Recreation In-Channel Diversions help local economies

Blanca Wetlands via the National Park Service
Blanca Wetlands via the National Park Service

From the Valley Courier (Lauren Krizansky):

Without water, Colorado wouldn’t be nearly as fun. Throughout the state, water provides thousands locals and visitors alike with year round outdoor activities. Besides offering lakes and rivers to boat and fish in the summer and snow packed mountains to ski in the winter, it gives life to Colorado’s unique ecosystems that attract many to trails, parks and wetland areas in search of the purity of nature.

Water makes Colorado outdoor recreation possible, and it is a protected value, ensuring the adventurous traditions of the Rocky Mountains will last far into the future.

Outdoor, water-based recreation was recognized among the state’s top water priorities in the ’90s. The Colorado Supreme Court heard the argument to make recreation a “beneficial use” of water, which became a reason to secure a state-protected water right. Since the nineteenth century, a “beneficial use” of water in the west was defined as removing water from a source for economic gain. The court’s decision to include recreation in such guidelines started a 20-year legislative battle between historical water users and those fighting to support what would become a million dollar economy. In 2011 alone, according to reports, the Colorado whitewater rafting industry generated $61 million, and contributed an additional $155 million in economic impact.

Although the Valley is home to many water recreation opportunities, it has yet to invoke Colorado water laws finally established in 2001 and amended in 2006 to protect its own outdoor treasures. The state can award a Recreational In-Channel Diversions (RICDs) “to human-made structures designed for non-motorized boating… claimed only by cer- tain governmental bodies .”

According to recent reports , “An RICD helps to protect the investment. Colorado communities make in whitewater parks and the economic benefits associated with those parks. The unique attributes of RICDs are that they keep water in the river channel, they are nonconsumptive and they approximate the fluctuation of the natural hydrograph. These attributes also have the incidental benefit of keeping rivers healthy with flow.”

So far, recreation water rights in Colorado have been claimed up to 2,500 cubic square feet, and, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the RICD application review team for the state, “many of the RICD water rights to date have the potential to restrict future upstream development potential and may reduce the flexibility that Colorado has to manage its water resources” and “may be subject to further legislation and court challenges .”

Today, there are seven Colorado communities that have a RICD decreed: Avon, Chaffee County, Durango, Longmont, Pueblo, Silverthorne , Steamboat Springs and Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, according to the CWCB. RICD water rights application are pending for Grand County, Pitkin County and Carbondale. Prior to the legislation, Aspen, Breckenridge, Fort Collins, Golden, Littleton and Vail secured recreation water rights. In the Valley, a number of factors keep recreation in the water. For example, the Rio Grande Natural Area (RGNA) was established on October 12, 2006 to conserve, restore and protect the natural, historic, cultural, scientific, scenic, wildlife and recreational resources of the 33-mile stretch of the Rio Grande between the southern end of the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge and the Colorado-New Mexico state border. In the area, the Rio Grande meanders through canyons, providing excellent fishing opportunities in the scenic canyon, and the shallow gradient of the river is “ideal” for those who prefer flatwater rafting.

Another example is the ongoing work to protect and restore the Valley’s web of wetlands. Sitting below 14,000-foot peaks, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and a number of supporters are resurrecting the Blanca Wetlands. The projects is focused on restoring and researching the ponds, marshes, playas, wet meadows and uplands with the boundary that could grow to over 120,000 should pending plans be approved. The expected outcome is to “provide rich and diverse habitats for wildlife and a haven for people.”

Man’s efforts, however, can only go so far to protect water recreation. The harsh realities of drought require water managers to make challenging decisions to meet the many water needs of a community, and the shortage is leaving some places dry. The San Luis State Park and Wildlife Area in Mosca is one, and its legendary lakes are becoming piece of modern history since today they hold no water.

More water law coverage here.

Leave a Reply