Garfield County support sought for Crystal River study
A group of Crystal Valley residents who are seeking federal Wild and Scenic designation for the upper reaches of the Crystal River are busy lining up support from area governments, including Garfield County, to help further the effort.
Garfield commissioners, however, said earlier this week that they want to learn more about the proposal, in particular its possible implications, from U.S. Forest Service and Colorado River District officials, before weighing in on the proposal.
Several entities in the region have indicated conceptual support for continuing the effort, including the towns of Carbondale and Marble, the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers Board, the Gunnison County commissioners and the Roaring Fork Conservancy, which helped to spearhead the effort last year.
Earlier this summer, some members of the Colorado River District board expressed concerns that Wild and Scenic designation for the proposed 39-mile stretch of the Crystal River might create an overlay of federal authority that could be used to prevent future water projects on the river.
River district officials have stated, though, that “a healthy and sustainable Crystal River is important,” said former Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris, who is part of a three-member group of “ambassadors” working to achieve the designation.
The Forest Service has already determined that the section of river from the headwaters in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness to the Sweet-Jessup Ditch headgate near Avalanche Creek is eligible for such designation. The waterway’s “wild, scenic and recreational” qualities are reflected in forest management plans.
Because of the Crystal River’s free-flowing state and its many scenic and recreational qualities, it’s one of just five waterways out of 72 within the White River National Forest that meet the national Wild and Scenic standard, Farris said.
She and longtime Crystal Valley residents Bill Jochems and Chuck Ogilby are now pursuing the next step before the proposal can be sent to Congress for its consideration, which is to do what’s called a “suitability” review, Farris said.
The group was before Garfield County commissioners Monday asking for their support in completing the study.
The federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 was intended to “protect rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, historic or recreational values for the enjoyment of present and future generations,” Farris said.
To date, only one river in Colorado, the Cache le Poudre River west of Fort Collins, has such designation. One other area stream that has been deemed eligible for Wild and Scenic designation by federal land managers is Deep Creek in the Flat Tops northeast of Glenwood Springs.
“This legislation would provide notoriety and political clout in future attempts to industrialize or pollute the waters of the Crystal River or any of its tributaries,” Farris said.
It would also protect the status quo for present water users from the threat of trans-basin diversions, and help with opportunities to obtain state or federal funding for river restoration and irrigation enhancement projects, she said.
At the same time, such designation would not supercede landowner water rights or local land-use regulations, she said.
“The legislation will not attempt to halt or hinder any county, municipality or special use district’s current or future planning efforts,” Farris emphasized.
Any concerns by local governments or special districts can be addressed in the designation proposal before it is presented to Congress, she said.
The river district has remained skeptical, however, which could influence Garfield County’s stance on the proposal.
Chris Treese, the river district’s external affairs manager, urged board members in a July 1 memo to “respectfully decline to support” Wild and Scenic designation on the Crystal.
“We view proponents’ Wild and Scenic designation as a means to an end in an effort to forever foreclose water development opportunities in the Crystal River basin,” Treese wrote in that memo.
Last year, after being sued in water court by Pitkin County and conservation groups, the river district gave up its conditional water rights for two storage projects on the Crystal.
Proponents of the Wild and Scenic designation have said it would not impact smaller water storage and micro-hydroelectric projects on the Crystal’s tributaries.
Ogilby, who holds water rights on the Crystal, said he and other area ranchers initially had concerns about the possible impact on water rights. He said his task as part of the committee was to allay some of that fear from the ranching community.
Added Jochems, “We are just trying to preserve the status quo with the Crystal River, and keep things as they are today.”
Although none of the proposed section of the Crystal is in Garfield County, “there are benefits to Garfield County, which is the gateway to the area,” Jochems said.
In addition to the natural qualities of the river, supporters note numerous cultural attractions along the river including the Redstone Coke Ovens, the Redstone Castle and Redstone Inn, the Thompson House in Carbondale and the Crystal Mill above Marble. State Highway 133 is also part of the West Elks Loop Scenic Byway.
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