On Aug. 7, the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA) responded to a citizen complaint about numerous large backhoes and loader(s) in the Crystal River adjacent to the Marble Airstrip along County Road 3 in the upper Crystal Valley. A contractor had essentially dredged several hundred yards of the river into a straight channel.
Upon investigation, CVEPA saw evidence of extensive riverine manipulation and a swath of river that is devoid of any vegetation. No permit was displayed. This section of the Crystal River is the only significant stretch of the river (except Bogan Canyon) that is not visible from the road between Marble and Carbondale.
The next day, CVEPA asked Gunnison County and the United States Army Corps of Engineers to review the heavy equipment work performed in the Crystal River. Both entities were unaware of the extent of the excavation and earthmoving and neither office could confirm if the work was permitted through their agency.
CVEPA asked both agencies to send an officer to visit the site and determine if the manipulation being performed was within their regulations. When contacted that day, Colorado Division of Wildlife voiced their surprise at the magnitude of the ongoing project in the river and said they had not been consulted on the project.
On Aug. 11, Gunnison County investigated the site and issued an immediate stop work order (SWO). The SWO cited violations of “protection of water quality, inner buffer setbacks, floodplain development and general standards for development in sensitive wildlife habitat.”
Activity such as ditching or trenching of water is explicitly prohibited under Gunnison County’s Land Use Resolution. The county ordered the property owner to complete an application for a Minor Impact project review and Floodplain Development Permit or submit a plan for remediation and rehabilitation of the site by Aug. 26.
The Army Corps was unable to determine whether the work was compliant within their Nationwide Permit 3 (NWP 3) — as the land owner’s Denver-based consultant, ERO Resources had maintained — until they sent an officer to visit the site. NWP3 allows limited stream bank stabilization projects without a special permit for rivers not subject to Wild and Scenic designation (or candidate status).
In researching this project, the complexities quickly become apparent. The three airstrip properties and one adjacent parcel are all owned by out of state limited liability corporations (LLCs). The owners of those LLCs have not been publicly disclosed. Furthermore, the thread of contractors, consultants and legal entities, all likely with some modicum of responsibility for the ongoing work, immediately confuses those concerned with the issue. Despite the shroud of LLCs, it is well known locally who the new neighbor is.
It is not expected that multi-billionaires double as project managers but who then is responsible for this end run of county (and perhaps federal) regulation? The environmental consultant is a well-reputed Colorado firm, the contractor one of long standing in the Roaring Fork Valley, and the owner’s attorneys are long-term, well-respected Aspenites.
I don’t have a lot of experience in projects of this magnitude but I have a simple understanding that a permit is needed to put large excavators in the river to manipulate the stream. A recurring practice along the Crystal River, to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, affords the owner the chance that no one would question their work hence saving on permitting fees and precious time.
CVEPA is no stranger to witnessing this modus operandi. Indeed, CVEPA has been recently critical of the Army Corps’ lack of enforcement of violations. When CVEPA expressed concern that the message of such lack of consequence would empower other large entities to offend the federal regulations protecting our nation’s waters, the recently retired regional supervisor responded: “We hope they would not.” CVEPA believes that hope is not the Army Corps’ best tool.
People ask if Wild and Scenic designation would protect rivers against such unpermitted manipulation. The answer is “yes,” in part; it would lead to greater public scrutiny in cases like the present one.
If this section of the Crystal River had been designated as part of a Wild and Scenic river by Congress (or even a candidate “study river”), as many advocate, closer review by the Army Corps of Engineers would have been required. Riverbed construction of this kind could not “adversely affect the Wild and Scenic River designation or study status” under the NWP3. State and local authorities remain empowered under their existing land and water use regulations.
Gunnison County is evaluating the response from environmental consultant ERO for the Marble Airstrip Project. ERO “helps clients … minimize damage to water resources and navigate permitting processes.”
This project is now stalemated while agencies figure out how to proceed. CVEPA voices concern that basic stabilization of the disturbed area be completed before winter so the river is prepared for high water and spring run-off. People voice concern over “too much government” and cumbersome and time consuming processes. CVEPA believes that the private sector running unbridled is far more dangerous than a governmental process designed to protect public resources.
The plan submitted for review appears to fall short of our expectations. Although riverbank stabilization was most likely needed, it is not possible for CVEPA to fully evaluate that section of river as it is not visible. We have no baseline with which to compare it. We do see that the revegetation proposed doesn’t compare to the adjacent riverine environs.
We want to believe in the good intentions of the new owner of this beautiful part of the valley. We realize the unique nature of this case as our neighbors have daunting financial resources. If entities of profound wealth and resources are proposing land use changes, shouldn’t the public be informed who the proponent is rather than merely a post office box of an LLC? Rivers are not private property!
As concerned as CVEPA is with the environmental health of the valley and river, we are as concerned about the integrity of process. Without a transparent and accountable system by which all landowners must abide, inevitable abuses will continue.
Once again, CVEPA reminds us that “if you see something that doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t!” Pay attention and speak up! Without your observations CVEPA is unaware, the County is unaware and oversight is evaded! United we stand, alone we are not heard.
To learn more about CVEPA and to support our mission visit cvepa.org

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