State's rivers, streams will become more 'stressed' as population grows


DENVER (AP) Unless state water laws are changed, the forecast for Colorado's rivers and streams is dry, according to a report released Monday.
Traditional irrigation practices, which account for 90 percent of the state's total water consumption, municipal diversions, hydropower facilities and recreational uses such as snowmaking are a few factors contributing to the reduced water levels.
''The report describes the growing threat to Colorado's environment and economy from the depletion of our rivers and streams,'' said David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited which issued the report. ''That's a threat, obviously, to fish and wildlife, but also to the $1.3 billion that fishing contributes to the Colorado economy.''
Also, the report predicted that low water levels would eventually have an adverse affect on the state's $122 million commercial rafting industry.
''We need to be able to tell the people in the state of Colorado that the rivers are in danger and there are things that we can do to try to change the course that we're now on to try to avoid a dry legacy for future generations in the state of Colorado,'' said Melinda Kassen, director of Colorado Trout Unlimited, part of a national organization that seeks to protect native trout and salmon.
The 16-page report, ''A Dry Legacy: The Challenge for Colorado's Rivers,'' describes conditions and flows in 10 rivers and streams representing every major watershed in the state, including the Colorado, Cache la Poudre, South Arkansas, North Fork of the Gunnison, Conejos, San Miguel and La Plata rivers. Portions of the Bear, Snowmass and South Boulder creeks are also included as case studies.
''These rivers are, obviously, not the only ones in Colorado (with problems),'' Kassen said.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife databases list more than 570 waters with low and fluctuating stream flows.
Kassen used the San Miguel River, which flows past Telluride in southwest Colorado, as an example. The river has three major diversions, including the Highline Canal, limiting its flow.
''These diversion structures can dry up the river entirely during the late-summer months,'' she said. "Without the types of policy changes that we've talked about in this report, the situation is only going to get worse.''
Kassen points to the state's ''use-it-or-lose-it'' principal that forces irrigators to use water they might not need.
Under the policy, an irrigator who may have more efficient systems on his ranch is not allowed to put water back into the stream without losing his rights to it.
''The use-it-or-lose-it principal is one of the things that we talk about as an aspect of water law that keep rivers from having as much water as they might otherwise have in the state,'' Kassen said.
Sen. Ken Gordon, D-Denver, said the law dates to when pioneers came to mine and farm in Colorado. Water was considered beneficial only if it was taken from the stream.
''We have environmental and recreational uses now so water in the stream should be considered a use,'' he said.
Sen. Gordon plans to introduce legislation this session that would allow individuals to either keep or donate their water rights to environmental groups to keep it in rivers.

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