‘Rivers do much more than keep fish wet’ — Jo Evans/Ken Neubecker #COWaterPlan

Saguache Creek
Saguache Creek

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Jo Evans/Ken Neubecker):

Colorado faces a future with more people and less water. A state water plan is a good idea, but we must plan carefully to get the future we want. We need to include rivers as rivers, not merely as engineered conduits bringing water to our faucets and farms.

Rivers do much more than keep fish wet. They are the life and heart of entire ecosystems. Ninety percent of Colorado’s wildlife depend on riparian habitat to survive. Riparian areas and rivers make up less than 5 percent of our total land area, but they are the most complex and important habitat we have. They are incredibly valuable economically as well as environmentally. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Coloradoans spent $10 billion on wildlife related recreation in 2011 alone. Riparian areas and rivers statewide made that possible.

Most Colorado rivers have no prescribed minimum flows, and a healthy riparian zone needs more than that. When we take water out of a stream things change.

Riparian areas and the gravel aquifers they depend on dry out. Recent studies have shown that diverting more than 20 percent of a stream’s native flow can cause damage, and many streams in Colorado have far more water than that removed. Most water used will eventually return to the stream from which it was taken, even if many miles downstream. Water taken out of its original basin for use in another basin is gone forever. Trans-basin diversions impact the entire stream and riparian ecosystem, not just the flow of the stream.

When we add new water to a stream on this side of the Continental Divide, typically the stream becomes wider, deeper and faster. The stream may no longer fit the environment under which it was formed, impacting everything that depended on that stream habitat. This not only impacts wildlife but can make the natural drainage less able to handle floods such as we had last year.

We do pretty well at determining how much water we will need for our faucets and fields. We identify how much we need, where and when, and then look for ways to provide that quantity of water. The draft Colorado Water Plan lists specific municipal, industrial and agricultural needs for each of the major river basins and the possible projects to supply those necessities. But we need balance. Where is a comparable environmental needs list?

Specific environmental water needs are still mostly unknown. Environmental uses are usually described as “attributes” to be “enhanced” often by new storage and diversion projects. These “enhancements” may or may not be enough to maintain a healthy stream and riparian environment. If we are to meet our environmental water needs, we must identify and quantify those needs.

When we know how much water we need to repair and maintain our rivers, we can truly plan how to meet these needs. Until and unless we do, the state water plan is only half a plan and doesn’t provide for all the values expressed in the governor’s executive order calling for the plan. Not by a long shot.

Jo Evans is president of the Audubon Colorado Council. Ken Neubecker is with the Audubon Colorado Council Water Task Force.

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