Director, Colorado Water Project
1/7/2002 -- Denver, CO -- A new report says that Colorado’s rivers and streams are beginning to show clear signs of stress due to overuse of the state’s limited water supply, a problem that the report says will only get worse as the population continues to grow.
Prepared by the national conservation organization Trout Unlimited, the report uses ten cases studies to show how diversions, damming and the expanding demand for water are damaging Colorado’s rivers. The ten case studies described waters ranging from the state’s namesake, the Colorado River, to Bear Creek, and are only a subset of rivers and streams adversely affected in the state by expanding water use. The Colorado Division of Wildlife databases list more than 570 waters that are limited by low and fluctuating stream flows.
The case studies detail varying impacts caused by reduced or altered flows including fish kills, degraded water quality, reduced wildlife habitat and affected recreational opportunities, impacts that Trout Unlimited says, have far-reaching economic, social, and quality of life impacts.
“Flow alteration impairs many stream riparian ecosystems in Colorado. Eliminating spring peak flows prevents rejuvenation of aquatic habitat and riparian communities, and low flow depletions reduce ecosystem productivity and species diversity,” stated LeRoy Poff, assistant professor of biology at Colorado State University.
The report, entitled A Dry Legacy -- The Challenge for Colorado’s Rivers, points to several factors that are at the root of the problem including the overuse of water – a limited resource in semiarid Colorado – due to irrigation, power generation, municipal consumption and even recreational uses like snow-making.
The report faulted Colorado’s 19th century system of water laws, which has not evolved to address the state’s rapid growth and that growth’s ever-expanding impacts on rivers and streams. It also pointed to the State of Colorado’s reluctance to aggressively use the limited authority available under the current system to protect stream flows.
“Some of the state’s water laws are so archaic that the senior holder of a water right, who chooses not to use his or her entire water allocation in order to protect fish and wildlife habitat or water quality, can lose all or part of that right. This, in turn, creates a huge and very powerful disincentive to conserve water,” said Bill Gordon, a rancher from South Park who attended the news conference unveiling the report.
The report follows a major study released last month by the University of Colorado Natural Resources Law Center, which concluded that unfettered demand for water in the state due to continued growth along the Front Range and on the Western Slope will exceed currently available water supplies.
Strategies listed to help alleviate the problem
The Trout Unlimited report includes a series of strategies that the conservation organization says will help restore those rivers and streams that have been affected by reduced water flows and to prevent others from incurring similar harm. Strategies that are available under current law include:
· Enforcing the state’s existing ban against wasting water and ensuring that wise and efficient water use becomes the duty of every water user, which will help address the problem of water users taking more water than is decreed to them, and the deterrent to efficient water use that the “use it or lose it” doctrine creates.
· Supporting the use of federal authorities, including acceptance of federal agencies’ right to obtain instream flow water rights, to prevent streams crossing national forests, parks and monuments in the state from being dried up or seriously impaired.
· Strengthening the state’s current instream flow program by expanding efforts to buy and seek donations of senior diversionary water rights to put back into streams, filing for new rights on streams that need protection, reversing a recent trend to reduce such filings, and vigorously enforcing the rights the state now holds.
· Employing agricultural and municipal conservation strategies to “stretch” our existing water supplies and reduce the need for new dams and diversions.
· Investing in better stream monitoring to enhance enforcement of healthy flows in streams and to provide expanded information on stream health.
The report also recommended that the State of Colorado and the Colorado General Assembly consider adopting strategies that have worked successfully in other western states to restore healthy flows in rivers and streams.
One of those strategies is a system to give interests that divert water from streams and rivers incentives to conserve, as in Oregon, where irrigators are allowed to keep, use or sell 75 percent of the water they save through conservation as long as they return the other 25 percent to the stream. Another is to allow any current owner of an absolute water right to change that right to instream purposes, permanently as California allows, or for up to 30 years, as Montana permits. Finally, the report points to actions individuals can take to protect streams, from conservation at home to becoming involving in watershed and other groups.
“Fortunately there are common sense solutions to this pending environmental crisis caused by the overuse of our water resources. It’s just a matter of summoning the courage and the political will now to take the steps necessary to prevent the crisis from getting worse – steps the state will eventually be forced to take as our population and water demands continue to grow,” said Melinda Kassen, the director of Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project.
Case studies included in the report describe de-watered sections of the Colorado, Cache la Poudre, South Arkansas, North Fork of the Gunnison, Conejos, San Miguel and La Plata rivers, as well as portions of Bear, Snowmass and South Boulder creeks. “These ten rivers and streams represent the tip of the iceberg. If nothing is done to reverse the current trend, the damage to our fisheries, the state’s wildlife resources and our water quality will get worse and worse,” said David Nickum, the executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited.
The report, A Dry Legacy -- The Challenge for Colorado’s Rivers, is available at http://www.cotrout.org.  It has also been sent to more than 250 public libraries in the State of Colorado. High quality digital photographs of select rivers and streams can be accessed at http://www.cotrout.org  or by contacting Steve Lopez at (303) 832-4600, ext. 211.
Mission: Trout Unlimited, the nation's leading coldwater conservation organization, is dedicated to the protection and enhancement of trout and salmon rivers and streams and their watersheds. The organization has over 130,000 members in North America, including 8,000 members in Colorado.
For more information: David Nickum, 303/440-2937