Several branches of Thompson Creek, a tributary of the Crystal River near Carbondale, have won an “Outstanding Waters” designation from The Colorado Water Quality Control Commission, setting a requirement that activities in the watershed not harm water quality.
“This is a huge conservation win that ensures there will be no degradation of these pristine waters,” said Aaron Kindle, Colorado field coordinator for Trout Unlimited. “The designation will safeguard the streams, wetlands and tributaries of a nationally significant watershed, and the genetically pure populations of cutthroat trout found there.”
The designation will provide special protections for North Thompson Creek upstream from a crossing with County Road 108, as well as the headwaters of Middle Thompson Creek and South Branch from just above their confluence. The Water Quality Control Commission’s ruling means that anyone seeking approval for development or discharge permits in the watershed must demonstrate that the proposed activity does not degrade the creeks’ baseline water quality.
“This is a very broad level of protection,” said Chad Rudow of the Roaring Fork Conservancy. “It can guard against any number of things that we may not even be able to predict right now.” Rudow conducted the baseline water sampling for the proposal.
In order to qualify as Outstanding Waters, a waterway must have high water quality, be viewed as a natural resource and have a need for protection. Such designations are nearly ubiquitous within the state’s national parks and wilderness areas, but are otherwise fairly rare. Battlement Creek and Parachute Creek in Garfield County, several tributaries of Brush Creek in Eagle County and Hermosa Creek in La Plata and San Juan counties are some of the few non-wilderness watersheds to have Outstanding Waters status along part of their course.
Trout Unlimited has worked for over a year with a variety of stakeholders — including ranchers and farmers, landowners, energy companies, county officials, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and others — to win support for the designation.
Thompson Creek hosts two populations of cutthroat trout that haven’t interbred with non-native fish, including a rare subspecies. Several-hundred people signed a letter to give the designation to critical cutthroat trout habitat throughout the Colorado River Basin, including Thompson Creek, Cattle Creek, a tributary of the Roaring Fork near Carbondale, and several streams that feed into the White River and the Yampa River.
“Cutthroat have dwindled to about 10 percent of their original range,” Kindle explained. “Anywhere they exist is important to us.”
Cutthroat are the state’s only native trout, and rely on cold, pure water and healthy riparian habitat for survival. Small, isolated populations like those in Thompson Creek are particularly vulnerable.
“You have to take extra care with these kind of creeks,” added Kindle.
The U.S. Forest Service, which administers the land around the protected sections of Thompson Creek, isn’t convinced that Outstanding Water designation is the answer. In a letter to the Water Quality Control Commission, Regional Forester Daniel Jiron called it “unnecessary.”
“We are committed to the maintenance and protection of high quality water and native cutthroat trout habitat in these areas,” he wrote. “We feel the regulations and procedures we currently have in place are sufficient to protect the high quality waters in the roadless areas.”
Still, many local organizations expressed approval for the commission’s decision.
Pitkin County submitted a letter of support, as did Jason Sewell, whose family has farmed and ranched along Thompson Creek for five generations. Current agricultural uses in the area, including cattle grazing, were grandfathered in by the proposal and will not be affected by the new status.
“We rely on the pristine waters in these creeks for drinking and irrigation purposes,” wrote Sewell. “They have served as the lifeblood of our ranch for over a century.”