A new listing that ranks the entire Upper Colorado River Basin as the second-most-endangered river network in the United States brings important attention to the “hardest working river in America,” observes Jim Pokrandt, spokesman for the Colorado River District.
But it’s important to note that “nobody is digging a new tunnel tomorrow,” and organizations like the Glenwood Springs-based River District are active at the table in working to protect Western Colorado interests in the face of growing Front Range water needs, he said.
“There are a lot of top-10 lists when it comes to rivers and water conservation,” Pokrandt said in reaction to the listing last Wednesday by the nonprofit conservation group American Rivers. “It’s a good way to generate publicity for these various causes.”
American Rivers calls on Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to prevent new water diversions and instead prioritize protection of Western Slope rivers and water conservation measures in the Colorado Water Plan, which remains in discussions through a roundtable process that involves stakeholders from across the state.
Already, about 450,000 to 600,000 acre-feet of water per year is diverted from the Colorado basin to the populated and ag-intense Front Range, Pokrandt noted.
The prospect of more diversions “is definitely being advocated in some quarters from those who say a new project is not a question of if, but when and how soon,” he said.
“We’re saying that’s a big ‘if,’ because there are a lot of big issues around that.”
Pokrandt said any new trans-mountain diversions are “questionable, if it’s even possible.” That’s primarily because of the Colorado River Compact with down-river states that guarantees their share of river water.
“It’s important that we don’t overdevelop the river, and any more transmountain diversions should be the last option out of the box [for Front Range needs],” he said. “First and foremost, it behooves all of Colorado to be more efficient in our water use.”
The Colorado River by itself made the American Rivers list last year as the most-threatened waterway in the country.
This year, the entire basin, including the Roaring Fork River and its tributaries as well as other threatened rivers such as the Yampa and Gunnison, ranked No. 2 behind the San Joaquin River in California.
At the crossroads
Ken Neubecker, a Carbondale resident who works with American Rivers, said it’s the first time he’s aware of that an entire basin has been listed. The reason is that the state water planning process puts the entire river system at a crossroads, he said.
“Right now, the plan talks about preserving a new trans-mountain diversion as an option, but the hope of some involved is to include language that secures that right,” said Neubecker, who has been involved with the roundtable talks since they began.
No specific project is being identified, “so it could come from any of the rivers” in the Colorado Basin, or could draw collectively from several drainages, he said.
“We could see some immediate action in the coming year, so it’s important to call attention to the issues now,” Neubecker said.
He notes that among the core values guiding the water plan is to protect water needs for the state’s wildlife.
“If you take that one fairly, you need to treat the river as a whole system,” he said. “And natural ecosystems don’t do well with artificial management.
“Whether you’re a kayaker, or a fisherman, or an environmentalist, or a rancher, the fear on the Western Slope is pretty universal,” Neubecker said. “Any further depletion of water from the Colorado River system is going to hit us hard in the long run.”
Pokrandt notes that many municipalities across the state, not just the Front Range, are scrambling to find water to take care of projected population growth. That means more water demand on both sides of the Continental Divide.
“But there’s a big question about how much water is really left to develop,” he said. “There’s also an economic benefit to leaving water in the river without developing it, so there’s that issue as well.”
American Rivers, in naming the Upper Colorado to its list, urges state leaders and the Colorado Water Conservation Board to make sure the state water plan:
• Prioritizes river restoration and protection
• Increases water efficiency and conservation in cities and towns
• Modernizes agricultural practices
• Avoids new major transmountain diversions
Another Colorado river on the American Rivers endangered list this year is the White River, which was No. 7 due to the threat of oil and gas development and the risk to fish and wildlife habitat, clean water and recreation opportunities.
The White River flows from the northern reaches of the Flat Tops through Rio Blanco County and into the Green River in northeastern Utah.
“Major decisions this year will determine whether we can safeguard the White River’s unique wild values for future generations,” said Matt Rice of American Rivers in their Wednesday news release.
“Unless we strike a balance between energy development and river protection, Colorado will lose a priceless piece of its wild heritage,” he said. ❖