@americanrivers: A New Year’s Resolution Challenge to Protect the #ColoradoRiver

Colorado River headwaters tributary in Rocky Mountain National Park photo via Greg Hobbs.
Colorado River headwaters tributary in Rocky Mountain National Park photo via Greg Hobbs.

From American Rivers (Fay Augustyn):

Here in Colorado, rivers and streams are the lifeblood of our livelihood and economy, and this past year we celebrated the first anniversary of the signing of the Colorado Water Plan, a first of its kind plan to protect and conserve water in Colorado.

Like many other Coloradans, each January 1st, I like to set resolutions to restart in the New Year. Probably like you, my resolutions are usually focused on self-improvement – like eating healthier or making time for the gym – other times its adding simple acts of kindness to my daily routine. The holidays have a way of reminding us to do and be better, not just for ourselves or those close to us, but also for each other and the planet we depend on.

Clearly, water plays a critical role in our lives. Not only do we all need clean drinking water, but it also fuels agriculture, manufacturing, and recreation that support our way of life. Like many of you, I love my local rivers and streams and look forward to every chance I get to enjoy them.

Here in the Colorado River Basin, rivers and streams are the lifeblood of our livelihood and economy, with Colorado River and its tributaries contributing to a $26 billion economy. This past November, we celebrated the first anniversary of the signing of the Colorado Water Plan, a first of its kind plan to protect and conserve water in Colorado. While this milestone is something to celebrate, implementation thus far has been slower than anticipated. But new opportunities lie ahead in 2017 as the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) pledged to secure $55 million in funds for implementation. These funds include money dedicated towards creating stream management plans on rivers statewide, which will develop methods to manage rivers and streams in Colorado – keeping them healthy for both nature and people.

How much water reaches the Westwater stretch of the Colorado River, and then Lake Powell, is taking on increasing importance to Colorado water officials. A new study is underway to look at much more water is available to develop on the Western Slope, and it's caught the attention of east slope water officials. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
How much water reaches the Westwater stretch of the Colorado River, and then Lake Powell, is taking on increasing importance to Colorado water officials. A new study is underway to look at much more water is available to develop on the Western Slope, and it’s caught the attention of east slope water officials. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Implementing larger conservation initiatives like the Colorado Water Plan are critical for not only the rivers of Colorado, but for the entire Colorado River Basin. However, large initiatives aren’t the only thing that will make a difference in conserving our rivers. As an individual, it may be challenging to determine how you can make a difference in your water use. There are a number of “resolutions” you can add to your list that will not only conserve water and protect local rivers, but reduce your impact on the local environment as well.

This year, I’m determined to do a better job of conserving water in my house and reducing my impact on our rivers. In addition to my usual resolutions, I’m adding a few to protect the rivers I love and depend on – join me! Here are a few of the resolutions I’m adding to my list this year:

WATERING THE GARDEN AND LANDSCAPE EARLY IN THE MORNING.
Here in Colorado, the sun is hot! I recently moved into a new house and this summer I’m planning to plant native species that require less water and can survive sunny conditions. In order to reduce evaporation and help water reach their roots, I will water my plants and vegetables early in the cool mornings to reduce waste. Another added benefit – watering early in the day can help reduce unwanted garden pests like slugs!

EATING LOCAL AND SHOP AT YOUR LOCAL FARMERS MARKET.
Sustainable farms and ranches help protect open space and clean water supply. This year, I’m going to make an effort to eat more locally and visit my neighborhood farmers market. In Colorado, many local farmers and ranchers have worked with local land trusts and open space programs to protect water rights and important riverside lands, keeping more water in the river. Eating locally also helps reduce energy used for transporting those goods to market, which in turn, reduces the amount of water needed to create fuel. Shopping at the farmers market is fun too – especially when I bring my friends and family to enjoy it with me!

water tap

COMMITTING TO SHORTER SHOWERS AND CHECKING FOR LEAKY PIPES AND FAUCETS.
I will cut down on my shower time by washing my hair every other day to reduce time, and remind my husband to turn off the water while he shaves. A four-minute shower uses approximately 20 to 40 gallons of water (depending on your shower head). Not to mention, a small drip from an old, leaky faucet can waste up to 20 gallons of water per day. In addition to conserving water, you could see some significant water savings right away on your monthly bill.

USING MY DISH AND CLOTHES WASHER ONLY WHEN THEY ARE FULL.
While it can be more convenient to run your washer when you need it, I will only run my dish and clothes washers when they are full. Not only is this more energy efficient, but running a full dishwasher instead of handwashing dishes can save more than 10 gallons per load. And before I do a load of laundry, I’ll be sure to check its size before pressing start to make sure the dial is adjusted to match the amount of clothes in the machine. And, I think about whether I could wash this load in a cooler temperature – hot water accounts for a dramatic increase in my energy bill, and turning the dial down from hot saves energy. Every drop counts!

CALLING MY STATE AND FEDERAL REPRESENTATIVES AND ADVOCATE FOR WATER CONSERVATION.
We can make a difference. By calling my representative I am letting them know that the water and rivers in Colorado are important to me and I want to see them protected. Stay up to date on water conservation initiatives by signing up for local e-Newsletter where information is included about water conservation. Check out Denver Water’s Conservation Newsletter or the Denver Botanic Gardens newsletter to learn more. Additionally, take time to learn more about important initiatives like the Colorado Water Plan and what it means for local rivers. This innovative plan is critical for the protection of rivers in Colorado. In order to see our rivers protected, we need to continue implementation of the conservation strategies set forth in the plan. First and foremost, I plan to call my representatives and let them know that I want them to approve the budget for the Colorado Water Plan set forth by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Join me and let your representatives know that the Colorado River is important to you and you want it protected.

These are a few things I’m committed to doing in 2017 – leave a comment below about what resolutions you are making to protect the Colorado River!

“We’re trying to find ways to protect ourselves” — Mark Harris

Bicycling the Colorado National Monument, Grand Valley in the distance via Colorado.com
Bicycling the Colorado National Monument, Grand Valley in the distance via Colorado.com

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Erin McIntyre):

If you notice that some fields across the valley remain bare when others are sprouting with crops this spring, don’t be alarmed.

Behind those temporarily empty rows is an innovative experiment targeting water savings.

Farmers with the Grand Valley Water Users Association are participating in a pilot study to help determine if it’s feasible to intermittently fallow fields to save water in reservoirs.

The move to pay those in the agricultural community to not plant a portion of their crops is the first time an experiment of its kind has been done in the Grand Valley, and it’s one that could change the way water providers operate in the future to conserve precious resources during drought.

With reservoir levels dwindling and low snowpack levels across many areas in the West, water managers are trying this new tool out to see if it could help them hedge against dry years and protect against catastrophe that could result from scarcity along the Colorado River.

This experiment has a goal of helping to shore up water reserves in Lake Powell, which isn’t just a recreation destination, but an insurance policy to protect Upper Basin states like Colorado against demands on water from the Lower Basin, including California.

The Conserved Consumptive Use Pilot Project began last year, and 10 farmers were chosen from a lottery to participate in the program, which compensates them for not planting a portion of their fields. Instead, the water would be banked in storage, hedging against scarcity in times of drought.

The initial phase of the pilot project is projected to save 3,200 acre-feet of water, which is a drop in the bucket of the 7.5 million-acre feet of Colorado River water earmarked for delivery to Arizona, Nevada and California per year by compact agreement. But it’s a start in exploring how water managers can be flexible and avoid heavy-handed edicts from the federal government, pilot participants said.

“We’re trying to find ways to protect ourselves,” said Luke Gingerich, an engineer contracted to manage the pilot program with GVWUA Manager Mark Harris.

“How do we get ahead of this curve for our benefit?” Harris said. “And how do we do it without damaging people’s interests?”

Organizers of the project have spent extensive time researching the legal implications of fallowing fields and leaving agricultural water in the stream to collect in reservoirs.

Farmers interested in the pilot needed to meet several criteria. They needed to be actively farming at least 120 acres for the past three years, and could only commit half of their acreage for fallowing, among other rules. Some of the stipulations are meant to discourage speculation, which has happened in other lease-fallow situations, Gingerich said.

Commodity prices for crops are hovering near multiyear lows, making the deal more attractive for farmers who are guaranteed at least $356 per acre for participation in the pilot.

Harris called the record-low commodity prices in agriculture an “unhappy coincidence” that may have led some farmers to be more open to the experiment. He said some growers were attracted to the staggered fallowing agreements, allowing them to fallow until August, September or October, which would allow them to plant crops like winter wheat for the next season. Overall, the fallowed land is distributed across the association’s service area, and amounts to less than 5 percent of the total acreage.

The pilot project is about building a contingency plan, preparing for the worst-case scenario. In this case, that would be if water levels at Lake Powell drop below the point where power can be generated, which would likely trigger water curtailment in Colorado and other Upper Basin states.

The program has been funded by a number of entities, including the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the Nature Conservancy and the Water Bank Work Group.

Dan Birch, deputy general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said his agency has been working on this plan for about eight years. He said the motivation is to find a sensible compromise to avoid dire consequences if Lake Powell’s water levels continue to drop.

“What’s going on overall in the Colorado River system is, things aren’t that good,” Birch said. “You really don’t have to look any further than the reservoir levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Those are our savings accounts.”

The reality that water managers are facing is that if water demands continue to increase while snowpack levels dwindle, everyone who depends on the Colorado River isn’t more than a few dry years away from dire straits, said Hannah Holm, coordinator of Colorado Mesa University’s Hutchins Water Center.

“It’s just becoming more and more clear that the Colorado River Basin as a whole could be in real trouble because there’s more water coming out of our system than what’s going into the system, since about 2000,” Holm said. “This is an effort to get in front of it and avoid a crisis.”

Dugan Ranch – Conserved! — Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust

Rio Grande River corridor near Del Norte.
Rio Grande River corridor near Del Norte.

Here’s the release from the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust:

In 1999 the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) was founded as the community‘s land trust, dedicated to serving the entire San Luis Valley. In 2007, RiGHT launched the Rio Grande Initiative, the landscape scale effort with many partners to protect land and water along the Rio Grande and its tributaries. One of the first ranches they protected under the Initiative is owned by Bob and Carol Lee Dugan on the river on Swede Lane, just west of Monte Vista. Now, nearly ten years later, RiGHT is proud to announce that the Dugans have protected yet another nearby ranch with a conservation easement.

This 316-acre ranch, which combines parcels previously known as the James Ranch and the Stephens Ranch, is just south of the river between Monte Vista and Del Norte. Between the two ranches, the Dugans have now protected a total of 670 acres with conservation easements. In doing so, they have also protected the water that goes with those ranches, the wildlife habitat, the beautiful views, and the important agricultural productivity. Clearly, this represents a strong commitment to conservation by Bob and Carol Lee Dugan and they continue to recommend conservation to others, saying, “We suggest that other land owners consider preserving their ranches for the future generations of this state.”

“We are immensely grateful to the Dugan family for their dedication to their properties along the Rio Grande,” said Nancy Butler, RiGHT’s Executive Director. “Their land ethic has helped RiGHT and our partners protect more than 26,000 acres along the Rio Grande and its tributaries. That legacy will continue far into the future and that land, water and wildlife habitat will remain intact for all to enjoy.”

The conservation of the 2016 Dugan Ranch project was made possible through the generous support of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Gates Family Foundation, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (via funding supported by the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable) and the Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s San Luis Valley Habitat Partnership Program Committee. Invaluable support has also been provided by individual donors who ensure that RiGHT’s conservation work can continue.

As an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the NRCS’s mission is to help people help the land. Colorado’s NRCS State Conservationist Clint Evans stated that, “Protecting vital agricultural landscapes is a top priority for NRCS. Through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program – Agricultural Land Easement (ACEP-ALE), the natural resource benefits we all enjoy derived from prime agricultural lands can be preserved.”

“This project is an important contribution to the corridor of conservation in this area of the river, with nearly 1,500 acres already conserved nearby,” said Butler. “RiGHT has conserved four other spectacular ranches in this area, providing excellent wildlife habitat and maintaining the beautiful scenery that we all love in the San Luis Valley. Carol Lee and Bob Dugan have demonstrated immense dedication to preserving these lands in perpetuity and we are grateful that RiGHT was able to help them achieve their dreams for these special places.”

NRCS in Colorado encourages private landowners to sign up for EQIP funding — Kiowa County Press

Kiowa County Courthouse, Eads, Colorado, 1903 via wikimedia.
Kiowa County Courthouse, Eads, Colorado, 1903 via wikimedia.

From the Natural Resources Conservation Service via the Kiowa County Press:

Producers in Colorado who are interested in implementing conservation practices to improve natural resources on their private agricultural land have until Friday, February 17, 2016, to submit applications for FY 2017 funding through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Eligible applications that are received after February 17th will be considered during a later time and will be processed throughout the fiscal year as needed.

EQIP is a voluntary incentives program that provides financial assistance for conservation systems such as animal waste management facilities, irrigation system efficiency improvements, fencing, and water supply development for improved grazing management, riparian protection, and wildlife habitat enhancement.

Applications can be taken at all Colorado NRCS offices and USDA Service Centers. To locate an office near you, please click on this link: USDA Service Center. Applications MUST be received in your local Service Center by 4:00 p.m. on Friday, February 17, 2016. To find out more information about EQIP please visit https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/co/programs/financial/eqip/. To find the local service center that services your county, please visit https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/co/contact/local/

NRCS continually strives to put conservation planning at the forefront of its programs and initiatives. Conservation plans provide landowners with a comprehensive inventory and assessment of their resources and an appropriate start to improving the quality of soil, water, air, plants, and wildlife on their land.

Conservation planning services can also be obtained through a Technical Service Provider (TSP) who will develop a Conservation Activity Plans (CAP) to identify conservation practices needed to address a specific natural resource need. Typically, these plans are specific to certain kinds of land use such as transitioning to organic operations, grazing land, or forest land. CAPs can also address a specific resource need such as a plan for management of nutrients. Although not required, producers who first develop a CAP for their land use may use this information in applying for future implementation contracts.

To find out more about financial and technical assistance available to help Colorado farmers and landowners improve and protect their land, visit the Colorado NRCS website at http://www.co.nrcs.udsa.gov.

@Colorado_TU: Lessons of the battle over the Roan Plateau

Oil and gas development on the Roan via Airphotona
Oil and gas development on the Roan via Airphotona

Here’s guest column from David Nickum writing in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:

For more than a decade, the battle over Colorado’s Roan Plateau — a beautiful green oasis surrounded by oil and gas development — raged in meetings and in courtrooms. At issue: Would the “drill, baby, drill” approach to public lands carry the day and the path of unrestrained energy development run over one of Colorado’s most valuable wildlife areas? Or would “lock it up” advocates preclude all development of the Roan’s major natural gas reserves?

Luckily, this story has a happy ending — and a lesson for Colorado and other states in the West struggling with how to balance the need for energy development with conservation of public lands and irreplaceable natural resources.

The Bureau of Land Management recently issued its final plan for the Roan Plateau, closing the most valuable habitat on top of the plateau to oil and gas leases. The plan, which will guide management of the area for the next 20 years, also acknowledges the importance of wildlife habitat corridors connecting to winter range at the base of the plateau.

At the same time, the BLM management plan allows responsible development to proceed in less-sensitive areas of the plateau that harbor promising natural gas reserves and can help meet our domestic energy needs.

What happened? After years of acrimony and lawsuits, stakeholders on all side of the issue sat down and hammered out a balanced solution. Everyone won. It’s too bad it took lawsuits and years of impasse to get all sides to do what they could have done early on: Listen to each other. We all could have saved a lot of time, money and tears.

The Roan example is a lesson to remember, as the incoming administration looks at how to tackle the issue of energy development on public lands. There’s a better way, and it’s working in Colorado.

The BLM also this month, incorporating stakeholder input, closed oil and gas leasing in several critical habitat areas in the Thompson Divide — another Colorado last best place — while permitting leasing to go ahead in adjacent areas.

That plan also represents an acknowledgment that some places are too special to drill, while others can be an important part of meeting our energy needs.

And in the South Park area — a vast recreational playground for the Front Range and an important source of drinking water for Denver and the Front Range — the BLM is moving ahead with a Master Leasing Plan (MLP) for the area that would identify, from the outset, both those places and natural resources that need to be protected and the best places for energy leasing to proceed.

We have said that we want federal agencies in charge of public lands to involve local and state stakeholders more closely in land management planning — that perceived disconnect has been the source of criticism and conflict in the West regarding federal oversight of public lands.

The MLP process is a new tool that promises to address some of that top-down, fragmented approach to public land management. To their credit, the BLM is listening and incorporating suggestions from local ranchers, conservation groups and elected officials into their leasing plan for South Park.

This landscape level, “smart from the start” approach is one way for stakeholders to find consensus on commonsense, balanced solutions that allow careful, responsible energy development to occur while protecting our most valuable natural resources.

The lesson I take from the Roan? We can find solutions through respectful dialogue—and we shouldn’t wait for litigation to do so. [ed. emphasis mine] Coloradoans can meet our needs for energy development and for preserving healthy rivers and lands by talking earlier to each other and looking for common ground.

David Nickum is executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited.

stopcollaborateandlistenbusinessblog

“We’re kind of at the cliff right now in the Colorado River Basin” — Matt Rice

Denver Water's collection system via the USACE EIS
Denver Water’s collection system via the USACE EIS

From Colorado Public Radio (Nathaniel Minor):

Colorado’s economy depends on water: where it is, where the people who need it live and work, who has rights to it. Fights over those needs are a core part of the state’s history, and they tend to follow a pattern. So in some ways, the fight over the Fraser River in Colorado’s Grand County is familiar.

Denver Water holds unused water rights on the river, which starts in the shadow of Berthoud Pass and courses down the western side of the Continental Divide past Winter Park, Fraser and Tabernash to join the Colorado River outside of Granby.

Workers pose for a photo in the Moffat Water Tunnel in this 1930 photo.
Workers pose for a photo in the Moffat Water Tunnel in this 1930 photo.

The agency, looking at the booming population and economy in Denver, now wants to exercise those rights. That means taking more water from the river, piping it under the Indian Peaks and sending it into Gross Reservoir near Boulder.

Some conservationists and environmental groups are crying foul, saying that the river has already been overtaxed (about 60 percent of its existing flow is already diverted to slake Denver’s growing thirst) and it’s time to let the river alone.

But the fight’s pattern is taking some unfamiliar twists and turns. Influential groups like Trout Unlimited and American Rivers, who’ve historically fought diversion projects, support this one. In exchange, Denver Water says it will will help protect and enhance what’s left of the Fraser River.

That compromise has fractured traditional lines in Colorado’s conservation and environmental advocacy community, and fostered new alliances. While these organizations more or less agree on their ultimate goal — to protect and restore the environment — the strategies they use are very different. The big question that divides them: When to compromise?

Denver Water Extends An Olive Branch

stoptwoforksdampostcardfrontcirca1988

Decades ago, environmentalists were not at the top of list of Denver Water’s concerns when it would try to build dams and add capacity. In the 1980s, environmental groups pushed back on a huge proposed dam called Two Forks.

“[Denver Water] told us in so many words: ‘We’re the experts. You’re little environmentalists. Get out of the way,’ ” Dan Luecke, then head of Environmental Defense Fund’s Rocky Mountain office, told High Country News in 2000.

Then, in 1990, an EPA veto torpedoed the project at the last minute.

“That was really a turning point for our organization,” said Kevin Urie, a scientist who’s worked for Denver Water for nearly 30 years. “I think we realized with the veto of Two Forks that we needed to think about things differently.”

He believes that while Denver Water has long taken environmental impacts into consideration with its plans, it didn’t engage with local stakeholders — like conservation and environmental groups and Western Slope governments — until after the Two Forks project died.

There’s a demographic change underway as well: Many of the Denver metro area’s new residents also want to play in Western Slope rivers on the weekends. That has pushed Denver Water leadership to put a larger emphasis on environmental stewardship, Urie said.

But all those new residents still need water. Denver Water delivers water to about 1.4 million people across the metro, about double what it did some 60 years ago. Conservation efforts have kept overall demand relatively low in recent years. But with more people moving to Denver every day, Denver Water expects its demand to rise 37 percent by 2032 from 2002 levels.

The Fraser River is key to Denver Water’s plan to head off a shortfall in the relatively near future. The agency wants to divert half of the remaining flows from the Fraser and its tributaries through the Moffat Tunnel to Gross Reservoir near Boulder. (The proposed expansion of Gross has started its own fight, which CPR News’ Grace Hood chronicled last month.) It would be treated at the agency’s plant in Lakewood, and eventually delivered to customers across the metro.

The agency expects to have all of its necessary permits by 2018 and construction could begin in 2019 or 2020. But to get those permits, Denver Water has agreed to be part of a group that includes Grand County officials and environmentalists called “Learning by Doing.” These different players are often at odds when it comes to water issues.

Urie said Denver Water’s participation shows its desire to do right by the environment and local stakeholders. They’ve helped fund an ambitious project that will engineer the Fraser River’s flow on a nearly mile-long stretch between Fraser and Tabernash, squeezing it to make it narrower, deeper and colder — and thus healthier.

But is that what’s best for the river?

Urie thought about that question for a minute, and then chose his words carefully:

“Clearly the system would be better if we weren’t using the water resources for other uses. But that’s not the scenario we are dealing with,” Urie said.

Trout Unlimited Sees Opportunity

The Fraser River project’s biggest booster is Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited. For him personally, it’s a way to help a river that he’s lived near and played in for 45 years.
“I can’t talk about it without getting all emotional. My life’s been spent on this river,” he said.

He sees it as a chance to restore a part of the river popular with anglers called the Fraser Flats. Here, the brush-lined river levels out after tumbling through the pine forests of Berthoud Pass.

His playground is popular with others, too. Grand County is a short one- to two-hour drive from Denver. From fly fishing to alpine and nordic skiing to snowmobiling, it’s a tourist-based economy. And in Klancke’s eyes, all of that rests on the health of its water.

He’s watched the river dwindle and get warmer as more water has been pulled out of it. And that’s changed how his family has used it. When his children were young, they could stay in the river for only a minute or two.

“They’d come out and their lips would be purple and they’d be squealing,” Klancke said. “Now I throw my grandchildren in the river and they’re not in a hurry to get out. We spend up to an hour in a pool in the river.”

He’s watched this river that means so much to him get sicker and sicker; warm, shallow channels aren’t suitable for native fish and bugs. For years, he blamed the deteriorating environment on the Front Range and its water managers.

“I was a little radical because I urinated in diversion ditches. It’s about all I knew to do. I’ve matured quite a bit since then,” he said.

His turning point came when he got involved with Trout Unlimited.

“I loved their approach,” he said. “They were able to look at it in someone else’s shoes, which is what all mature people do. And then, move forward with opening up conversation.”

Such conversations are what led to the Fraser Flats project, Klancke said. When flows are low, like they were this fall, the river is shallow as it stretches across its native bed. The new channel will allow the river to recede and stay deeper — and cooler.

Essentially, that stretch of river will be turned into a creek. On its face, downsizing a river doesn’t sound like a big victory for environmentalists. But that’s not how Klancke looks at it. During peak flows in the spring, Klancke points out, the river will be nearly just as wild as it is now.

And moreover, Denver Water has to stay involved in the Learning by Doing group. So if environmental issues arise down the road, Klancke said the agency will be there to help solve them.

Is it a compromise? Yes, Klancke admits. But water managers own water rights in the upper Colorado Basin that they’ll use — with or without his blessing. The right to divert water for “beneficial uses” is enshrined in the Colorado Constitution.

“We have to face reality here,” Klancke said. “There is no more mighty Upper Colorado. There’s only keeping what’s left healthy.” [ed. emphasis mine]

WildEarth Guardians Stakes Out Moral High Ground

Like Klancke, Jen Pelz, wild river program director for WildEarth Guardians, has had her own evolution in thought toward environmental causes. Earlier in her career, she was a water lawyer in Denver who represented clients like the city of Pueblo that were taking water from Western Slope rivers.

But eventually she felt a pull toward environmental advocacy. Pelz credits that with childhood days spent on the banks of a tributary to the Rio Grande in New Mexico.

“It was kind of the place that I could go just be myself,” she said. “I developed a really strong connection to the river there.”

She was drawn to the confrontational, no-holds-barred approach used by WildEarth Guardians. The group is known for its headline-grabbing lawsuits. Most recently they sued the federal government over haze in Western Colorado and leases to coal mines.

The approach seems to be working, at least by WildEarth Guardian’s measure. The haze lawsuit ended in an agreement where a coal mine and coal-fired power plant in Nucla, south of Grand Junction, will shut down in the next six years. A power plant in Craig, Colorado will shut down one of its units too.

“We’re willing to not be liked by the general public, or by particular industries,” Pelz said. “And I think it takes that kind of moral integrity and just knowing where you stand on the issues, to really push the envelope.” [ed. emphasis mine]

Pelz is not interested in compromise on the Fraser River. She faults Trout Unlimited for starting negotiations at the wrong place. In her view, the baseline shouldn’t be where the river is now with about 60 percent of it being diverted. The conversation needs to start with the river at its natural flows, she said.

“The harm has already been done,” Pelz said.

If the Fraser River is going to be saved, she says, it’ll happen by letting more water back into the river — not by taking more out. As the climate warms, she says the river will need all the help it can get.

“Let’s start dealing with it now. Let’s have that hard conversation now, not 50 years from now when there’s no water left to have a conversation about,” she says.

Pelz says her organization, and another group called Save the Colorado, are considering litigation once final permits are approved. That could happen in 2018.

Such tactics doesn’t make Pelz a lot of friends. She said she’s been ostracized from her former clique of water lawyers. It’s hard for her to get meetings with government regulators.

WildEarth Guardians’ relationship with the greater environmental community is similarly strained. She said Denver Water is more willing to meet with environmentalists now because they’ve softened. And she’s upset with what Trout Unlimited has become in the eyes of regulators.

“Trout Unlimited has been deemed by Denver Water and the state of Colorado as being the environmental voice,” Pelz said. “They get invited to the table because they have this role in communities, which I don’t think is a bad thing, but they don’t necessarily represent all of the different interests in the environmental community.”

As a result, she said, groups like hers are being left out of the conversation.

“They don’t talk to us. They don’t ask us what we think. And I’ve called them. And I’ve had meetings with them. I’ve asked them what they think. And they’ve told me they don’t like our approach. And I understand that. But I think that it works both ways.”

Pelz said it can be hard to be out “towing the left line.” Everybody likes to be liked, she said. But she’s decided that over the long run, her methods are what will make a difference. To do anything else would be surrender.

“I don’t want to have to explain to my kids that I gave up the fight for this river that is the namesake of our state, the state they were born in, because I was willing to compromise,” she said. “We may not win, but damn we are going to try.”

American Rivers Finds Room To Maneuver

When Matt Rice, Colorado River basin director for American Rivers took the job a few years ago, he made the decision to put aside his dreams for what he really wanted. Instead, he focuses on what he thinks he can actually pull off.

“In a perfect world, I’d like to see all the wild rivers in this country and in this state flowing freely and filled with fish, doing what rivers should do,” Rice said. “It’s not realistic.”

But he acknowledges that groups like WildEarth Guardians can make his job easier at times. When Guardians files a lawsuit and makes a bunch of people mad, a group like his can step in and talk with state regulators and businesses. Guardians essentially provides cover for groups closer to the political center, he said.

“Their advocacy pushes everybody, not just conservation organizations, kind of further to the left. And I think that’s good,” Rice said.

But there’s a downside. Lawsuits and sharply worded press releases can sting, and are not easily forgotten. And Rice worries that aggressive tactics from far-left groups lead to skeptical parties like ranchers or Front Range water managers lumping all environmentalists together.

“That has the potential to undermine the progress we’re making,” he said.

Looking To The Future

A screenshot from the website for Colorado's Water Plan.
A screenshot from the website for Colorado’s Water Plan.

With the publication of last year’s Colorado Water Plan, a first for the state, officials are trying to turn the page on Colorado’s long fight over water. The plan, which officials describe as a roadmap to sustainability, stresses collaboration between competing interests and conservation of the increasingly precious resource.

“Now is the time to rethink how we can be more efficient,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said at the water plan’s introduction in November 2015.

Diverting more water should be the last-possible solution, Hickenlooper said. That’s welcome news to environmentalists like Matt Rice of American Rivers.

Rice said they are supportive of the Fraser River diversion plan for the same reasons Trout Unlimited is, though they aren’t part of the Learning by Doing group. But he hopes the Fraser diversion, and another major project in the works called Windy Gap, are the last trans-mountain diversion projects.

There just isn’t enough water on the Western Slope, he said. And if another one comes up, Rice said they’ll fight it with everything they have.

“We’re kind of at the cliff right now in the Colorado River Basin,” he said.

Collaboration and compromise will certainly be part of environmentalism’s future in Colorado. But as groups like WildEarth Guardians continue to find success in the courts, the advocacy ecosystem has room for other strategies too.