Environmental groups in western Colorado are working to designate more reaches of high-elevation tributaries as Outstanding Waters, the state health department’s highest water-quality rating.
The Outstanding Waters designation can be awarded to streams with high water quality and exceptional recreational or ecological attributes, and the intent is to protect the water quality from future degradation. The program, established as part of the federal Clean Water Act, is administered through the state’s water quality control commission.
To get the OW designation, a steam’s water quality must meet 12 different standards for pH, dissolved oxygen, nitrate, E. coli and ammonia, and be under a threshold for seven dissolved metals: cadmium, copper, lead, manganese, selenium, silver and zinc. The designation is the highest level of three anti-degradation classifications awarded by the state. The OW designation does not affect current uses on streams; it only protects against activities with new or increased water quality impacts.
The Roaring Fork Conservancy is working to get an OW designation on potential candidate stream reaches in the watershed, including on tributaries and segments of Woody Creek and Hunter Creek, both tributaries of the Roaring Fork River; and on Bulldog Creek, a tributary of Avalanche Creek, and tributaries of Middle Thompson Creek, which all flow into the Crystal River. Chad Rudow, the conservancy’s water quality program manager, is leading the effort to collect baseline water samples on the streams in all four seasons and submit them for testing. Sometimes that requires skiing or snowmobiling into remote areas to access the streams in winter.
“As part of the water quality requirements for an Outstanding Waters designation, you want to establish that the stream has healthy characteristics and healthy water quality throughout all the major flow seasons,” Rudow said. “So we are trying to establish the water quality is consistently high across all the seasonal variation.”
After taking samples last month, staff whisked them to the lab at the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District, which tests for E. coli, and packed in ice other samples bound for a lab in Durango.
“So far, our results that have been coming back are high quality, and pollutants are coming back in really low quantities, which is what we are looking for,” Rudow said.
Roaring Fork Conservancy staff will do seven rounds of sampling over two years. So far, they have done four rounds in all four seasons, with three rounds to go. In addition to the water sampling, the potential candidate stream reaches go through a rule-making process with three public hearings — the first of which occurred in November — before CDPHE makes a final decision about whether to add them to the Outstanding Waters list.
The effort at designating more streams as Outstanding Waters is happening across the state. In the southwest corner, environmental group American Rivers and others worked to get more than 20 segments of streams designated. The Eagle River Watershed Coalition is working to get Big Alkali Creek, East Brush Creek and West Brush Creek on the list. And in the northwest part of the state, the nonprofit group Friends of the Yampa is working on getting 14 tributaries designated.
“It is a really fulfilling and rewarding thing I feel proud we are a part of,” said Lindsey Marlow, executive director of Friends of the Yampa. “When we were asked to identify which would be great, we shot for the sky and we did 14.”
According to Aimee Konowal, watershed section manager for CDPHE’s water quality control division, there are 88 stream segments and water bodies with an OW designation in Colorado; 57 are streams, which represent 7,600 miles of waterways.
How does OW protect water quality?
There are two main ways an OW designation can keep streams pristine, according to Konowal.
The first is through CDPHE-issued permits for point-source dischargers such as a wastewater treatment plant. If a future-project proponent proposed discharging to a stream with an Outstanding Waters designation, they would have to ensure — by adding conditions to the permit — that the project wouldn’t degrade the water quality. The second is through projects that need a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which also require a water quality certification from CDPHE (excluding smaller projects applying under a general or nationwide Army Corps of Engineers permit).
But it’s unclear what practical effect that the designation has had on streams, because these mechanisms remain untested.
“In my time here, we have not seen one of these larger federal permits impact Outstanding Waters,” Konowal said. “We have not been in that scenario where that has happened.”
There are also no instances of a wastewater treatment plant requiring a state permit discharging into Outstanding Waters, she said.
That is probably because most of the streams both seeking designation and those previously designated are in high-alpine wilderness areas, national parks or national forest land, which means there are already limits on some development that could affect water quality.
“Streams that are generally looked at as potential candidate reaches for Outstanding Waters, they are traditionally in areas that are pretty high up in the watershed,” said Fay Hartman, southwest region conservation director for American Rivers. “I think there usually is not as much development that would go on there.”
American Rivers is helping to lead the effort and outreach for OW designations throughout the state and Hartman said it’s an excellent way to help preserve high-water-quality streams in the future.
Existing activities such as grazing are compatible with the OW designation, since the high level of water quality required would be attained with these uses in place. Grazing is also a nonpoint source of water contamination, which is not subject to any Water Quality Control Commission regulations, Hartman said.
There is an open question of how or if the federal agencies would consider OW when managing their lands, but according to David Boyd, public affairs specialist with the White River National Forest, a state designation would not directly affect the Forest Service’s management of these areas.
One of the major issues affecting streams in western Colorado is the dwindling quantity of water, a problem not addressed by an OW designation. Transmountain diversions that take flows from some Western Slope headwaters to the Front Range, as well as diversions for agriculture and cities, leave less water in rivers for ecosystems and recreation. Drought and increased temperatures from climate change decrease flows even more, driving shortages. An Outstanding Waters designation does nothing to ensure there is enough water in rivers.
“It’s not intended to protect flows, which is what the majority of people in the Western U.S. are most concerned about, especially in the headwaters tributaries,” said Matt Rice, southwest regional director with American Rivers.
Still, Rudow and others say the Outstanding Waters designation on local streams is worthwhile, especially in light of the uncertainties that come with a hotter, drier future. Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board agreed last month to write a letter of support for the effort.
“If we can get these protections applied to these streams, it covers things we don’t even know are on our radar,” he said. “We are looking at the unknown and trying to provide a level of protection for the future and for things we might not even be able to anticipate.”