While most people would consider it blessing enough to have just one incredible asset such as the Eagle River flowing right through their communities, Eagle County residents are lucky to live in close proximity to two remarkable rivers. The Colorado River flows through Eagle County for 55 miles and is known locally as the Upper Colorado. It is the economic and cultural lifeblood for much of our state and most of the Southwestern U.S.
The Upper Colorado plays a vital role in our mountain community identity, as well as our tourism and recreation-driven economy. Locals and visitors log tens of thousands of river days each year, and the region’s difficult geography preserves much of the classic Western Slope Colorado culture and scenery that remains undeveloped in Eagle County. Large landscapes and low-intensity land uses such as ranching help support intact ecosystems that host numerous valued species such as bald eagles, river otters, cutthroat trout, mountain lion and bighorn sheep.
Like many rivers across the state, internal and external pressures on the Upper Colorado threaten the economic, ecologic, and recreational values it has historically provided. Additional transmountain diversions and climate change may reduce streamflows in the mainstem and its already-struggling headwaters streams; increasing recreational pressures can easily tip the balance from sustainable use to resource damage.
In 2012, Eagle River Watershed Council initiated the Colorado River Restoration and Conservation Project to inventory ecological conditions on the river, and prioritize restoration and conservation efforts that will protect, restore and maximize the many values provided by the river to human and natural communities. The project exists as partnership between Colorado State University and Eagle River Watershed Council, with financial support from Eagle County, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Colorado River Basin Roundtable.
CSU researchers have completed two years of fieldwork and the results will soon be available in the Colorado River Inventory and Assessment report. Researchers reviewed a library’s worth of existing information and spent hundreds of hours gathering new data about water quality, aquatic life, stream habitat and riparian conditions.
Findings revealed that riparian and aquatic life communities in the corridor are largely doing OK, thanks in no small part to the development intensity in the region. However, the river’s natural flow regime — the annual timing and magnitude of high and low flows — has been heavily altered by man. These alterations contribute to increased summer water temperatures that may impair cold-water adapted trout species. More importantly, these low flows result in an inability of the river to maintain its own channel and flush fine sediments from the bed. Fine sediments choke off fish reproductive habitat and may impair the macroinvertebrate food base upon which wild fisheries depend.
The Upper Colorado River is caught in a decades-long political, legal and cultural tug-of-war between transmountain diverters and Western Slope irrigators. Century-old water rights held by Grand Valley farmers and Shoshone Power Plant in Glenwood Canyon are the primary reasons the Upper Colorado still sustains boating and fisheries in summer and fall. Unfortunately, this situation remains tenuous.
Gov. John Hickenlooper has asked state leaders to complete a Colorado Water Plan by the end of this year. This plan lays out the strategy to secure our collective water future for decades to come (www.colorado waterplan.com). New transmountain diversions and storage projects to support continued population growth could fundamentally alter the future of the Upper Colorado River in unforeseen and potentially negative ways. The Eagle River Watershed Council’s and CSU’s work provides an important baseline against which the ecological and economic effects projects will be weighed and judged.
Stewards of the River
In addition to timely information on flow regime issues, the report provides much-needed data on riparian and stream life communities. That information will form the basis for exciting new partnerships, restoration projects, and volunteer opportunities through the watershed council for many years ahead. In the past, the remote character and low population of this region helped to create a vacuum of stewardship and ownership on important river conservation issues. Eagle River Watershed Council is proud to step forward as stewards for the river, not only for the communities of Eagle County, but for visitors statewide from Garfield County to the Front Range who continually return to the special experience that the Upper Colorado provides year after year.
Public presentations and release of the full report are slated for later this summer. For more information, stay tuned to www.erwc.org/projects/ and the Vail Daily.
Bill Hoblitzell works for the Eagle River Watershed Council on the Colorado River Restoration and Conservation Project and other projects. The Eagle River Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org.
This article ran in the Vail Daily on July 12, 2014