Battle For The Crystal River
Seperate Views On How To Keep The River Flowing Year-Round
Colorado's Crystal River has earned the dubious distinction as one of America's most endangered. Some groups worry that the already "impaired" river will suffer further damage if specific water rights are exercised.
The Crystal River is nestled in a scenic valley south of Carbondale. It drains a large portion of the west side of the Elk Mountains and flows through Marble and Redstone, meeting the Roaring Fork near Carbondale. Its water is used mostly for drinking and for irrigation of the valley's hay fields. But that water gets low in the summer. In fact, during dry years, the lower portions of the Crystal River have been described as "just a trickle."
Groups are working toward the goal of making sure the Crystal can flow year-round. That's where the disagreement lies.
Sharon Clarke of the Roaring Fork Conservancy says that the river has already been impaired by Highway 133 and historic mining efforts in the valley. In many sections, the river was straightened to run parallel to the highway. She says this results in a faster flow, turning over more sediment and removing water from the system at a quicker rate. The mining operations have also added sediments to the river.
She is joining with other groups like the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association to restore the river to a more natural state.
"What we're hoping to do is to restore the natural functions of the river, so the river can heal itself and that it will increase our base-flows later in the season," Clarke said.
She says with the river existing in such a scenic valley, it's hard for people to believe that it is endangered, but she cites a study which says 75% of the river has been heavily modified to severely degraded.
Their plan is to restore wetlands along the river and ask for voluntary irrigation conservation. They say this will keep the water flowing year-round while also protecting wildlife and the riparian environment.
But, it may not be that simple.
Water rights for the river are managed by the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District. They have junior water rights on the river which include a proposed dam which they say could also restore late-season flows.
"I'm hopeful that people will begin to look at this a little more seriously and recognize that there are both current needs and future needs and that it is only a responsible resident of the desert that recognizes that stored water is how we are able to use water all year long," said Chris Treese, spokesman for the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
He says that in the years following the original filing for water rights in 1957, the district has continuously scaled back its projects on the river to keep it at a natural state. Still, though, they want to retain the right for a proposed dam in the Placita which would hold a reservoir of 4,000 acre feet.
But Bill Jochems of the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association says that it doesn't matter how much the river district has scaled back, it will still have an impact.
"To minimize this is equivalent to saying, 'you can poke the eyes out of the Mona Lisa, after all they're smaller than a quarter.' But the impact is devastating."
Clarke and Jochems identify the Placita area as one of the remaining vital open areas where the river can spread out, meander and slow down.
American Rivers, an organization that aims to protect rivers across the United States listed the Crystal River as number 8 in its top 10 most endangered rivers list.
"We're hoping that their designation of this as an endangered river increases public knowledge of this threat and pressure on these boards and with all that, these guys give up. And if they don't give up, then we'll see them in court," Jochems said.
The river districts are already in court, trying to protect the right to build the dam and they say at this point, there is no guarantee that they will ever build it. They just want to retain the right in the future.
"We do need to find a balance and we don't think we have the balance right now, right now we have a river that is running dry," Treese said. "Right now, a river that runs dry can only be made healthy with additional water and the only place you are going to find additional water is if you store it in the spring time when we have more than we need."