State gets mixed signals locally for protection of Gunnison River

HCCA withdraws recommendation

Although the water temperature in the Gunnison River is only a little over 40 degrees, a local recommendation to the state to place additional environmental protection on the river is currently a hot debate.



The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) may create an in-stream flow water right on the upper Gunnison River for greater protection of the aquatic environment. In-stream water rights seek to protect waterway environments by mandating that a certain amount of water continually flows down the river. The CWCB, charged with overseeing the state’s water storage and conservation projects, is considering adding this protection to the Gunnison River (between Almont and Blue Mesa) on behalf of a recommendation made this February by local conservation group High Country Citizens’ Alliance (HCCA). But other water users say that kind of additional legal protection would hinder future development in the watershed without a considerable supply of water that isn’t already earmarked for other uses.
If a river that has in-stream flow protection dips below a certain flow level in a certain “reach,” or length of waterway, local water users would be asked to augment the stream flow by paying for additional water that is stored and released upstream.
Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) board member and HCCA water director Steve Glazer says HCCA is now withdrawing their recommendation, based on recent concerns from local water users.
During the district’s regular board meeting on Monday, June 23, Glazer said the intent of the protection was to prevent water exchanges that could have a negative impact on the world-class fishery of the Gunnison River. Glazer said a similar recommendation was submitted to the state 10 years ago, along with an environmental study of the river’s environment and potential flow criteria. That recommendation was never approved, and the CWCB would need to update stream flow and water availability data before moving further. “I think it’s premature for us to be talking about a decision. I asked to have this put on the agenda to initiate some discussion,” he said.
Other UGRWCD officials said protection of the fishery was important, but an in-stream flow filing wasn’t necessarily the best answer.
UGRWCD attorney John McClow said the additional protection could stymie development in Gunnison County due to the need to create additional augmentation water before approving new water rights. “If the CWCB obtains this water right, no further well permits would be issued in the Gunnison Basin unless someone developed a new source of augmentation water,” McClow said.
Board member George Sibley said protecting the river was important, but more research into the situation was needed. “I agree with the impulse that motivated the (recommendation) but I can see there are a lot of difficulties. How can we protect the river, I guess, is the question,” Sibley said.
On Wednesday, June 25, several staff members of the CWCB’s stream and lake protection section hosted a public meeting in Gunnison to discuss the recommendation.
CWCB senior water resource specialist Jeff Baessler presented information about the function of the in-stream flow program, and where other stream and river protection recommendations were being made in the state.
Before the CWCB board would have a chance to approve a recommendation, Baessler said, the CWCB staff would spend a fair amount of time investigating the river and proving three things. First, that a natural environment exists that can be protected. Second, that enough water is available in the watershed to meet in-stream flow demands, and finally, that such protection won’t injure other water rights that could occur, such as a new groundwater well.
Baessler noted that under Colorado’s prior appropriation system of allocating water rights, a new in-stream flow right would be considered junior and could not affect older, senior water rights.
The earliest the CWCB board would review a recommendation for the Gunnison River would be in January 2009, Baessler said. He said there were several opportunities for any person or entity to object to an in-stream flow recommendation leading up to a board review, and if the CWCB board approves an in-stream flow recommendation next January the public would have until March 31 to appeal the decision.
Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) in-stream flow program coordinator Mark Uppendahl then spoke about his agency’s desire to work with the CWCB to protect the environment of the Gunnison River. “This is a very important reach (river segment) for the division. It has gold medal trout population numbers and biomass, and has high recreational use,” Uppendahl said.
UGRWCD member Ken Spann said not all water users in the basin supported protecting the Gunnison River through the in-stream flow program. “This proposal did not come out of a consensus reached in our community. You need to be sensitive to that concern as it goes forward. I think you will find the mechanisms on the river already in place protect the fishery we have,” Spann said, referring to existing protection mechanisms such as the Gunnison River Recreational In-Channel Diversion Accord, and the 1975 Taylor Park Reservoir Operation and Storage Exchange Agreement.
Glazer asked what the state agencies would do if HCCA withdrew its recommendation.
Baessler said if HCCA withdraws its request the CWCB would stop pursuing in-stream flow protection, but might work with the state DOW to research other solutions for protecting the river.
Uppendahl agreed that in-stream flow protection may not be needed, but said the DOW would like to continue investigating the possibility. “It’s definitely an important reach for us, and it warrants in-stream flow protection. But we’d work with the local community to see if we could come up with some kind of solution to the issues out there,” Uppendahl said.
After the meetings, Baessler said the CWCB was holding off further investigation of the river’s potential for in-stream flow protection, to see if HCCA withdraws its request, and also because of the concerns heard during the meetings.
On Tuesday, July 8, Glazer says the HCCA board decided to withdraw their recommendation to the CWCB. Glazer says the board decided that maintaining a good working relationship with other water interest groups, such as those involved in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison settlement, would be more beneficial than continuing to pursue the in stream flow protection.  “There is a consensus on our board that we entering a very important time in resource decision making…  They wanted to maintain the cohesiveness that was developed during the Black Canyon discussions.”

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