In Colorado, there are several ways to protect rivers, which vary depending on the goals. 

To maintain water quality, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment offers an Outstanding Waters designation. If boosting the flows for boating is the goal, municipalities can get a Recreational In-Channel Diversion (RICD) water right. And to protect the environment, the state water board acquires instream-flow water rights, designed to maintain minimum flows. 

But if the goal is preventing dams and transbasin diversions, and guaranteeing a free-flowing river, experts say a federal Wild & Scenic designation is the gold standard. That was the message from some presenters at a community summit on the Crystal River on Thursday at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale. 

“It’s the strongest, most robust form of river protection,” said Jennifer Back, a retired employee of the National Park Service and former member of the Interagency Wild & Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council. “If you like what’s out there right now, Wild & Scenic River designation does a really good job of protecting what’s there.”

Back was one of eight presenters at Thursday’s open house, organized by a steering committee that is exploring the feasibility of Wild & Scenic designation and other management and protection alternatives. The committee is chaired by representatives from the town of Marble, Gunnison County, Pitkin County and the Colorado River Water Conservation District. 

The meeting, which drew about 130 people, was the second community summit of a public stakeholder process aimed at evaluating local interest in pursuing protections for the Crystal River, which flows about 40 miles from its headwaters, in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, and through the towns of Marble, Redstone and Carbondale before its confluence with the Roaring Fork River. 

Some residents of the Crystal Valley, along with Pitkin County, have long been proponents of a Wild & Scenic designation. But others, wary of any federal involvement, have balked at the idea. 

Manette Anderson, one of just a handful of residents of Crystal, a tiny historic hamlet named for the river, is a member of the steering committee. She said she’s still learning and that it’s too early in the process for her to yet be in favor of, or dismiss, any of the options. 

“Going into all this, I thought Wild & Scenic would probably not be an option I would be interested in, generally speaking, because of anecdotal concerns that other people in other areas of the country have had with Wild & Scenic experiences,” she said. “But I’m open to learning about it.”

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

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

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

According to Back, the management framework for a Wild & Scenic River can be as unique as the river itself, and involve cooperative agreements between federal, state and local agencies. The “teeth” of the designation, she said, comes from an outright prohibition on federal funding or licensing of any new Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)-permitted dam. A designation would also require review of federally assisted water resource projects.

“What we mean by that is a project that basically is in the waterway below the ordinary high-water mark,” she said. “It could be a bridge; it could be a road; it could be power lines. It’s not an outright prohibition, but they do have to be reviewed before the project goes forward.”

Back said there are 228 rivers in the country with a Wild & Scenic designation. Many of them are in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. But with water managers historically unwilling to tie up potential future water development, Colorado has just 76 miles of one river — the Cache la Poudre — designated as Wild & Scenic. 

Jennifer Back, a retired National Park Service employee and former member of the Interagency Wild and Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council talks with Crystal River valley resident Larry Darien at Thursday’s community summit on the Crystal River. Darien, who is on the steering committee exploring management options, has said he is in favor of protecting the Crystal but not in the form of a federal Wild & Scenic designation. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Protection options

In addition to Outstanding Waters, instream-flow water rights and RICDs, other potential river protections detailed at Thursday’s meeting include creating a National Conservation Area or Special Management Area (environmentalists are pursuing this on the Dolores River after determining that Wild & Scenic isn’t politically feasible there); 1041 regulations, which allow counties to maintain control over certain development; and local options such as riparian restoration projects and leasing agreements where water users can loan some of their water for the benefit of the environment. 

Another option would be to create a management plan that doesn’t carry the same restrictions as Wild & Scenic but is still aimed at protecting ORVs, much like a stakeholder group on the upper Colorado River completed in 2020. This alternative management plan took more than 12 years to come to fruition, and participation of the stakeholders is voluntary. 

Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas-Kury, a member of the steering committee, said she continues to think that a Wild & Scenic designation is the best option for river protection that meets the criteria laid out by the stakeholder process: prevention of dams and out-of-basin diversions; sustainable recreation and tourism; support of local agriculture, water rights and property rights; limiting future development; and maintaining a healthy river corridor. 

After Thursday’s presentations, attendees were asked to fill out a survey that ranked how well each option met these criteria.

A Wild & Scenic designation would not preclude any of the other protection options; multiple approaches could take place at the same time.

“Wild & Scenic would never get in the way of (Outstanding Waters), but Outstanding Waters is not going to give us what a Wild & Scenic River designation might,” McNicholas-Kury said. 

According to McNicholas-Kury, the steering committee is striving for consensus among its members before it makes a recommendation to the public about a path forward for Crystal River protections. But if consensus cannot be reached, they can go to a super-majority vote that would require agreement of at least 75% of committee members.

“Folks have really come in with a desire to learn and a desire to keep an open mind,” she said. “I think there is a ton of consensus around wanting to protect the river, so I’m hopeful that we’ll get there.”

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...