Keeping the Crystal River free-flowing with no dams and preserving its scenic qualities, ecosystems and water rights for agriculture were values that nearly all the attendees of a Thursday community summit at the Marble Firehouse agreed on. How best to achieve those goals is another matter.

The summit was organized by the Wild & Scenic Feasibility Collaborative, which is made up of representatives from the town of Marble, Gunnison County, Pitkin County, the Colorado River Water Conservation District and American Whitewater, and was facilitated by staffers from Wellstone Collaborative Strategies and P2 Solutions. The meeting drew nearly 140 people — more than double the number expected — and sent organizers scrambling for more chairs.

The summit kicked off a much-anticipated public stakeholder process aimed at evaluating community interest in pursuing protections for the Crystal River, which flows through the towns of Marble and Redstone, as well as Gunnison and Pitkin counties. In small groups, attendees outlined their most important values, long-term aspirations, biggest concerns and criteria for evaluating management options.

A faction of residents and conservationists, including Pitkin County, is pushing for a federal Wild & Scenic designation, which it says would carry the strongest protections for preserving the river in its current state. Pitkin County, through its Healthy Rivers program, has funded a grassroots campaign by Carbondale-based conservation group Wilderness Workshop to drum up support for Wild & Scenic, and has secured a resolution of support for Wild & Scenic from Carbondale Town Council.

But some say that approach is jumping the gun and that the stakeholder process should include other options for protection without the federal government’s oversight.

Representatives from Pitkin County spoke about threats to the Crystal and the need for Wild & Scenic at a Gunnison Board of County Commissioners work session Tuesday.

“One of the concerns we are having is that the only foregone conclusion is that Wild & Scenic is the only tool,” Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck told them. “It’s going to be tough if people feel like the foregone conclusion is Wild & Scenic.”

Although there may not be imminent, specific threats of dams or diversions on the Crystal, Wild & Scenic proponents say that doesn’t mean there won’t be threats at some point. A hotter, drier future under climate change could push Front Range cities or downstream water users to look to one of the last rivers without a dam or transmountain diversion — a rarity in western Colorado — as a means to quench their thirst.

“Today, there is nobody trying to take water out of the Crystal River basin,” Pitkin County Commissioner Francie Jacober told Gunnison County commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting. “But I don’t have faith the Crystal River or the Roaring Fork or the Gunnison won’t be targeted. I want to do everything we can to protect the Crystal River before the threat is at our doorstep.”

One of the biggest threats of a dam on the Crystal was removed a decade ago when, after a legal battle with Pitkin County, the River District and Rifle-based West Divide Water Conservancy District relinquished water rights tied to a potential reservoir at Placita, just below McClure Pass. In 2012, the River District walked away from rights tied to a second reservoir, Osgood, that would have inundated the town of Redstone.

Pitkin County Healthy Rivers administrator Lisa Tasker, left, and Matt Annabel of Back 40 Stories, write down their most important values about the Crystal River at a community summit in Marble on Thursday. The summit was the kickoff event in a stakeholder process aimed at exploring protections for the river. Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Designation details

The U.S. Forest Service determined in the 1980s that 39 miles of the Crystal River was eligible for designation under the Wild & Scenic River Act, which seeks to preserve rivers with outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, and cultural values in a free-flowing condition.

According to the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System Guide for Riverfront Property Owners, one of most important provisions of the act protects rivers “from the harmful effects of project proposals within the river’s bed or banks” and projects that need a federal permit or loan are subject to review under the act.

Any designation would take place upstream of the big agricultural diversions on the lower portion of the river.

There are three categories under a designation: wild, which are sections that are inaccessible except by trail, with shorelines that are primitive; scenic, with shorelines that are largely undeveloped but are accessible by roads in some places; and recreational, which are readily accessible by road or railroad and have development along the shoreline.

The initial Forest Service proposal for the Crystal included all three designations: wild in the upper reaches of the river’s wilderness headwaters; scenic in the middle stretches; and recreational from the town of Marble to the Sweet Jessup canal headgate. Each river with a Wild & Scenic designation has unique legislation written for it that can be customized to address local stakeholders’ values and concerns.

A first attempt at a Wild & Scenic designation around 2012 couldn’t get buy-in from Marble residents or Gunnison County. Suspicions of the federal government still run high for some residents, even as they say they want to see the Crystal protected.

Larry Darien, who owns a ranch on County Road 3, which borders the river, has long been an opponent of Wild & Scenic. But he said he would be in favor of alternate protections. He does not want to see the river dammed or its waters transferred out of the basin and said the summit was a good start at working toward solutions.

“It seems to me like there’s a consensus on what we want and there’s more than one way to get there,” Darien said. “There are other options [besides Wild & Scenic]. I’m not in favor of the federal government helping me with my property.”

Facilitators will bring people together again in September to evaluate what those alternative management options might be. In the meantime, they plan to form a steering committee — on which Darien plans to serve as a representative of private-property owners — to collect input and lead the process.

In addition to county officials and residents, the summit drew people from a wide range of water interests, including influential Boulder water attorney Glenn Porzak; managers from Crystal River Ranch, which has the largest agricultural diversion on the river; representatives of U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Republican; local business owners; a representative from Colorado Stone Quarries, which operates the Pride of America Mine above Marble; environmentalists; and anglers and kayakers.

Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury was pleased with the high turnout.

“[Wild & Scenic] is what we feel like our constituents have wanted for a long time, but we know that we don’t own the solution by ourselves,” she said. “That’s why we have been willing participants in this process to evaluate what’s going to work best for the community. … There feels like a shared love for the river in this room tonight, and I think that is the most important thing to inspire the good conversations ahead.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is supported in part by a grant from the Pitkin County Healthy Community Fund.

This story was updated to reflect that the proposal for three Wild & Scenic designation categories on the Crystal River predates the current evaluation process.

This story ran in The Colorado Sun and Aspen Daily News.

Heather Sackett is the managing editor at Aspen Journalism and the editor and reporter on the Water Desk. She has also reported for The Denver Post and the Telluride Daily Planet. Heather has a master’s...