White Water Rafting in Colorado

Whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River in Colorado.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS • The Colorado Legislature’s interim water resources review committee, a bipartisan group of 10 lawmakers, began its summer work by relaunching efforts to change the state’s instream flow program.

During the 2019 session, the committee sponsored two bills that would have made some fairly big changes to the state’s instream flow (program, though neither bill made it out of Senate committee.

The instream flow program dates back to the 1970s and is controlled by the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Instream flow is the water that flows through a stream, river or creek. Programs that manage instream flows do so to protect fish habitats and for recreational purposes.

Colorado’s instream flow program, according to Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Linda Bassi, is intended to “preserve the natural environment to a reasonable degree.”

As the years have gone on, the board has also received permission to improve instream flows within the program.

Bassi explained to the interim water committee at Wednesday’s session, held during the Colorado Water Congress summer conference in Steamboat Springs, that the program was established in 1973 to allow state control over Colorado water and under Colorado’s water rights and prior appropriation system.

The original legislation was also intended to block ballot measures (one was already in the works) that would have allowed for private instream flow programs.

Over the years, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has acquired water rights, often donated, to protect streams, now to the tune of 756 stream miles, Bassi explained, and for 1,700 stream segments around the state.

Some of those water rights are new ones, others are existing and donated, although that doesn’t happen very often, she added.

One of the program’s provisions allows for for temporary water “loans” for three years out of a 10-year period; they can be used on any segment of a stream decreed as part of the instream flow program.

It’s a one-and-done situation; once the three years are up, that water cannot be diverted into the stream by the water provider, nor can the contract be renewed.

Bassi told lawmakers only eight temporary leases have been developed since 2012.

It’s not as complicated as it sounds.

The city of Steamboat Springs made an arrangement for a temporary water loan from the Upper Yampa River Conservancy District, which allowed the city to tap Upper Yampa water held in Stagecoach Reservoir and which helped preserve water in the Yampa near Steamboat for recreational users, aquatic life and agricultural water users.

In the 2002 drought, for example, the Yampa River flow slowed to 17 cubic feet per second, when in most years it’s at least 100 cubic feet per second, said Kelly Romero-Heaney, the city’s manager for water resources.

The agreement with the Upper Yampa district bolstered flows in the Yampa, she said, as well as kept the river’s temperature stable.

But the three-in-10-years limitation became a problem.

It didn’t take long for those three years to be used up, which happened shortly after the 2012 drought. Once the city had exhausted its three years, it had no other way to preserve the flows in the Yampa.

That led to the portion of the river that flows through Steamboat being placed on the EPA’s “impaired water body list,” a designation tied to increased water temperatures on the river.

Some communities have had to come up with cooling technologies for their rivers, she said, and that’s not only expensive but energy intensive, especially for those communities that are also trying to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

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