Conservation teams need recreation water proper tied to Colorado’s pure river options


A kayaker runs the 6 foot tall Slaughterhouse Falls on the Roaring Fork River. In recognition of the contribution that river recreation makes to Colorado’s economy, conservation groups want to amend a state statute to allow naturally occurring river features a water right for recreation. Proponents have discussed the Hawaii Five-0 wave, a few miles downriver from here, as an ideal spot for a canal recreational diversion or RICD water right.
Heather Sackett / Aspen Journalism

Three conservation groups that want to keep more water in rivers for recreation are working on a revision of a state law.

American Whitewater, Conservation Colorado, and Western Resource Advocates are proposing a change in law that would allow natural river features such as waves and rapids to get proper water. According to the current statutes of the state, in order to receive so-called recreational water for canal diversion, it must be tied to an artificial structure in the river, such as B. a design feature that creates the waves in many kayak parks.

Pitkin County Healthy Rivers supports changing the existing statute to include natural river features, it said in an April letter to lawmakers.

“I think it’s kind of ironic that you have to build an artificial structure in a river in order for it to be of any value to have a water right,” said Andre Wille, board member and boatman of Healthy Rivers. “It would be nice not to have to put a structure in the river.”

According to Department of Water Resources figures, there are currently 21 Recreational In-Channel Diversion (RICD), water rights in the state, all of which are tied to an artificial structure. In the Colorado River basin, this includes features in Vail, Silverthorne, Aspen, and Avon. Glenwood Springs has an approved RICD for a number of waves. Durango, Steamboat Springs, Salida, Buena Vista, and Golden also have whitewater features with RICDs.

This type of water right ties an amount of water necessary for a decent recreational experience to the man-made river features.

Hattie Johnson, South Rockies Stewardship Director of American Whitewater, compares the acquisition of water rights to the creation of an artificial facility to protect ski touring with the construction of a ski jumping hill.

“At the moment the only way to protect the water in the river for recreation is to build a ski jump,” she said. “So we’re looking for a change that will protect the resource to accommodate all of the wide range of recreational activities that take place on the river.”

A kayaker surfs the Hawaii Five-0 wave on the Roaring Fork River. The wave is an example of the type of naturally occurring river features conservation groups want to include in state law allowing water rights for recreation.
Heather Sackett / Aspen Journalism

Hawaii Five-0 wave

Proponents aim to tie a water directly to a specific naturally occurring river feature, rather than a stretch of river – for example, the lower-course wave known as the Hawaii Five-0 that begins at Slaughterhouse Falls on the Roaring Fork. instead of the entire 4.5 mile section of rapids. Slaughterhouse is a whitewater trail that begins in Henry Stein Park in Aspen and ends in Wilton Jaffee Park downriver in Woody Creek. It’s a popular after-work run with kayakers and commercial rafting companies. Its many fishing holes also attract anglers.

A water right at Hawaii Five-0 could help keep the water in the river for most of this stretch as it’s about half a mile upstream of the tap in Jaffee Park.

Scotty Gibsone has been running this stretch of river for 26 years and is on it almost every day during the summer. His rafting company, Kiwi Adventure Ko, brings paddlers down the Class IV Rapids from Slaughterhouse and the Class III toothache section of the Roaring Fork in Snowmass Canyon. He said the slaughterhouse season was short; After July 4th, it is usually no longer navigable in boats. When the water is low, he can sometimes hold out for a few more weeks with hoses, but would like to see higher drainage overall.

“More water will always help, especially for us in the tourism sector,” he said.

Early resistance

Most RICD water rights are held by municipalities – towns, cities, and counties – and many have faced opposition in water courts. When Pitkin County began securing a RICD for the two waves in Basalt Park at the Roaring Fork, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company, two units that divert water from the basin headwaters into the Front Range take, opposed the water law.

There is likely to be resistance from front range water suppliers to any change in state legislation. This is because a RICD could limit their ability to evolve more water from the Western Slope in the future.

American Whitewater met with representatives from Denver Water, Northern Water, and Aurora Water to discuss the legislation.

“We informed them that we believe there will be significant opposition to the proposal, but Aurora Water would need a draft and go through our process to determine our position,” said Greg Baker, Aurora City Public Relations director , in an email. “Even a humble suggestion has great potential for unintended consequences.”

To appease the opposition, Pitkin County approved a “carve-out” provision that allowed up to 3,000 acres of new water rights to be developed upstream of the kayak park without being subject to the county’s new water rights. (One acre foot is roughly 326,000 gallons, or enough water to cover an acre 1 foot deep.)

A kayaker runs the 6 foot tall Slaughterhouse Falls on the Roaring Fork River. Conservation groups want to change a state statute to allow naturally occurring river features to receive a water right to recreation. Proponents have discussed the Hawaii Five-0 wave, located a few miles downriver from here, as an ideal spot for leisure diversion in the canal or RICD water law.
Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

Growing leisure sector

Growing recognition of the importance of the outdoor leisure economy to the Western Slope is driving proponents to update RICD legislation. And as climate change continues to drain western Colorado, there is an increasing urgency to protect and conserve water for future recreation.

“We’re trying to say that recreation is part of this complex system, and we need to consider that usage,” said Josh Kuhn, Conservation Colorado water attorney. “When we think of the changing economy, especially on the Western Slope, we have to be sure that this economic engine will also be there in the future.”

Proponents say a revised law would also open up the possibility of RICD water rights for rivers in less affluent areas. Transforming a creek bed into an artificial wave can be problematic: it’s expensive, the river ecosystem has to be disrupted with heavy equipment, and engineers don’t always get it right the first time. Pitkin County, for example, spent nearly $ 3.5 million on the basalt waves. The county had to rebuild the structures twice after public complaints that the waves were dangerous and boats overturned.

Supporters plan to meet with stakeholders over the summer and fall to further refine their proposed legislative changes. They hope that lawmakers will come up with a bill during the 2022 legislative period.

Water rights for natural river elements would represent a shift in a state where the “useful use” of water has traditionally meant taking water from the river for agricultural or urban use. It could mean that the often overlooked river recreation economy gets a bigger place on the water policy table.

“Recreation is a big part of Colorado’s economy, it’s a big part of our future, and yet it’s barely recognized in Colorado water law – and so it’s limited to a really small class of recreation that only some cities and towns can provide said John Cyran, senior attorney at Western Resource Advocates. “I think it’s time the Colorado water laws caught up with what’s actually happening on the rivers.”

Aspen Journalism, in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newsrooms, covers water and rivers. More information is available at