substantive work of American Whitewater’s Colorado Program
At issue previously has been the idea that a W&S Suitability will restrict or prevent future water development and associated water rights awarded by the Colorado Water Court. The CWCB is tasked with meeting the water supply demands of a rapidly growing population, while also protecting the natural environment and the state’s exceptional recreation opportunities and associated economy. American Whitewater has long argued that planning for future water development and protecting recreation opportunities do not have to be mutually exclusive
Historically, the CWCB has taken the position that Wild & Scenic designations, when coupled with federal reserved water rights, limit the States entitlements to diverting water out of our rivers. Fundamentally, the State is opposed to any federal control of water, and we have witnessed the State opposing W&S at every step. 
“The CWCB has taken the position that federal reserved water rights are not the best method for protecting flow-related ORVs in river corridors. Rather, the CWCB’s Instream Flow (ISF) Program may provide adequate protection of flow-related values in the subject stream segments… the CWCB’s ISF Program can provide adequate protection of fish and vegetation flow related values… Staff recommend… the BLM find each of the stream segments ‘not suitable’ where existing water rights adequately protect the flow-related ORVs.” – CWCB staff memo on W&S Suitability Recommendations 
Our river corridors have suffered from the State strong-arming the Federal agencies into releasing any protections that come with Eligibility and Suitability under the W&S Act - both simply preliminary steps towards formal Designation as a W&S River. This week, after working with AW and our community of river enthusiasts, the CWCB reversed its position and acknowledged that Suitability does not impose any federal control of water, and requested that the BLM defer to the States Instream Flow Program as a substitute for protecting recreation and the environment. 
As a stipulation to their recommendation, the CWCB requested that the BLM coordinate with local government entities and obtain a Recreational In-Channel Diversion (RICD) to preserve recreation in these river segments. American Whitewater believes this approach is 1) suitable for protecting recreational flows and opportunities on these segments and 2) encourages suitability designation, therefore protecting not only whitewater recreation values, but also all of the other ORVs the Wild and Scenic program is designed to protect. Considering AW’s recent success in utilizing RICD’s on other rivers, such as the Upper Colorado, to protect paddling opportunities, we are eager to see this joint approach between the BLM and the CWCB for addressing float boating ORV’s come to fruition.
The BLM is accepting public comments on their draft Resource Management Plan, including Wild & Scenic River Suitability until November 1st. Stay tuned for more info.
Colorado Stewardship Director

Nathan Fey

1601 Longs Peak Ave.

Longmont, CO 80501

Phone: 303-859-8601
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