River district, county concerned over Crystal River designation
Colorado River District officials worry that possible Wild and Scenic designation for part of the Crystal River could sell western Colorado water interests short when it comes to the need for future storage projects, at least one River District board member advised Garfield County commissioners this week.
“We continue to see the Crystal River as an important water supply for western Colorado,” Dave Merritt, Garfield County’s representative on the 15-member River District board, said during a meeting earlier this week to discuss the proposal.
The push to give Wild and Scenic status to a 39-mile stretch of the Crystal south of Carbondale, from it headwaters in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness to the Sweet-Jessup Ditch headgate just below Avalanche Creek, “attempts to make a determination that the way the river is now is the way should be forever, and that’s a long time,” Merritt said.
“We believe that we need to be able to provide for those who come behind us the same opportunities that we’ve had, and the Crystal River is place where we can meet the needs of the future,” he said, adding there is also concern that the designation could remove local control in favor of federal protections.
County commissioners requested the meeting with River District and White River National Forest officials to get a better understanding of what Wild and Scenic designation would mean, and to offer their thoughts.
A group of Crystal Valley residents who are preparing a formal “suitability” study, the next step in the designation process, were before the commissioners last week seeking their input.
Any questions and concerns from the county, the River District or any other entity can be addressed in the eventual federal legislation that would have to go to Congress for consideration, said Redstone resident Bill Jochems.
“The Wild and Scenic Act has great flexibility to address those concerns,” Jochems said, noting that the full River District board has not voted on the proposal, nor will it or the county be asked to do so until the draft legislation is written.
“All we’re asking for is that there be no dams on the main stem of the Crystal above (Sweet-Jessup),” Jochems said. “And it’s not like we’re trying to prevent it forever.”
Small water storage projects could still be pursued downstream of the designation, or on any of the tributaries, he said.
Last year, the Glenwood Springs-based River District, along with the West Divide Water Conservancy District, gave up the bulk of their water rights for larger reservoirs on the Crystal near Placita and on Yank Creek, due to legal opposition from Pitkin County and others.
White River National Forest staffers Rich Doak and Kay Hopkins explained that the Crystal River has been listed as eligible for Wild and Scenic status dating back to 1982, and reaffirmed in 2002.
The section of river being studied for formal designation does exhibit many of the “outstanding and remarkable” natural, cultural, historic and recreational values (ORVs) spelled out in the Wild and Scenic Act of 1968.
A key element is also that the proposed waterway be free-flowing. However, it’s possible that streams below an existing dam can be designated as Wild and Scenic, as long as the water releases are adequate to support the identified ORVs, Hopkins said.
“This is the stage of the process where all the hard questions are asked, and is the big planning part of the study,” she said.
The Garfield commissioners sought assurances that existing water rights would be maintained. Commissioner John Martin also asked that stormwater detention projects be addressed in the proposal, pointing to legal struggles in El Paso County related to the ability to build detention ponds.
“The nice thing about this process is that we can take those kinds of things into consideration,” Doak said.
The Crystal River is one of just five waterways out of 72 within the White River National Forest that meet the national Wild and Scenic standard, Hopkins added.
Others include Cross Creek on the east side of the Holy Cross Wilderness, the South Fork of the White River, and two streams nearing a formal suitability decision by Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials later this fall, Deep Creek and the portion of the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon.
Once a record of decision is made on those two waterways, a legislative “advocate” would need to be identified to carry the bill in Congress, Hopkins said.
Since the Wild and Scenic Act was adopted, only one river in Colorado, the Cache le Poudre River west of Fort Collins, has such designation.
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Roaring Fork Schools volunteers who have already completed a comparable background check through an approved entity would be good to go.