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Water: Upper Colorado gets some instream flow rights

State-held instream flows to help protect trout

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A BLM map identifies sections of the Coloado River with wild and scenic values.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Battered by drought and drained to a trickle by diversions, the Upper Colorado River got a bit of a boost as a state water court finalized a decree for three important instream flow rights that could help protect trout populations during low-flows.

The instream flows, meant to protect the environment to a reasonable degree, are very new compared to most established water rights, and they wouldn’t prevent any existing diversions. But the new instream flow rights will have to be satisfied before water rights filed in later years can take water.

“The CWCB is very pleased that the stakeholder group worked through the state’s Instream Flow Program to protect this important reach of the Colorado River,” said Linda Bassi, chief of the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Stream and Lake Protection Program. “This is a great example of how our program can provide regulatory certainty to water users along with preservation of the natural environment,” Bassi said.

The year-round water rights range in flows from 500 to 900 cubic feet per second and will include about 70 miles of the Colorado River from the Blue River near Kremmling to the Eagle River. These rights were decreed to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the only entity allowed to appropriate instream flow water rights for habitat benefits in Colorado.

“This is good news for a stretch of the river that is beloved by generations of anglers,” said Mely Whiting, counsel for Trout Unlimited. “It’s an example of what can be accomplished when working together.”

The Colorado Water Conservation Board filed for the water rights in state water court at the request of the Upper Colorado River Wild and Scenic Stakeholder Group, a diverse group representing key interests, including Front Range water providers, Western Slope governments, affected landowners, conservation groups and recreation interests.

The stakeholders have developed a local management plan designed to balance protection of the outstanding values within this segment of the Colorado River with water supply needs. The instream flow rights are crucial to the plan, which is awaiting approval by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

“We are grateful for the support we receive from all our agency participants, especially the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and for the concerted efforts of all our stakeholders who worked to bring this vision into reality,” said Rob Buirgy, project manager for the Upper Colorado River Wild & Scenic Alternative Stakeholder Group. “These decrees are an important new tool for us in maintaining the fishing and boating values on this stretch of the river.”

The Upper Colorado River Wild and Scenic Stakeholder Group is composed of American Whitewater, Aurora Water, Blue Valley Ranch, Colorado River Outfitters Association, Colorado River Water Conservation District, Colorado Springs Utilities, Denver Water, Eagle County, Eagle Park Reservoir Company, Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, Grand County, Middle Park Water Conservancy District, Municipal Subdistrict, Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, Summit County, The Wilderness Society, Trout Unlimited, Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority and Vail Associates, Inc.

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