Connecting the Drops: Conserving Water in Colorado’s Rivers

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Conservationists and white water recreationists are emerging as allies in the statewide discussion on water, as both groups seek to keep water in Colorado’s rivers.

It’s already in the mid-80s at 10:00 one hot summer morning in Lyons, one of the Front Range towns hardest hit by last year’s floods. Locals and tourists are flocking to one of the swimming holes in the town’s white water park on the St. Vrain River.

“It’s a great place for picnics,” says 14-year old Lyons resident, Nick Eaton.  “We have a rope swing and you can jump off the bridge and you can body surf, which is where you come down the rapid head first and it’s just a great place to hang out with friends and just have fun.”

Eaton says he and his friends come to the river most days during the summer, often sharing the water with swimmers, tubers and sometimes world-class kayakers.

That’s exactly the type of mixed use that park designer Scott Shipley hoped to attract. The former Olympic kayaker says the parks not only add to the quality of life for a town, but are also huge economic generators.

“When we do studies on it what we find is that economic number is on the order of millions of dollars per year,” says Shipley. “Durango about $9 million a year in economic impact from the river, from the white water park. When you look at Golden, Colorado, a small white water park, $2.2 million.”

That’s hard to ignore, particularly for communities looking to capitalize on Colorado’s growing tourism economy.

The millions of dollars coming into areas with white water parks means water managers now see that keeping water in the river is as valuable as taking it out.  But that’s a relatively new concept. Colorado’s complex water laws date back to the 1860s, but it wasn’t until the early 1970s that the first non-consumptive water right was established – a right for water to remain in the stream.

“Consumptive needs have been very easy to quantify,” says Nathan Fey with American Whitewater, a non-profit working to conserve white water resources throughout the county.  “Non-consumptive needs have historically been a little harder to understand and quantify. How much water do we need for fish habitat? How much water do we need to maintain a healthy riparian zone, and certainly for recreation, how much water do we need to keep in the river to make sure that that industry stays viable and sustainable and that we’re providing a whole range of opportunities?”

Only the Colorado Water Conservation Board can hold in stream flow water rights. But there is another type of water right that keeps water in rivers. They’re called Recreational In Channel Diversions and they’re the water rights towns must obtain when they create a white water park. The result benefits both white water enthusiasts and conservationists.

“The commonality there is that we all want to see healthy rivers,” says John Sanderson, Director of Conservation Science at the Nature Conservancy’s Center for Conservation Science & Strategy in Colorado. Sanderson says the group sees white water advocates as natural allies in the quest to keep more water in Colorado rivers.

“There are several places around the state where conservation groups and recreational interests are working hand in hand to keep water in streams.”

As an example, Sanderson cites a collaboration on the Delores River in Southwest Colorado, where he and his team worked with recreational and agricultural interests to try to balance water needs.

Now recreational and conservation interests are hoping that by working together they’ll have a greater voice in water policy discussions.

“If we can carve out a placeholder in the state water plan that recognizes the current needs for recreation and the environment,” says American Whitewater’s Nathan Fey, “it becomes part of the statewide dialogue, so when we’re considering new projects in the future, that place holder already establishes us as having a seat at the table.”

As Colorado water officials formulate the state water plan, Fey and other allied conservationists will look to speak together on behalf of keeping water flowing in the rivers.


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