A western slope river as old as the Rocky Mountains will live on.
One of the last free-flowing rivers in Colorado, the San Miguel will continue to course through the western slope unchecked by mankind, thanks to a May 20 Colorado Water Court ruling granting it protected status. Granted "in-stream flow protection," the San Miguel will continue to be a natural habitat for three fish species, as well as fuel the down-stream rafting economy, said John Fielder, a landscape photographer and champion of natural resources preservation.
"Like the Yampa (River), the San Miguel is one of the last undammed major rivers in the state," Fielder said.
The in-stream water rights guarantee that no one can take water out of the river, said Rob Harris, a lawyer for Western Resources Advocates, a resources conservation non-profit. Instead, the San Miguel's water will be preserved for three native fish: the Roundtail Chub, the Flannel Mouth Sucker, and the Bluehead Sucker, Harris said.
"Probably not the most charismatic fish species, but they have been around in those rivers for the a long time, and they are part of what makes the West look unique," Harris said.
To preserve the fish natural habitat, the Colorado Water Conservation Board applied for in-stream flow protection for the San Miguel in 2011, at the urging of Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Bureau of Land Management. The in-stream protection protects a 17-mile segment of the river, which runs west of Montrose near Naturita.
More than saving the fish, though, the ruling will preserve water flow in a river that plays a large role in local farming and rafting economies, said Fielder. San Miguel drains into the Delores River, which ultimately flows in the Colorado River, one of the state's four major river systems. The Delores is a fertile artery for rafting as well as farming - its water nourishes hay and pinto bean farms and feeds a wilderness study area, said Fielder. The San Miguel's waters are key to keeping the Delores flowing, he added.
"I've rafted the Delores 165 miles from its only dam, the McPhee Reservoir," he said. "The reason why one can do that in wet years, in good normal snow pack, is because of the free-flowing San Miguel that adds several thousand cubic feet per second to the Delores."
Without the San Miguel's waters - which flow up to 325 cubic feet per second, or enough water to float a kayak or canoe - the Delores would be dry, Fielder said.
"The rafting experience to McPhee Reservoir is second only to rafting in the Grand Canyon, in terms of an experience based on seeing extraordinary scenery," Fielder said.