Gunnison stakeholders address new water temperature standards

“We want more time to see what the data says”

by Crystal Kotowski

For the first time ever, the Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC) came to Gunnison on Monday, November 14 and was greeted by substantial local turnout.

A local group led by the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) is working to address stream temperature standards—a conversation that began statewide in 2007, and locally in 2016. The comments submitted to the WQCC unanimously requested more time to compile data to determine whether standards should be revised.

The WQCC may hear proposals that address unresolved temperature issues at the June rulemaking, such as shoulder seasons (the transition from summer and winter) or elevation transitions, which other parties in the state feel is precedent-setting.

“Temperature is wildly difficult to regulate because as you can imagine it changes every day, by the hour, day and night, by the season, with groundwater inputs, water diversions, and dischargers—it’s infinitely complicated,” said Ashley Bembenek, technical specialist for the UGRWCD and the Northwest Council of Governments.

“Temperature standards are an attempt to maintain healthy stream systems as we deal with the ongoing effects of climate change– warming temperatures and decreasing streamflows,” said UGRWCD’s general manager Frank Kugel.

Temperature can have far-reaching implications. “Stream temperatures can impact the growth rate of fish and can change their geographic distribution. If it gets to an extreme, it can cause fish kills. At the same time, we are not just concerned about fisheries. Temperature can affect the dissolution of toxins and can impact certain metals,” said the High Country Conservation Advocates’ (HCCA) water director Julie Nania.

The Gunnison Basin has existing temperature standards, as temperature is part of the Clean Water Act, but stakeholders are looking to revise the statewide standards to better meet local conditions.

The UGRWCD’s local partners include the town of Crested Butte, Gunnison County, HCCA, the city of Gunnison, Mt. Crested Butte Water and Sanitation District, Trout Unlimited, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the National Park Service, and the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition.

Together, these organizations comprise the Upper Gunnison Water Quality Monitoring Committee. The committee is working to assure that local interests are represented as temperature standards are revised in the Upper Gunnison River Basin. Their primary objective is to use local temperature data to revise standards, if needed, to assure that aquatic life is protected, while balancing the needs and concerns of municipal dischargers.

“[The committee] jointly submit[s] this request that the Regulation 35 Hearing, in June 2017, focus solely on site-specific standards or temporary modifications for temperature. Simply put, the broad issue of revisions to surface water temperature standards in the Upper Gunnison Basin is not ripe for resolution so we respectfully request that the broader discussion be postponed to a later date… Our request for additional time, until the next triennial review in 2022, will enable us to develop meaningful recommendations based on relevant local data,” the committee’s comment letter read.

The UGRWCD has committed to providing funding for the data collection. “We are the coordinating agency for a planning-grant request [needs assessment phase] we have submitted to the Colorado Water Conservation Board; this and other aspects of stream health needs are part of that grant request. The UGRWCD has also committed $150,000 toward the watershed planning process for 2017 as the required match for that request, but we will invest that money in the planning process, whether the grant comes through or not,” said UGRWCD board member George Sibley.

Stream health is a significant part of the watershed needs assessments and planning process that is the UGRWCD’s current major focus. Temperature data collection will be addressed as part of a larger effort looking at a range of consumptive and non-consumptive use needs. The UGRWCD is working closely in the needs assessment phase with irrigators and local municipalities, as well as HCCA’s Julie Nania, Trout Unlimited’s Jesse Kruthaupt, the Lake Fork Conservancy’s Camille Richard and the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. The UGRWCD is the coordinating entity for the planning effort, but they hold the expertise, Sibley explained.

In the meantime, the committee partners will work together to collect supplemental data and create local recommendations for site-specific standards.

Triennial rulemaking hearing

The Gunnison meetings signify the start of the rulemaking process, and a large component of the process is determining how the Clean Water Act should be implemented in the region, said Nania.

Formal decisions about the standards will be made at a rulemaking hearing in June 2017. Prior to that an “issues formulation hearing” will be held in order for stakeholders to voice their concerns; for the Water Quality Control Commission to identify issues that are ripe for decisions; and to direct staff at the Water Quality Control Division on work priorities related to the upcoming rulemaking hearing.

The issues formulation hearing is the second step in a three-step process for triennial review of water quality classifications and standards in Colorado.

The first step is an issues scoping hearing, which provides an opportunity for early identification of potential issues that may need to be addressed in the next major rulemaking hearing.

The third step is the rulemaking hearing, where any revisions to the water quality classifications and standards are formally adopted.

The WQCC is the rulemaking body for the state of Colorado as it pertains to water quality. Commission members are appointed by the governor and serve for a term of three years. The Water Quality Control Division is staff to the WQCC and will develop a targeted list by January of site-specific temperature standards. The sites must have sufficient historical data, and the division must engage with local stakeholders. The process to revise temperature standards will continue with the rulemaking hearing on June 12, 2017 in Durango.

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