Conservancy urges Garfield County to keep river setbacks
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — A local river watchdog group is urging the Garfield County commissioners to include even stricter river and wetlands setbacks in the county’s revised land-use code, instead of removing them as is being proposed.
“Current research shows that the greater the riparian buffer, the greater the protections from physical and chemical damages such as sedimentations, erosion and runoff contaminants,” representatives from the Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy said in a June 4 letter to the Garfield Board of County Commissioners.
“The Conservancy recommends, at minimum, retaining the previous code standard of 35 feet and encourages increasing these standards … to enhance protections of waterways and aquatic life,” wrote Rick Lofaro, executive director, and Heather Tattersall, watershed action coordinator, for the organization.
One of the proposed changes in the county’s land-use and development code overhaul is to do away with county-level protections of wetlands, water bodies and water quality, in favor of whatever state and federal regulations are in place.
That would include the removal of what’s now a 35-foot setback provision for most structures, as well as a 100-foot restriction for storage of certain hazardous materials, sand and road salt.
However, regulations such as those contained in the federal Clean Water Act may be inadequate, the Conservancy argues.
“Permitting under the Clean Water Act, while necessary and beneficial, may not adequately protect the rivers,” Lofaro and Tattersall state in the letter. “Restricting storage of hazardous materials within (county codes) makes the applicant accountable to the county, allowing enforcement and clean-up on a local level with support from the state and federal government when appropriate, rather than relying on distant regulators to ensure the safety of our water resources.”
County commissioners will continue a public hearing on the land-use code revisions at 10 a.m. today at the Garfield County Administration Building, 108 Eighth St., Glenwood Springs.
The Roaring Fork Conservancy, which focuses its river research and education efforts on the Roaring Fork River watershed, expressed reservations at a May 30 meeting about the county’s proposed deletion of the local waterway protections.
In its follow-up letter, the Conservancy offered its own recommendations based on regional and national research, as well as provisions that are already in place in neighboring Eagle, Pitkin, Mesa, Rio Blanco and Routt counties.
Standard river setbacks in those counties range from 50 feet in Rio Blanco and Routt counties to 100 feet from the Colorado and Gunnison rivers in Mesa County.
Among the Conservancy’s recommendations for Garfield County would be a standard 50-foot setback, with an exemption for 35 feet if an applicant can demonstrate that it would not result in water quality degradation, stream bank erosion or impacts on the riparian or wetland habitat.
Restrictions on storage of materials within 100 feet of any water body would also be retained, as would spill prevention measures and protections related to maintenance of machinery, waste and fuel storage.
The Conservancy also addressed one of the county’s rationales for eliminating the setback when it comes to rivers, such as the Roaring Fork and Colorado, that are deeply entrenched with often steep river banks.
The commissioners’ specially appointed code advisory committee and the county planning commission both agreed in making the land-use code recommendations that the 35-foot setback didn’t make sense in areas where the river bank rises steeply away from the river and out of the floodplain.
However, “research shows that entrenchment requires comparable protections due to increased risks for erosion,” the Conservancy argued in its letter, noting that unprotected riverbanks that are void of vegetation are more prone to erosion.
Lack of shade from that vegetation also can raise water temperatures in the river, which can impact fish habitat. For that reason, the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife recommends a 300-foot setback from rivers and waterways, the Conservancy also noted.
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