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Water Lines: What will the future of our rivers look like?

Peter Mueller
WATER LINES
The Nature Conservancy and Colorado Basin Planning Team

We’re fortunate.

If you’re a resident within the Colorado River Basin, live in Grand Junction, Basalt Carbondale, Gypsum or Granby, you are probably within a stone’s throw or two of the Colorado, Roaring Fork, Crystal, Eagle or the Fraser Rivers. The names of these rivers conjure up a sense of the wild, pristine and plentiful, that has made the Western Slope such an awesome place to call home.

And yet these wild rivers that roar in May and June need care year-round much like the pastures and crops that abound in our river valleys. Our state has thrived on the backs of human ingenuity and resourcefulness that found ways to divert these waters to fertile soils and budding communities. But as the last century came to a close, we became increasingly aware that our rivers were suffering. We realized that if we continued to divert more water to increasingly larger cities, the health and vitality of what sustains not only our pastures, but our way of life, may be lost.



Ranchers, farmers, fisherman, whitewater boaters, conservationists and utility providers from across the state have been meeting over the last year to develop a plan of how best to meet our state’s growing need for water. This need is growing because our population is increasing, from approximately 4.5 million today to a projected 9 million by 2050. Just about a year ago, our governor kicked this planning process off and charged the nine different river basins in Colorado to develop a plan of how to meet these changing needs, the Colorado Water Plan. The plan is currently being crafted in conjunction with the Colorado Basin Roundtable and their bi-monthly meetings in Glenwood Springs. Information about the meetings can be found at http://www.coloradobip.sgm-inc.com. The aim of this ongoing work is to identify ways to meet the water needs of our growing communities, while maintaining the health and vitality of our farms, ranches, and rivers.

What’s at stake if we continue to proceed as we have in the last century?



The cost of business as usual is not pretty. Imagine ranches without irrigation, farms without fruit, or rivers without flows, which would mean little to no fishing or recreation. The costs of diverting more and more Western Slope water to other purposes are far beyond aesthetic; they are economic.

Each year more than 500,000 Coloradans and visitors jump aboard a commercial raft on Colorado’s rivers and take advantage of our wild and free flowing rivers. These numbers, compiled by the Colorado River Outfitters Association, track commercial use and help document the enormous financial benefit that recreation has to our communities up and down the Colorado River Basin. The financial benefits of our West Slope agricultural production surely dwarf these numbers. Costs of future depletions to our rivers also have a connection to the health of fish and other species.

Most residents in Grand Junction are well aware of the four endangered fish that populate the lower Colorado River above its confluence with the Gunnison River. These fish have been the target of tens of millions of dollars of investment and coordinated resource and wildlife management aimed at improving their status. The use and development of our water resources must often consider how this would affect these fish. Similar to this challenge, the Colorado River and its tributaries host three other warm water natives and numerous strands of native Colorado cutthroat trout. The protection of these species and their habitat is critical to all Coloradans because the potential challenges of adding more Colorado fish to the endangered species list would have significant consequences on any one that turns the tap, opens the gate or casts the fly.

Fortunately, from challenging circumstances, come promising solutions.

The same ingenuity that helped develop our water resources is being tapped to find better ways to manage our use of water. At the root of any current and evolving solutions is cooperation. Never before have the conversations about how to protect our rivers and streams been so closely linked to the protection of our farms and ranches.

And in this cooperation a set of tools is being identified to help us meet our growing water needs and keep our rivers flowing and our ranches producing:

Reduce domestic consumption of water through fixture improvements, education, and land-use improvements.

Identify and protect the river flows on key recreational reaches for future use.

Identify and protect the river flows necessary to protect fish and aquatic species.

Avail financial resources to help irrigation companies and individuals improve their diversion, transportation and on-farm deliveries.

Develop legal tools to help farmers and ranchers manage their water resources while maintaining their water right.

Develop smaller storage projects in the Upper Basin that can provide sufficient river flows for fish and domestic needs during prolonged drought.

This list is a short summary of a much longer list. Importantly, none of these concepts or opportunities can be pursued without the cooperation and support of others. We have moved away from our legacy of developing new water supplies and entered into a new period of reallocating what we already have.

Thankfully, Coloradans from both sides of the divide are committed to using our ingenuity and above all our ability to work together to solve these challenging resource issues.

You can be a part of the process. Please visit http://www.coloradobip.sgm-inc.com to find out more about the public involvement process and upcoming meetings.

This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at Facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or Twitter at Twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.


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