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Connecting the Drops: Wild and Scenic Rivers

2018 year marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and it seems Colorado may be getting close to protecting a second river under the federal designation. KGNU’s Hannah Leigh Myers visited the remote Deep Creek water system and spoke to stakeholders to find out what makes Deep Creek a good fit and why it’s been 30 years since Colorado has protected a river as Wild and Scenic.

 

 

In the early 1900s, the US government started building dams up and down the Colorado River, helping provide cheap power and water to the growing cities and farms in the west. By some estimates, it’s now one of the most dammed river systems in the world.

But some parts of the river are free-flowing, and efforts are underway on a stretch of the Colorado to get an official federal designation recognizing and protecting its free flowing status.

In 1968 the U.S. government launched the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition. A half century later, over 200 rivers are protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act …California has 23…New Jersey has 5…Colorado… has one…the Cache La Poudre River on the northern Front Range. But that might be about to change.

Deep Creek is about a half hour outside of Glenwood Springs. This river is on its way to becoming Colorado second Wild and Scenic river in Colorado over 30 years.

Getting a glimpse of the 15 mile river that stretches from the Flat Tops north of Glenwood Springs, 4,500 feet down to the Colorado River near Dotsero…can require driving some very muddy and very snowy roads

Every fifteen to twenty years the BLM update’s the region’s resource management plan, which includes a list of areas deemed suitable for Wild and Scenic Designation.

Roy Smith, the Wild and Scenic Program Lead for the Bureau of Land Management, says Deep Creek has several Outstanding Remarkable Values” or (ORVs) that make it a candidate for designation.

“You have these beautiful cliffs on both sides of the broader canyon where you can see all this geology and then some of the biggest cave systems in Colorado are in the Deep Creek watershed and they have all the unique formations in side because of the undisturbed hydrology of the watershed.”

A crucial component for a wild and scenic designation is that the stream is free-flowing. That means it must have no dams or water storage. Then Smith says, the BLM considers 13 additional factors.

“They’re things like, are there alternative uses of that stream that might be more important than protection. For example, is it needed for a road corridor or is it needed or energy development. And then some of the other factors include, you know, political considerations, is there state and local support or opposition to that designation.”

Many rivers across Colorado have been found suitable for a Wild and Scenic designation but that “support” element says Smith, is often a major obstacle.

“On almost any other stream that we analyzed in Colorado you will get some stakeholders saying we don’t think that designating this stream is a good idea. On Deep Creek, neither the Forest Service nor BLM got any comments from any parties saying we think designation is a bad idea.”

In places along Deep Creek the limestone cliffs are over a thousand feet high exposing the area’s unique geology.

However, Chris Treese, spokesperson for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, says some ranchers and grazers in the area have expressed their concerns to the Denver District.

“They all have concerns, and rightly so, that there may be another layer of bureaucracy or permitting or permission to continue what they have historically done year in and year out. But, there are very few water rights on Deep Creek itself or in the area. We’ve been able to talk to the owners of those rights and have, I’m not going to yet say 100% consensus but, I think we’re making great progress.”

Although many might assume famous rivers like the Arkansas or Yampa, both deemed “suitable” by the BLM many years ago, would be front runners to become Colorado’s next Wild and Scenic River, the fact that Deep Creek is so remote and inconspicuous has given rise to unique collaboration between the state and water rights protectors, says Matt Rice, Director of the Colorado Basin Program for American Rivers.

“Traditionally those entities have not been supportive of new Wild and Scenic Rivers in the State of Colorado.”

American Rivers is the non-profit spearheading the push for a Wild and Scenic designation in Deep Creek. Rice says that while opponents cite federal overreach as a major concern, Deep Creek has the potential to pacify those fears about a wild and scenic designation impacting water rights.

“It would be a full Wild and Scenic River but in the legislation it would say something along the lines of, “the outstandingly remarkable values of Deep Creek are protected by the Colorado Water Conservation Board instream flow right. ”

Once the Deep Creek stakeholders group has amassed all the data, documents and support they need it will be time for the final step, state legislation and rallying support in Congress. But says Rice, it probably won’t happen anytime soon.

“We understand that the national politics would suggest that getting a new Wild and Scenic river signed into law right now is not likely.”

Support for the Deep Creek proposal is at the highest it has been in decades. Proponents of the measure, like Matt Rice, say they are willing to be patient considering the Deep Creek’s potential to prove to the rest of the state, and the nation, Wild and Scenic designations are a flexible and useful conservation tool that need not be feared.

 

Connecting the Drops is made possible through a grant from Water Education Colorado.