Trout Unlimited initiative aims to unite West Slope water users |

Trout Unlimited initiative aims to unite West Slope water users

For the overtapped Colorado River to meet a variety of needs, from agriculture to recreation, West Slope water users need to start rowing in the same direction.

That’s the message of a new outreach effort — “Our Colorado River” — launched by Trout Unlimited, which is encouraging Colorado River stakeholders to work together to find innovative water planning and river conservation solutions.

The upper Colorado River is the lifeblood of Colorado’s West Slope. The Colorado River, along with major tributaries such as the Yampa, White, Dolores and Gunnison rivers, nourishes everything that happens on the West Slope: agriculture, recreation, tourism and related businesses. But the Colorado River faces a host of increasing pressures, from drought and diversions to industrial and municipal growth. Many experts believe that Colorado will face serious challenges in meeting water needs, while preserving river habitat and wildlife.

“West Slope water users need to realize our common stake in preserving the river’s health and vitality,” said Richard Van Gytenbeek, Colorado River basin coordinator for Trout Unlimited. “From farms and ranches, to recreation and tourism and towns and cities — the West Slope economy depends on a healthy Colorado River.”

“From farms and ranches, to recreation and tourism and towns and cities — the West Slope economy depends on a healthy Colorado River.”
Richard Van Gytenbeek
Colorado River basin coordinator for Trout Unlimited

In western Colorado, noted Van Gytenbeek, water from the Colorado River basin irrigates pasture on about 9,000 farms and ranches — operations that produce animals and crops with an economic impact of $1 billion annually. Similarly, West Slope recreation and tourism industries depend heavily on the Colorado and its tributaries to support rafting, fishing, kayaking, camping and other activities. Recreation is a huge and growing business in Colorado, generating in excess of $9 billion per year to the West Slope economy.

“Together, the agriculture and recreation sectors comprise western Colorado’s largest economic engine — an engine that runs on water. Without healthy rivers, the economic future of the West Slope looks bleak,” said Van Gytenbeek, who is taking this conservation message on the road with a series of presentations to West Slope communities and groups.

As part of the “Our Colorado River” effort, Trout Unlimited also unveiled a new website,, which highlights the need for collaboration and features a gallery of “Voices of the Colorado River” — multimedia profiles of diverse West Slope water users, from fishing guides to ranchers to vineyard owners, who talk about their personal connection to the Colorado River and the need to protect river health.

TU is also asking West Slope residents to support a set of “core values and actions” needed to meet the river challenges ahead:

• Cooperation, Not Conflict: Work together to ensure the Colorado River is able to meet our diverse needs, from agriculture to recreation and tourism. Cooperation is the key to sustaining our present and growing our future.

• Protect Our Quality of Life: Maintain our open spaces through a vigorous agricultural sector and ensure that our rivers and streams are flowing and healthy.

• Modernize irrigation: Upgrade our aging irrigation infrastructure systems to make them more productive, economical, and habitat-friendly.

• Innovative Management: Explore new ways to meet our water supply needs through innovative conservation and management practices.

• Keep Our Rivers at Home: Leave water in its home basins and oppose new, river-damaging transbasin diversions of water from the Colorado River to the Front Range.

TU is urging West Slope residents to endorse these principles at to build support for common goals and actions to protect the Colorado River.

“We think most West Slope residents will embrace these commonsense ideas as ways to meet our water needs,” said Stephanie Scott, outreach coordinator for Colorado TU. “The alternative — fighting and every water user for himself — is a prescription for disaster.”

Scott stressed that West Slope users have a lot to gain by working cooperatively to meet water supplies and maintain healthy rivers and streams. She pointed to several recent TU projects with ranchers and irrigators in the Colorado River basin that benefit agriculture while ensuring healthy rivers.

For example, TU recently completed several restoration projects in the Gunnison River, including an overhaul of the old Relief Ditch dam, an imposing diversion that posed a hazard for both boaters and fish. TU and partners worked with a local irrigation ditch company to modernize the Relief Ditch diversion to improve water management while enhancing boater safety and fish passage.

“There are many of these win-win opportunities out there,” said Scott.

“These kinds of pragmatic, collaborative projects will help keep the Colorado basin healthy and able to sustain our economy, amid a range of increasing demands and impacts,” said Van Gytenbeek. “We’re all in this boat together.”

To learn more about TU’s “Our Colorado River” effort, contact Van Gytenbeek at (307) 690-1267, or go to

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