Recreation teams ask for extra inclusion in Colorado Water Plan


River guide John Saunders paddling a boat down the Yampa River in May 2021. Colorado’s recreational community is asking the state for greater inclusion in the updated water plan, the final draft of which is scheduled to be released in early January.

Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Colorado’s river recreation community is asking for more credit in updating the state’s water plan.

In a Sept. 30 comment letter to Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Rebecca Mitchell and Gov. Jared Polis, a group of recreation, environmental protection organizations and local businesses called for river recreation to play a more prominent role in the Colorado water roadmap Future.

“Adequate flows to sustain recreational and environmental water needs must be a top priority for CWCB,” the letter reads. “As the update notes, climate change and aridification will contribute to significant temperature-related declines in river flow, disproportionately impacting river recovery and health.”

State officials released the second iteration of the Colorado Water Plan in July, a 239-page document that outlines four interrelated areas of action: vibrant communities, resilient agriculture, thriving watersheds, and resilient planning. The update to the original 2015 plan is a roadmap for how Colorado’s water can be managed under future climate change and drought scenarios. Water Conservation Board officials said they are reviewing the 1,376 comments containing about 2,000 observations and proposed amendments that they received during the 90-day public comment period, which ended Sept. 30.

In Colorado’s water world, recreation is typically lumped together with the environment as a “non-consumptive” use, as both seek to keep water flowing. However, signatories to the letter say the grouping is overlooking the importance of the recovery for the economy.

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“We always talk about the environment and recovery together because they are so closely related, but in doing so we miss the bigger picture of the importance of recovery and the economic development issues involved,” said Hattie Johnson, American Whitewater’s Southern Rockies stewardship director. “There is special care and consideration that requires a different way of looking at recovery that we feel is missing in the update.”

The letter makes six recommendations to better integrate recreation into the water plan: reaffirm that water-based recreation is not at odds with other water uses; include the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office as a cooperating agency; add a Water Conservation Board recreation connection; address recovery currents and temperatures; Include recreation in watershed planning; and address storage and water development in a manner that does not negatively impact recreational rivers.

A kayaker negotiates the 6-foot drop of Slaughterhouse Falls on the Roaring Fork River near Aspen in June 2021. Recreation advocates gave the CWCB six recommendations to improve recovery in the Colorado Water Plan Update.

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Despite its contribution to Colorado’s outdoor culture, tourism economy, and lifestyle, recreation has struggled to gain a foothold in the state’s water rights system, which was established over a century ago and still reflects the values ​​of the time. Colorado’s water rights prioritize the oldest water rights, typically owned by agriculture and cities.

As coal mines close, some communities, like Craig, are turning to healthy rivers to transition from extractive industries to an economy based on outdoor recreation.

“It’s important to note that recreation is a fairly important stream use for many communities in the Front Range and West Slope,” said Bart Miller, Healthy Rivers program director at Western Resource Advocates. “Just having vibrant rivers running through the city, not just for people to swim on, but for shops and boardwalks and the heart of the city for many places.”

The Water Plan Update recognizes that climate change poses a threat to the long-term viability of water-based outdoor recreation. Some communities, like Steamboat Springs, where the Yampa River through town has been closed for recreational purposes in recent summers due to high temperatures made worse by low currents, are already feeling the effects. Recreation advocates have asked the Water Conservation Board to address the issue.

“We recommend that the final update include specific actions that the Board will take to address recreational flows, including mitigating summer recreational area closures caused by high water temperatures and better quantifying the recreational and environmental flows gap,” the statement said Letter.

An imperfect tool

Neither of the two recent pro-recreation proposals — one that would have tied water rights to a natural river feature, and one that would have designated stretches of river for recreation, allowing them to lease water to boost the flow — have garnered widespread support from water users or legislators.

Currently, the only way to keep water in the rivers for boaters is for a local government to obtain a Recreational In-Channel Diversion (RICD) water right for a man-made wave or whitewater park. But recovery advocates say this method is an imperfect tool. The process of securing rights can meet resistance and take years in water courts. RICD water rights also sometimes result in concessions to future water development.

The wave facilities are expensive to build, meaning an RICD water right may be out of reach for less affluent communities. Pitkin County spent more than $3 million building and then repairing its two shafts with a RICD water right in the Roaring Fork River near Basalt. The project had an initial budget of $770,000.

The upstream wave at Roaring Fork Whitewater Park in Basalt is associated with a recreational water right in the canal. As the only way to ensure a water right for recreation, it is an imperfect tool with some disadvantages.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

The letter also proposes that a staff position be established at the Water Conservation Board to focus on solving the current challenge and leading the RICD program.

“A big idea that we took up was this idea of ​​a recreational compound,” said Alex Funk, director of water resources and senior counsel at Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Having someone at CWCB who is basically your recreation expert, someone who can handle the RICD program, who works with the OREC office, someone who is more committed to this community and thinks these things through.”

The letter also recommends incorporating recovery into watershed planning, particularly through the incorporation of environmental and recovery flow target recommendations into stream management plans. The 2015 water plan aimed to cover at least 80% of the state’s priority streams with SMPs. And although one of the original goals of these SMPs was to identify flow requirements for recreational water uses, only 1% of the plans completed to date have achieved this. In some cases, the SMP process has been taken over by agricultural interests, diluting what should be a tool specifically for the benefit of non-depletive water use.

coalition letter

The comment letter from recreational advocates was an adjunct to a longer submission from the Water for Colorado coalition, made up of representatives from environmental groups including American Rivers, Audubon Rockies, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited and others.

Recovery was one of three key areas the 40-page letter of recommendations focused on. The letter criticizes that environment and recreation are a secondary focus of the plan and that the health of the catchment area is merely “considered” in the state’s water resource planning.

“While we agree that this should be a minimum requirement, it does not go far enough,” the letter reads. “Environmental flows and watershed health must also be an equal goal of government water resource planning itself — not just a secondary consideration.”

The water plan update sets out projected future “gaps” – the lack between supply and demand – for agriculture and cities, but not for recreation or the environment.

“There aren’t many details about the missing or required amounts of water,” Miller said. “We have many streams across the state that are short and we need to figure out how to improve their health through creative ways to reduce off-stream usage.”

The Water Conservation Board’s water supply planning division chief, Russ Sands, said staff appreciate the in-depth feedback from the recreation community.

Sands acknowledged that while there are several locations across Colorado where non-consumptive power flow needs have been identified, they have not been quantified statewide in the same way that agricultural or municipal needs have been. The Water Conservation Board may address those gaps again in the next water plan update, he said.

Sands stressed the fundamental need for the water plan to encourage projects that benefit multiple water user groups: agriculture, environment, recreation and cities.

“Climate change poses a long-term threat to the viability of all water-use sectors,” he said in an emailed statement. “The most promising tool to address this is radical collaboration.”

The final draft of the updated water plan is expected in early January.

Aspen Journalism reports on water and rivers in partnership with Vail Daily. For more information, see