Few would disagree that the Crystal River is a treasure worthy of protecting. This undammed, wild river is boasted for its scenic beauty, sustaining local agriculture, residences, recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat.
The river has faced previous threats, including two dam attempts, one of which would have flooded Redstone. In 2013, the Colorado River District gave up conditional water rights for those dams after being sued by Pitkin County and other groups.
Under the federal Wild and Scenic Act of 1968, the Crystal River was found eligible for that designation by the U.S. Forest Service in 2002. It would confer legislated protection, customized to honor private lands and existing water rights. Previous efforts to acquire this designation failed to gain the support of some Marble residents and Gunnison County.
In 2021, as reported by Aspen Journalism, “Pitkin County Healthy Rivers granted $35,000 to Carbondale-based environmental conservation group Wilderness Workshop to start a public outreach and education campaign, with the goal of laying a foundation of grassroots support for the [Wild and Scenic] effort.”
The Crystal River Wild and Scenic Collaborative was formed in 2022 to carry the process forward. This group later morphed into the Crystal River Wild & Scenic and Other Alternatives Committee in order to include perspectives which oppose federal intervention.
A preliminary meeting this past April in Marble attracted more than 140 attendees from which a steering committee was formed “to discuss what they heard from the broader community and prepare presentations on management options for a second community summit,” stated a press release at the time.
According to Michael Gorman, a member of the steering committee and campaign manager for Wilderness Workshop, “there is consensus on a desire to see the river protected and no dams or diversions on the main stem,” despite the diversity of opinions on the committee. It is composed of representatives of the Town of Marble, Pitkin and Gunnison counties and the Colorado River District, as well as 25 locals, plus ex-officio members from Rep. Boebert’s office, Senator Bennet’s office, the U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Striving for consensus, the committee is not limiting its scope to Wild and Scenic designation, but exploring “other alternatives” which may achieve a similar effect by different means.
The following protective measures have been identified as options:
Outstanding Waters designation — This designation, established as part of the federal Clean Water Act, can be awarded to streams with high water quality and exceptional recreational or ecological attributes to protect the water quality from future degradation.
No action with 1041 regulations — Existing 1041 powers allow local governments to identify, designate and regulate areas and activities of state interest through a local permitting process.
Other localized protection and restoration options — Local options could include a combination of conservation easements, recreational access projects, restoration, water conservation projects and management work.
Instream flows and recreational in-channel diversions — State-level permanent and temporary instream flow and/or Recreational In-Channel Diversion water rights would likely be junior water rights, but can’t be taken away once established.
Local management and intergovernmental agreements — Water rights holders would enter into a mutual agreement that would require high barriers, such as consensus, to change agreed-upon river management which could include actions in times of drought.
National conservation area / special management area — This form of protection is currently being pursued to protect the Dolores River.
Wild and Scenic designation — A federal protection which is customized according to local interests and has a durability that causes some to question how local control may be regained if necessary.
The community is invited to learn more about each option at a public forum on Oct. 26 at Roaring Fork High School (2270 Highway 133), from 5 to 8:30pm. The 3.5-hour agenda includes a brief presentation and discussion on every approach, beginning with the first four listed above and concluding with the final three, as well as open house sessions with stations for all options. Dinner will be provided and no registration is necessary.
After the summit, the steering committee will discuss feedback and come up with a recommendation that could include one or more options. According to Gorman, the pressure is not so much political as based on climate and water crises. “While there’s not a current threat, there’s nothing explicitly preventing [a dam or diversion] from happening further down the road,” he told The Sopris Sun.
The Crystal Valley Echo is hosting related materials on its website, including committee meeting minutes and informative webinars: www.thecrystalvalleyecho.com/wild-scenic-stakeholder