The biggest problem is that the environment has always been an afterthought. Fish and other animals that depend on stream water, wetlands and riparian ecosystems weren’t able to make a legal claim on water back in the late 1800s, so they’ve gotten short-shrift ever since. Hundreds of miles of streams in Colorado experience extreme depletions every year, to levels well below those needed to maintain healthy ecosystems. A couple of times in recent years, the state’s namesake river was in danger of running dry upstream of Kremmling, due to a combination of diversions to the Front Range and irrigation demands on the West Slope.
To its credit, the state has tried to protect the environment within the framework of existing water law by establishing “minimum instream flows” and spending millions of dollars to buy water rights. But the instream flow program falls far short of its goals, leaving many streams unprotected and subject to environmentally damaging diversions. In some cases, stream gauges freeze up at critical times, just when trout spawning season and peak ski resort demand for snowmaking water coincide, making it difficult to accurately measure flows. In other cases the state lacks the resources or political will for meaningful enforcement. Many other streams simply don’t have any protection at all.
It’s time to take a deep breath and acknowledge that the archaic and outmoded 18th [ed. should be 19th] century law doesn’t meet the needs of the 21st century. Continuing down its current path, Colorado is building a fragile house of cards that will someday collapse, most likely as the result of an extended drought. Before that happens, elected leaders, environmental experts and other stakeholders need to sit down together and develop a statewide water plan that reflects current and future realities, including the need to protect Colorado’s environment beyond today’s “reasonable” standard that falls far short of achieving its goals.
More Coyote Gulch coverage here.