Includes two tributaries of Coal Creek
[ By Katherine Nettles ]
Anyone following water law knows that while a few cubic feet per second (CFS) doesn’t look like much more than a trickle in a stream bed, it can make all the difference for a farmer or rancher, for an ecosystem and for downstream users.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) and High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) have suggested three new water appropriation projects to preserve flows within the North Valley of Gunnison County for 2021, which would maintain anywhere from .1 to 11 CFS in local streams and which will be decided on in the next few months before potentially heading for a final decision at Colorado water court.
Julie Nania, water program director at HCCA and Robert Viehl, CWCB water resource specialist, presented recommendations for Elk Creek, Wildcat Creek and Lower Gold Creek to county commissioners last month. These instream flow recommendations follow protocols of the Colorado Instream Flow Program established in 1973, and do not take water away from any existing users but protect flows against any future allocations.
CWCB works to promote the protection, conservation and development of Colorado’s water resources for the present and future by providing policy direction on water issues. The idea is to maintain minimum flows between specific points on a stream, or levels on natural lakes. ISF protection also establishes that the flows are entitled to the stream conditions that exist at the time of appropriation.
The first proposed project is on Elk Creek from the headwaters to its confluence with Coal Creek 2.7 miles downstream. The stream corridor is about 85 percent located on public lands.
CWCB is proposing winter and summer instream flow protection on Elk Creek where the natural habitat includes tiger salamanders, a recovering brook trout population, riparian area and “a healthy macro invertebrate population.”
The proposed winter flow would be .1 CFS and the summer flow recommendation would be 1.5 CFS.
The second recommendation is for Wildcat Creek, from the headwaters at Green Lake to the confluence with Coal Creek 2.6 miles downstream. The recommendation includes a minimum of .36 CFS from December 1 to March 31, and a maximum of 2.1 CFS from May 1 to August 1. The natural environment along Wildcat Creek, according to CWCB, includes cutthroat trout and a riparian area.
The third recommendation, though still in progress, is for Lower Gold Creek. While Upper Gold Creek has existing instream flow protections, the lower section from the Tarkington Ditch headgate to the confluence with Quartz Creek .47 miles downstream does not. The natural environment includes a brook trout fishery, riparian area and irrigated hay meadows.
The CWCB’s initial winter and summer flow recommendations for the lower section would be 7 CFS and 11 CFS, respectively.
“These amounts were advanced for the upper section of Gold Creek. However, we postponed moving forward with lower Gold Creek recommendation in order to collect additional data below the Tarkington headgate,” explained Nania. “We’re still working with CWCB staff to determine water availability in this lower segment and to develop the final proposal amounts for the lower portion.”
Instream flows do not guarantee that the protected amount remains in the stream. Like all water rights, said Nania, “they do not prevent existing water rights owners from fully exercising their existing rights—in fact one of the requirements of appropriation is that they do not harm existing uses. Rather, these protections work proactively to preserve minimum flows in streams moving forward.
“To that end, instream flow protections are designed to assure that there is no injury to existing uses, including water users that divert on the same reach. There is an extensive process for individuals to participate in the hearing process and to object to instream flow appropriations if they are concerned that the new instream flow might impact their uses.”
The recommendations are now in the final CWCB stage before a decision is made as to whether or not they go to water court. This final stage includes public outreach.
“Our recommended ISFs from HCCA are nearing the end of year two of the three-year process,” said Nania.
According to HCCA, instream flow water rights have been appropriated on 1,684 stream segments covering 9,720 miles of stream, and 482 natural lakes since the program was established 47 years ago.