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Wild and Scenic with a Local Touch: Protecting the Upper Colorado River

Posted: 07/08/2020
by Cassidy Randall and Hattie Johnson

After 12 years of hard work, the Upper Colorado River Wild and Scenic Alternative Management Plan was finalized and formally accepted by the BLM and USFS to protect and enhance the flow related values - like recreational boating - of the Upper Colorado River.

The first meeting of the Upper Colorado River Wild and Scenic Stakeholders Group, comprised of a dozen representatives of water utilities, city governments, and federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and United States Forest Service, convened in 2008. Amongst these traditional water interests, whitewater boaters didn't have the best reputation; they were viewed as dirty paddlers looking for the biggest Class V churn to hurl themselves down, real-life concerns like fish habitat, agriculture and city drinking needs be damned. Just release the flow, and they're happy. The only other nonprofit at the table at that time was The Nature Conservancy, which didn't exactly consider itself an ally to the "hedonistic" paddling community. Nathan Fey, AW's newly hired Colorado River Stewardship Director, knew all this as he sat down at that inaugural meeting-he'd grown up in this state, and he understood how people thought. But he planned to change their minds.

The issue under discussion around that table was how to manage the Upper Colorado like a Wild and Scenic River (WSR), but without the actual WSR designation. The year before, the Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service had released a report that identified nearly 55 miles of the Upper Colorado-from the top of Gore Canyon to close to Glenwood Springs-as eligible for federal Wild and Scenic designation. But the state's water issues are nuanced, with water from the Upper Colorado allocated to both sides of the divide and for multiple uses; a WSR designation could preclude future development of the water and doesn't ensure collaborative and cooperative management. 

The federal agencies agreed to defer their plans for pursuing the designation, and rely on the new Stakeholder Group to develop a plan to cooperatively manage the river to protect and enhance the outstandingly remarkable values (ORVs) the report identified (which included this stretch's spectacular boating opportunities), while meeting the state's existing and future water needs for consumptive uses like agriculture and drinking water.

To identify the range of flows that support boating on the Upper Colorado, AW was going to need more than just anecdotes and paddling terms. Fey needed to bring studies with metrics, numbers and data that spoke the same language as the water policy experts in the Stakeholder Group. 

Along with Evan Stafford, now AW's Communications Director, Fey created an online survey and sent it to frequent boaters of the Upper Colorado through forums like Boater Talk and Mountain Buzz, and lists of past and present AW members; kayakers, rafters, inflatable kayakers, all kinds of boaters who knew the river well. The survey asked them: what's the lowest minimum flow for a good experience? What's the highest? What's optimal?

Stafford then took that range of acceptable flow rates for boating and overlaid it with the historical record on the river gauge, determining year types from dry to wettest, to output a hydrograph that counts the number of days for a range of acceptable flows.

But getting this new "boatable days" analysis accepted as a legitimate tool for river management remained an uphill battle over the course of several years. AW had the science, but it was a totally new concept at the time that turned traditionally accepted water use on its head.

The conservation stakeholders at the table came around first. Generally, rivers managed for fixed flow have tanked ecosystems to show for it; in contrast, natural riparian areas experience a range of flows that contribute to sediment transfer, healthy riverbanks and habitat for fish and other wildlife. In managing a range of flows for boatable days, it was possible to marry ecological benefits to the metric as well.

Prior to leaving AW, the Upper Colorado Stakeholder Group, now nearly 90 people strong, voted Fey in as its chair. "We went from being the dirty boaters that always want to paddle Class V to leading the group forward," he says. "We gained a reputation for bringing good science and good policy decisions to the conversation, using metrics to inform discussions around trade-offs. In the end, it's not just about having a seat at the table. It's the kind of seat you occupy."

Conversations progressed, and boatable days was finally accepted into the Upper Colorado Alternative Management Plan toolbox as a guide for protecting recreational outstandingly remarkable values in June 2020, when the plan was formally accepted by the federal agencies. The Stakeholder Group will continue to convene to ensure the metrics established are met and, most importantly, to discuss ways the group can collaborate to keep the river wild and scenic. Because of the collaboration and trust built amongst the diverse stakeholders, the plan provides avenues and tools for protection and enhancement for the Upper Colorado outside the scope of a federal Wild and Scenic designation.

American Whitewater
Hattie Johnson
Phone: 970-456-8533


Associated Projects

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.

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